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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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  • Wake up people. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by speciesonly ( 1194865 ) <rangerjen@gmail.com> on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:21AM (#28054367) Journal

    I know that here in Florida we have a few plants that we in Forestry researched called Titi and saw palmetto.

    These plants grow fast in mass groves and were viable candidates for biofuel. Alas the biofuel plant was nixed.

    Though it provided green jobs, an alternate fuel source, environmental karma and would aid us in the fight against overgrown ground fuel for wildfires the community voted against the smell the plant would cause.

    The oil won't last forever so people need to wake up. Even though I burn trees down with Forestry I also hug them. :)

  • Re:cheap? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TinBromide ( 921574 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:34AM (#28054565)
    Not to mention the energy costs. I wonder how much oil energy it takes to create a pound of plastic or biofuel. Would it cost less oil energy to just make the plastic or fuel from oil? That's the problem with ethanol, it takes a crazy amount of oil to grow corn (in worst case scenarios: 2 calories of oil energy for 1 of corn energy in fertilizer and pesticides and other stuff), then the wet milling takes another crazy amount (ignoring the energy costs to GROW corn, it takes like 6 gallons of oil energy to create 8 gallons of ethanol energy).

    Simply coming up with a product that doesn't take oil in as a raw product doesn't mean that the process doesn't use any oil.
  • Re:Missing the point (Score:5, Interesting)

    by __aasqbs9791 ( 1402899 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:50PM (#28055707)

    I read this article about the railroad companies around the late 1800's that basically said they forgot what business they were in. They made the mistake of thinking they were in the railroad business rather than the transportation business, and that's why they missed the significance of the automobile and in a short period of time went from being the overlords of America (in many ways) to a struggling industry that required government bailout to stay afloat.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 22, 2009 @12:56PM (#28055783)

    Here in Germany it was very common for people to use unprocessed oil from plats (just pressure and a filter against non-oil components) with normal diesel plants (before oil industry recently lobbied for law change to have mineral oil tax on those non-mineral oils, too).

    There are only three problems: Your car supplier will say it is not supported (because they fear liability if they say otherwise), you need slightly better filters for the exhausts in the long run, and it behaves differently on different temperatures, so if you want to be sure it also works and you have no problems in winter (and do not want the trouble to mix with normal diesel), you need a little extension to heat the oil.
    There were garages changing your car this way for about the money you had saved in three months by cheaper oil instead of diesel, but then the law was changed. (The law also made some percent of eco-fuel in all normal fuel mandatory, but I read that also only helps the big firms, as they usually always add some artifical fuel for better properties in there, and do not care much if they produce that from gas or biologial sources, but only care that people have to buy it from them and not from the farmer at the next village).

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:00PM (#28055841)

    As I already posted above, copaiba oil is remarkable exactly because, unlike other vegetable oils, it needs no further processing to be used as fuel.

    Copaiba's main limitation is that it requires Amazon region climate, warm temperatures and abundant rainfall all year long. However, a researcher in Colorado [biodieselmagazine.com] is trying to insert the oil producing gene from copaiba into grasses. This could have a very interesting use, if it could be used with plants such as wild grasses that grow in regions unsuitable for growing food plants.

  • by Flimzy ( 657419 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:25PM (#28056247)
    Practically any veg oil *can* be used directly to power a diesel engine. But most diesel engines are not designed with such oils in mind, and therefor do not work well for extended periods of time with such oils. You risk damaging your engine if you run unmodified vegetable oil in most unmodified engines. This has been known for a century or so.
  • Re:cheap? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Fahrvergnuugen ( 700293 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @01:32PM (#28056375) Homepage

    Furthermore, because of the high octane and increased power, you can use a smaller displacement engine, which will off set the increase in MPG while increasing the overall efficiency.

    The higher the compression ratio in a combustion engine, the more efficient it is. The problem is with these so called flex fuel cars, which are low compression and high displacement originally designed for gasoline, now being fueled by ethanol. Sure it works, but its completely inefficient.

  • Re:cheap? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by es330td ( 964170 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @02:09PM (#28056929)

    The higher the compression ratio in a combustion engine, the more efficient it is.

    They are also much less reliable. I fly piston engine powered aircraft, the kind that *require* 100 octane fueld, and can assure you that the high compression engines are much worse for the wear at overhaul than the lower compression ones. Sure, you can just make the parts thicker to withstand the abuse but the cost to manufacture goes up as does vehicle weight. There is still no such thing as a free lunch, even if it is biofuel powered.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @02:51PM (#28057583)

    Plants don't come from nowhere. They suck up chemical energy from the environment and electromagnetic radiation from the sun, both of which could be put to far better use than making more Buzz Lightyear dolls.

    Biomass technologies are just a process, and cannot be used as a source of mechanical, electrical, or chemical energy (which is essentially what complex plastic represent; the ones we have at the moment are the result of energy applied by the Earth itself for millions of years). Just like the touted 'hydrogen economy' - it just shifts the problem to someone else.

    These biomass technologies will, unless they are only used in energy-intensive artificial environments, displace food production and starve people. So yeah, we can have plastics without crude oil - but they will be like soylent green; made of people!

  • Getting the point (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Weaselmancer ( 533834 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @04:36PM (#28058967)

    That's exactly it - thank you.

    This is the kind of thing that could very likely happen to the oil industry. A couple of guys in a lab somewhere suddenly came up with a cheap and easy way to turn plant matter into gasoline and plastic. The process runs at 120C and is about 50% efficient. Those are damn good numbers, especially for a first pass. That's not a lot of input energy, and 60% and 70% efficiency aren't too far away I'd guess. Maybe more.

    Maybe here in 100 years or so your grandkids will be saying the same thing, only instead of talking about the railroad barons they'll be talking about the oil barons.

The other line moves faster.