By Barbara Kessler

Trees. They eat carbon, shade our houses, shelter wildlife and beautify the landscape. What more could we ask of them?

tree.JPGScientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville say we should use trees to produce ethanol, which could help relieve the pressure on crop land in the Midwest where farmers are growing corn for biofuels in such record numbers it threatens the soil and the region’s capacity to grow food.

Using trees to make ethanol would be a cleaner and environmentally enriching and would not compete for farmland, says Dr. Gopi Podila, who heads up research on “high-yield” trees at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, which released a synopsis of his research this week.

Trees wouldn’t require the pesticides or fertilizers used by the corn ethanol industry, which sends millions of pounds of nitrites downriver where they pollute the Gulf of Mexico making a portion of it (known as the “dead zone”) uninhabitable for shrimp, fish and oysters. By contrast, trees planted along rivers could take up some of that fertilizer and help alleviate the runoff problem before it hits the Mississippi Delta.

But wait, there’s more. A well-managed tree program also could help sequester carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere because trees are the best land-based carbon sinks, better than corn and other plants. Furthermore, fast-growing trees like poplar and sweetgum could be competitive as a raw material for biofuels because they can produce significant biomass for harvesting every five to six years and don’t require prime land to grow well, said Dr. Gopi, the chair of the UAH’s Biological Sciences Department.

The only hitch to getting trees online as the next biofuel raw material lies with the technology to convert wood pulp to sugar. The process still isn’t speedy or cheap enough to be competitive. But if the government decides to fund research in this area, Dr. Gopi believes that people “will find a way.”

“Like with everything else,” he quips, “money is the mother of invention.”

“We’re not saying you should stop everything (with corn-based fuel). But we are saying that trees could help a lot, and they’ll take a lot less management and use fewer fossil fuels.”