Tag Archives: biofuels

The greenest of energy: inedible biofuels

Summary:  Using bioengineered enzymes to convert grasses growing on marginal land is the next big thing in biofuels — biofuels that do not reduce food production.  Here is a brief and current summary.  Great promise, potentially a valuable component to replace conventional oil.  But (as usual) nothing like promised by the more euphoric promoters. 

From Wikipedia:

Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel produced from wood, grasses, or the non-edible parts of plants.

It is a type of biofuel produced from lignocellulose, a structural material that comprises much of the mass of plants. Lignocellulose is composed mainly of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus and woodchips are some of the more popular cellulosic materials for ethanol production. Production of ethanol from lignocellulose has the advantage of abundant and diverse raw material compared to sources like corn and cane sugars, but requires a greater amount of processing to make the sugar monomers available to the microorganisms that are typically used to produce ethanol by fermentation.

Switchgrass and Miscanthus are the major biomass materials being studied today, due to high levels of cellulose. Cellulose, however, is contained in nearly every natural, free-growing plant, tree, and bush, in meadows, forests, and fields all over the world without agricultural effort or cost needed to make it grow.

Like so many alternative energy sources, it is touted as ready to go — commercially feasible real soon on a large scale.  As usual, the truth is somewhat different.  Much more R&D is needed, then the years-long process of moving from pilot plant to development project to first commercial to mass rollout.  Here is a current status report from one of the premier sources of information about food:  “Cellulosic conversion spurs debate at biotech conference“, Peter Meyer, Milling and Baking News, 26 August 2008 — Emphasis added.  Excerpt: 

The Bio International Conventionwas held June 17-20 at the San Diego Convention Center. There were 20,108 attendees from 70 countries and from 48 states in the United States, including 4,270 attendees and exhibitors from California, the worldwide home of the biotech industry.

… The area of cellulosic conversion raised the two key issues facing the industry.

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An urban legend to comfort America: alternative energy will save us

Summary: This is post #5 in a series examining “urban legends” about energy that comfort Americans. There are solutions, but not the easy ones in which so many Americans have confidence.

This is the last post in a series examining 5 “urban legends” about energy that comfort Americans. 

I.      Our massive reserves of unconventional oil.
II.     We’ll run crash programs to solve peak oil, just as we mobilized for WWII.
III.    Demand creates supply, by raising prices.
IV.    Oil is Oil, even if it is not oil
V.    Demand creates supply, from new technology.

Unfortunately, we can rely on none of these myths to see us through the transitional process known as peak oil.  Certainly these myths do not substitute for intense research and planning.  As dsicussed in previous posts, we know astonishingly little about our consumption patterns, available energy resources, and alternatives.  Nor has the available information been collected, analyzed, and used for models and simulations — the foundation of good planning.  News reports said that the resent satellite interception cost $125 million; one-tenth of that could fund a multi-disciplinary project that would help plan a sound future for America’s energy supply.  Instead we rely on inspired guessing.

Here we discuss three comforting myths about alternative energy sources.  These are excuses for not doing the hard work of gathering information, analysis, planning, and executing programs necessary to prepare for the multi-decade transition through peak oil to the next era (whatever that will be).

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A snapshot of our engines of innovation, as they develop new energy sources

Here are six of the dozens of new companies working to develop one type of new energy source (biofuels). This does not mean that we can ignore peak oil. It does mean that we can avoid planning for peak oil.  It does not even mean that than any of these projects will achieve commercial success on a meaningful scale.

This collection of articles about biofuels over a two week period shows our powerful engines of innvation at work.  It just means that we have tools and options.  To make use of these tools, we need to do research about our use of energy and available sources, to build models that provide a sound foundation for large-scale crash programs. We are on the clock, as peak will likely coming while we are still preparing for it.

  1. Are Backyard Ethanol Brewers an Answer to High-Priced Gas?“, Scientific American (9 May 2008)
  2. Corvallis Cellulosic Ethanol Start-Up Receives Energy Grant“, Daily Journal of Commerce (8 May 2008)
  3. Swiss yeast developer Butalco gets financial boost” Ethanol Producer Magazine (6 May 2008)
  4. G.M. Invests in Second Ethanol Process“, New York Times (1 May 2008)
  5. BlueFire to Break Ground“, GreenTech Media (8 May 2008)
  6. Sweet New Fuel“, Forbes (23 April 2008)

Contents, with excepts

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Fantasy sells so much better than news!

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.

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