The US oil and gas industry boomed under the Obama administration, and now it’s going bust thanks in part to the Trump* administration’s failure to keep the clean power revolution in check. For the latest twist in that sorry saga, check out the new bioeconomy partnership being forged as we speak between Maine, Michigan, and Finland — to say nothing of a new carbon negative vision for the entire US Department of Defense.
The Bioeconomy Of The Future: Why Not Finland?
Yes, Finland. The Maine-Michigan-Finland bioeconomy axis makes sense when you consider their shared interest in forest-based industries, and in that regard Finland could teach the two US states a thing or two.
According to Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Finland leads the world in wood cellulose-based fibers and the bio-based circular economy as a whole, with an educational system that supports top innovators.
“In recent years, Finland has produced world leaders in every aspect of sustainability: from sustainable steel to recyclable fabrics to micro-plastic-free solutions. These innovators are referred to as “bioneers” in the sustainability field,” the Ministry enthuses, “Everything derived from oil, for example, can also be fashioned from wood.”
Finland, Michigan, and Maine plan to cement their bioeconomy collaboration during Finland’s World Circular Economy Forum on October 27, with a virtual “Breakfast for Bioneers” event featuring Maine’s Commissioner for Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and a keynote address from the Vice President for Innovation at the University of Maine.
For those of you keeping score at home, the event will showcase the Finnish biofuel company StepOneTech, the advanced battery recycling consortium BATCircle, and the sustainable products and materials firms Kotkamills, Dolea, and Sulapac.
Rounding out the event is Aalto University, with a focus on fiber recycling and bio-based pigments and adhesives.
US Department Of Energy Steps In
Not to be outdone, the US Department of Energy has been steadily hammering away at the bioeconomy of the future. That includes foundational research in the tree-to-fuel area at its sprawling network of national laboratories.
In the latest development on that score, earlier this week the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory blew up the theory that the poplar tree and other tall species hold the key to the bioeconomy of the future.
The two labs took a look at 800 black cottonwood trees, a species that grows all over the northern US including Maine and Michigan. They found that tree growth is just one factor at play in economical biomass production. Among the tallest 25% of those trees, a virtually identical factor was the other was the amount of sugars that can be used in biofuel production.
The findings could transform tree farming from a trees-per-acre model into a quality-based model.
Don’t just take our word for it. Check out the paper, “Economic Impact of Yield and Composition Variation in Bioenergy Crops: Populus trichocarpa,” in the journal Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining.
The paper also provides some insights into the potential for tweaking the tree to churn out more sugars, meaning that regions with less-than-stellar growing conditions could still hop on board the tree-to-fuel industry.
High Tech US Bioeconomy On The Way
Moving over to the micro end of the bioeconomy scale, another recent Energy Department venture is a $1 million award to Cornell University through the agency’s cutting edge funding office, ARPA-E. The award will go to developing a bio-based, low impact system for mining rare earth elements, based on an engineered version of the mineral-dissolving microbe Gluconobacter oxydans.
If the research pans out, it will revitalize the all-but-dead US rare earths industry, with a consequent impact on the supply chain for solar cells, wind turbines, energy storage, and other clean tech.
Recycling & The End Of Oil
Pulling some of this together is the Energy Department’s BOTTLE initiative, which aims at cutting down on the use of virgin oil and gas for plastics production.
Plastic recycling has gotten a bad rap over the years, and deservedly so. However, BOTTLE is partly focused on next-generation plastic recycling technology that flips the script. All else being equal, the amount of recycled plastic in the supply chain will tamp down on the demand for virgin oil and gas.
Of more interest to the sparkling green bioeconomy of the future is BOTTLE’s work in mainstreaming bio-based, biodegradable substitutes for conventional plastic.
Last summer the Energy Department also awarded $11.6 million to the University of Delaware, in support of the new Center for Plastics Innovation.
Co-directing the effort is LaShanda Korley, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware. Her prior work with Case Western Reserve University involved applying bio-based design principles to advanced materials.
Professor Korely’s bioeconomy credentials include spearheading the Bio-inspired Materials and Systems program at the University of Delaware, which receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
The Law Of Unintended Consequences
For all the talk about saving coal jobs and the horn-tooting over oil and gas, the Trump administration has not addressed the 800-pound gorilla in the room of global demand for sustainable products and clean technology.
With that in mind, it looks like the Trump administration’s recent relaxation of environmental regulations is coming back to bite them.
As recently as January 2019, the US was still looking to the EU to support domestic fossil gas exports, but earlier this week the French government reportedly told the leading energy trading firm Engie to put the brakes on a $7 billion, 20-year US fossil gas contract.
According to our friends over at Politico, the request “highlights a growing concern among some U.S. natural gas exporters that the regulatory rollbacks pushed by the Trump administration, especially those easing Obama-era limits on the potent greenhouse gas methane, plus the industry’s overall failure to rein in emissions, are making it more difficult to sell their product overseas as a cleaner alternative to oil or coal.”
It’s not just a France thing. Global interest in the bio-based circular economy is also being driven by leading global manufacturers, some of which are headquartered in the US.
Cargill, 3M, and DuPont are among the US-headquartered firms signing on to the voluntary Plastic Pact initiative to reduce plastic pollution. The effort is spearheaded by the Helen MacArthur Foundation, which has also launched another initiative with WWF and Boston Consulting Group in support of a treaty-based approach to plastic pollution through the United Nations.
Among the 29 global firms that have committed to the treaty approach, Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Starbucks will be leveraging their influence in the US to support the global approach.
Adding to all this is the Energy Department’s determination to push the clean tech envelope regardless of policy makers in the White House. A new energy storage initiative and a new green hydrogen collaboration with The Netherlands are just two highlights of 2020.
For that matter, the US Department of Defense is determined to transition into more sustainable supply chains and wean the US from its oil habit, the latest example being a newly launched call for clean tech innovation through the AFWERX program of the US Air Force.
The AFWERX “Reimaging Energy Challenge” aims at decarbonizing the entire DOD, not just the Air Force.
Don’t just take our word for it.
“Our aspirational targets are to eliminate all fossil fuel dependency and achieve a carbon negative DOD,” AFWERX enthuses.
“The disruption of the energy sector is already happening,” they explain. “There’s unbelievable innovation occurring in how we produce, transmit and store energy. The DOD must partner with those leading this disruption in both industry and academia, to ensure we maintain our competitive advantage.”
Considering that the entire DOD is now arrayed against oil and gas, perhaps the next federal administration will take an honest, realistic approach, admit that oil and gas are on the way out, and foster a policy that retrains the fossil fuel workforce for new opportunities in the clean tech sector.
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Image: via US Department of Defense.