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ScienceNostalgia101

Wood-burning as an alternative to fossil fuels

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Once again, California is on fire. Apart from the threats to property and safety, that's a lot of chemical energy in nature that is being squandered on a fire that isn't occurring underneath a boiler to boil water for food or electricity.

 

I wonder, now... if society were to hire more of the recently-unemployed as loggers, and have them cut down enough trees that the wood could be burned in lieu of fossil fuels, (and/or be converted to paper and used as such before being burned) would this double as a way to make forest fires less severe, by the fact that there are fewer trees available, per square kilometre, to catch fire in the first place?

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Not sure what the focus of this thread is (and the two replies so far certainly don't help me to identify a focus). So I'll just throw in a few random comments:

 

- You do explicitly mention "hiring recently-unemployed people". I am not sure how different that is to "hiring people" to you. For hiring people to do X, there are the obvious questions who hires/pays and often also how X competes to other things that could be done with the (monetary) resources. I think there is no shortage of good ideas that someone could do if they were just given the resources. Restricting your hiring to recently-unemployed people would be considered inefficient from a free-market perspective (note: I explicitly do not mean that the free market perspective is the one you need to take - but it is a major voice in economic decisions in most countries). Maybe it is more efficient to re-assign a trained lumberjack and have the unemployed history teacher help in a children daycare, for example.

 

- If you do not re-grow the trees, burning wood is not much different from burning fossils fuels with respect to the climate impact. It is the re-growing that makes wood count as a renewable energy source. (Of course, burning the wood to replace some fossils is better than just burning the wood in forest fires - greetings to Brazil ...).

 

- To burn wood instead of fossil fuels you have to change the energy-generating technology, for example replace oil burners with wood burners for heating houses. This is not a problem in principle. But you need to make sure in practice that this pays off. I would actually not be too surprised if the current wood market in the US could simply absorb some extra wood you cut, and that you would not need to "make room" in the fossil energy sector.

 

- For educational purposes, I strongly suggest you try to do some estimate calculations about how much fossil fuel usage you could reduce by having extra wood. In my experience, most people do not understand how extreme a replacement of fossil fuels is in terms of scale / the numbers. The US national oil consumption should be easy to find, a kg of wood has roughly the same energy content as a kg of oil => just have a look at how much of an impact that replacement would have. Spoiler: I am not aware of any future energy scenario that assumes that we can simply replace fossils with wood and forget about all these annoying issues with solar and wind.

Edited by timo

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13 hours ago, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

I wonder, now... if society were to hire more of the recently-unemployed as loggers, and have them cut down enough trees that the wood could be burned in lieu of fossil fuels,

Do you have data on the impact of wood vs fossil fuels? Both put CO2 into the atmosphere.

 

edit:

"burning wood emits more CO2 than fossil fuels per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated or per unit of heat generated."

https://www.wri.org/blog/2017/12/insider-why-burning-trees-energy-harms-climate

Plus, you've cut down a tree, so you have lost a sink of CO2. It will take years before a new tree will sequester the amount of CO2 you released.

 

Quote

(and/or be converted to paper and used as such before being burned) would this double as a way to make forest fires less severe, by the fact that there are fewer trees available, per square kilometre, to catch fire in the first place?

That's selective cutting which is more expensive and takes longer. You also tend to take the best trees out of the ecosystem. 

If you burn all the trees, does it matter of you burned N trees per square kilometer or N/2 trees? 

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Man, so many of the things I thought were no-brainers were a hell of a lot more nuanced than I thought.

 

Very well, then. So what's the real solution to the current forest fires? More prescribed burns? More permanent firebreaks? Or just leaving California permanently and putting a giant pot of water over it hoping the boiling will make it pay for itself?

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Stop putting houses in the middle of fire prone areas. No different than not putting houses in flood plains.

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We need to decide where our priorities lie. Creating a buffer between forests and residential areas may prevent damage to property, but it may inadvertently put people in danger. The goals of maximizing the protection of property and the potential to protect people from danger are juxtaposed, we cannot maximize both.

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On 9/12/2020 at 1:42 AM, drumbo said:

We need to decide where our priorities lie. Creating a buffer between forests and residential areas may prevent damage to property, but it may inadvertently put people in danger. The goals of maximizing the protection of property and the potential to protect people from danger are juxtaposed, we cannot maximize both.

How would such a buffer put people in danger?

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21 minutes ago, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

How would such a buffer put people in danger?

Depends on the size of the buffer, we've got to eat.

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2 hours ago, dimreepr said:

Depends on the size of the buffer, we've got to eat.

Could you expand a little on that, please?  How do forest fires affect our ability to eat.   Our digestive systems are entirely unable to process wood, as a source of nutrition.  Therefore, even if forest-fires burned down all the wood, why would that stop us eating?

 

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18 hours ago, Charles 3781 said:

How do forest fires affect our ability to eat.   Our digestive systems are entirely unable to process wood, as a source of nutrition.  Therefore, even if forest-fires burned down all the wood, why would that stop us eating?

Firstly, that wasn't the question I was answering, this was:

22 hours ago, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

How would such a buffer put people in danger?

It was a throw away line, but to elaborate; the more we try to control nature, the more danger we are in.

Farming, for instance, has gone from working with nature on a small scale, with a large number of participants, to a small number of participants trying to anticipate what nature will do next; which do you think will be more resilient to nature's whimsy?

I guess that's why it's not ok to ignore what you can't eat... 🖖 

Edited by dimreepr

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21 hours ago, dimreepr said:

Depends on the size of the buffer, we've got to eat.

Grow potatoes in the buffer.
 

22 hours ago, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

How would such a buffer put people in danger?

I'm also wondering about that.
Over to you Drumbo.

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1 minute ago, John Cuthber said:

Grow potatoes in the buffer

Indeed that's working with nature, but somewhat susceptible to a blight of some sort...

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On 9/17/2020 at 1:14 PM, dimreepr said:

Indeed that's working with nature, but somewhat susceptible to a blight of some sort...

Couldn't we avoid such random blights, by growing our food scientifically,  in  labs. Thus producing safe, nutritious  and clean food, without all the muck.  What's wrong with that?

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3 hours ago, Charles 3781 said:

Couldn't we avoid such random blights, by growing our food scientifically,  in  labs.

That's going to be one big-ass lab.

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14 hours ago, zapatos said:

That's going to be one big-ass lab.

Yes, it might seem so.  But has it got to be so big-ass - bearing in mind, that the lab only has to provide essential nutrients to sustain our human bodies.

This issue has been addressed in Science Fiction stories loads of times.  Among the most memorable stories are these two:

1. Mordecai Roshwald's sombre  "Level-7". Here the staff of an 4,000 ft- underground retaliatory nuclear bunker receive their first dinner.  It is, they're told -  "scientifically prepared to meet the needs of men and women in this new environment."  The dinner consists of " A small piece of reddish stuff and three pills washed down with half a pint of yellow liquid".  One of the staff, officer X-127, comments on the dinner: "Rather disappointing - it had hardly any taste, but somehow it managed to satisfy our hunger."

2. Harry Harrison's hilarious  "Bill The Galactic Hero". Here Bill, a new recruit in a future Galactic Army, queues up at the cook-house to receive his first army dinner.  He puts his cup under a metal slot, and a thin stream of yellow fluid gushes out, filling his cup half-way.  Bill peers into the cup, and asks the cook: "What is this?"

"What is this!"  the cook shouts at Bill,  "This is your dinner you stupid bowb!  This is absolutely chemically pure water in which are dissolved 18 amino acids, 16 vitamins, 11 mineral salts, a fatty acid ester and glucose. What else did you expect?"

 - "Could I have it without the fatty acid ester? " Bill asks hopefully -   before the enraged cook hits Bill with a soup-ladle.

These fictional tales are interesting and entertaining. But don't they raise a real question:  Do we really need to eat large amounts of animal and vegetative matter, to be digested by our stomachs and turned into nutrients. 

Why can't we ingest the nutrients directly, in the form of tablets and pills?

 

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On 9/11/2020 at 10:36 AM, ScienceNostalgia101 said:

would this double as a way to make forest fires less severe, by the fact that there are fewer trees available, per square kilometre, to catch fire in the first place?

It is not as simple as less trees equals less fire risk; mostly it is the grass and undergrowth and leaf litter that burns most readily in forest fires, not usually trees. Fires are extreme when forest canopy (trees) burns - and that is more likely when the intensity of lower level fires is enough to carry the fire to tree tops. Eliminating "ladders" of fuel from ground to canopies is often a priority for fire hazard reduction.

Taking out trees usually results in an increase in fuel, from the treetops - the branches and leaves that are not usually harvested - as well as increased growth of ground vegetation. Dense forest canopies can result in less ground level fuel and fire risk, depending on forest type. Local conditions vary greatly.

Hypothetically the tree tops could be harvested too, but boilers made to burn wood may not be suitable for burning leafy material, which may be better done through gasification (heating without burning, to produce flammable gases). They present harvesting problems compared to logs; little or no existing equipment or infrastructure compared to burning sawn or split wood or chips. And if there is insufficient demand for that kind of fuel - or the costs are too high - then subsidy and regulation would be needed to make it happen. Relying on forced labor may not be the best way to do things that are hard - it usually isn't efficient.

As a fuel that can replace large amounts of coal burning? I'm not sure it cannot be done at large enough scale to be a large part of our energy supply; there are better (competing) options as well as competing uses for wood - and the question as posed represents a transition, from dense forest to thinned, that stops when the intended outcome is reached. Permanently displacing fossil fuel use requires trees to regrow.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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