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Sugar Palms for Biofuel and Ongoing Community Benefit

Posted in Models, Research by Kate Archdeacon on January 18th, 2012

(L) Masarang’s ‘Village Hub': a modular processing plant for sugar palm fuel.

Climate Spectator have posted a great article from china dialogue about the work of Willie Smits on the potential of sugar palms for the biofuel industry. The growing environment of the sugar palm means that its cultivation can provide regular local work and that production can stay in the control of small co-operatives. The sugar palm is a highly regarded plant in Indonesia and other areas of South-East Asia, with multiple benefits during its growing cycle and after harvest:

“We met in Hong Kong, where Smits had been talking to potential investors. He opened up his laptop to run one of many PowerPoint presentations that chart a 30-year voyage of discovery. When he married his Indonesian wife in 1980, Smits was surprised to learn that the expected dowry in North Sulawesi was six sugar palms. “I wondered why,” he told chinadialogue, “and I discovered that just six sugar palms could support a young family.”

After years of research, Smits today is a sugar palm evangelist, eager to list the tree’s virtues. “It doesn’t need pesticides or fertiliser, and once it starts producing, it has to be tapped twice a day, which gives employment to local people,” he explained, “so it creates 20 times more permanent jobs per hectare than oil palm. It is highly efficient in converting sunlight to energy and, because it cannot thrive in monoculture, it preserves biodiversity. It has very deep roots, so it never dries out, and it improves the soil by bringing nutrients up. It stores carbon very deep, and it only needs half the water of similar trees because of its waxy leaves. And, it produces 60 useful products, including a wood that is harder than oak.”

As if that were not enough, he continued, it survives fire and volcanic eruption, flood and salt water, can prevent landslides by stabilising slopes, and improves conditions for agriculture downstream. Perhaps most importantly for the global climate: one tree can produce enough ethanol each day to keep a car running year round.”

Read the full article by Isabel Hilton to find out more and check out Willie Smits’ website.

Burning Wood: Not So Carbon Neutral?

Posted in Models, Opinion, Research by Kate Archdeacon on March 1st, 2011

Source: The Ecologist

Image: Shandchem via flickr CC

From Turning our Victorian Terrace into an Eco-Home part seven – Heating by Sue Wheat:

Sue Wheat thought a wood-burning stove was the greenest way to heat her house until a chat with authors, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke, made her think again. The biggest crisis of her eco-refurb so far? You bet it was!

With the cold weather closing in, it was time to think about green ways to heat our home.  We chose a Stovax multi-fuel stove, which we were lucky enough to get from friends.


In a city where every other house seems to be having its kitchen or bathroom ripped out, there is vast amounts of burnable scrap wood lying around waiting to go to the dump, which could instead be heating your house. Paying for wood to burn seems positively stupid when you can pick up a week’s supply from neighbours, most of whom are all too willing to let you have it. I can’t see the logic in buying wood that’s been transported hundreds of miles either, so I’ve become something of an eagle-eyed wood-spotting obsessive. We look for wood that’s unvarnished, unpainted and untreated, and either carry it home, or rope in friends with cars or vans to pick it up for us. I’ve also got a few friendly builders who drop off scrap wood to us (thus saving them dumping fees), and a supply of off-cuts from a furniture repair workshop. To build up next year’s wood store, which we made from scrap wooden pallets covered with tarpaulin, we’re planning to buy some logs from a local tree surgeon and season them for a year, by which time the excitement of dragging wood out of skips and yards may well have worn off.


As I basked rather smugly in the warm glow of our pretty, near zero-carbon heating system, for a good few weeks I was unaware that things were about to get tricky. Then with one click on the mouse, I stumbled across a website which catapulted me into my biggest eco-refurbishment crisis yet. It seems, according to some of the eminent researchers at the Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders [AECB] that burning wood is not carbon neutral after all. I was gutted, to say the least. I emailed the AECB in a panic, who put me onto the authors of Biomass: A Burning Issue, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke. Their paper concludes that while it’s true that trees do absorb carbon dioxide when they grow, it doesn’t mean that the best use for the wood biomass is burning it. Burning, say Grant and Clarke, produces more carbon emissions than burning gas. Disaster.

Instead, they argue that timber should be left unburnt, thus imprisoning the carbon, and put to other uses; for example, as structural timber, insulation material or furniture. As owners of low-energy houses fuelled by wood burning stoves, they are both gutted too. ‘We don’t want people to hate us,’ Nick told me. ‘Please don’t shoot the messenger.’ The unfortunate result of assuming that wood-burning is carbon neutral is that it has been promoted by just about everyone, which has meant, as they point out, that wood is now being burnt faster than it’s grown, leading to rising prices and unsustainable burning practices to start.

Read the full article by Sue Wheat, and check out the comments section which has some useful links posted by the author.


Traditional Techniques, Modern Issues: Water Purification

Posted in Research by Kate Archdeacon on April 8th, 2010

Source: The Ecologist

From “Ancient tradition of water purification could save lives”

Indian tree seeds that purify water could dramatically reduce disease in the less-industrialised world, say researchers. The technique of crushing seeds from the Moringa Oleifera tree and adding them to water has been used in its native India for thousands of years. Now researchers from Canada say it is time to publicise the technique more widely in order to reduce water born diseases across the world.

One billion people in Asia, Africa and Latin America rely on untreated surface water to survive. The NGO Water Aid estimates that 1.4 million children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation. The researchers at Clearinghouse, an organisation that promotes low-cost water treatment technologies, are pointing to the ancient method of water purification as a possible solution. As well as reducing bacteria by over 90 per cent, the use of Moringa Oleifera seeds reduces ‘turbidity’, making water less cloudy. Furthermore, say the researchers, the Moringa tree is suited to growing in areas afflicted by drought and has other benefits besides water purification.  ‘Not only is it drought resistant, it also yields cooking and lighting oil, soil fertiliser, as well as highly nutritious food in the form of its pods, leaves, seeds and flowers,’ said Michael Lea of Clearinghouse.

Despite its life-saving potential, the benefits of the tree are little known, even in areas where it is cultivated. Lea hopes that by making his report freely available will allow communities most at need to benefit from it.  ‘This technique does not represent a total solution to the threat of waterborne disease […] But given the cultivation and use of the Moringa tree can bring benefits in the shape of nutrition and income as well as of far purer water, there is the possibility that thousands of 21st century families could find themselves liberated from what should now be universally seen as 19th century causes of death and disease,’ he said.

From “Ancient tradition of water purification could save lives” on the Ecologist.