Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Steady Scientific Progress that Makes Advanced Biofuels Inevitable

Everyone likes to abuse biofuels. Doomers, greens, anti-greens, fossil fuelers, nukes, what have you -- they all hate biofuels and discount the viability of renewable fuels and chemicals.

But science is relentless, once it bites into an idea. And the idea that one can eternally grow one's own fuels, chemicals, polymer feedstocks, lubricants, fertilisers, etc. is a seductive idea.

Below are two new approaches to unlocking the abundant energy contained inside biomass, particularly the polysaccharides in biomass -- cellulose, hemicellulose, and xylans.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison led by Dr. James Dumesic have developed a streamlined process for converting lignocellulosic biomass into chemicals or liquid transportation fuel. Using gamma-valerolactone (GVL) as a solvent, they converted the cellulosic fraction of lignocellulosic biomass into levulinic acid (LA), while at the same conditions converting the hemicellulose fraction into furfural. This is followed by conversion to GVL; essentially, the team is leveraging GVL to produce GVL, which has potential as an inexpensive, yet energy-dense, “drop-in” biofuel...

This process allows for the conversion of hemicellulose and cellulose simultaneously in a single reactor, thus eliminating costly pre-treatment steps to fractionate biomass and simplifying product separation. Pretreatment and extraction or separation steps can account for up to 30% of the total capital cost of a biofuels production plant. _High Yield Conversion of Cellulose and Hemicellulose
A 30% reduction in the total capital cost of a biofuels plant can mean the difference between ultimate profitability, and ultimate bankruptcy.

So much for cellulose and hemicellulose. Now for xylans:
After cellulose, xylan is the most abundant biomass material on Earth, and therefore represents an enormous potential source of stored solar energy for the production of advance biofuels. A major roadblock, however, has been extracting xylan from plant cell walls. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have taken a significant step towards removing this roadblock by identifying a gene in rice plants whose suppression improves both the extraction of xylan and the overall release of the sugars needed to make biofuels.

The newly identified gene—dubbed XAX1—acts to make xylan less extractable from plant cell walls. JBEI researchers, working with a mutant variety of rice plant—dubbed xax1—in which the XAX1 gene has been “knocked-out” found that not only was xylan more extractable, but saccharification—the breakdown of carbohydrates into releasable sugars—also improved by better than 60%. Increased saccharification is key to more efficient production of advanced biofuels. _RDMag
60% improvement in conversion to useful sugars? Not bad for a start.

These are all preliminary lab results, which will have to be improved and ultimately scaled to industrial production.

But the long-term viability of advanced biofuels from biomass depends upon more than better conversions of biomass polysaccharides to cheap sugar feedstocks. The entire supply chain of cheap high quality biomass must be made robust and reliable, and much cheaper energy inputs to the industrial processes are needed.

Cheap natural gas can help, but why use natural gas to convert biomass to fuels and chemicals, when you can simply convert the natural gas directly to fuels and chemicals?

No, what is needed is cheap, abundant, high quality process heat -- the kind of heat provided by high temperature gas cooled nuclear reactors (HTGRs). In fact, HTGRs will facilitate a wide range of liquid fuels and chemicals processes -- and generate electrical power to boot. Don't forget cheap desalination of salt water.

As soon as the gang-greened governments of the advanced world grow out of their juvenile energy starvationist phase, humans can begin to generate an abundant future of energy, food, limitless clean water, and all the high quality feedstocks for a global scale -- and beyond -- advanced civilisation.

The mindset of abundance vs. the mindset of scarcity: Which would you choose?

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