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No reason to be afraid of combustion!

Today, many are negative to all types of combustion regardless if it’s in engines or heating plants. In fact, this is not a very well thought out position. Of course, we should stop all kinds of burning producing hazardous emissions, but basically combustion is a necessary part of the ecological cycle. There is no life on this planet without combustion!

Gustav Melin

Gustav Melin, CEO Swedish Bioenergy Association. Foto: Erik Cronberg

Continuous combustion in the body

It is no wonder that many are worried that firing and burning will cause dangerous emissions. Many modern substances and materials emit toxic gases and particles if they are burned without sufficient cleaning.

Even more natural substances can cause environmental problems when burned with too little oxygen. But combustion itself is not dangerous, it is necessary for all biological processes of life.

Cellular respiration

In biology, the more proper term for combustion is cellular respiration. However, it is the same chemical reaction in the body as in boilers. We eat biomass that contains energy, we breathe in oxygen needed for the combustion and exhale carbon dioxide. This is the most natural process.

It does not contribute to raising the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere since the plants we eat collected carbon dioxide from the atmosphere a few months or days before we ate them. The same applies if we eat meat. Meat comes from animals that also ate plants.

Combustion in engines occurs by the same process as in the body.

In an engine or a wood stove, combustion takes place at a higher temperature than in the cell, but it takes place in the same way. That is, carbohydrates and hydrocarbons such as cellulose, ethanol or a vegetable diesel oxidize with oxygen so that they break down into carbon dioxide and water vapor.

Modern technology can avoid dangerous emissions. The plants consist of atoms that are part of molecules which, like Lego, are built together and then taken apart again. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nutrients are built together in plants and burned in a perpetual cycle.

Sometimes the plants are burned in the body, sometimes in a car engine or a combined heat and power plant, often dead plant residues are left in the wild and mulch or rot in the field or in the forest. In nature, it is fungi and bacteria that break down plant residues, most often in the same kind of chemical process, but at a lower temperature than in the body.

When combustion causes problems

Problems arise especially if you burn substances that do not belong in nature without sufficient cleaning. Therefore, important environmental measures are, on the one hand, not to manufacture or introduce unnatural and toxic substances into products and, on the other hand, not to spread them.

This applies above all to heavy metals, chemical substances and solvents. Much remains to be done to prevent the manufacture and spread of toxic and hazardous substances.

A completely different type of combustion issue is the climate issue and not increasing the content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the energy field, it is primarily about reducing emissions of fossil carbon dioxide and therefore it is important to replace fossil fuels with renewable ones.

Not there yet

With renewable fuels such as bioenergy and with modern and appropriate cleaning of flue gases, as well as the disposal of ash, there are no serious environmental problems surrounding combustion. But we’re not quite there yet. There are still many engines and wood stoves that produce unhealthy emissions.

Old wood stoves in which the fireplace is cooled can smoke and smell too much. If so, you know that the combustion is not good enough and should be changed to equipment that works better.

Recycling can create new health problems

Precaution should be taken when recycling plastics, wood and textiles after they have been furniture, carpets, clothes, toys or building materials as there is a risk that they have been treated with various substances or endocrine retardants that should not end up in new products.

Instead, waste incineration is an excellent method to ensure good health and the environment. It is safer than making new products from used materials of unknown origin.

For example, using recycled wood that may have been treated with various substances to prevent rot (such as carcinogenic creosote), or that may contain mold spores, as a raw material for chipboard and building boards for new furniture and buildings could lead to new health scandals.

Environmentally friendly combustion of bioenergy in modern plants

Sweden manages its energy supply with bioenergy, hydropower, nuclear, wind, solar and efficient energy use. Bioenergy is Sweden’s largest type of energy and today accounts for 38 percent of all energy used.

All energy production from bioenergy depends on combustion in engines, power plants, boilers and stoves. Modern combustion is environmentally friendly, but control and measurement are required to confirm that combustion is properly managed. Companies and people that cause damaging emissions must be held accountable.

Our policy recommendations for best results:

What, then, is the consequences of my conclusion that good combustion is no environmental problem? How can we, with this in mind, effectively reduce climate problems and get clean air in cities while preserving a sustainable forest with biodiversity?

  • Increase carbon taxes to increase the competitiveness of alternatives to fossil fuels, including bioenergy.
  • Decide on a plan to phase out older, high-emission internal combustion engines and stoves.
  • Decide on what level of emissions from internal combustion engines is acceptable from a health perspective. Today’s modern internal combustion engines produce very low emissions. In Sweden 95 per cent of all particle emissions from road transport comes from tires and asphalt, and only five percent from combustion engines.
  • Remove EU tailpipe restrictions, bonus-malus and other systems that make fossil-free alternatives unable to compete on equal terms.
  • Introduce sustainability criteria for all industries, not just bioenergy.

A policy described in these paragraphs promotes rapid and effective industrial development. The reason for this is that companies become active and invest in a market with rules they can trust.

If political decisions are logical and predictable, it will be easy for entrepreneurs and investors to decide how to act. Then technological development will be booming, businesses will flourish and climate and health problems will be addressed more quickly and at a lower cost.

And don’t forget – combustion is a prerequisite for your and all other life on earth! You should not be afraid of combustion.

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