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Environment

Powering cars with diesel made from wood

The search for new sources of energy is intensifying as the world tries to fight climate change by cutting back on burning fossil fuels. New technology for converting wood directly into diesel is being tested in Austria.

A massive OMV oil refinery sits on the outskirts of Vienna. There is nothing green about this place. It's all shiny steel pipes, tanks and towers shooting flames. But, in the middle of this fossil fuel refinery, there is a new facility that is devoted to producing cleaner, greener gas for cars. It's called a BioCrack plant and its operations convert biomass such as straw and wood chips into diesel fuel.

Edgar Ahn is responsible for research and development at Bio Energy International. The BioCrack plant uses technology from his company. He explained that this plant is the first of its kind in the world.

A gas pump. Photo: Andreas Gebert dpa (zu dpa 0192 vom 28.12.2010)

OMV's green diesel is 20 percent biomass content

"There are a lot of research groups doing similar process steps where one tries to make diesel directly out of the wood. We are putting the wood together with a side product of the mineral oil industry and converting it into diesel," he told DW.

The process involves heating biomass, in this case wood chips or straw, with heavy oil, making diesel fuel with up to 20 percent biomass content.

Austria's forests are an important source of wealth for the country. But, while the tree stands are abundant and healthy, environmentalists are concerned about what impact it will have if forests are further exploited for fuel.

Logs of wood in a pile. Photo: Wolfram Steinberg, dpa

Greenpeace is worried that expanding wood to diesel fuel plants in Austria may lead to deforestation

"We are afraid that in the long term this will lead to a situation where too much biomass is taken out of the forests," said Jirrien Westerhof, a Greenpeace energy expert. "This leads to degradation of the forest soils and also leads to taking too much carbon out of the soil, out of the ecosystem. So, it is meant to be a climate solution but on the long run it might be a problem."

Hugo Valin is a research scholar at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. He told DW that crops such as corn, rape seed and sugar cane are already well developed as sources of renewable fuel. But wood and agricultural residuals are not. Despite the environmental challenges, he's optimistic about the future of wood to diesel fuel production.

"It depends a lot on the maturity of the forest industry," Valin said. "In many regions you have underuse of the wood residues that you can collect from the forest. People now begin to use it, which is quite promising, because you use the potential that was there and you don't increase the footprint so much."

BioCrack representative Edgar Ahn insisted that increased production of diesel from wood products doesn't mean that more trees will be felled. "That's not our intention, our intention always is to use waste material so what we are focusing on is waste wood, coming from forests, coming from the sawing industry," he explained. "Also to use straw and the remains from the agriculture production. So we are not intending to go into massive deforestation for this process."

An Indonesian woman walks past a truck loaded with logs in Indonesia. (ddp images/AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Demand for biofuel worsened deforestation in Indonesia, making the country a leading producer of greenhouse gas

So the OMV refinery, equipped with technology from Edgar Ahn's company, is forging ahead. The company has said the BioCrack plant will help provide supplies as the demand for diesel climbs. In addition, the company argues that this process will help Austria reach climate protection targets set out by the European Union: 10 percent of petrol and diesel in EU members states should come from renewable sources.

So Austrian is hoping the BioCrack plant will make a contribution to the fight against climate change caused by greenhouse gases. But the potential for other problems appears to be right there in the pipeline.

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