Chinese businessman Li Jinglu built a power generating plant in an Inner Mongolia desert and fueled it with cuttings from bushes planted nearby in an anti-desertification project. He discovered he can produce food too.
He came to the UN Headquarters in New York on Monday to share his discoveries with the world and seek other entrepreneurs to help find more by-products for the Maowusu Biomass Thermoelectric Company in the city of Erdos in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and other similar projects.
Li, chairman of Maowusu Biomass, admitted that difficulties still exist.
"We are coming out here to have the people from outside our region evaluate our technology and further develop this," he said. "This is not just ours but it also belongs to mankind."
Li was invited to make the presentation on the project in preparation for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development scheduled for June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which has been dubbed Rio+20 to mark the 20th anniversary of the conference.
Li was among a panel of experts at a Rio+20 sideline event sponsored by the Chinese Mission to the United Nations.
His plant has generated over 240 million kilowatts of electricity since 2008. It is billed as the first project that integrates combating desertification and biomass power generation.
Desertification threatens the lives of over 1 billion people in more than 110 countries, nearly one-third of the Earth, the UN says.
Bushes have been planted on more than 1.33 million hectares which have "fixed" the sand dunes on 24,000 hectares. They have to be regularly harvested, but the twigs are used to generate power since they are too thin for lumber products, and the resulting ashes can be used for fertilizer.
In an innovative process, carbon dioxide emissions are captured, 10,000 tons of spirulina are produced each year, and 8,000 people are employed in the region populated with herders and farmers.
Spirulina, protein-rich and edible, is touted by health food aficionados as a cyanobacteria that is good for the cardiovascular system, may help prevent cancer, stroke and others.
His spirulina powder is expected to hit the market in June, turning the electricity generating plant and greenhouse combination into a profitable food producer.
Through initial enterprise research, Li said, his company found "there are 600,000 square km of desert where you can plant vegetation."
Speaking in a small conference room through an interpreter, Li explained "a lot of people think managing the desert is just planting trees -- this is what we are doing here planting trees or shrubs -- this work looks as if it is very arduous, but in fact this is a very small portion of combating desertification."
He said: "The more you cut these shrubs the more they grow and thrive."
"From an economic point it is an endless, bottomless pit of investment in terms of tending these issues," Li said. "There are a lot of detours."
That is a problem for sustainable development, Li said, adding that if something useful can be produced from desert biomass, then it becomes "using sand to manage sand" and recycling can go on forever.
Another challenge in the desert is transportation, he said.
"We have to cut, transport, deal with it and transport it again until it gets to the enterprise" using it, he said.
In the 1990s and in the first five years of this century it was typical to attempt to make timber products such as lumber and paper from such vegetation.
"These are going to decline," Li said. "Traditional ecological production produces water and air pollution but our model for low carbon development is high in carbon economy and low in pollution issues."
"The in-competitiveness of the product will make them economically unviable," he said, adding that "the new energy resources" Maowusu has have low pollution characteristics.
"The gas is clean and the ash is valuable," he said. "The water is also valuable for irrigation and for energy. Electricity generation is also a contribution to lower emissions."
He added that the Chinese government has subsidized the electricity to make it more economically viable.
"Our power plant took three years of research, two years of engineering and one year of construction, but every year we are getting better."
However, admitting his plant has not yet reached a viable economic model to continue, Li said they were striving toward "a better approach to get a better economic return", with spirulina production replacing polluting gas.
"The replacement value is that one chimney can produce 400,000 tons of usable gas being worth 100 million U.S. dollars," he said. "The key point is how to use the technology created and make it economically viable."
Li forecast spirulina "will bring us a sizeable and sustainable profit so we can make up the loss in our electricity generation and to treat desert for 10,000 hectares every year."
He also said with the high-density food, 10,000 tons of it has the nutrients of 10 million tons of vegetables, something the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization is looking into, especially for areas after a disaster strikes.