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Power Earth Science

Plastic and Fuel That Grow On Trees 188

Tim Hanlon writes "Biofuels continue to lead the field in the search for a renewable, environmentally friendly replacement for crude oil. Besides its use in the transport industry, crude oil is also used to produce conventional plastics and chemical products such as fertilizers and solvents. Now chemists have learned how to convert plant biomass directly into a chemical building block that can be used to produce not only fuel, but also plastics, polyester, and industrial chemicals, cheaply and efficiently."
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Plastic and Fuel That Grow On Trees

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  • Re:Investment (Score:0, Informative)

    by ilblissli ( 1480165 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:19AM (#28054331) Homepage Journal
    not to be a conspiracy nut or anything but i completely agree with you.
  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:22AM (#28054389)

    Copaiba [] is a tree from the Amazon region that gives diesel oil. Drill a hole in the tree and pour the oil that comes out in your tank, that is all you need to do. Typical yield is 40 liter per tree every year.

  • What's new? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Flimzy ( 657419 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:25AM (#28054443)
    How is this different than the "corn plastic" that's been around for years? Like the stuff mentioned here... []
  • by bzzfzz ( 1542813 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:28AM (#28054481)

    The process described is about two years old [] and was published last month. []

    Untold millions of dollars have been spent in search of a cost effective process to produce ethanol from cellulose [] for use as a fuel, leading me to wonder exactly what the catch is.

    Of course, converting much of the world's cropland to pulpwood production [] isn't exactly an environmental panacea.

  • by Flimzy ( 657419 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:28AM (#28054501)
    That's hardly "diesel oil" any more than other forms of vegetable oil are "diesel oil". It still needs to be converted to biodiesel to be safe for long-term use in a diesel engine. Of course it simplifies the oil extraction process greatly (usually done by pressing). You're going to get a lot of impurities (like water!) if you do what you suggest, too.
  • by bzzfzz ( 1542813 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:32AM (#28054547)
    Like any other vegetable oil, the oil derived from Copiaba has to be processed using Transesterification [] to be useful as a fuel. Though the process is not difficult or costly, there's more to it than just dumping the raw oil in your fuel tank.
  • Re:cheap? (Score:5, Informative)

    by ericrost ( 1049312 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:54AM (#28054843) Homepage Journal

    From TFA:

    Now chemists have learned how to convert plant biomass directly into a chemical building block that can not only be used to produce fuel, but also plastics, polyester and industrial chemicals cheaply and efficiently.

    It says so right in TFA that's "where the fuck it says" it.

  • Re:Investment (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:58AM (#28054891)

    You'd be surprised that biofuels is the one renewable energy source a lot of traditional oil companies are interested in.

    The oil distribution network, existing liquid fuel infrastructure and refineries for the trans-esterification or Fischer-Tropsch processes used to convert biomass to biofuels means that much of their technology is still relevant, as opposed to complete obsoletion by electric vehicles etc.

    Further, having biofuels lets you use blends of conventional oil and biofuel giving the oil majors a chance to actually be a bit greener. They'll pounce on biofuels the moment it becomes scalable. Do read

    I think I read a few weeks back here on slashdot that Shell scrapped it's research into all renewables except Biofuel. Maybe this is the only way they stay relevant.

  • No conversion needed (Score:5, Informative)

    by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:58AM (#28054901)

    It still needs to be converted to biodiesel to be safe for long-term use in a diesel engine

    Googling for more data on this, I found at least one article [] that claims otherwise: "... copaiba (Copaifera Langsdorfii) has raised the possibility of eliminating even the processing step. The copaiba produces at least 20-30 liters of oil every six months -- and this oil is a mixture of 15-carbon hydrocarbons which can be used directly to power a diesel engine"

  • Re:Missing the point (Score:5, Informative)

    by vinn ( 4370 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:06PM (#28055011) Homepage Journal

    As someone who has worked in the 'energy' business and knows lots of people in the 'energy' biz, I can summarize the ENTIRE mentality of that entire industry: drill, drill, drill.

    The concept of better, faster, cheaper doesn't apply to them - they are too narrowly focused on moving a rig from one well to another.

  • by Dr.Potato ( 247646 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:17PM (#28055187)

    We don't need to convert cropland into pulpwood production. The idea, IMHO, is to use crop waste (which is discarded) into ethanol.

    Much of sugar-cane production isn't used for ethanol, but burned because it's cellulose, and bacteria find it hard to degrade cellulose into its component sugar blocks.

    If you get a cheap way to do this, you can produce much more ethanol per square meter. Be it from beet, soy, rice, sugar-cane or the grass you cut from your lawn.

  • by damian cosmas ( 853143 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:44PM (#28055617)

    The article reports the ground-breaking/unprecedented/whatever direct conversion of cellulose to HMF. Here's an earlier article from a different research group that the editors of "Gizmag" seem to be unaware of. It was published earlier and actually describes the same process from either cellulose or untreated biomass: []

  • Re:cheap? (Score:3, Informative)

    by techess ( 1322623 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:56PM (#28055779)

    Ethanol is only inferior if you are only judging it based on mpg. Ethanol is a high octane fuel (usually between 110 & 130 octane). So if you have an engine designed to use ethanol (and take advantage of the extra octane) you are going to get more power. If you need that extra power it makes ethanol well worth it.

    If/When they start offering ethanol from plant sources that don't "waste" farmland I think even losing the few mpg will only be a minor drawback to using it.

  • Hemp (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:57PM (#28055801)

    This isn't exactly new technology, it's already proven that oil and plastic (as well as paper, high-durability concrete, etc) can be made from hemp. The only problem with hemp is that it's illegal to grow it in the US because it looks too much like Marijuana, and is therefore controlled by the DEA, despite the fact that you can smoke all the hemp you can handle and still not even get a buzz.

  • by Flimzy ( 657419 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:28PM (#28056313)
    Those are far from the "only" problems... they are the easiest problems to detect. There are countless forums on the Internet that discuss all the finer points of running veg oil in diesel engines... use google if you want to find them to read all the nitty gritty details. General consensus is that running unprocessed veg oil most diesel engines will lead to coking over time, unless you heat the veg oil first. If you aren't extremely careful to remove all water from the oil, you can wear out the cylinder walls very quickly, too... and won't necessarily even notice a degradation in performance until it's too late. There are other problems that apply to specific models of diesel engines, too--you can't even run biodiesel in an '09 model year Volkswagen TDI engine without serious problems; I wouldn't even dream of trying straight VO.
  • Re:cheap? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @02:50PM (#28057563)

    Ethanol has less energy per volume than gasoline. That's why you get worse mileage. So you pay for a gallon, you get less energy than if it were gasoline. That's inferior.

    Here's a condescending article to explain the misconception [] you have over "octane".

  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Friday May 22, 2009 @05:08PM (#28059309) Homepage Journal

    Your wrong. Diesel engine are magic and diesel fuels are give to use from the tears of an angel.

  • by bwcbwc ( 601780 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @07:15PM (#28060563)

    Looks like a similar process but the catalyst is different, the operating temperature is lower and the claimed efficiency is higher in the new method.

    Definitely knocks the "revolutionary" tag off of the new process, but the new method is still an improvement.

  • energy thoughts (Score:3, Informative)

    by zogger ( 617870 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @10:01PM (#28062017) Homepage Journal

    Photovoltaics in the past decade are just finally getting to mass production scales where the costs drop fast. When they were first introduced, they cost over 10 grand a small inefficient panel and were used primarily in space missions.

    Economies of scale *work*, you don't have affordable PV yet because of resistance to it from the entrenched energy monopolies and because the solar makers had to make do with leftover bad/scrap silicon wafers from the chip industries. New fabs dedicated to just PV production are coming online this year and next year.

    And BTW, your grid supplied is cheap *now*, but do you have a long range contract which guarantees a price, say 10 or 20 years? And is there any amount you can give them to make it a sale instead of a long term lease where you build no equity? Do you know what it will cost you exactly then in the future with such a contract? If so, could you identify your electric company? Just wondering, I have asked this question many times now here and elsewhere on the net and haven't had any takers yet.

    You can get such contracts and price guarantees with some of the alternatives. That's the point.

    I know PV doesn't work in all areas all the time, but it certainly can and does work in numerous areas just fine. There is no single magic energy solution. They all have upsides and downsides, so I won't argue that.

    As to corn ethanol, I was *careful* to point out is a a transitional crop to get some sort of viable market going and to get enthusaism up, such as in the article. Even the people who push corn now admit that, it is to help get established the interest in biofuels and to also insure at least some form of limited liquid fuel availability insurance in case of force majeur disruptions to traditional supplies, which can happen overnight and ruin your whole day. so no, I disagree, it isn't a boondoggle when you add in the fact it is affrordable insurance plus, me being a farmer, I knoiw the US is setup to grow corn in vast quantities and we do so every year. so at least we could maintain some supplies if needs be for a modest extended period if something bad where to happen.

    I know I *personally* had to pay 10 bucks a gallon for two gallons-the limit you could get- back during the OPEC embargo, just enough gas to get home and park, and therefore not enough to go to my job the next day, said job was then lost shortly. Stuff happens. We had no biofuels industry of note back then, the choice was eat it raw and only get two gallons if you were lucky, or ....screwed. I actually saw a guy purchase and pour two cases of ron rico 101 into his RV tank and drive just couldn't get gas, not enough to matter anyway, and we had *no national backup*.

    We have no guarantees on petroleum supply for the future, none, AND we are MUCH worse off now than back during the OPEC embargo days when it comes to that, we are forced to import a much higher percentage of our oil (and export all that cash, a lot of it going to some rather dubious regimes....) and any number of possible and credible scenarios could seriously disrupt supply to the point you would feel lucky to get gallons of anything that burned for ten bucks. Or a hundred bucks.

    If the US had to go within a week from the prices we have now to ten bucks a gallon at very limited supply levels, we'd collapse if it went on more than a month or so. I don't mean just get inconvenienced, I mean collapse economically.

    Domestic produced biofuels are our only credible backup fuel insurance we have now. Throw it away if you want....

    Insurance is just that, and insuring alternative supplies have real but hard to quantify costs associated with them *until you need them*, then they seem quite cheap. Your other insurance for this or that costs you x-bucks a month, and you get nothing for itm, there is no ROI there, and you hope you never need it, but if you do, it pays off. Mumbling about unobtanium electric vehicles not on the market yet at all exc

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson