A Crude Lesson in Oil History

Energy crop demonstrations help, but a look into the past says it all
| December 28, 2010

The number of products made from a barrel of crude oil today is almost infinite. Someday, we’ll say the same thing about the number of products made from an energy crop like miscanthus or willow. But, for that to happen, we need to remember those early days of crude oil discovery to understand the true potential of energy crop utilization, says Barry Caslin, bioenergy specialist for Irish-based Teagasc, a semi-state organization that focuses on agriculture and food development.  “If we talked about a barrel of oil in the context of when crude oil was discovered, the first thing that was produced from crude oil was kerosene,” Caslin explains. “Kerosene was the easiest thing to distill off. The majority of the rest was just thrown away,” he says. “Today, you would think that as a ludicrous and wasteful way to carry on.” It’s that same waste-not mindset taken with a barrel of crude today that Caslin says could be used to transform the need and use of energy crops for tomorrow.

“I would like people to think about the current organic chain in the same way,” he says, “bearing in mind we are at the beginning and just taking the fuel out of that chain doesn’t seem a very sensible way forward.” In addition to biofuels, Caslin says, “we are going to have to take out the energy component for power generation and take out platform chemicals.”

While the idea that an energy crop could, and should, have multiple uses isn’t new, Caslin and his team from Teagasc are making sure others get the point. During an energy crop demonstration day, local farmers and other delegates met to discuss market possibilities, followed by a harvesting demonstration that featured a Biobaler. “In a single pass the Biobaler cuts and compacts biomass into a dense, round bale,” Caslin says of the machine. “Live practical demonstrations always go down well with farmers,” he says. Caslin says it is difficult to see where our energy crop developments will be in 30 to 40 years and that farmers will play a large role in the development of sustainable products made via energy crops. For those who aren’t completely sold on that potential, more events like Teagasc’s are a good thing, but remembering the history of crude oil use (or nonuse, in this case) might be even better at predicting just how much potential there really is.  

—Luke Geiver