Campus Currents

Fuel for the Future

When Sylvester Marsh embarked on his mountain-top train venture, most people scoffed. "Might as well build a railway to the moon," they said. Today, Marsh's crazy dream is one of New Hampshire's major tourist attractions. Cog Railway engines have been chugging to the top of Mount Washington for more than a century, their plumes of black smoke a familiar sight against the North Country sky.

Cog Railway Train
Photo by UNH Photographic Services

But those plumes of smoke will be disappearing over the next few years. By 2004, some of the railway's engines will run on oil instead of coal, and eventually they will use a mix of oil and bio-oil, according to Ihab Farag, UNH professor of chemical engineering. "Our goal is to help them convert to a cleaner fuel," says Farag, who has been exploring potential uses for the environmentally friendly bio-oil.

Made from wood chips, a byproduct of timber harvesting, bio-oil could ultimately reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Plus, it burns clean: no sulfur oxides and half the nitrogen oxide emissions of fossil fuels.

But for New Hampshire, bio-oil means more than a cleaner Cog Railway. Bio-oil production plants could provide jobs, along with a badly needed market for the timber industry's wood chips. The key is finding end-uses for the oil once it's produced.

Farag believes the fuel could heat homes in New Hampshire's North Country. It could also help pave highways with "green asphalt" and provide chemicals for use in plastics or pharmaceuticals.

Significant hurdles remain before commercial bio-oil production would be feasible for New Hampshire. But Farag is optimistic about the potential and acutely aware of the urgency of the economic challenge facing the state. The North Country's faltering paper mills and the planned shutdown of the state's remaining five wood-fired power plants mean the loss of two major markets for low-grade wood.

Farag is working with a number of state and federal agencies, the university's Industrial Research Center and DynaMotive, a Canadian company that produces bio-oil. Discussions about building bio-oil plants in New Hampshire are under way. The goal may seem distant, but then, so did that "railway to the moon." ~

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