Entrepreneurs Hope Grass Products Can Help Save Woods
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. In a beige metal-clad building in a quiet Athens, Tenn., neighborhood, tens of thousands of tiny bamboo and Arundo donax grass plants are sprouting in baby food jars and plastic restaurant to-go containers.
Susan and John Woods, co-owners of West Wind Technology Inc., aim to save the woods.
By growing and hoping to sell a vast supply of bamboo and woody grasses, Mrs. Woods, a retired Tennessee Wesleyan College biology teacher, hopes maybe she and her husband can convince Americans to stop clearcutting and start mowing.
"Our claim to fame," Mrs. Woods said, "is we're making possible a renewable resource."
Currently, Americans chop down trees for paper, fuel and fiber because that's all they know and have, Mrs. Woods said.
But paper, concrete bags, food (bamboo shoots) and electrical power are already being made around the world from woody grasses such as bamboo and Arundo donax, said Mrs. Woods.
"Most of the world's paper is made from bamboo," she said.
And here's the kicker: Grasses grow back year after year, and they grow fast.
A small city -- 70,000 homes -- can be powered year-round by a 25-square-mile field of bamboo or Arundo donax grass, said Dr. Woods, also a retired biology professor at Tennessee Wesleyan.
"Biopower" is a proven way to generate electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Information Center. Plants can be burned, or burned with coal, heated in an oxygen-free environment to form a gas, or decomposed with high heat or bacteria to create methane.
The Woodses reason that if they convince farmers to plant acres of "biomass" plants, they'll save trees while opening up a market for the supply of plants they've created.
In short, capitalism can be green, Mrs. Woods said.
"We feel like we can make a real contribution," she said. "And it's just a fun thing to do."
So far, most American utilities have not found biomass production of electricity to be cost-effective. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for instance, abandoned most of its research into such energy production more than a decade ago.
Many environmentalists also complain that burning plants to generate power still contributes to global warming.
But Dr. Woods said he is currently negotiating with businesses around the country to build grass plantations using West Winds plants for power or paper.
In Marengo County, Ala., West Wind has a contract, Dr. Woods said, to provide pulp to the country's first no-liquid-discharge pulp mill being built by Clearwater Paper of Devon, England, in the next two years.
Dr. Woods is currently recruiting farmers to buy and sow the 33,000-acre plantation required to generate the pulp that will power the plant.
West Wind would provide the plants that would be grown in the Athens lab.
The creation of the lab was almost an accidental fluke, Mrs. Woods said.
Fifteen years ago she received a Pew Foundation fellowship. At the time, tissue-culture reproduction, or test-tube cloning, of plants was a well-established green industry method.
Horticulturists were attracted to the method because one desirable plant can spawn millions of offspring in only a few years, said Wayne Parrott, a University of Georgia professor and plant biotech expert.
"Ever wonder why orchids are so cheap now?" Dr. Parrott said. "That's why."
Cloning is sometimes controversial, but tissue culture of plants, also known as "micro-propagation," "doesn't have to be stem cells or making transgenics," said Andy Paterson, director of the Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory at the University of Georgia.
Kitchen tissue culture kits are even available online, he said.
"Tissue culture can be almost as simple as making cuttings for your garden," Dr. Paterson said. "Tissue culture can be just making lots of plants from a few plants."
But Mrs. Woods's request to use her fellowship to learn to tissue-culture bamboo was considered a bit odd. In the Western world, bamboo was foreign turf.
"When they got through laughing," she said of the University of Kentucky lab directors whose institution she applied to, "they let me spend two years at the university studying plant genetics."
Mrs. Woods went on to develop bamboo cloning methods and has spent the past six years creating tens of thousands of plants for West Wind to offer to create grass power and grass paper.
The company uses several strains of Arundo donax from sites in Montana and Georgia as well as Auburn University's research lab to add diversity to the plantings.
Grass's ability to use the sun's energy to grow tall, thick and fast, she said, is the source of its power.
But in the lab, small is beautiful.
Ironically, the "mother plant" for West Wind's bamboo plantations -- a plant that could save a million trees -- lives in a two-quart canning jar.
"The object is to keep them little," Mrs. Woods said, "so you can multiply them."
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News