Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Can We Expect from Biofuels?

When it comes to using biology to create energy and fuels, we are given a lot of choices, and are generating many more that did not exist in the past. Brian Westenhaus looks at US biofuels in the context of government mandates and limits.
Brian points to a recent article in Biofuels Digest which makes a case for "cellulosic butanol," a 4 carbon alcohol which can be easily added to either gasoline or diesel fuels as a fuel extender. Butanol is also a reasonably good drop-in replacement for gasoline in unmodified gasoline engines. In addition, butanol can be used as a valuable feedstock for chemical synthesis.

The plans laid out by Brian and by the author of the piece in Biofuels Digest are reasonable. But there is a lot more to biofuels than alcohols and standard crop biodiesels -- such as biodiesel from soy or rape. Biofuels from thermochemical processes, biofuels from algae, and biofuels from engineered micro-organisms, are all lining up to make an impact.
If you really want to expand biofuels production quickly, a better way might be to utilise standard industrial and chemical processes, such as catalytic pyrolysis and synthesis. Biomass to fuels conversion using thermochemical means such as catalytic pyrolysis offers a great deal of potential in terms of scalable fuels production that is renewable into the indefinite future, year after year.
The IH2 biomass to fuels process (via GCC) summarised above is the most promising of the thermochemical biomass approaches, according to Al Fin analysts. Using rapid growing micro-algae or macro-algae as feedstocks, the potential growing area for biomass expands to cover most of the planet, freeing up arable land for food crop use. Multiple harvests per year allow for continuous, year round processing of fuels. The scalable nature of biomass pyrolysis and the ability to utilise a wide range of potential feedstocks, allows such enterprises to locate virtually anywhere, to contribute to economies of virtually any size.

When such an approach to biofuels production is combined with the process heat of a nuclear reactor, it is clear that such an approach to scalable fuels and chemicals production could be carried out anywhere from the middle of Antarctica to the middle of the ocean to the middle of any desert or top of any mountain on the planet.

It is true that the shale gas revolution makes biofuels production non-competitive with natural gas as a fuel and a feedstock in many areas. But it is also true that biomass of one kind or another can be grown virtually anywhere, particularly with the assistance of plentiful process heat. Natural gas, on the other hand, cannot be harvested anywhere, and can be expensive to transport over long distances where pipelines are not in place. It is also true that advanced gene-engineered microbial biofuels will eventually replace thermochemical production of biofuels, and that after that, nanotechnological production of fuels and energy will replace microbial production of fuels. But that will take time.

For now and the near future, biofuels from biomass may be best suited for remote areas such as islands and other geographically isolated places, such as Sub Saharan Africa. Wherever transport costs for hydrocarbon fuels are excessive, the door is open to biomass biofuels, particularly in the tropics and near tropics.

In the long run, thermochemical and microbiological biomass biofuels will also be utilised in the more advanced parts of the world, as better, more high-value uses for hydrocarbons are devised.

The Earth is a biological planet. And contrary to what you may hear from the carbon hysterics, this biological planet thrives on plentiful CO2. If CO2 levels were to drop too far, the resulting human dieoff from starvation would be massive.

More: Geoffrey Styles recently commented on this topic

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Blogger said...

Its excellent news that the world is increasingly moving towards second generation biofuels that do not involve taking corn out of the food chain and using it for ethanol. One second generation option that seems to be in the news as one of the better renewable energy investments is Jatropa. From what is in newspapers, websites and journals, this plant can grow almost anywhere and can be converted to biofuel as well. Not sure if this is just hype or not, but it does seem like an interesting possibility.

12:24 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Part of it is hype and part of it is genuine potential.

Jatropha certainly has a part to play, particularly in relatively rural and remote tropical areas.

9:12 AM  

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