Thursday, June 26, 2008

30 per cent of All Liquid Fuels from Biomass

Biomass to liquid fuels (BTL) is a potentially lucrative industry, being pursued by numerous companies from different directions. One popular approach with biotechnologists, is the development of micro-organisms and enzyme systems capable of turning biomass into diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline.
Amyris first studied the highest performing compounds of diesel, gasoline and jet fuel, then tinkered with the genetic structures of E. coli and yeast to produce bioequivalents, Renninger says, leveraging the same cutting-edge technology previously employed to produce pharmaceutical-quality medicines at commodity-level prices. ...It projects commercial production of some 30 million gallons of diesel as early as 2010, with production of gasoline and jet fuel roughly one and two years behind, respectively.

LS9 plans to open a pilot facility this summer and a 50- to 100-million-gallon plant three years later, producing a drop-in replacement for diesel, as well as a biocrude to be processed in traditional refineries. Rogue scientist J. Craig Venter, who helped lead an international consortium of scientists to map the human genome, has announced plans to engineer bacteria able to create hydrocarbons not just from sugars, but from CO2 pulled straight from the atmosphere.

"If you look at where sugar cane is in Brazil, or at where biomass will be here in the near future, we're pretty confident that we can compete with oil around the $50-a-barrel range," Pal says. "The key driver of the cost really is the cost of raw materials."

... Until technologies exist to easily derive sugars from tough cellulosic material, such as corn's remaining stalks, leaves and cobs, companies like LS9 and Amyris are likely to feed their fuels with sugar cane—a relatively green source of easy-to-use sucrose, albeit one with limited domestic potential.

As the world continues to consume some 150 million gallons of oil every hour, any potentially game-changing solutions will need not only to work, but to work cheaply and at truly massive scales.

"We could be harvesting on a sustainable basis over a billion tons of dry biomass in the United States if we got serious about it, and that would get us somewhere close to 30 percent of our liquid transportation fuels," NREL's McMillan says. "So while sucrose is undoubtedly part of the solution, to really get that huge volume impact, you have to go to those cellulosic feedstocks."
Once mature, these approaches could compete with petroleum fuels as long as oil is at least $50 a barrel. Once optimised, they will be viable with oil as low as $30 a barrel. But by then, who would want to buy oil at all? Environmental mandates and regulations will probably put oil and coal off-limits, once bioenergy, clean nuclear, enhanced geothermal and other advanced renewables combined with utility scale storage and improved transmission capacity come on-line.

With various unconventional approaches to nuclear fusion on the horizon, along with other even more unconventional approaches to unlimited energy--it is important for all viable approaches to clean energy production to be pursued, to bridge the gap.

Long-term, bioenergy makes sense primarily for small, local economies--particularly in the third world. But until the potential of clean, big energy is achieved through nuclear and other physical means, humans will need to fall back on their oldest energy source. Bioenergy: solar energy with its own built-in storage.

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