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Study Concludes Afforestation of Degraded Areas Could Provide Sufficient Biomass for Global Energy Supply; BTL for Transportation Fuels

A pair of German researchers has concluded that the global energy demand projected by the International Energy Agency in the Reference Scenario for the year 2030 could theoretically be provided sustainably and economically primarily from lignocellulosic biomass grown on areas which have been degraded by human activities in historical times.

According to Prof. Jürgen O. Metzger from Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, and Prof. Aloys Hüttermann from the Universität Göttingen, a global energy supply based on biomass grown to generate electricity and produce fuel is both a sustainable and economical scenario, contrary to some other current research. Their findings are published online this week in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

The solution, according to Metzger and Hüttermann, is to plant fast-growing trees on degraded areas, and harvest the biomass for energy usage. This afforestation would not compete with the need for arable land for food production. The authors argue that the investment required for afforestation and transformation of the biomass to electrical energy, heat, fuels and chemical feedstock is actually sustainable and not more, probably even less, than what would need to be invested in infrastructure for non-sustainable fossil energy.

For their global overall estimations for transportation fuels, the two used the conversion of the lignocellulosic biomass to biooil (“bioslurry”) via pyrolysis and its subsequent gasification to a syngas followed by Fischer–Tropsch synthesis (biomass-to-liquids, BTL).

They noted that while the production of methanol from the syngas and the subsequent use of methanol as fuel and as liquid energy storage offered higher energy efficiency, there would be problems that would arise with methanol as fuel and that the presently available Internal Combustion Engines would have to be modified to methanol-specific engines.

Methods of afforestation of degraded areas, cultivation, and energetic usage of lignocellulosic biomass are available but have to be further improved. Afforestation can be started immediately, has an impact in some few years, and may be realized in some decades.

...Clearly, it cannot be realized in 2030 because it has not been started. However, if afforestation to realize the Biomass Scenario would have been started say in 1992 after the Rio conference, we could observe already today an impact which would steadily increase and lignocellulosic biomass would contribute an important percentage to the primary energy supply in 2030.

—Metzger and Hüttermann

The continuous use of biomass as an energy source is also carbon neutral which means that the energetic usage produces not more CO2 as used for the growth of the respective biomass, thus slowing down and stopping the build-up of CO2 and even slowly reducing the CO2 content in the atmosphere. Their scenario would also have a number of additional advantages, including a convenient way of storing energy, regenerating the global water and especially drinking water resources and controlling soil degradation.

Other renewable energies, including solar, tidal and wind power will contribute to the energy mix, making the biomass scenario even more realistic. The authors concede that new technologies will be required to convert the chemical energy stored in biomass to electrical energy more efficiently.


  • Metzger JO and Hüttermann A (2008) Sustainable global energy supply based on lignocellulosic biomass from afforestation of degraded areas. Naturwissenschaften doi: 10.1007/s00114-008-0479-4



Why convert to electrical? Why not convert to heat a la wood pellets?

Sure, not many people have wood pellet stoves, but it isn't 2030 yet either. Furthermore, how much wood mass are we talking about here? I'd bet that it could be used to offset the heating requirements in northern North America and northern Europe [as well as southern South America] and in this way offset natural gas, heating oil, etc.

I suppose they think that we'll have far more biomass than that. They might be right. But in the mean time, wood pellets for home heating and for industrial use might offset a nice chunk of fossil fuels and it doesn't require much in the ways of technology advances; we could do it now.


Sounds encouraging but may be too good to be true. Does the study include the water required and the state of the soil in the "areas which have been degraded by human activities in historical times"?
Many degraded areas (like the District of Columbia) are rife with fertilizer but would need costly leveling and tilling.

richard schumacher

The entire article is available at the link above. The authors conclude that 2.54 Gha (9.8 million mi^2) chosen to already get sufficient rainfall would be enough. That's about 16% of the entire land surface (57 million mi^2). Roughly 20% of land is mountainous or covered by snow and ice, and 30% is desert. There would be little other land on Earth that was not city, farm, or one of these energy plantations.

The amount of energy from that source is not enough to raise all of Earth's expected population of 10 billion by the year 2100 to a Western standard of living, even assuming a Japanese standard of energy efficiency.

What about farming large areas of seaweed? Soak up some of that carbon the atmosphere, digest it to make methane and fertilizer which you can use to grow food.

Or use fast growing woody crops and instead of making cellulose ethanol. Gasify the biomass straight into spark ignition engines, and use the charcoal as bio-char.
Use the waste heat for fish farming and aquaculture as a highly productive method of growing food crops.



It all depends on the assumptions made.

Will the 2100 world have 10 or closer to 15 billion people; use 2 or closer to 4 billion gas guzzlers or replace most gas guzzlers with electrified vehicles; use electric trains or more diesel buses and trucks; fight a new war every other year or live in peace; eat fruit and vegetables or red meat; recycle all garbage or keep on using garbage dumps; use electricity from wind, sun geothermals, hydro etc for heating and cooking or use synthetic and/or bio-gas; the quality and growth rate of the plants used and the process efficiency; etc etc?

By varying the asumptions, one may arrive at completely different land areas required.


1972 = 4 billion
1987 = 5 billion 15 years
2000 = 6 billion 13 years
2011 = 7 billion 11 years
2021 = 8 billion 10 years

anyone see a pattern

2100 = 18+ billion. and will be adding 400,000 mouths per day, every day. Does anyone think we have enough land, food or water for that many people.

John F.
... there would be problems that would arise with methanol as fuel and that the presently available Internal Combustion Engines would have to be modified to methanol-specific engines.

I understand some of the problems related to delivery (e.g., methanol is too hydrophilic for pipelines), but can't some flex-fuel vehicles run on methanol without further modification? Seems to me that there's a pretty straightforward transition path, since flex-fuel vehicles can run on both today's gasoline and tomorrow's methanol.

Obama seems to be on board, or at least was during the campaign when he proposed passing a law requiring that all new vehicles be flex-fuel. They could run on gasoline for a few years until they comprised a substantial enough percentage of cars on the road to support the deployment of methanol production and delivery.

Kit P.

“Why convert to electrical? Why not convert to heat a la wood pellets?”

It depends on where you live. The main issue with biomass is moisture content, transportation, and pollution.

Heating with wood is dirty and dangerous. If I can get the wood for free and take precautions heating with wood is a good choice economic choice.

A biomass CHP located close to the forest equipped with pollution controls can produce both electricity and various fuels that can be used cleanly in the cities where people live.

Many places in the US could provide enough biomass to feed a 50 MWe from a radius of 25 miles. Farther than that and transportation eats up the environment economic benefit.


Kit P

'Heating with wood is dirty and 'emissions' are dangerous'.

That is true of most wood stoves and fire places.

However, I must admit that wood pellet stoves or fire place inserts burn much more cleanly and create much less visible pollution.

High quality pellets are not cheap @ $200+/Ton. You need 4 to 8 Tons for an average house in north-eastern USA or Canada.

Well designed pellet stoves or inserts are equipped with automatic feeder and can take 40 to 100 lbs loads. It is still a hasle to manually load them up every few days in winter time. Ashes are reduced to about a liter per 50-lb pellet bag. Chimney requirement is reduced and similar to NG's size. Claimed efficiency is between 75% and 85%.

Unvisible pollution (toxic gases) are apparently similar to NG stoves and fire places depending on the pellets and stove quality.

Electric heat pumps + regular electric heaters and/or fire places can do a much better cleaner job at less cost, specially with Hydro-electricity at 6 to 8 cents per KWh.


"wood pellets for home heating"

IMHO that would be a waste of a high-grade energy source. For heating homes and other buildings all you need is proper design and lowgrade energy; passive solar, thermal mass/earth sheltering, insulation and capture of waste heat (CHP is just one way). A high-grade energy source like biofuel should be used for higher energy intensity uses.

BTW this study comes from a pair of German researchers and wouldn't you know: even now Germany gets more energy for its grid from biofuel than any other renewable (even more than hydro). They grow rapeseed for SVO and capture biogas from farm waste and landfills. [this is outside of the biofuels they use in transportion]

SVO is a convenient way of storing energy cheaply.

Alice Finkel

Biomass transports long distances very well via 2 methods:

1. Biomass electrification CHP, with intermediate and long distance power transmission lines.

2. Biomass pyrolysis with transport of pyrolysis oil via pipeline or rail tanker to utilisation point. At that point gasification to CHP, or gasification to syngas to F-T synthesis etc. can take place.

Torrefaction of biomass to "bio-coal" for coal replacement or co-firing with coal for a cleaner burn, also makes for more mobile biomass. Also pelletisation or "cubification".

You need to know that small scale gasification CHP plants are available for local and regional use. Indian villages are using small scale gasification in pilot projects with good results for electrical and hot water. US military bases in Iraq are using gasification of garbage to supply base power and eliminate trash.

Eventually microbes will make all the fuel we need, in maybe 20 years. Gasification and pyrolysis work right now. The Earth is a lot more prolific biologically speaking than you might think.



Good ideas.

A combination of the most efficient way to use (get rid of) harmful trash could be:

a) convert all trash and wastes (locally) to electricity by most efficient method.

b) use very high efficiency geothermal electric heat pumps for hot water, pool, and house heating and air conditioning.

Note: If well done, (b) can use 2 to 4 times less electrical energy than current direct electrical units. Initial cost can be reduced if done during house construction. The electricity saved can be enough for one or two future PHEV/BEV per household.

Richard Burton

What is "bio-mass CHP", or "CHP"??


"You need to know that small scale gasification CHP plants are available for local and regional use. Indian villages are using small scale gasification in pilot projects with good results for electrical and hot water. US military bases in Iraq are using gasification of garbage to supply base power and eliminate trash."

I have heard this isn't an economically viable way to create electricity per se on a large scale -- that would be great if it was. Burning is much cheaper but produces more pollution. But for specialized purposes like the above it seems like a great idea. Imagine if we could gasify all our landfill waste, then mine the residues to recover the metals!!!


I think methane not methanol is more versatile since it can be blended with natural gas, pumped long distances and is less toxic if spilled although a greenhouse gas. However I think a way is needed of producing it in the fields or forests without using hi tech or a lot of water. The residues can then be spread back on the soil. However that lo-tech small scale method doesn't appear to exist yet.

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