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March 31, 2008


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I was kind of hopeful about biofuels, but stuff like this really puts a damper on things.

You know, I look at all this and see that the problem is that our population is rising beyond the planet's carrying capacity, and we really need to cut out all the out of control breeding. It served us well when live expectancy was in the 20s and most people never survived to reproduce anyways, but it's time we cut back a little.

This may be the only thing I think the Chinese government has done right.

Not to mention that ethanol creates comparable, or possibly more (according to some souces), air pollution than gasoline. So the 10,000 or so annual premature deaths in the US caused from ozone and particulates would likely increase.

I think humans certainly have the capability to live and reproduce on this planet for quite a long time to come. However, we have to start making decisions and investments that strive for long term sustainability, and not just think about immediate and selfish economic benefits.

Two points that are missed in the Time article:

1) Biofuels made from farm waste. This is the gold standard that the biofuels scientists are aiming for. The chaff from wheat. The stalks from corn. This would be fuel made from cellulose (which is rich in energy, but difficult to extract). There are just a few companies that are starting to do this, and they would be using waste from farming that is currently not used.

2) Biofuels that aren't ethanol. Ethanol is a dumbass fuel. It's soluble in water, so it has to be trucked, not piped out of the production facility. And it's low in energy. Newer biofuels are coming online that should be considerably denser in energy per unit of energy put in.

Ethanol made from corn is stupid. BUt hopefully, we'll move past that in a few years.

Biodiesel produced by algae might also avoid this problem (since initial plans I've read about don't require farmland for them to grow). The proliferation of hybrid vehicles, and plugin hybrids in particular, may also help with this problem, since wind farms can be built on existing farmland, and solar power can be collected in urban areas.

At least in principle.

This is a subject where we should expect powerful economic interests to attempt to subvert the discussion. The nuclear and fossil fuel industries are probably not only chortling, but probably running large PR campaigns which are funding opposing research.

We've seen it before in many industries.

The first thing I watch for is the the generic lumping of biofuels with corn ethanol (which has been dubious from the start.) My high school students have been snookered by that one.

I do wonder if the nascent ethanol fuel industry will fight back against the much bigger nuke and fossil fuel industries. I suppose it depends on how strongly they are backed by agricultural industries.

I work in alternative energy. You are right this sort of thing pisses me off to. But not for the reason you stated.

We have a very hard task ahead of us. We need to be able to get more energy than we consume now, and we need to be able to do it in a way that is not only less CO2 producing, but more likely, CO2 sequestering. The only way to do this is to concentrate our ability to produce biofuels and let forests grow.

We are currently doing the opposite. We are drilling our national forests and growing fuel from low yield crops like corn and soy.

The choice to get our energy from corn and oil is a political one and not a scientific one. Corn and soy are by far the worst producers of oil and starch (oil comes from lipids, and ethanol comes from the starches in corn). Soy is one of the worst ways to get oils, rapeseed is far better, and palm is the best of the crop we use today.

However the isssue with palm, which produces about 10 times more oil per acre than soy, is that in order to get it, they are destroying rainforest.

Algae is the only potential crop that could reasonably yield large amount of oil, remove CO2 form the atmosphere and it can be grown in the Nevada desert if we wanted.

We spent 20 years studying how to best grow algae, what strains produces the most oil, and how to turn that oil into fuels for our consumption.

So while we spent (will spend) 3 trillion on a stupid war in iraq, we could have spent time and money toward figuring out how to make the algae to oil process energy positive.

This is the great chink in the algae chain. We simply dont know how to get the oil out of the algae in an energy positive and time efficient way.

There are many other aspects to biomass energy that we must be working on cellulostic ethanol is a possibility. But more than that, we need to be working on infrastructure to be able to get it so that when people are done with their biomass it can be collected and converted. Even if we have the technology to do that, if we dont change that way out society values raw energy products, we will never benefit from those technologies.

There is so much more to say abou tthis, but I am pretty sick of the media poopooing a major research effort. Of course there are challenges, there is no way to get cheaper energy that digging it up from crude, coal and nuke material. We've had a century to develop that process. Only a couple of decades on alternatives and this effort has been backburnered since the carter administration.

Yes, if you use corn for fuel and have limited land for growing it, it will eat into the food supply. Duh. Yes, if we don't work out an energy positive method of extracting oils and starches from these plants, it wont work. Yes, if you use poorly chosen plants for energy production, you will produce low yeilds of fuels.

This country need to get on the stick about tthis and the SELL the technology or fuels to other countries.

this shit kills me.

If only we could power our SUVs with Soylent Green!

Joking aside, whenever people used to tell me Malthus was obviously wrong, I used to respond, "so far." There will inevitably be natural controls enforced on the balance of food/energy use; it's called 'starvation.'

Techskeptic, isn't this the kind of thing where we need really out of the box thinking? Custom bacteria that can perform necessary conversions on algae - that kind of thing? I absolutely agree with you that we ought to have been doing a "manhattan project" style crunch on this stuff (and fusion) for the last decade or so -- if for no other reason that if anyone else manages to crack this problem, they will be the next global superpower.

Like you, my head explodes into a cloud of pink steam at the idea of spending $3T on Iraq - which was pitched as a matter of "national security" - ignoring the fact that energy is going to be the national security question of the next 100 years.

right on marcus. There are a thousand solutions that have been untried with respect to algae production. Not just bacterial conversion, but genetic modification to increase lipid production.

Again, the big issue we have right now is not in growing algae (we could be pretty good at that (although contamination with rogue strains of algae is a plaguing problem). The norwegians (neste Oi) came up with a spectacular oil-deisel conversion process ( NExBTL) which produces deisel with higher cetane ratings that we would ever need, it could lead to a new breed of clean deisel engines.

The problem that requires out of the box thinking is the stock-oil conversion process. drying and pressing is a long, and/or energy intense method. solvent lipid extraction wastes more fuel than you get (although efficiencies could help here), and so forth. No silver bullet. Yet.

this is where the opportunity is huge. Once that step has been nailed down, I think we can rightly expect rooftops, bare land, and most of the state of nevada to be converted to algae crops. Until then, we are not energy positive.

I have left out many other challenges for simplification. But all in all, this is an area I am optimistic about, if we can get off our collective lazy, politcally swayed asses.

I'm curious...why the nuclear hate? Seems like nuclear energy would be a good stopgap for some of this, at the very least, if not for some of the long-standing (now-irrational) fears regarding it. Is nuclear waste still a problem?

I'm relatively okay with nuclear as long as they can stay careful, and as long as they've got disposal planned out beforehand.

I didn't necessarily mean that you were showing distaste for nuclear energy, TS, but both you and Mike seemed to be referring to nuclear power in a derogatory sense.

My hope has been for years that we'll get the Hydrogen-powered cars up and available soon. From what I understand, there are already hydrogen pumps at filling stations in California and Washington, D.C., and some cars are already on the road. The argument I've heard against that is that you still need electricity to separate out the hydrogen, and the generators run on fossil fuels, so you're still burning nonrenewable energy. I've thought for some time that the obvious solution would be to use nuclear power to run those generators, rather than fossil fuels, and since (as I recall) the main exhaust from a nuclear plant is water vapor, you've got a ready-made source to start the process over again.

Please, please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong anywhere here. I realize I'm not proposing a perpetual motion machine or anything, but that just seems to be the ideal (though perhaps not entirely realistic) solution, at least for now.

I'll respond better later. But I personally dislike an H2 economy until we get a good H2 source.

the great majority of our H2 comes from natural gas. We are currently creating better processes tog et H2 from coal (the process creates syngas which is 1/2 H2, the other molecule is CO, from syngas you can basically construct almost any hydrocarbon.

so its not that we split water to make H2, its that we get our H2 from CH4, or coal, or other places rather than just splitting water. For coal, every pound of coal burned makes 2 pounds of CO2. That is a rule that is frightening.

So even if we run out of natural gas, we will just get H2 from coal. H2 economy is not a planet saving economy until our H2 source is not a fossil fuel. This is yet another reason to work on biofuels, or put in place that NExBTL process, or other renewable energy. As long as we dig up our energy, we are in sad shape.

There are further biomass gassification plant that are slowly coming on line, so along with NExBTL for fuel, these biomass reactors could be a good hydrogen source.

But moving to H2 now is truly putting the cart before the horse.

once again I point to solarthermal, which can not only provide power during the day, but the hot oil is stored in a giant thermos, so it can provide power into the night too. Further it captures more of the sun's energy becuase it uses infrared wavelengths rather that the tiny spectrum that PVs use.

so yeah, nukes are good, but not great. They are easier, but not better. Personally, I'd rather see us go straight to great, let other countries have good.

crap, that was me. For some reasonmy login often fails to pass my handle on to the actual comment area.


Here's a good article from The Skeptics Society last month that does a pretty thorough job of explaining why a hydrogen economy is not the best option open to us at the moment.

It discusses, like Tech did, the futility of getting our H2 from fossil fuels, the current difficulty getting it elsewhere, and other issues like the unreliability of some H2 motors that require extremely highly purified H2 and a very heavy fuel tank to keep the fuel under pressure.

I thought it expressed H2 concerns rather nicely.

What I'd like to see in the near future is totally electric cars coupled with more use of nuclear (and now that I've heard of it, solarthermal) to reduce the initial carbon footprint. Electric cars are quickly becoming easier to build and more energy-efficient than H2 cars, anyway. Retooling the entire fuel economy just to fit H2 cars in when they're barely a stopgap seems a big mistake and an open door to the whole country using the sunk cost fallacy. Wholly electric cars just make use of one current infrastructure.

I for one, am enamored with this idea.

no heavy metals, no lithium shortage problem, no exploding electrodes, no exploding gas tanks. Refill at home.

I have not yet analyzed the cost or efficiencies (i.e. the amount of coal that need to be burned to fill a compressed air tank vs. the amount of coal that needs to be burned to charge a battery), but it really looks like it could be a winner to me.

-just a thought from your friendly neighborhood tech.

Yep, taking our food grains and making biodiesel out of them doesn't sound too sustainable to me. And add to that they aren't the best source to begin with. The other issue are these emerging micro refineries. They aren't as regulated as oil refineries, yet a by product of biodiesel production is a glycerin and formaldehyde mixture that needs to be dealt with properly. I think the algae technology is the best for the biofuels application. There may be someting else out there as well.

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