Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Perhaps the First Rolling Pebble in the Coming Avalanche

The Earth has enough hydrocarbon fossil fuels to carry it past the middle of the 21st century, even if the global economy does not suffer one (or several) large collapse. It is unlikely that we will ever reach peak hydrocarbon energy from a production standpoint, given the rapid development of alternative and sustainable fuels -- and given the rapid advance in nuclear fission technologies. [Editor: Contrary to what many peak oilers assert, nuclear power can be used to produced liquid fuels in several ways. Abundant, reliable, baseload nuclear power would spell the end of liquid fuels shortages, even without the microbial fuels revolution.]

This article is about a radical framework for microbial biofuels which is likely to displace the use of liquid petroleum in the advanced world, although liquid petroleum is likely to be utilised for several purposes in areas of large, easily accessible deposits well into the 22nd century.

The basis for a system of abundant microbial fuels is, of course, the energy from the sun. Solar energy facilitates the microbial conversion of CO2 and H2O into carbohydrates, which are further converted (probably by yet other microbes) into hydrocarbons -- using H2 derived from various sources including biomass. Here is one possible starting point for this incredibly inefficient -- yet incredibly lucrative -- coming system of liquid fuels:
Proterro is using a form of genetically modified cyanobacteria. Here’s what’s different – its system derived from the operations of the humble tree leaf.

The Proterro approach is not to produce sugars in an aqueous phase – in water – but in a thin film bioreactor where the cells are at the surface of a fabric that transports water and nutrients to the organism.

...Proterro borrows from the approach utilized by the leaf. Leaves can transport water and nutrients to a surface layer where CO2 and sunlight are being absorbed. The Proterro approach is not to produce sugars in an aqueous phase – in water – but in a thin film bioreactor where the cells are at the surface of a fabric that transports water and nutrients to the organism. The organism secretes, or “sweats” a sucrose solution, which is then collected using gravity.

This is the key difference between most algal-based technologies – which also aim to synthesize low cost sugars from sunlight, CO2 and water – and Proterro. The approach radically reduces the difficulties of getting the water out of the algae, or the algae out of the water. And by radically reducing the amount of water, it radically reduces the land footprint of the overall system.

... Proterro expects that the process will work in relatively northern climates well north of the sugar cane belt. That’s more significant than might be gleaned at first glance.

Think of all the CO2 at all those first-generation corn ethanol plants. All that can be utilized, along with water and sunlight, to generate simple sugars on site that can be fermented into ethanol. That’s without corn, without land use change, and reducing the potential impact of waste CO2. How much could an existing corn ethanol plant boost capacity by using its own CO2, and a Proterro like microorganism – somewhere in the range of 25-50 percent, according to the earliest, unconfirmed estimates by the company.

These are not insignificant opportunities — that could add 3-6 billion gallons to US corn ethanol production, without additional land or corn usage, and without expanding the current fleet of plants.

...How does it differ from Joule? In some ways, not much at all — the magic bug produces a simple sugar instead of a hydrocarbon, but otherwise would have some of the same elements of a modular production system that could be proved at extremely small scale, and uses a modified cyanobacteria.

To date, they’ve scaled up from the lab bench to a square meter system – and on their shopping list is a larger base module. From the business perspective, they are worlds apart – ultimately, Joule is a fuel and chemicals solution; while the Proterro approach works on the feedstock end, with a wide potential swath of partners, ranging from those seeking low-cost sugars for their own microbes, to companies that are looking to convert their waste CO2 from cost centers to revenue steams....

Proterro is at an early stage. In their development process, they have yet to optimize the flow rates of water – for the amount of hydrogen required to make sugars is relatively small. They’ve been able to prove that the magic bugs will do their magic, but the design of the reactor and the optimization of rate and yield is among the hard work ahead. _BiofuelsDigest

In other words, using very little water, the Proterro bacterium converts (concentrated) CO2 to sucrose -- very like cane sugar. As efficiencies and yields improve, the idea is to feed the sucrose to fermentation micro-organisms capable of converting the sugar to fuels -- preferably butanol or hydrocarbons. The product would also be converted into plastics, lubricants, chemicals, etc.

It is likely to become something of a multi-microbial assembly line approach. The microbes must be both tough and prolific. The production system must be able to briskly move reactants, intermediates, and products briskly along the line without wasting time at any particular stage of processing.

Yes, of course this will take time to put together so that it works economically and at scale. Thermochemical approaches are currently much closer to markets, and are likely to make a splash much sooner than microbial fuels.

But we are not talking about many decades here -- certainly not the 90 years or longer that mainstream analysts have casually tossed around in the press. Al Fin energy analysts predict 5 years to significant, small scale impact by thermochemical approaches (gasification, pyrolysis, etc). Scale-up of thermochemical fuels will be quite rapid after that, as long as governments do not step in to cause political energy starvation and political peak oil.

It will take roughly 10 years before early impact in the market by microbial approaches. Within 20 years, there will be no doubt as to the future of liquid fuels. But for now, it requires the ability to follow multiple lines of development simultaneously to see what is coming.

Microbial fuels will have higher efficiencies than thermochemical approaches, due to the lower energies required to drive the critical reactions. But microbes will not be the final word in liquid fuels. Acellular enzymes and non-biological catalysts that function efficiently at similarly low temperatures will probably be substituted for the microbial photosynthesis, fermentation, and hydrocarbon synthesis steps.

And then, finally, with abundant and reliable fission, direct electrolytic and catalytic conversion of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to whatever hydrocarbon you wish. That will not occur on a large scale for another 30 to 50 years.

Al Fin futurists predict that the global economy will go through multiple quasi-collapse experiences over the next half century. These economic catastrophes will be the direct result of government policies -- some of them guided by left-Luddite carbon hysteric energy starvation, and dieoff.orgiasm. As noted above, the hydrocarbons are present to carry civilisation for several decades -- even without the likely collapses to come.

Electrical ground vehicles will slowly -- over several decades -- displace the vast worldwide infrastructure of internal combustion vehicles, so that the microbial and thermochemical fuels-from-biomass will be converted to the production of chemicals, materials such as plastics, animal feeds, fertilisers, etc.

The only shortages are the shortages of human ingenuity, rationality, and wisdom. Such shortages cannot be solved for humanity as a whole, regrettably. But they will be solved for enough.

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