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Our View: Money doesn’t grow on trees; fuel might

Published: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Gasoline prices shot up around Memorial Day and have stayed around $4 a gallon ever since.

So, what else is new?

The summer driving season always increases demand. That puts upward pressure on prices.

And it always seems like a bad storm or a refinery breakdown can be blamed for those wallet-emptying price hikes.

So, what else is new?

Here’s something new from researchers at the University of Illinois’ Energy Biosciences Institute:

Black locust trees may someday help power our vehicles.

Huh?

That’s the surprising gist of a news release issued this week by the university.

It seems that researchers have been looking for the best type of short-rotation woody plant species that could be harvested for biomass, which other researchers then would learn how to convert to ethanol.

After various woody crops were evaluated, the black locust tree came out the winner.

It demonstrated a higher yield and a faster harvest time than other woody plant species, researchers said.

Tree lovers and arborists might not want to read the description of how researchers manipulated the black locusts. From their standpoint, it isn’t pretty.

Researchers planted the trees, but 2 years later, the plants were coppiced – cut back from a single stem just a few inches above the ground.

That’s nothing new to most gardeners and homeowners, who’ve had to do something similar to volunteer maples and other trees that grow where they’re not wanted.

Just like weedy trees in a yard, the black locusts began to regrow. They grew multiple stems from the base and also sent up new shoots from the underground root system. By essentially transforming the trees into bushes, then harvesting that growth after several years, researchers found that black locusts produced the best yield of woody plant material, outpacing the next best tree by nearly three times. 

What’s next?

Black locust seeds from eight states and three countries were ordered, planted in greenhouses over the winter, then planted outside. Their growth rates and yields will be studied for the next several years.

If researchers can find the best species of black locust, and then standardize the production process, they will have another proven source of biomass to study for possible ethanol production.

We stress “possible,” because making alcohol from woody plants is a “very tough thing to do,” according to Gary Kling, a U of I crop sciences expert.

But Kling is optimistic: “Our plan is to be able to take anything we grow and convert it into a drop-in fuel.”

As is the case with switchgrass, miscanthus, and prairie cord grass, black locust research won’t help reduce fuel pump prices anytime soon.

Hey, what else is new?

But we’re glad that researchers in Illinois are working hard to provide hope for our energy future.

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