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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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  • Investment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Kell Bengal ( 711123 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:16AM (#28054277)
    Trillions of dollars in previous investment and commercial interests will see that doesn't happen for a long time, if ever. I, for one, continue to pay due obeisance and tribute to our vile oil-powered overlords.
  • Re:Investment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by notarockstar1979 ( 1521239 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:19AM (#28054321) Journal
    That's one reason. The other is the licensing that will come from this revolutionary discovery. Why pay to license a new process/technique/whatever when I already have one that brings in billions of dollars?
  • Re:Investment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rob Kaper ( 5960 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:22AM (#28054383) Homepage

    Previous investment will slow down mass adoption, but nonetheless it's good to know more options are becoming available. Especially because we didn't really have that many for plastics as opposed to fuel. Developments like these are the ones that will make us laugh at peak oil in the future and I for one would rather be able to laugh at it than suffer from it.

  • You mean they make no accurate predictions, but people maker shit up about their predictions?

  • by Anonymous Monkey ( 795756 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:42AM (#28054675)
    The first issue needs to be reduction. We use too much stuff. Period. The second issue is finding substitutes. If we start with step two it won't any good what so ever. If I eat too many Twinkies and I switch to whole wheat bread and organic butter, but I don't eat less, it's not a net change. If I eat fewer Twinkies then I'm better off.

    Reduction should be the first priority.

  • Re:Investment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wealthychef ( 584778 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:47AM (#28054733)
    If the license is priced right, then they will build it. Speaking of which, the cost per mile is all that matters to consumers. So either tax the oil, or make this stuff cheap. No other choice that I can see. Oh, and don't forget any infrastructure that might need to be modified for this new fuel.
  • Re:cheap? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:47AM (#28054741)

    If you subsidize it enough and penalize the oil-based products enough, it could be competitive. Just like ethanol.

    Of course, then we'll all be worse off because we'll be forced to buy an inferior product for a much higher price. Just like ethanol.

  • Re:Investment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:49AM (#28054763)

    not to be a conspiracy nut or anything but i completely agree with you.

    So I've read Ambrose Bierce's "The Devil's Dictionary" a couple of times. It's a humorous work, if a bit dated. This isn't a "Devil's Dictionary" but here is my own contribution because there seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this basic issue.

    "Conspiracy nut", n. - 1. A term used by an opponent in an argument in order to shut down certain occurrences of debate. Often used as a substitute for having any sort of valid basis for dissent. The preferred technique when said opponent has no evidence or logic by which he can disagree but does have a strong dislike of whatever is being said and wishes to end the discussion, or at least cause it to degenerate into a contest, by any means available.
    2. Advocate of theories involving conspiracies, typically of the "smoky back room" type as opposed to the "business and government collusion" or "power behind the throne" type, most noted for the total lack of any evidence or reasoning behind them. This type of conspiracy nut does exist, which enables the intellectually dishonest to ignore conspiracy nuts fitting definition (1) and lump them together with the conspiracy nuts fitting definition (2), again as a means of shutting down debate (see: "argumentation", "intellectual honesty" and "propaganda techniques").

    "Common sense", n. - the self-evident realization, easily supported by relatively small amounts of personal research and investigation into the matter, that a very small number of people control the world and that the general public is largely ignorant of this fact. The willingness to face this reality despite the insulting nature of those who do not want to accept it and will use all manner of personal attacks, logical fallacies, or dismissal without examination while congratulating themselves on their levelheadedness (see: "denial"). Said control is exerted primarily by means of media, propaganda, and the creation or manipulation of fiat currencies throughout the world.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:49AM (#28054765)

    Could you please describe the micromechanics of exactly how commercial interests will prevent this from happening? Who will speak to who? What will they say? Will they enlist assassins? Will they demand to have it outlawed? On what grounds? If this method can reliably convert a tree into cheap raw material, how will any individual be prevented from starting a company doing this at a small scale?

  • Re:cheap? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Yvan256 ( 722131 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:51AM (#28054803) Homepage Journal

    Does it absolutely require oil energy? If all it requires is electricity/heat, it can be from wind, solar or hydro power.

    No I didn't RTFA, this is slashdot.

  • Missing the point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Weaselmancer ( 533834 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:53AM (#28054821)

    Oil companies don't sell oil - they sell energy. Oil is just how they get the energy to you. It's a transport medium and nothing more.

    If you give them something that does the job better (which is to say, with a higher profit margin) they'll be all over it.

    That's why discoveries like this are great, even if financially unfeasible right now. It sets a ceiling. If gas jumps to 3 or 4 or 5 dollars a gallon, eventually other technologies will be competitive.

    It's like telling the oil bearing countries, "We've drawn a line - right here. See it? Cross it and we'll switch technologies."

    It's always nice to have alternatives. And it's even better to let the people you buy from know that you have alternatives, so they better watch it.

  • by Amouth ( 879122 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:04PM (#28054993)

    AC - People with money who back campains and make "donations" to the right places and people - will whisper sweet nothings about how harsh or unproven this is. And the government will some how make it not exactly impossible but just out of reach of being cheaper.

    it's like power plants.. allot of them are built on federal land grants (they rent them).. but if you look it's been almost 10 years since a solar plant was given a land grant.

    He who has the money makes the rules.. Oil will be here till there literly isn't any more of it.

  • Re:Why? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:06PM (#28055015)

    You don't necessarily need arable land, you can grow algae. You need about a million square kilometers for the entire world's fuel demand. That's 1/10th of US's land area.

    Do read http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0734975007000262

  • Re:cheap? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Morphine007 ( 207082 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:33PM (#28055445)

    Well you have to grow the crops to create the biomass, no? That requires things like herbicides (potentially not required if the weeds are just as useful as the crop) and pesticides. It also requires harvesting in some fashion. All that is currently accomplished (except on not-so-useful small scales) via tractors. Tractors use gasoline or diesel. Currently (citation likely needed, but I can't remember where I read it) biofuels are being slammed because of the fact that it takes more fuel to grow and process the biomass than is actually recovered from the biomass as biofuel to begin with.

    I would put forth that the absolute dollar cost is not really the issue, it's the ratio of energy in vs. energy out that is.

    Of course, that's also ignoring the amount of arable land required to grow that biomass - use too much land and suddenly the cost of crops that could otherwise be grown there increases.

  • by voss ( 52565 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:36PM (#28055495)

    if energy companies can put it in a pump and sell it alongside cigarettes,beer, and condoms they will sell it. if someone discovered how to make ethanol from cellulose in unlimited quantities for 50 cents a gallon and the oil companies could sell it for $1.25 a gallon, oil companies would happily sell it. "drill,drill,drill" is about having control of supply. If supply is cheap and guarunteed, then drilling no longer matters


  • Re:Investment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by somersault ( 912633 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:10PM (#28056021) Homepage Journal

    To me the interest here is not in the fuel at all - we can already make electric vehicles and have plenty of renewable energy sources. I have always been more concerned about the plastics situation - just look at how much of the stuff around you right now is made from plastics! So it's nice that they have figured out a way of producing the raw materials they need from renewable resources (waiting a few million years for more oil may be a renewable solution of sorts, but it's not the one I'd personally prefer).

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:16PM (#28056101)

    Most of our fertilizers and pesticides are produced using fossil fuels

    Manure was used as fertilizer before they invented the Haber-Bosch process. There's one tropical plant, the Brazilian water hyacinth [wikipedia.org], that's considered one of the world's worst weeds [issg.org]. It doubles its mass in six to eighteen days, probably the fastest growing plant in the world. One hectare produces up to 750 kg of dry organic matter per day.

    The ideal biomass production scheme? Grow water hyacinth in ponds of untreated sewage. Make cellulosic ethanol from that, or else just burn the biomass to power steam turbines.

  • Seconded. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vuo ( 156163 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:22PM (#28056183) Homepage

    I am an industrial chemist in an immediately related project. I do think the discovery is important, but I don't see the point of converting prime cellulose to fuel, because that's sort of missing the point. Currently cellulose has plenty of uses; it is being used widely as is in things like paper, paper tissues, cardboard, viscose fibres and cellophan. The fact is that only 20% of the Earth's land area outside the polar regions is in a natural state. The rest is in human use somehow. We'd need to cut down energy consumption severely and improve the efficiency of current technology to live with 100% renewables only.

    Most of plant matter is not prime-quality cellulose, and there is a major research effort underway to evaluate the uses of the rest of the plant. For example, the second-largest constituent of wood, lignin, has been up to this point only burned to regenerate pulping chemicals and produce energy for the pulp mill.

    The discovery is important in the sense that first, it provides information of the catalysis on cellulose, and second, annual plants or other more difficult sources than wood could be used for producing plastics and liquid fuels. Then again, we have to consider the alternative of using oil for plastic: it's not really that bad environmentally to take oil and then convert it into solid plastic, because the carbon it contains is sequestered into the landfill. Liquid fuels from this source would compete with other land plant sources or e.g. algae that produce oils (either triglyceride or terpenes that can be converted with hydrocracking).

    I read the article in Applied Catalysis A itself, and found it fairly impressive. The system is truly catalytic, there are no impossible stoichiometric (in this case about 100 g chromium or 220 g chromium chloride per 100 g cellulose) non-regenerable reactants so common in the "alternative fuel" literature. They needed only 0.5%. I see only one major problem in it: chromium. It is being increasingly avoided because it can form carcinogenic compounds. You can distil off the furfural, but you can't distil sugars, so you'll have to deal with the residual chromium somehow. Probably a simple ion exchange could be used.

  • by jeffb (2.718) ( 1189693 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:38PM (#28056467)

    sorry the recent credit card law revamp you hear about in the news?? it went through the senate and passed 4 to 2.. yes 6 people out of 100 there to vote on it..

    I think you misspelled "90 to 5" [findlaw.com].

    Why do "they" "always" mock conspiracy theorists? Because so many of said theorists spew so much garbage. Post a screed with a few dozen "facts", and most people won't be bothered to check every one of them. Some will discount the whole mass, others will accept the whole mass.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 22, 2009 @02:11PM (#28056963)

    Why does everyone have to make this difficult!

    More Nuclear power + Eletric cars = Problem Solved.

    Most people don't travel daily outside the distance of modern car batteries, other than heavy transportation and long distances I don't see a problem here other than adding a bunch more eletric sockets.

  • by zogger ( 617870 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @03:07PM (#28057857) Homepage Journal

    Restrictive laws and regulations. Use your imagination and past examples to see how this works. Here's an example from 30 years ago. When solar PV first really became popular, it was a bear to even get a local "permit" to install it, it "didn't pass code". I had friends that personally went through that. Then the electric companies fought it constantly because they didn't want grid tied systems. Their goal is to sell you a product that can never be completely paid off, home generation is a direct threat to that business model. Small scale personal hydroelectric is possible, but it is near impossible to get it permitted, from environmental impact statements to possiblly the endangered three eyed flying newt was spotted ten miles downstream of your proposed little turbine, and so on,etc.. Now we have an alternative liquid biofuels industry with ethanol and biodiesel from traditional sources, as a first transitional step towards unbiquitous renewable liquid fuels, but a lot of interests still don't want it because "it takes food away from poor people" and "drives up costs", "hurts the environment" etc, even though it is the only viable alternative we have at the present for the existing millions and millions of ICE vehicles out there right now, leaving us always walking on eggshells wondering when the next huge price jump will come out of the blue (like it has several times over the past few years) or when the supplies might be disrupted due to some new enlarged wars in the middle east or whatever.

      Look at computer software and the introduction of FOSS for another example, we are all aware of how it has been fought against at some lofty levels, and how they went about it, we've discussed that a lot here. Heck, back to vehicle, electric cars are buildable, they were just as common as any other vehicle a century ago, and we've had examples in the more recent past such as the EV1, and people *begged* to buy them, they loved them, yet they were recalled and crushed. They worked too good, they were a threat. There's a movie about it. That's why you have seen all these big car companies try to foist off those ludicrously expensive "hydrogen fuel cell cars" with small numbers of prototypes instead of just building at least some electric cars in mass quantities starting years ago. They can look like they are doing something while actually delaying tech that could be on the market. Guess who owns the patents on building large NiMH batteries, the ones we could have been using since the early 90s for electric cars and are still priced way too high to be really well adopted?

    When you are talking about *disruptive technologies* and their economic impact, there is always an element of resistance from those older entrenched industries and concerns who could see their bottom line impacted negatively. They will spend what it takes (in both money and effort) overtly or covertly to at least delay and make adoption of the newer or better tech more complicated and expensive then it needs to be.

  • Re:Investment (Score:4, Insightful)

    by avandesande ( 143899 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @04:49PM (#28059125) Journal

    Switching to a new fuel without spending trillions on infrastructure is a good goal.

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire