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Carbohydrate-Based Synthesis To Replace Petroleum Derived Hydrocarbons? 166

Posted by Soulskill
from the new-incentives-for-fixing-old-problems dept.
someWebGeek writes "From PhysOrg's 'Taking biofuel from forest to highway,' University of British Columbia biofuel expert Jack Saddler says, 'we will become less dependent on fossil fuels and will become more dependent on fuels made from the sugars and chemicals found in plants.' Nothing too new there; the idea of biofuels eventually taking over from petroleum distillates has been around for ages. However, Saddler contends further that 'Similar to an oil refinery that processes crude oil to make thousands of supplementary products like plastics, dyes, paints, etc., the biorefinery would use leftover agricultural and forest material to make many of the same products, but from a sustainable and renewable resource.' I remember my organic chem instructor back in '81 telling us that eventually the textbooks would have to be rewritten. There would be no presumption of fractional distillation of thousands of basic compounds from petroleum, and the teaching emphasis would shift to synthesis from simple hydrocarbons. He noted that we'd all miss 'the good, ole days' when synthetic fibers, plastics, etc. were cheap... or even an economically viable option. I can live without rayon, but, dang, I'm gonna miss polyvinyl chloride!"
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Carbohydrate-Based Synthesis To Replace Petroleum Derived Hydrocarbons?

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  • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:53PM (#39104591)

    While this is great and makes sense - I can't see this happening until much later in the peak oil scenario.

    Fabricating all (most) of the stuff we make from oil now from plant matter will be a much less efficient operation and require much much more energy inserted during the production/refining process - which will of course make it much more expensive and inefficient to do. With that, I can't see it happening on any sort of serious scale until we have started running out of oil sands - let alone oil wells.

  • Death Throes (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Loughla (2531696) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:53PM (#39104599)
    One has to wonder just how hard the petroleum industry will fight these developments, though.
  • Re:Death Throes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by siddesu (698447) on Monday February 20, 2012 @07:31PM (#39104999)

    If this is profitable, "the petroleum industry" will most likely not fight it, but adapt and probably become large investor and user of this technology (probably ruining many ecosystems in some poorer countries as a side effect). The oil processing multinationals (not the well owners, these are mostly state-owned in feudal countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia) have been considering the "peak oil" and what it means to them long before it became a fashionable topic on the internets. They realize that the less oil there is, the more vulnerable they are.

    They got a taste of it after the oil rose significantly after certain events from 2003 onwards. Many oil-exporting countries started to re-evaluate their contracts with the big oil multinationals. Competition for the wells from companies from rising developing countries is increasing, and control of technology may not be a very viable option.

    So, everyone in the field seems to have some alternative strategy. Some have invested heavily in shale oil, some in underwater extraction, some in biomass, some in totally unrelated stuff. You can fully expect that if this thing shows promise beyond an article on physorg.com many will look into it.

  • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Monday February 20, 2012 @07:39PM (#39105063)

    Can the waste product(s) of using plant matter used to create biofuels be reclaimed and used elsewhere? To make paper, or perhaps clothing? Fertilizer? Feed?

    Biofuels would not be likely. If they are trying to make oil replacements, then the majority of the energy contained in the plant matter would be going into oil replacement. The problem is that the very high energy density of oil/petroleum products are the exact thing that makes it appealing. Breaking the carbon chains in oil releases a very large amount of energy proportional to the amount of fuel. Granted, there are much more energy dense forms of fuel - but they are also very expensive. To make something that can store as much energy as oil from something like plants will always require that a lot of energy is inserted - so that later when the fuel is used it releases more. While it isn't impossible and is being improved all the time, it still basically requires the right fungus/bacteria/whatever to convert from low energy plant matter to something that is usable for us.

    Sorry not to use a car analogy, but this one is much more fitting: Consider oil to be steak and plant matter to be plant matter. Currently we are able to drill for steak and eat it. It is a great source of energy for us. Sadly, our supplies of steak are starting to run a bit low. Now, someone comes along with a cow and says that they can convert normal grass into steak with this beast that wanders around eating grass and converting it into much higher energy dense food. The problem is that for this cow thing to make steak, it has to slowly wander around, eating huge amounts of grass and then very slowly over many years convert that plant matter into meat. This is the exact same scenario, but rather than having to wait years for a cow to make steak, oilfields are created over many, many thousands of years.

    To make a high density fuel (basically something that we want and is useful) that energy had to be inserted at some point. If someone can work out how to make a cheap, clean energy source that doesn't require a vast investment of time waiting for it to mature - then there will be nobel prizes, presidential handshakes and all the gratitude of the world waiting for them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 20, 2012 @08:06PM (#39105301)

    I guess it depends on what you mean by "plenty of time". I don't think that less than 50 years for the end of the "cheap petroleum era" is "plenty of time". And a decade or two before supply starts declining is even closer. A decline in supply of a couple of percent a year after the peak could be pretty economically painful.

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