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Fantasy sells so much better than news!

18 April 2008

How does one become a super-node on the Internet?  Newspaper editors believe “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Taking an opposite approach, the Instapundit has found that a steady diet of good news can attract a large audience.  (Note:  he also tells readers not to rely on him as their only source of information)

Rising food costs have made biofuels controversial.  The Instapundit refers us to an exciting story with this:

BIOFUELS VS. FOOD SUPPLIES: The debate continues: “More to the point, though, is the mistaken notion that we have to use food crops for fuel production. In test fields in Minnesota, Tilman and his colleagues have found that the best energy yields actually come from native prairie grasses, not corn or soy.” 

The story is as exciting as he bills it. “Scientists weigh in on biofuels vs. food debate“, Popsci.com (16 April 2008) — Excerpt”

With debate raging on whether biofuels are robbing the world’s hungry of food, scientists and engineers at the first annual BioMass conference in Minneapolis say it ain’t so.

… to the point, though, is the mistaken notion that we have to use food crops for fuel production. In test fields in Minnesota, Tilman and his colleagues have found that the best energy yields actually come from native prairie grasses, not corn or soy. And, said Tilman, “there’s a surprising benefit from the mixture of species. Farmers know this from growing pastures. Nobody plants a pasture of a single species. They put out a variety of grasses, legumes…and so on. They do that because that gives them a higher yield.”

What’s that mean for energy? “We see here we get 238 percent more energy per acre of land that we can harvest mowing this hay in the autumn by growing a high diversity mixture of species than we can get on average by growing any one of those species by itself.”

 Tilman’s test plots were “on land that is incredibly unproductive, with very infertile soils… We did not fertilize it, we didn’t water. We put out high diversity native prairie, let them grow….” And energy production from the harvest went through the roof. “Another thing which happened which really surprised us is that we have a lot of carbon being stored in those soils.”

So, growing inedible biofuel crops on otherwise unproductive farmland not only will ease the current pressure on food crops exerted by biofuels, but will also help remove harmful CO2 from the atmosphere. Seems like a win-win.

Wonderful!  This is the cellulose to ethanol conversion process (celllulosic ethanol).  Unfortunately the aricle neglects to mention that this still experimental, as the process works but is not yet commercially feasible.  The same can be said of converting lead into gold.  While the odds that cellulosic ethanol will become practical is far higher, it too is still a dream — not the reality this article implies.

The Internet can make us smarter — or dumber.  It depends on us, how we use it. 

For more information about Peak Oil

  1. When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer! (1 November 2008)
  2. The most dangerous form of Peak Oil  (8 April 2008)
  3. The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news   (25 April 2008)
  4. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off  (8 May 2008)

Here is an archive of my articles about Peak Oil.

Here are other resources about Peak Oil.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 April 2008 2:53 am

    Fabius, I treasure your website and your insight, but I disagree with your engineering. “Commercially feasible” in the U.S. is not the same as “commercially feasible” in countries with less distorted markets. U.S. plutocrats do things like pressure Americans to buy ugly, wasteful SUVs. SUVs are not commercially feasible, but Americans are crazy enough to drive them anyway.

    The US market is distorted! It’s a slanted playing field! The game is rigged! I don’t know how to state the case more strongly, at least without hiring naked women to parade about with “The game is rigged” painted on their anatomy.

    Whenever anyone tells you that a known engineering process is commercially unfeasible, demand to see the balance sheet. It’s a question of cash flows. For Heaven’s sake, if Europeans can make sustainable energy work, with all the bureaucracy of Europe hanging like a millstone about their necks, then Americans can do a darn sight better.

    Now, mind you, while switchgrass and other crops *can* be commercially feasible, that doesn’t mean they’re an environmental miracle. They still cause strains on the environment, and they don’t mean the USA can continue profligate waste and pollution. But the USA is the country of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. It would be shameful for it to back down from the engineering of sustainable energy.
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    Fabius Maximus: I know of no commercial production of ellulosic ethanol. Perhaps it is commercially feasible but, despite massive research and subsidized renewable energy programs around the world, nobody is doing it. China, the EU, and Japan — to name just three — are franticly developing alt energy sources.
    .
    I am comfortable with my characterization, pending new evidence.

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  2. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    18 April 2008 4:50 am

    The only remotely commercially feasible work I know of on cellulistic ethanol is using a cellulose agricultural biproduct (Sugar Cane bagasse) to create Syngas for Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, and its not even commercially deployed yet, just been pilot plants so far: Clearfuels, Inc.

    Also, although Fisher-Tropsch from syngas can basically target any hydrocarbon (gasoline, diesel, what-have-you), they are targeting Ethanol simply because of the subsidies. (My father knows some of the people involved).
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe most of the US programs use purely biochemical processes, not F-T. There is a German company using F-T to convert wood: “New Technology Foresees Trees, not Grain, in the Tank“, Der Spiegel (15 April 2008).
    .
    It is important to distinguish between use of these processes on waste material — concentrated, and needs disposal anyway — and harvesting plant material. The first is practical but limited in scale. The second has many barriers to large-scale utilization, and probably offers at best a low energy return on investment (EROI). Growing, collecting, and processing plant material takes too much energy in temperate climates. It works in the tropics, but to some extent replaces food crops.

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  3. 18 April 2008 12:49 pm

    Biomass to liquid is not yet advanced enough for the industrial scale, but it will happen in few years (most likely). That’s why so many experts in Germany tell the public to ignore the first generation of agriculture-based fuels. (Actually the environment/economy/science ministries are contra the first generation, the agriculture ministry is pro; the latter is demanding less scientific quality of its studies).

    The second generation (BtL) will use what biomass is left after the harvest (the straw). That will be a problem for soil quality in the long run as you take away much more organic material than before. BtL will either demand for even more mineral fertilizers or need to be limited in its application.

    But even BtL is much inferior to direct solar power in energy/area. Plants have about 0.5% efficiency in storing solar radiation energy. Modern solar power plants are iirc at 40-60%.

    So in the end you don’t have enough agricultural area for
    – food
    – fodder for animals turned into food
    – organic raw materials (like cotton, jute, wood, rubber)
    – organic solar energy carriers

    We will need to limit the use of agriculture as energy source soon and later on possibly also the consumption of real meat. The alternative is to accept that Malthus was right.

    Nachwachsende-Rohstoffe – good source on renewable resources, but not free.
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    Fabius Maximus: It is also in German.
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    Harvesting biofuels requires energy to collect, transport, and process. Plus the energy to produce the fertilizer to replace soil nutrients. I do not share your confidence that this can be done with a positive EROI in temperate climates. Doing so to produce significant amounts of net energy seems unlikely.
    .
    Gathering just waste biomass (e.g., straw) eliminates the loss of food production, but gives even lower yields (EROI) and small amounts of net energy (vs. national liquid fuels consumption).

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  4. 18 April 2008 6:15 pm

    It’s not entirely in German and you could ask for a 2-week-trial. A simple click on the “English” link shows all articles that are in English.

    I’m not pro-biofuel, but rather a CtL advocate. And in the long term we need to look at either fusion and/or solar energy.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for the tip to the English button! Looks like an interesting site.
    ,
    I agree strongly with your last sentance. Coal to liquids is an important technology; China has over two dozen plants in the pipeline. Solar and fusion are two of our major hopes for the future. I am far more optimistic about solar over the next 10 – 20 years.

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  5. 19 April 2008 3:11 am

    “It is important to distinguish between use of these processes on waste material — concentrated, and needs disposal anyway — and harvesting plant material. The first is practical but limited in scale. The second has many barriers to large-scale utilization, and probably offers at best a low energy return on investment (EROI). Growing, collecting, and processing plant material takes too much energy in temperate climates. It works in the tropics, but to some extent replaces food crops.”

    True, some of renewable energy’s greatest success stories are waste-fuel reactors, squeezing an energy bonus out of a toxic liability that had to be processed anyway for public health reasons.

    Don’t trust the American figures, however, on how much energy it costs to do agriculture. American agriculture is phenomenally wasteful of energy. Agriculture does not have to be characterized by 1) open-air fields; 2) motor vehicles; 3) high-fructose corn syrup and similar over-refined non-foods.

    If I can dig up some solid numbers of permaculture and the commercial feasibility of switchgrass, you’ll be the first to hear.
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    Fabius Maximus: I would be interested to see collection methods for switchgrass that do not require motor vehicles. At some point in the future they could be renewable-fuel-powered vehicles (e.g., battery, from solar collection stations), but still motor vehicles. Ditto drying and processing could be solar-powered. That would mean far higher capital costs, but at some oil price might be feasible.
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    After, that is, the conversion process for switchgrass becomes commercially feasible.

    Like

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