Keith Logan: Dead wood to diesel: A hope for Nevada County |

Keith Logan: Dead wood to diesel: A hope for Nevada County

Of all the technologies that turn biomass into energy, the most promising for Nevada County is a new technology that creates synthetic diesel from biomass, or wood waste.

This technology is now in its pre-commercialization phase, which means it is out of the laboratory, and it’s being tested at the commercial scale. If it proves itself, the updated Fischer Tropsch (F-T) process may allow us to create healthier forests and generate revenue for the county at the same time.

Fischer Tropsch (F-T) technology began in Germany in the 1920s, developed by Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch. Their work helped Germany and Japan convert coal into diesel, which ran their war machines.

One of the big downsides of the early F-T technology was the massive size of the refineries necessary for the process.

Fast-forward to 2010: Renewable Energy Institute International (REII) ( develops F-T 3.0.

REII is a research institute based in McClellan Business Park, Sacramento, and headed by Dr. Dennis Schuetzle, Nevada County resident and the former vice president of international research and technology for Ford Motor Co. REII, with funding from the United States Department of Energy and other agencies, advanced, shrunk and simplified the F-T process and added a new catalytic process to successfully create synthetic diesel using biomass.

This synthetic diesel is truck-ready; it has high lubricity, low sulfur, a high level of cetane (like octane for cars), and it reduces diesel carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, particulate and nitrous oxide emissions up to 40 percent.

And – it produces 89 percent less greenhouse gases in the total supply chain.

On top of that, one ton of biomass (think two big pickup trucks full) will produce 50 gallons of syndiesel. That is a 50 gallon drum.

Anybody think we could use a little extra diesel in the county?

Just thinking what we could do with a few extra gallons of diesel fuel is exciting: Put a few more bus routes back in service, help out the school busing cost, reduce the fuel expenses of county and city governments, the Nevada Irrigation District and other agencies.

Hey… What about subsidizing the library?

Of course, the devil is in the details.

The first detail is cost. If the biomass is free or very low-cost, then we can produce the diesel for less than $2 a gallon, and possibly much less.

A 75-ton-per-day plant (think three chip vans a day) could produce about 1.2 million gallons of diesel a year.

Out of the profit, all the operating costs and debt service of the plant would have to be paid. Not looking for subsidies here.

But that could still provide a source of benefit for the community. If diesel goes back to $5, as I believe it will before 2012, we could benefit handsomely.

This process has very little pollution. It is a closed loop. There are no smokestacks, no smelly releases, nothing, nada.

It does produce its own natural gas to run the process, and burning that is like burning propane.

The Northern California Biomass Utilization Task Force is looking at this closely, and we will keep the community posted. Look for our upcoming blog for a community discussion of all our options.

Keith Logan owns Logan and Associates, a sustainability consulting firm in Nevada County. He can be reached at (530) 913-4720 or

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