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Biomass energy development welcoming bright prospects
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2007-03-02 14:38

By Wang Hongguang

Recently, China has made substantial progress in its development of biomass energy. The State Forestry Administration and PetroChina Company Limited (PetroChina) signed an agreement, which prescribes that since this year, both parties will jointly set up a series of forestry biomass energy resource bases in Yunnan and Sichuan; and at the initial stage, the scale of any base will not be smaller than that of a demonstrative base for Jatropha curcas L. forest that can provide raw materials to exploit 200,000 to 300,000 tons of biochemical diesel oil and the area of all those bases will add up to over 600,000 mu.

By the end of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan Period, PetroChina will build up a production capacity to produce over two million tons of alcohol made from raw materials other than grains, shape up a scale for commercial purposes that can produce 200,000 tons of forestry biochemical diesel oil, and provide supports to build up raw material bases of biomass energy resources with an area of over 400,000 hectares. As shown by survey statistics, it is found out that there are 154 tree species with their respective seeds having oil content above 40 percent in China and over a dozen of such tree species can be cultivated and exploited in a large scale. By 2020, over six million tons of oil would be produced if 200 million mu of energy resource forests were cultivated.

Although the price of petroleum in international markets has somehow decreased for the time being, the fact that mineral energy resources are gradually becoming deficient will remain unchanged. Biomass energy including fuel alcohol, biochemical diesel oil, marsh gas, biomass power generation, and production of hydrogen from biomass is publicly recognized as one of the most important alternate energy sources that are featured with cleanness, being highly effective, safety, and sustainability. Major technologies for biomass energy have already shown a trend of getting mature and large-scale production of biomass energy is being developed in many countries, thus biomass energy is playing an important role in increasing the amount of energy resources, adjusting the energy structure and ensuring energy security.

Three major reasons for developing biomass energy

Firstly, to rebuild a "Green Daqing Oilfield". China abounds in biomass resources with starch, grease, cellulose, hemicellulose and xylogen as the bases. For the moment, China's annual grain outputs amount to 500 million tons or so while over 700 million tons of straws will be produced. In China, there is an area of about 100 million hectares that is not suitable for planting grain crops but can be used to plant special plants as energy resources; and the area of pieces of land on which man-made forests can grow add up to 46.67 million mu. If 20 percent of such an area were made use of, about 10 billion tons of biomass could be produced each year; with such biomass energy resources as cassava and sweet sorghum added, at lest about 100 million tons of alcohol and biochemical diesel oil could be produced each year and such an output is equivalent to twice the output of the Daqing Oilfield.

Secondly, to improve the ecologic environment. Biomass energy will not produce much carbon dioxide when being used, and green plants will absorb a great deal of carbon dioxide when conducting photosynthesis instead. Therefore, the discharge of carbon dioxide will be cut down in a large scale by developing biomass energy.

Thirdly, to increase farmers' incomes. To develop biomass energy can create employment opportunities and bring more incomes to farmers. It is briefly estimated that to create a "green Daqing Oilfield" is equivalent to give RMB 120~150 billion yuan originally used to import petroleum to farmers and biomass energy enterprises while 12~15 million posts could be thus created.

Four misunderstandings on developing biomass energy

China's biomass energy technologies are fundamentally mature and have entered into a stage where studies and industrialization develop together with each other. With proper guidance with policies and supports, biomass energy is likely to realize a rapid development. To develop biomass energy, the following four misunderstandings must be eliminated:

Misunderstanding one: biomass energy will use up a great deal of grains. In developing biomass energy, grains can be used as raw materials but sweet sorghum, sweet potato, cassava, straws, sugar canes can also be used as raw materials; both various kinds of waste oil and rapeseeds can be used to produce biochemical diesel oil. As a result, it cannot be misunderstood as that biomass energy means to turn barns into oil boxes.

Misunderstanding two: biomass energy will strive for land against the production of grains. The raw materials for biomass energy can be produced by making use of badlands, sloping fields and saline land meliorated, and it is completely possible that it does not compete for land against the production of grains.

Misunderstanding three: The cost for biomass energy is high. It is expected that biomass energy will become one of the energy resources with the lowest costs. The three major reasons are as follows: firstly, the raw materials for biomass energy are less expensive, easy to develop, and easy to transport; secondly, as biomass energy can be produced on the spot, production costs can be saved by a large scale; thirdly, as breakthroughs have been made in biomass energy technologies like biochemical diesel oil, production of hydrogen from biomass, and oil extraction from biomass, costs for energy production will be cut down by a large margin.

Misunderstanding four: biomass energy technologies are not mature yet. Biomass energy, which mainly makes use of the Bio-fermentation technology, is a kind of comparatively mature technology. As a whole, China's biomass energy resource technology has evolved into a stage where studies and industrialization develop together with each other. The technological level of China's fuel ethanol has become leading internationally. If calculated according to the present price of petroleum, it is completely possible to realize the objective that a large-scale production can be realized without any subsidiary from the State.

(The author is the director of the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development) 
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