Sunday, December 19, 2010

Salt Cedar: From Nuisance to Biofuel

A few months ago I entered six ideas in the St. Andrew's Prize contest. This contest awards serious money every year to three proposals for solving social and environmental problems. I just found out that none of my ideas advanced beyond the first round, so I'll be publishing them over the next few days here on my blog. Here's the first one:

Salt Cedar: from Nuisance to Biofuel

The salt cedar or tamarisk shrub is originally from Eurasia, but it is a nuisance invasive species in West Texas. In this semi-arid area, the trees suck up scarce groundwater and salinate the soil. There exist conservation programs to encourage farmers to remove these plants from their land In these programs, farmers simply uproot the shrubs and leave them in place to die.

We propose a private business to turn salt cedar bushes into biofuel. We would offer the service of bush uprooting to farmers, receiving money either from the farmer or through conservation payment programs. But we would also haul bushes that farmers have already uprooted. We would crush and grind the bushes in the field or at a centralized plant, turning the wood into a series of products. Mid-size chips can be sold as gardening mulch, as closet fresheners, for barbecue grilling, or ground into sawdust for pets. But the biggest use for the chips would be sale as biofuel. This biofuel could be used in coal-fired power plants, where the incorporation of the hot-burning wood chips in a mix with the coal would clean the plants' emissions. The wood can also be sold to homeowners in small logs, chips, or compressed sawdust pellets for home heating.

The Salt Cedar Biofuel project would accomplish a number of environmental and social goals. It would eliminate a noxious invasive species, as well as replacing fossil fuels with biofuel in electric plants and home furnaces. The removal and processing of salt cedar would create jobs and economic activity in West Texas, an area where jobs are scarce and immigration is high.

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