Monday, November 19, 2012

Apres le Deluge: This May be the Best We Can Do

To produce and refine hydrocarbons, a certain level of intelligence and technological sophistication is required in the host society -- either that, or the technological talent is imported from the outside. Safe nuclear power requires an even higher level of technological sophistication, due to the more complex science that underlies nuclear reactions. In primitive societies, hydrocarbon pipelines are sabotaged and destroyed in attempts to steal fuel. Chemical and hydrocarbon refineries too often erupt in huge explosions -- something much more likely when tended by primitive and unsophisticated workers. And imagine an advanced nuclear power plant being watched over by primitive tribesmen of the third world.

The conversion of biomass to energy and liquid fuels is less efficient than the use of hydrocarbons and nuclear power. But fields of biomass can only burn, they will not explode violently, or melt-down leaving thousands of years of radiative contaminants.

Here at the Al Fin Institutes of Advanced Energy, we not only look at energy technologies -- we also look at long term societal trends. And the long term trend for societal sophistication -- on a global scale -- is downward. Humans are becoming less intelligent and less sophisticated, on average, as a result of long term demographic trends that are unlikely to be reversed for at least several decades.

This means that biofuels and bioenergy -- the use of biomass to generate power and to produced liquid fuels -- may be the best that the humans of the future will be able to do.

Here is one of the best approaches to the production of biofuels from biomass:
Researchers at Auburn University and North Carolina State University have shown that using a simple pretreatment process—torrefaction—improves the quality of bio-oil produced via catalytic fast pyrolysis.

In a paper published in the ACS journal Energy & Fuels, they reported that the combination of the torrefaction pre-treatment and shape-selective catalyst (H+ZSM-5) resulted in highly deoxygenated liquid product that was favorable for aromatic hydrocarbons. The total carbon yield from catalytic pyrolysis of torrefied biomass was 1.45 times the total carbon yield from catalytic pyrolysis of untreated pine.
Recently, a simple thermal pretreatment process, torrefaction, has been applied to improve the properties of biomass. Torrefaction is a thermochemical process that occurs around 200−300 °C in the absence of oxygen. During torrefaction, biomass undergoes partial decomposition with the release of volatiles, which results in overall mass loss. Furthermore, the fibrous structure of the biomass is lost as a result of torrefaction mainly because of the decomposition of hemicellulose and depolymerization of cellulose. In addition, torrefaction results in a significant loss of oxygen from the biomass, which in turn reduces the oxygen content, increasing the calorific value of pretreated biomass while decreasing the energy required for grinding. The grinding energy for untreated pine chips and forest residues could be as high as 237 kWh/t compared to 23 kWh/t for similar biomass when torrefied. ...
Aromatic hydrocarbons were significantly produced as a result of torrefaction, and temperature and catalyst enhanced their production. Among the findings were that torrefaction resulted in more of lignin derivatives—guaiacols, phenols—and less of holocellulose derivatives. The presence of catalyst resulted in the formation of naphthalenes due to its size selectivity. _GCC

While torrefaction + catalytic pyrolysis of biomass cannot compete with cheap natural gas, it one removes hydrocarbons and nuclear power from the equation, the new and advanced bioenergy and biofuels approaches begin to make sense.

Which means that biomass to biofuels and bioenergy will begin to make sense for the primitive third world -- and for isolated locations within the biozone -- before too many decades pass.

And if you take a look at the Fourmilab projections of global IQ from 1950 thru 2050, you may begin to understand why bioenergy and biofuels may be the best we will be able to do -- apres le deluge.

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