Turning Renewable Energy into Fuels

Terry Bollinger wrote a comment that deserves to be a post of its own, because it could start an interesting discussion. Here it is:

The theme of “what scientists can do to help save the planet” is a good one.

I’d like to introduce a topic that concerns me greatly these days: Well-intended efforts to produce cellulosic biofuels that, if applied in non-tropical climates (read “not in Brazil”), could end up taking over huge percentages of land and water resources without necessarily truly solving the problem of replacing fossil fuels.

At present, and quite ironically, it’s not even possible to produce biofuels without using a lot of petroleum in the process. Even more ominously, there have already been cases where people who didn’t have much to begin with are going without food because biofuels have run up the prices and taken over land that should have been used to feed them. That is a very scary trend, especially this early in the biofuels game. And if people who can at least express their need are going hungry, what does that leave as the most likely fate for forests and the animals that live in them? Again, a scary trend.

So here’s the scientific part of my query: Are there other options that would make more sense for fueling the mobile part of our global infrastructure? Good rechargeable batteries obviously are part of the answer, but surely there are more possibilities.

A wild example: Is there any way a fully chemical process (versus a land-using plant base one) could use concentrated, e.g. electrical, energy from renewable sources (or perhaps nuclear, sigh) to replicate what plants do using sunlight? That is, pull CO2 from the air, add water, and generate high-energy-density hydrocarbon or carbohydrate fuels?

The point of such a wild idea would be to achieve the goal of biofuels — less use of fossil fuels — but in a way that avoids the awful environmental consequences of, in effect, using huge areas of land or water area as a very costly and inefficient way to collect renewable solar energy [1].

In short: Why not separate the energy collection component from the fuel-from-CO2 part, then optimize both to achieve minimal global environmental impact?

I know the answer: Because it’s really hard to do. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s impossible.

Terry Bollinger

[1] Plants themselves are of course highly efficient at photosynthesis, especially some grasses. However, that’s the wrong metric; it’s like picking a gold nugget out of a ton of dross and then pretending the entire ton of dross has the value of gold. For biofuels, a realistic net cost metric would need to include how much land is used, the type of land used, what other uses of that land are being displaced (there is often a significant energy penalty when that is factored in correctly), and the average usable solar energy for the particular plants used. Under that kind of a full-cost metric, even the best cellulosic plant options amount to a very poor (and for some northern regions a potentially negative net benefit) way to collect solar energy.

28 Responses to Turning Renewable Energy into Fuels

  1. John Baez says:

    Here are a couple comments on biofuels from my diary. Maybe they will help the conversation along a bit:

    February 3, 2008

    First, one from the Technology Review. You have to register to read this, but it’s free, and they don’t send you spam:

    • David Rotman, The Price of Biofuels, Technology Review, January/February 2008.

    Bottom line, as already mentioned here on October 2: corn-produced ethanol, so popular here in the US, is very problematic. Right now 20% of US corn is being converted to ethanol. This has driven the price of corn to record levels, but it’s not nearly enough to make a serious dent in gasoline consumption. Apparently there’s no way it ever will: “even proponents of corn ethanol say that its production levels cannot go much higher than around 15 billion gallons a year”, while we now use 142 billion gallons of gasoline. Worse, it takes a lot of energy to make ethanol: the whole production cycle only produces 25% more energy than it uses.

    Cellulosic ethanol could be better. Cellulose from many sources can be converted to ethanol, and this doesn’t require using edible crops like corn: you could use waste wood chips from lumber, grasses that grow quickly just about anywhere, and so on. However, the production methods are still experimental: not very efficient, not ready to be scaled up:

    Many researchers believe that the most promising way to make cellulosic biofuels economically competitive involves the creation — or the discovery — of “superbugs,” microörganisms that can break down cellulose to sugars and then ferment those sugars into ethanol. The idea is to take what is now a multistep process requiring the addition of costly enzymes and turn it into a simple, one-step process, referred to in the industry as consolidated bioprocessing. According to Lee Lynd, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College and cofounder of Mascoma, a company based in Cambridge, MA, that is commercializing a version of the technology, the consolidated approach could eventually produce ethanol at 70 cents a gallon. “It would be a transformational breakthrough,” he says. “There’s no doubt it would be attractive.”

    But finding superbugs has proved difficult. For decades, scientists have known of bacteria that can degrade cellulose and also produce some ethanol. Yet none can do the job quickly and efficiently enough to be useful for large-scale manufacturing.


    Susan Leschine, a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, believes she just might have stumbled on a bug that will do the job. She found it in a soil sample collected more than a decade
    ago from the woods surrounding the Quabbin Reservoir, about 15 miles from her lab. The Quabbin sample was just one of many from around the world that Leschine was studying, so it was several years before she finished analyzing it. But when she did, she realized that one of its bacteria, Clostridium phytofermentans, had extraordinary properties. “It decomposes nearly all the components of the plant, and it forms ethanol as the main product,” she says. “It produces prodigious amounts of ethanol.”

    Leschine founded a company in Amherst, SunEthanol, that will attempt to scale up ethanol production using the bacterium. There’s “a long way to go,” she acknowledges, but she adds that “what we have is very different, and that gives us a leg up. We already have a microbe and have demonstrated it on real feedstocks.” Leschine says that other useful microbes are probably waiting to be discovered: a single soil sample, after all, contains hundred of thousands of varieties. “In this zoo of microbes,” she says, “we can think that there are others with similar properties out there.”

    A more futuristic but perhaps ultimately better option: get bugs to convert cellulose and other stuff to hydrocarbons.

    October 23, 2009

    • Richard Harris, New biofuel laws may harm environment, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, October 23, 2009.

    In their current formulation, the Kyoto Protocol and European law don’t count carbon released from burning biofuels. Scientists have found that this creates an incentive to cut down forests to plant crops for biofuels, even if this boosts the total CO2 emissions!

  2. Tim van Beek says:

    …in a way that avoids the awful environmental consequences of, in effect, using huge areas of land or water area as a very costly and inefficient way to collect renewable solar energy…

    There seem to be very different opinions about the usefulness of wind and solar energy: while some people seem to dismiss these entirely, I already mentioned that the German government plans to get 50% of the total power supply from these sources within the next decades – I think we need some reliable data and estimates here :-)

    With regard to cars and gasoline: There may be an essential difference in the reasoning of US-Americans and Europeans and Asians from highly populated areas: Europeans tend to travel less, and shorter distances, that US-Americans. The mostly urban population uses cars either for trips to the country, or for inner-city use – since parking space is rare and streets are small in most European cities, for the latter use there is a huge market for very small cars (of a size that the stereotypical Texan would present to a toddler as a toy). (There are statistics that say that most trips by car in Europe cover a distance of less than 5 km).

    These inner-city cars will probably be replaced by electric cars during the next decade, while for most US-Americans it may be implausible that a car with a cruising range below 200 km could be of any use.

    Unfortunately I don’t have any data at hand concerning the amount of biofuel produced in Europe right now, but my educated guess is that this concept is dead in the water and that cars running with biofuel won’t stand a chance against electric cars, for said reasons.

    • John Baez says:

      Tim wrote:

      There seem to be very different opinions about the usefulness of wind and solar energy: while some people seem to dismiss these entirely, I already mentioned that the German government plans to get 50% of the total power supply from these sources within the next decades – I think we need some reliable data and estimates here.

      I agree! But let’s not do that here, except insofar as its relevant to Terry’s point about biofuels and possible alternative methods of turning renewable energy into fuels. I want to write an issue of This Week’s Finds about solar power, comparing some of the radically different opinions on the merits of solar and wind power. Maybe I can get some experts to weigh in.

      It seems that in the US, corn-based ethanol is popular largely because of the powerful corn-growers lobby. David Pimentel’s calculations arguing the uselessness of corn-based ethanol have been widely attacked. What’s the truth? That’s what Azimuth is for — solving this kind of puzzle!

      • Tim van Beek says:

        I agree! But let’s not do that here

        Sorry for being off topic, it’s really only relevant insofar as the energy production by biofuels is obviously suboptimal if compared to the (optimistic?) numbers published by solar energy enthusiasts, just look at the FAQ of desertec here (look out for the title “International network versus decentralized energy autonomy” and then for question no. 2 “2. Isn’t it better to use domestic sources instead of completely bulldozing the desert?”).

  3. Joe Kaplinsky says:

    Biofuels is a huge and interesting topic. Hopefully I can say something of interest to those who are new to it.

    Terry Bollinger gets to the right question:

    ‘Why not separate the energy collection component from the fuel-from CO2 part, then optimize both to achieve minimal global environmental impact?’

    It’s worth breaking that down a bit.

    First, in a plant the two steps are in fact separate. The photosystem protein complexes absorb light and use it split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen is used to make high energy compounds while the oxygen is discarded. (The waste oxygen from plants is not from CO2, it’s from H2O). Plants then use the hydrogen from water splitting to synthesise hydrocarbon molecules. The typical composition of a sugar, for example, is CH2O with Hs and Os (and OH groups) hanging off a carbon chain. Why do plants store their energy as carbon containing molecules? Because carbon can be used to build molecules with many properties convenient and useful to a plant, both in relation to energy storage and other biological functions.

    So what about human energy use? There is a lot of work being done on artificial water splitting, either using light (solar energy) or heat (which could be solar, nuclear, geothermal, etc) as well as electrolysis. Wikipedia has pages on ‘water splitting‘ and ‘photocatalytic water splitting‘ which are not comprehensive but as usual a useful starting point.

    The product of that work would be hydrogen, and for some years there has been talk of a ‘hydrogen economy’. But more recently people have begun to realise that hydrogen is quite poor as an energy carrier. For a number of reasons hydrogen storage and transport is a big problem, especially for mobile applications such as cars and planes where an oil substitute is really needed.

    What would be sensible would be hook up the hydrogen to some carbons to make convenient transport fuels. In the long term there are certainly better options than ethanol. I suspect longer chains, more similar to existing fuels will be the way to go but Nobel prize winning chemist George Olah has proposed a ‘methanol economy‘.

    Is a surprise that best fuels can be made from carbon? Not really. The chemistry of carbon makes it a sort of miracle atom. Even without fossil carbon we will want to makes fuels from it as well all sorts of things from fibres to pharmaceuticals and dyes. That is why I dislike the term ‘low carbon economy’. What we need instead is a ‘new carbon infrastructure’.

    So why bring plants in at all? Plants are not all that efficient at photosynthesis – typically around 1%. Sugar cane used for ethanol is much better, but a 10% efficient solar panel will beat it. One answer is that plants have their own in built chemical refinery that does the work of storing the hydrogen as carbon chains. Enzymes are better catalysts than most artificial systems so far devised.

    More to the point not only might we be able to improve on photosythesis but ideally we would could develop strains of bacteria, fungi or algae that could synthesise and excrete long chain fuel molecules using CO2, water and sunlight, without the need for harvesting or further processing.

    Some companies that are trying to do something practical that you may want to look at are Amyris, LS9 and Joule Unlimited. You might also want to look at the work of James Liao on engineering metabolic networks. (There’s a lot of mathematics in systems biology, by the way. E.g. a bacterium contains thousands of sorts of molecule all being converted into one another by one another. The challenge is to tweak the network to send the flow away from reproducing as quickly as possible toward production of a fuel product.)

    You might want to look at the new Annual Review of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, vol 1. In particular the article by Rakesh Agrawal and Navneet R. Singh makes the point that biomass is as much a source of carbon as of energy.

    Before getting to all the economics and politics, this comment is already long enough. I will just say I would close down corn ethanol tomorrow (although you’re right to be suspicious of David Pimentel’s analysis). Cellulosic ethanol is a useful stepping stone to the future – and things have moved on since your 2008 diary entry to the construction of the first commercial plants. I would also point out there was a lot more going on with the food price spike than just biofuels. For example, broadly speaking prices have come down a lot and biofuel continued to expand.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks for the wonderfully clear introduction to the issues, Joe! I’ve taken the liberty of equipping your comment with hyperlinks. It will take me a while to absorb all this information, but clearly this will make a great topic for an issue of This Week’s Finds. So, I may pester you for more information at some point – and I bet people here will have questions right now!

      I guess I have one question right now myself. How would some of these proposed fuel technologies, if scaled up, affect the amount of carbon dioxide emissions? Does each extra carbon atom in the proposed fuel make it one bit worse, or is it subtler than that? I guess if those carbons come from the air and go back into the air, it’s net zero emission.

      • Joe Kaplinsky says:

        Thanks for adding the links to my previous comment. Hope the html in this one works.

        John Baez asked

        How would some of these proposed fuel technologies, if scaled up, affect the amount of carbon dioxide emissions? Does each extra carbon atom in the proposed fuel make it one bit worse, or is it subtler than that? I guess if those carbons come from the air and go back into the air, it’s net zero emission.

        Yes, that’s exactly the idea. The problem is not carbon, it’s net carbon added from fossil fuels. Carbon is so useful we are unlikely to have a ‘low carbon economy’.

        To step back a bit, what is useful here is using the chemical bonds of hydrocarbon molecules as an energy store. Electricity is wonderful, but it’s hard to store. For problems like supplying solar energy to the grid at night there are some options – although they need a lot more development. But for transport there don’t seem to be such good alternatives. (Trains are the exception that prove the rule – they can be electrified by running wires from the power station.)

        The main alternative for energy storage in transport is batteries. There doesn’t seem to be a law of physics that prevents batteries becoming as energy dense as liquid hydrocarbons, but no one knows how to get the right chemistry to come anywhere close. I see in the comment below you have picked up on energy density as the issue for transport.

        Rates of recharging are another matter. 50 litres of petrol will give you around 1.6 gigajoules. It’s not a good idea to try to put that through a wire in a few minutes in an environment like a filling station. The best solution I have seen is from Shai Aggasi’s company Better Place. The idea is to make the whole battery removable. When you need to recharge a machine removes the old battery and plugs in a new recharged battery that you drive away with.

        However, I suspect the future will be hybrid vehicles. The electrical system will allow them to run much more efficiently, for example with regenerative breaking. They might take on some energy as electricity (‘plug in hybrids’) but they will still take on board most of it in a fuel tank as liquid hydrocarbons. We might even get rid of internal combustion engines and convert fuel to electricity in fuel cells. But even then, hydrocarbons will likely be a better energy carrier than, say, hydrogen.

        (When looking at ‘ineffeciency’ in converting solar energy to liquid hydrocarbon remember that solar energy is not actually that scarce – it’s fine to throw away 99% of it – although admitedly land and collectors can be.)

        Planes will likely be even more reliant on liquid fuels.

        So, if we need all these carbon fuels how to do it without raising atmospheric carbon dioxide? The first option, which we are discussing is make the fuels from atmospheric carbon dioxide so that the net effect is zero. For that we need an energy source (which we don’t if we just burn oil) which can be solar, nuclear, wind, geothermal or whatever you are clever enough to engineer, perhaps using a biological system.

        The second alternative is to burn fossil fuels but ‘sequester’ the carbon dioxide. That also takes energy, which will be perhaps a significant fraction (10s of percent) of the energy gained from burning the fossil fuel. This is known as carbon capture and storage.

        The CO2 could either be captured at a power station where it is present in high concentration or directly from the air. (Note that in the long run if you wanted to offset fossil carbon from transport by capturing carbon at power stations, the power station could not be burning fossil carbon.) Interestingly, David Keith has shown that direct capture from the air could be viable.

        What to do with it? It could be buried, for example in old oil reservoirs. Geology shows that fluids can stay in place for millions of years, and the oil industry already has experience of injecting CO2 into oil wells – doing so pushes out the oil and enhances recovery. (Of course you want to chose your site carefully, and may want to chose somewhere more accessible than deep in the Gulf of Mexico!)

        Even more remarkably, over geological timescales carbon dioxide will spontaneously become mineralised forming, for example, limestone (calcium carbonate). If that process could be speeded up with the right conditions we could actually, in principle, get energy out of carbon storage! More likely we could try reacting the CO2 with rocks underground.

        In my opinion, these technologies are worth developing not just to allow the world to become ‘carbon neutral’ but also to give us a handle on the costs of going carbon negative from inevitably higher future CO2 levels. There are plenty of good ideas, but at the moment the technologies are so embryonic (relative to the scale of the problem) we don’t even have a clear idea what the realistic possibilities and costs would be.

  4. John Baez says:

    Here’s the introduction of the article by Rakesh Agrawal and Navneet R. Singh. I’ve deleted references.

    I hope this lures more of you hardnosed science types into reading the whole article!

    In 2006, the worldwide transport sector consumed a massive quantity of 97 trillion Mega Joules (1 Mega Joule = 1 MJ = 106 J) of energy. Of this, 92.3 trillion MJ were derived from liquid fuels. Liquid fuels are attractive owing to their high volumetric energy density and ease of use. Historically, the majority of this liquid fuel has come from petroleum crude oil. However, with the recent concern about the eventual decline in the availability of petroleum, alternative energy sources to propel the transport sector are being explored. Indeed, the consumption of bioethanol and biodiesel by the U.S. transport sector climbed from 310 billion MJ in 2004 to 880 billion MJ in 2008. The collection of atmospheric carbon, which is present in the atmosphere at 383 ppm CO2, in a dense form such as biomass, followed by its conversion to liquid fuel for transportation provides a possible sustainable path. The possibility of supplying liquid fuel sustainably from biomass has a natural appeal, and many studies have been devoted to the estimation of liquid fuel yields from biomass, production economics, and the extent to which these biofuels can meet the needs of a given transport sector. Many researchers, investors, and policy makers expect that biofuel can take center stage in a sustainable transportation energy future.

    Although there seems to be a general agreement that biofuel can play a significant role in a future renewable energy–based transport sector, there is a considerable debate regarding the extent to which it will be able to fulfill this need. For the U.S. transport sector, estimates of the annual quantity of biomass that may be available in the future for conversion to biofuel vary from approximately 498 million tons (MT) to in excess of a billion tons. Similarly, estimates of biofuel yields from a given land area vary by roughly tenfold. Estimates of future biofuel yields from a ton of lignocellulosic biomass also vary from 84 to 136 ethanol gallon equivalents (eges). In this review, we define ege as gallons of ethanol whose energy content in terms of lower heating value (LHV) is the same as that of the quantity of biofuel under consideration. For this purpose, the LHV of ethanol is taken to be 80.14 MJ gal−1. Depending on the source of the estimate, the United States could meet from nearly 20% to slightly more than 50% of its transport fuel need of nearly 13.8 million barrels day−1 with biofuel. However, even under the most optimistic scenario, biofuel will not be able to meet the entire U.S. transport sector’s need unless large quantities of additional biomass dedicated to fuel use are cultivated and harvested

    When additional land is used, the dedicated fuel biomass essentially harnesses a portion of the sunlight falling on the land area. In this scenario, one can choose to harness the solar energy in alternate forms, such as heat, electricity, and H2, and use them directly or indirectly to drive the transport sector. Furthermore, in a future solar economy, solar energy will be used to meet other needs of the human race, as shown in Figure 1. These competing demands will have to coexist harmoniously. It is well known that the amount of solar energy available on Earth is orders of magnitude more than the energy consumed by humans. Nevertheless, the total world energy consumption is also quite large. In 2006 it was 498 trillion MJ and, according to Energy Information Administration estimates, it could reach 716 trillion MJ by 2030. The corresponding numbers for total energy use by the transport sector are 97 trillion MJ for 2006 and 135 trillion MJ for 2030. Therefore, large inefficiencies in the collection of solar energy and its subsequent use will not only directly impact the required land area but could also have a strong negative impact on the overall cost to society.

    This review critically examines the literature regarding the evolution of a sustainable future transport sector that will be driven primarily by renewable energy sources such as solar. In this context, we emphasize three aspects: (a) the relative efficiency of growing and using biomass vis-à-vis other alternatives for propelling the transport sector, (b) the synergistic use of other forms of energy to augment the production of biofuel from a given quantity of biomass and thus increase the overall recovery of solar energy by increasing the fraction of biomass carbon that is recovered as biofuel from the conversion process, and (c) the generation of a template that can be used within the context of a nation or a region to create a future energy-efficient transport sector. The purpose of such an analysis is not to imply that all the steps contained in the template can be implemented in a cost-effective manner, but to indicate the research and development breakthroughs that will be needed for the evolution of an efficient and sustainable transportation infrastructure. In addition, this analysis identifies the challenges that can be met and solutions that can be implemented in the short term as well as those that will require more concerted medium- to long-term effort.

    Our review is based on the use of thermochemical processes for the production of biofuel. This by no means implies that thermochemical processes are superior pathways to alternates such as biochemical-based routes. We believe that the results derived are general in nature and applicable to cases in which biofuels are derived using biochemical processing. Also, even though the analysis is conducted using solar energy, it is equally valid when other forms of energy, such as nuclear or wind, are to be used.

  5. John Baez says:

    Let me take some notes on Agrawal and Singh’s article – not so much on the points they’re trying to make as on some facts and figures that catch my eye, grist for future This Week’s Finds:

    • A crop growing at the rate of 1 kilogram per square meter per year in the United States, with an energy content of 17 megajoules per kilogram, captures only 0.28% of the average incident solar energy of 6307 megajoules per square meter per year (1752 kWh m-2 yr-1).

    (Why do they say “in the United States?” Are they just being nationalistic, or are they attempting to estimate the amount of sunshine in that general location? Isn’t that pretty different in New Mexico versus, say, Alaska?)

    • The fast growing DF crop of Miscanthus (a kind of tall grass) is expected to have a growth rate of 3.7 kg per square meter per year.

    • Even the highly efficient sugarcane crop stores only 1% of the annual incident light as biomass.

    • Zhu et al. have estimated that the maximum conversion efficiency of solar energy to biomass under today’s atmospheric CO2 concentration of 383 ppm and at 30°C is 4.6% for C3 photosynthesis and 6% for C4 photosynthesis. But the highest efficiencies observed across a full growing season for C3 and C4 crops are 2.4% and 3.7%, respectively.

    (C3 photosynthesis is used by plants that get moderate sunlight and temperatures. C3 plants predate C4 plants, going back to the Mesozoic or earlier. They still make up 95% of plants we see. C4 photosynthesis developed when grasses migrated from the shady forest undercanopy to more open environments in the Oligocene (early Cenozoic). C4 plants do better in conditions of drought, high temperatures, or nitrogen shortage.)

    • Algae are considered efficient collectors of solar energy. Under ideal growing conditions, yields in the range of 3–7 kilograms per square meter per year have been reported. A joint venture between ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Inc. aims at getting 1.8 kilograms of fuel (oil) per square meter per year from algae. This is still just 0.9% of the incident solar energy. According to recent projections, it may be possible to grow algae at a rate of 12 kilograms per square meter per year with 30% oil content by mass. Assuming that the oil portion of the algae has the high energy density of 33 megajoule per kilogram, the resulting annual solar energy conversion efficiency of 4.2% is more than twice what’s been demonstrated so far.

    • By contrast, solar power can be turned into heat energy at efficiencies of up to 70%!

    • Or, electricity can be generated from solar power either by a solar-thermal process or a photovoltaic module with efficiencies in the range of 10 to 42%. This is much higher, but we also need to take production costs into account.

    • Commercial photovoltaic modules with efficiencies approaching 20% are already available, and lab-scale multijunction tandem cells have shown efficiencies slightly greater than 40%.

    • H2 can be produced from water by an electrolyzer with electricity to H2 efficiency in the neighborhood of 50%. (But now we’re talking about converting electricity we’ve already made to hydrogen, so we need to multiply this 50% by the efficiency of the method we used to turn solar power into electricity.)

    • A cute little summary chart.

    • "Because… crop–based liquid fuels, when compared with [using solar power to make] electricity or H2, have so much lower solar-to-fuel efficiencies, we encounter a liquid fuel conundrum".

    Namely, the high energy density, 32–36 megajoule/liter, of liquid fuels is tremendously attractive, but making these fuels out of crops is not a very efficient way of harvesting solar power. (But again, one needs to do some sort of economic analysis to compare the full cost of planting, harvesting, and processing some sort of crop to the cost of alternative methods of harvesting energy! The efficiency percentages don’t tell the whole story.)

  6. Robert Smart says:

    Since nuclear gets a “sigh”, let me make this point: Nuclear is the one energy source that the rest of the natural world doesn’t want.
    Energy needs to be really cheap to compensate for the lack of convenience of electricity compared to oil. See http://aleklett.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/oil-in-the-veins-of-sub-saharan-africa/ for the importance of oil in Africa. If it is cheap enough then we can make liquid fuel out of the air, but we will need to decide to do that because cheap energy will also make it easier to squeeze the oil out of tar sands and oil shales.

    • Hybrid Moiety says:

      We should be able to develop a set of solutions for the developed world, and a different set of solutions for the undeveloped parts of the world.

      Since the developed world is emitting most of the carbon, then most of the effort would have to be focused on it.

  7. Aussie government grants 5 million to turn carbon into algae oil. Origin Oil and MBD Energy’s carbon capturing dreams poised for growth!

    Mbd energy is OriginOil’s first customer. The two are collaborating to capture carbon from existing power plants and produce oil. If successful profitability is inevitable.  The oil produced will be able to take part in fueling our nations energy needs.

    Below is a link to the news and a quote from the article explaining their terms of agreement. 

    Article published may 11

     ”In the initial phase, OriginOil will equip MBD Energy’s research and development facility at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, where testing will take place. The two companies agreed that, subject to the success of the initial test phase, MBD will purchase significantly larger feeding and OriginOil extraction units to serve facilities planned for its three Algal Synthesizer power station projects in Australia: Tarong Energy (Queensland), Loy Yang A (Victoria) and Eraring energy(New South Wales).”

    (If trials work, MBD will be fully financially committed to the purchasing and production of this technology.)

    This article published July 9th 2010 by James Cook university allows potential investors and those following origin oil and MBD energy to conclude that the tests were a success and that MBD energy is going to be purchasing larger more expensive units from Origin Oil. The link  below followed by an important quote will explain my claims.

    “Senator Carr visited the MBD-JCU research facility at the Townsville campus and inspected the facility – a pilot project that is aimed at commercializing the development of Bio Carbon and Capture Storage technology. The process consumes large quantities of greenhouse gases while producing low cost bio-oil and animal feedstock.” 

    (the research facility at the Townsville campus was an integration of MBD and OriginOil’s technology.)

    Summary – First, Origin Oil and MBD energy integrated and tested each others technology at James Cook university.  The trials were successful.  They called in the Aussie government to evaluate. The Aussie government evaluated the facility and rewarded their successes with government funding.

    I feel this new innovative project will create thousands of jobs and create a paradigm shift in capturing carbon.

    Feedback? Thanks :)

    • Robert Smart says:

      Read http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5440 before you blow your money on algae. The Aussie government is desperate to appear to be doing something, and scared stiff of doing any of the things that might really help, like taxing carbon as it comes out of the ground, and at least investigating modern nuclear power. Not that the opposition is any better.

    • Zoran Škoda says:

      It looks to me like Carbon capturing algae… is a company ad, almost a spam. This blog is (if I understood it correctly) about finding out what are the best things to be done from the point of view of the Earth and Humanity. So it is irrelevant if some bloody senator Carr or some other symbol of political or industrial power (which made our Earth miserable in the first place). Second you obviously speak to people who are to invest into your business and give them costs (on your link) from THEIR point of view. How much they earn in SUBSIDISED system is not how much the Earth and Humanity earn; thus the subsidise should be subtracted and side effects should be measured qand described. So I suggest, if this is not a spam (I have a hope still) to show the concrete description and argumentation of the whole process: all resources needed to do the algae biofuels, where can it be done, how quick, how efficient, what rae the positive and negative sideeffects, needed infrastructure, which countries-societies have a potential to develop such a technology, sustainability…the technology, the hopes and problems, its background, feasability and real total costs from the point of view of Earth and Humanity…

      • John Baez says:

        Yes, that comment was a bit spammish. It was even worse before I deleted some passages that seemed like blatant advertising. But I thought it was mildly interesting, and Robert Smart’s comment on it had an interesting link.

  8. New Technology goes through three stages:
    First it is ridiculed by those ignorant of its potential
    Next, it is subverted by those threatened by its potential
    Finally, it is considered self-evident.

    The oil drum article may have been relevant when published back in may of 2009 but many of these limitations have and will be overcome by advances in technology along with private and public investments into the industry.  With global investment in this industry reaching the billions it is now a race to see which companies can emerge as technology leaders.  The companies that do succeed will realize ultimate success when they integrate their technologies with one another.  These integrations will keep pushing the industry forward and will eventually create a paradigm shift in carbon capturing. 

    The scenario for success I just explained closely resembles Origin Oil and MBD Energy’s current relationship which I posted last night on this comment blog.  Many are ignorant and threatned by the potential of capturing carbon to produce biofuel, they simply say “it can not be done”   Step one and two regarding new technologies complete.  The oil drum article vaguely communicated to readers the failure of one start up carbon to algae company and with that tried to subvert it’s reading audience into believing if one fails, they all fail!  This notion that if one fails all fails holds very little weight and the knowledge and possibilities of turning carbon into a viable fuel source has become self evident.  

    When a technology has become self evident it has reached the final stage to commercialization.  This stage has been evolving the past year with major R&D projects being funded by the largest publicly traded oil companies in the world.  Bp, Shell, Royal Dutch and the biggest investor of them all Exxon mobil.  The big boys now consider these technologies self evident and see the need to invest in order to secure their competitive advantage amongst one another.  It will be only a matter of time before we see the first industrial scale carbon capturing plant that can produce algae as a biofuel.  In my opinion MBD Energy and Origin Oil through the integration of their technologies will be the first to achieve this amazing feat. Once they achieve industrial scale they will be the leaders in industry they helped form.

    Origin Oil is a unique company for the fact that they strive to integrate their technologies with others in order to further progress their industry.  They were voted by BiofuelDigest.com top 30 most transformative technologies in 2010. Their  portfolio of patent pending technologies are revolutionary regarding their industry.   CEO Riggs Eckleberry and CTO Dr. Brian Goodall combine for over 50 years of networking and industry experience.  This will enable Origin Oil to  collaborate with existing bio fuel companies thus creating a powerful synergy that will propel each others growth in this industry.      

    • John Baez says:

      Instead of talking about how great this company is — or isn’t — I suggest that we talk about the underlying science and technology. Here are some questions I’d love to hear answered:

      What are the best species of algae to use?

      What sort of environmental conditions do they like? Fresh water, salt? What sort of nutrients? Can they be grown in open-air tanks, which are cheaper?

      What sort of yield do they produce?

      What’s the most efficient technology for harvesting them?

      As the Oil Drum article mentioned:

      First you need to select an algal species. This is not as simple as it sounds, because the initial thought might be to screen all the thousands of algae types that exist around the world to find the ones that (a) hold the most oil and (b) grow fastest. Algae grow by multiplication and so the common metric for the latter is the time it takes to double the volume of algae in a container, with less than a day being a good place to start. And a species that has 50% lipid content (the oil component) is also the sort of ballpark we are looking for. There are a number of candidates that meet (or come close to meeting) these criteria. One of the benefits of the program that the NREL review of algae produced was a filter of the thousands of candidates, that gave data from which to select some of the more productive.

      Let us, for the sake of discussion, call one candidate AA, another BB, and a third CC. One of the early things you discover is that some of the better ones grow in salt water (seawater) rather than in river/lake conditions. That makes a little difference, particularly if you are interested in putting your algae operation (we’ll call it a farm) out in the middle of the country many miles from an ocean. So that if you need that water you can either make it or import it, neither cheap.

      And speaking of cheap, one of the first steps is to decide how you’re going to contain your algae and growing medium (nutrient). GreenFuels used plastic tubes […]

      It seems that at a recent algal biofuels meetings, it was concluded that the large flat race-track type of layout is the only one that stands a chance of financial viability.

      But that selection brings its own concerns. For the light to reach the algae throughout the water column in adequate quantity, the water can only be around 6 inches deep. This means that the ponds have to be large, (bringing in construction and other land costs). It also limits the species that can be grown, since the conditions are more tempered by local conditions and survivability. This almost mandates, for open systems, that the local conditions select the algae, rather than picking the best. (Which helps explain why we chose a confinement strategy based on facilities constructed for other purposes and already paid for, but that is another story).

      So having selected the algae and the farm, the next cost is for the nutrient that the algae needs, and to supply the carbon dioxide. Here the potential for beneficial selections should be considered; some algae for example can use sewage as the nutrient, and if cap and trade comes along, then some of the income can come from the carbon captured and used by the algae. (Proper distribution of the gas, and keeping the right quality and concentration also costs, as may the supply and its transport.)

      Having grown the algae, the next step is to harvest it and separate out the algae. There are some interesting new concepts (bearing in mind that the algae are a very small percentage of the pond volume).

      One way of reducing the costs of separation is by using an algae, such as botryoccocus, that weeps oil rather than creating it internally.

      I want details, not just boosterism or skepticism!

  9. John Baez says:

    In a comment to a different blog entry, Hudson wrote:

    Biofuels are still burned, producing CO2 in the process, so it might not be a good idea in terms of AGW to bring more carboniferous fuels to the marketplace.

    It seems to me that Joe Kaplinsky must be right when he said here that carboniferous fuels don’t increase the net CO2 in the atmosphere if all the carbon they contain is taken from the atmosphere, and no extra CO2 is released in the manufacturing process.

    Unfortunately the latter condition is not met for real-world biofuels! Currently, fossil fuels are used to help manufacture biofuels. Also, forests and grasslands are being torn down to grow biofuels, and this releases sequestered carbon.

    This summary has some relevant numbers:

    • Renton Righelato, Biofuels or forests, Scitizen.

    Note: only near the end does the all-important issue of tearing down forests rear its ugly head! I’ve emphasized a couple passages and deleted distracting footnotes in the quote below, but you can find them in the article itself.

    Carbon-free transport fuels present some of the most difficult problems in adapting to a low carbon economy and, while there are solutions like hydrogen in the offing, it will probably be 30 years or more, before the bulk of transport fuel could be replaced. Liquid biofuels offer a superficially attractive option because they can substitute fossil fuels more or less directly in internal combustion engines and use the existing fuel distribution system.

    Because agriculture and production of biofuels itself uses fossil carbon (for fertilisers, fuels, buildings etc), the use of these fuels spares only a proportion of the emissions of the fossil fuel equivalent. After taking into account the fossil inputs, bioethanol and biodiesel can still give useful net emissions reductions compared with the use of fossil fuels of between one third and two thirds. Depending on the crop, 1000 – 3000 litres of fossil fuel equivalent can be produced per hectare, though because of the fossil carbon costs of producing and converting the crop, the emissions avoided are lower. A range of studies analysed by the International Energy Authority show the emissions avoided by bioethanol compared with gasoline to be around 30% (21-38%) in the case of corn and 33% (19 – 47%) for wheat. These are equivalent to avoided emissions of about 1.5 tonnes CO2 /hectare.

    Because of their higher carbohydrate yields, the sugar crops are more effective. Sugar beet yielding 5-6,000 litres of ethanol per hectare, avoiding 45% (35-56%) of the energy equivalent emissions of gasoline, can provide avoided emission of around 4 tonnes CO2/hectare. Sugar cane has the added advantage of the by-product, bagasse, the fibrous waste from the sugar cane plant that is burnt to fuel the conversion process, and is more effective at around 5.5 – 7.5 tonnes CO2/hectare.

    Vegetable oils can be efficiently converted to a diesel substitute (biodiesel). In the case of oilseed rape, producing around 1,000 litres of diesel equivalent per hectare and providing avoided emissions of around 2 tonnes CO2/hectare.

    So, it appears that biofuels can make some contribution to reducing overall carbon emissions. For it to be significant in the context of global carbon emissions, huge areas of land would be required. Even a 10% substitution of petrol and diesel – a limited target proposed by the EU for 2015 – is estimated to require 43% and 38% of current cropland area in the US and Europe respectively. As even this low substitution level cannot be met from existing arable land: forests and grasslands would need to be cleared to produce the fuel crop itself or other crops displaced by it. Before embarking on such large scale production, we should also look at the alternative of maintaining or restoring forests and grasslands and compare that with arable production of fuel crops.

    When arable land is restored to forest instead of using it for biofuel production, carbon stores build up in the soil and vegetation and outweigh the emissions avoided by the production of biofuel. Converting cropland to tropical forest can sequester 20-30 tonnes CO2/hectare per year, 3-4 fold more than the emissions avoided by sugar cane-derived bioethanol. In temperate regions, forest regrowth is slower but the rates of carbon sequestration are still several fold higher than the avoided emissions from biofuels produced from temperate crops. The sequestration rates fall as forests mature, but only after 50 – 100 years might cumulative avoided emissions exceed the carbon sequestered by forest restoration.

    Where natural forests or grasslands are converted to arable land to permit the production of the fuel crop, the loss of carbon stored in the biosphere has to be factored in. In the tropics, the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere in conversion of secondary forest to burnt cropland is approximately 600 tonnes carbon dioxide per hectare. Most of this loss occurs through burning and biodegradation in the months following the initial clearance and its impact on global CO2 and warming is immediate. Balancing this amount of carbon in the atmosphere with the emissions avoided through the use of biofuels would take around 100 years. Furthermore, removal of forest cover may reduce downwind rainfall, causing a cascade of further forest loss, further reducing the biosphere’s capacity to sequester carbon and accelerating warming.

  10. Nullius in Verba says:

    I assume you are aware of the Fischer-Tropsch process, and flow batteries?

    Heating CO2 to 2500-5000K causes it to decompose to CO, which is then combined with Hydrogen to produce hydrocarbons.

    Flow batteries store energy in a liquid electrode which can then be pumped out and stored.

    • westy31 says:

      You could use the Fischer-Tropsch process to turn CO2 in to carbon. This process was used on a large scale in WOII by the Germans, who had insufficient liquid hydrocarbon. They used caol as a carbon and energy source.

      But to make a CO/H2 mix, I would not heat CO2 to 3000K. Rather just mix H2 and CO2, and use the reverse shift reaction:
      CO2 + H2 CO + H2O.
      This reaction will work at atmospheric pressure and about 300’C. (We will be mixing in H2 anyway!)The H2 comes from electrolyses of water.

      The Fischer-Tropsch process has a typical effciency of 60-70%. The loss is heat of about 300’C. (could be partially used in a steam engine)

      Sucking up CO2 from the atmosphere is difficult, but I personnally believe it can be done. (got some ideas for it myself)


      • westy31 says:

        A correction:

        Hope the arrow for the reverse shift shows up now:

        CO2 + H2 ↔ CO + H2O.

        Also, it is probably better to run it at higher temperature than the 300 °C I mentioned.


      • Graham says:

        You can use micro-organisms (hydrogenotrophic methanogens) to convert CO2 and H2 into methane and water at much lower temperatures. Here’s a non-free paper on one such technology:

        • Effects of pH conditions on the biological conversion of carbon dioxide to methane in a hollow-fiber membrane biofilm reactor (Hf–MBfR), Dong-Hun Ju et al, 2008

        Carbon dioxide is one of the global warming gases. Utilization of a sustainable energy is one of the effective technologies for the mitigation of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere. If renewable energy can be used for methane synthesis, H2 is converted to methane by reducing CO2. We investigated the conversion of CO2 to CH4 using a novel hollow-fiber membrane biofilm reactor. We have converted CO2 to CH4 with autotrophic methanogens using CO2 and H2. All the gases were diffused into water through the membrane without bubbles. We have successfully operated the Hf–MBfR for stable methane production from CO2 and H2 under continuous operations for 60–70 days at acidic and neutral pH. The methane ratio of the gas produced depended on the pH condition and reached about 60% at neutral pH and 80–90% at acidic pH. The produced methane contents were 751 mL day−1 on average from 20 to 58 days at neutral pH and 135 mL day−1 on average from 36 to 43 days, 247 mL day−1 on average from 44 to 70 days at acidic pH. At neutral pH, during the operating periods, acetic acid was continuously produced to 4000–7000 mg/L so that produced methane was considered to have been produced by hydrogenotrophic methanogens and acetoclastic methanogens. At acidic pH, during the initial operating periods, pH was maintained to 5.9–6.6 so that acetic acid was produced by acetogens. After adjusting to less than pH 5.5, however, it was decreased. At the same time, the methane contents produced were considered to have increased by acetoclastic methanogens.

  11. Hybrid Moiety says:

    I don’t see Biofuel as something that can be exploited at a level to replace coal. At best it can be a less harmful energy option that just satisfies a small portion of our energy needs.

    Only Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors have the potential to replace coal. That would reduce Carbon Dioxide emission significantly. No funding from DOD, unfortunately.

    One other alternative is carbon sequestration via Carbon Monoxide to plastics. I saw a news item a few years ago on this topic, but nothing since.

    • Robert Smart says:

      LFTR is a research project. There are projects with funding that are also very promising for cheap safe nuclear energy. The ones I like are: (1) accelerator based nuclear power which generates neutrons externally (with a linear accelerator) and so doesn’t need refined and bomb-useful nuclear fuel; and (2) fusion using a self-organizing tight plasma beam (like gamma ray bursts come from a chaotic situation leading to a self-organized beam). But existing nuclear power is cheap enough to do the job, and we should get on with that ASAP (and obviously lots of people are trying to make that happen and a different lot are resisting). Even if we have cheap electricity all our infrastructure is wrong for that, though with cheap enough energy you can make liquid fuel. We’re in for a nasty decade at the best, however most expenditure in Western countries is postponeable, and the trick is to leverage that without causing mass unemployment.

      • Zoran Škoda says:

        As far as nuclear fusion is concerned, the mid-term future of the fusion projects depends very much on the success of the major experiment which is going to take place soon (possibly next year) at [https://lasers.llnl.gov](National Ignition Facility), namely trying to get controlled self-sustained (positive energy yield) fusion ignited by laser. The pre-experiments in that direction seem to give good [news](https://publicaffairs.llnl.gov/news/news_releases/2010/NR-10-01-06.html) so far. If the big experiment succeeds, then the hopes to have fusion sooner are bigger, hence there will be big governmental support for further plasma research. If it fails, the scale of plasma research funding is not going to significantly expand in next few years, and even some shrinking is possible I was told by a plasma physicist. The commercial reactors are expected in about 40 years from now, but the fate of a major experiment can always push that limit in one or another direction by 10-20 years.

  12. Hybrid Moiety says:

    How about the idea of the Biochars? You just try to extract the hydrogen part of the energy from plant materials, and bury a large part of the carbon content back into the ground.

    You get less energy out of it, but recycle more of the carbon.

    • John Baez says:

      I’m fascinated by the idea of biochar.

      Lovelock is big on biochar. In The Guardian he writes:

      I usually agree with George Monbiot and love the way he says it but this time – with his assertion that the latest miracle mass fuel cure, biochar, does not stand up – he has got it only half right.

      Yes, it is silly to rename charcoal as biochar and yes, it would be wrong to plant anything specifically to make charcoal. So I agree, George, it would be wrong to have plantations in the tropics just to make charcoal.

      I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550bn tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9% of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eaten.

      What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean. We don’t need plantations or crops planted for biochar, what we need is a charcoal maker on every farm so the farmer can turn his waste into carbon. Charcoal making might even work instead of landfill for waste paper and plastic.

      Incidentally, in making charcoal this way, there is a by-product of biofuel that the farmer can sell. If we are to make this idea work it is vital that it pays for itself and requires no subsidy. Subsidies almost always breed scams and this is true of most forms of renewable energy now proposed and used. No one would invest in plantations to make charcoal without a subsidy, but if we can show the farmers they can turn their waste to profit they will do it freely and help us and Gaia too.

      There is no chance that carbon capture and storage from industry or power stations will make a dent in CO2 accumulation, even if we had the will and money to do it. But we have to grow food, so why not help Gaia do the job of CO2 removal for us?

  13. […] ‘guest posts’ of many kinds here on Azimuth. The first, Terry Bollinger’s post on turning renewable energy into fuels, led to a great discussion that taught us a lot about this issue. Greg Egan’s Probability […]

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