Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Quick Wood-to-Fuel Technique That May Help Revive the Forestry Industry

A University of Maine chemical engineering professor has devised a quick 2-step method of converting wood to fuel. While it is not economically competitive with petro-fuels production at today's prices, it offers a tantalising glimpse at one of many ways in which innovative humans can cut through peak oil like a hot knife through butter.
"It's unique and it's simple," said Clay Wheeler, the University of Maine chemical engineering professor who discovered the process last year with two undergraduates. "This is important because the more complex the technology, the more expensive it's going to be."

In heavily wooded Maine, logging produces a lot of scrap tree stumps, tops and branches that are unusable for making lumber or paper.

While additional research is needed, if Wheeler's process is ultimately able to be commercially developed, it could help forest-rich states generate their own fuel from that scrap.

...In the first step of Wheeler's process, wood is bathed in sulfuric acid, isolating the sugars in cellulose and producing an energy-intense organic acid mixture.

That mixture is then heated with calcium hydroxide in a reactor to 450 degrees Celsius (840 Fahrenheit), a step that removes oxygen.

What drips out is a hydrocarbon liquid that chemically mimics crude oil.

For every ton of cellulose processed, Wheeler is able to make about 1.25 barrels of oil equivalent, a unit of energy comparable to the amount of energy produced by burning one barrel of crude oil.

The acids and calcium hydroxide are recycled at the end of the process, cutting costs, he said.

The most expensive part is the wood itself, Wheeler said. At current wood biomass prices, he acknowledged his process is not economically competitive with traditional crude oil refining.

"But we anticipate that the value of the fuel will continue to increase as petroleum becomes more scarce," he said. _Link
The technique is simple, and in a world without oil, it would offer a quick route to highly useful liquid fuels.

With a few tweaks, such techniques might soon produce high value chemicals in an economical manner.

The direction of future fuels production will be highly dependent upon the future costs of natural gas, oil, coal, and other carbonaceous materials. Besides developing better means of exploration and production of contemporary fuels, we need to be innovating a significant number of alternative approaches to new fuels and energies.

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Blogger Whirlwind22 said...

Whats the EROEI of the wood fuel though? If it dosent have a EROEI of 10 million to one its not worth it. Or so the doomers like to claim as they type in their blogs and books with glee.

3:31 PM  

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