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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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  • by Serilleous ( 1400333 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:14AM (#28054253)
    and has shown its portents to be but one word off. *real* Plastic Trees.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by geekoid ( 135745 )

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

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

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

        yes people do maker shit up. didn'ter you know that? proofreadinger is harder, so very hard. er.

      • by sorak ( 246725 )

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

        Isn't that how it works with Nostradamus?

  • 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: (Score:3, Insightful)

      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: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by wealthychef ( 584778 )
        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.
        • by hitmark ( 640295 )

          i suspect it have much the same quality as diesel, and as such can be sold from the same gas station as existing products...

        • 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).

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Rob Kaper ( 5960 )

      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.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by BrokenHalo ( 565198 )
        I can see a future for plastics, but to use the technology to produce fuel for burning is rushing towards the same dead end we've been following for ages.

        I can just imagine my hypothetical grandchildren asking me what we did with all that oil.

        "We burnt it."

        "You did what?"

        (Sheepish look.)
    • 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: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Amouth ( 879122 )

        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 lite

      • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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 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


          • if somebody else does all the work leading up to it, yes. a lot goes into coming up with a whole new energy transport system and the energy companies aren't too keen in going through all that.

            now, if someone else starts the ball rolling and others come in and get a good infrastructure in place, they'll step in and buy them all up.

            supply is only cheap and guaranteed after lots of hard work and the big biz doesn't want to do that hard work unless the supply is already cheap and guaranteed.

        • 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.

          • Getting the point (Score:3, Interesting)

            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 sa

      • 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.

        I'd argue the oil companies don't like the fact that oil comes from nations that don't play nice with them on their terms and would jump for joy if they found an alternative if they could get full control over it.

      • If gas jumps to 3 or 4 or 5 dollars a gallon, eventually other technologies will be competitive.

        3 or 4 or 5? It's at least 5 almost everywhere in the world outside of the US.

      • 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.

        However, oil companies have a vast investment in oil infrastructure, technology and expertise which give them a significant advantage over potential competitors when it comes to delivering oil at a profit. They do not have an advantage at delivering plastic trees. As a result, they are not quite as unbiased as you imply with regard to the exact form in which energy is delivered to the customer.

      • 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 not an accurate statement at all.

        If you give them something that does the job better, with minimum capitol investment, a captive customer base, control over supply, demand, and pricing, with both government subsidies and federal tax credits, they'll be all over it.

        Keep in mind, contrary to popular myth, oil does not participate in free market pricing nor does gas. Furthermore, pr

        • by TheLink ( 130905 )
          > minimum capitol investment

          So who do you have to bribe to make a minimum Capitol investment and how much?
      • Biomass does not generate energy. It consumes energy. The Sun produces the chemical energy in plants and the products you get from planets.

        Oil is also, ultimately, a form of solar energy - but accumulated over millions of years. When it runs out, biomass will not be able to replace it at all.

        Insightful my arse. Moderators fail physics too.

        • Claiming that some magical technology that defies the laws of physics can save capitalism from its voracious appetite for growth? Insightful, apparently.

          Calling bullshit on an economic perpetual motion machine? Troll!

      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        It's a mentality issue.

        If it was truly and energy menatlity, th they would be building a 100 square mile Idustrial solar poawr plant in texas and supply all the electricity everyone in the continental US needs.

        It's MUCH cheaper. Once built, there cost for the source is exactly 0 dollars.
        Of course there is a cost for running the thing, just like there is a cost for drilling ansd shipping oil.

        The is technically viable right now. But so many of the employees came up the 'drill for energy' passage that they ca

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      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 c

  • Tell the world what you've discovered, and if it's real, you'll have 10,000 copycats. Keep it secret and be first to market, and you'll be a billionaire.

    Based on that thesis, I declare this article a load of crap.
  • Why? (Score:5, Funny)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:20AM (#28054351) Homepage Journal

    If all the arable land in all the world were used to grow the highest yield plant for biofuel, it wouldn't come CLOSE to what we need for fuel, or our plastic demand. Hell, it might not even be a need to support the polyester demand...should the 70's happen again.

    • 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.

      • 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.

        Are you sure of that stat? Whenever I pick an arbitrary spot on Google map and zoom in, 90-95% of the time I see absolutely no indication of human use.

      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        But it still would take far to much land to be practical.
        Renewable resource can be good, but plants don't come from nothing.

        We have plenty of oil that can be used for creating plastics, we just need to stop burning it to drive engines.

        They process may be solid, but my comment is more about volume and practicality.

  • by beatbox32 ( 325106 ) on Friday May 22, 2009 @11:21AM (#28054365) Homepage
    Alright! Let's chop down those trees and start saving the environment!
    • I think the cleverest part about this is the way they've come up with a ingenious and patentable way to convert plant biomass into fertilizer. These guys are truly gifted.

    • Damnit. You already said exactly what I was thinking, but in one compact sentence. :)

      I think, when we can turn sand and iron (or similar abundant materials) into something plasticlike, by using a plant that only needs electricity from sun, and maybe other things that are made from these materials... And a process that recycles 100% of it... Then we have got a sustainable cycle that can work even on tomorrow's overpopulated world.

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

    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

  • 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.

    • 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.
      • 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"

        • by MobyDisk ( 75490 )

          ...which can be used directly to power a diesel engine".../quote>

          Reading between the lines, I theorize that they really mean "which could possibly be used to directly power some form of theoretical diesel engine that does not yet exist, but could be built, although it may not be as clean or efficient."

          I don't think they mean that an existing engine would work with it. Can't be sure though.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Flimzy ( 657419 )
          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: (Score:3, Informative)

            by geekoid ( 135745 )

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

      • by CompMD ( 522020 )


        You do not need to crack vegetable oil for long term use in a Diesel engine. There are several *types* of Diesel engines out there. Indirect injection engines with linear injector pumps work absolutely fine with natural vegetable oil, and they'd work just fine with copaiba tree oil. If you're worried about impurities, sump your tank to get rid of any heavy junk and water. Its easy and takes less than a minute. Well designed Diesel powered cars have excellent fuel filtration systems. My Mercedes 300

    • 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.
      • 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 [] 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 geekoid ( 135745 )

      great, we just need to grow a few hundred billion trees and w will be set.

  • 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      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.

    • The catch is that the process costs more per barrel than just hoovering the stuff up out of the ground. Until it becomes cheaper, it's a non-starter, now matter how many dollars are thrown at the problem.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Dr.Potato ( 247646 )

      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.

      • The idea, IMHO, is to use crop waste (which is discarded) into ethanol.

        Except it ISN'T "discarded". It's ground back into the soil, to fertilize the next several generations of crops.

        It's a zero-sum game. If you burn the biomass as fuel, you'll need more fertilizer. If you need more fertilizer, you'll need more fuel to make it...

    • by jlcooke ( 50413 )

      This news is actually over 50 years old.

      Pop reference you can check out: "It's a Wonder Life" - the flash-back scene where the lead charactor's friend tells me "there's a great investment oppertunity with Soy farmers, they're going to make plastics!" - or something like that.

      Mr Tupper (Tupperware fame) made it big by using fuel refinement waste to make plastics - there by removing the bottleneck of growing Soy.

  • being that cellulose itself is basically nothing but a plastic []

  • 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: (Score:3, Informative)

      by bwcbwc ( 601780 )

      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.

  • I'm ready for the home inventor plastic making machines. Stuff your grass, shrub, and tree cuttings in one end and pull your invention out of the other. []

  • 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.

    • The only problem with hemp is that it's illegal to grow it in the US

      That, and the fact that it's mediocre at best for all the uses it's proclaimed to be amazing at.

      There are innumerable countries where hemp is NOT banned, and yet they don't have hemp biofuel cars either.

  • ... and knowledge of how to turn hemp seed oil into plastic has been around since the 1930's []

    You can also make gasoline and diesel fuel out of it a lot more efficiently than you can with corn, using no petroleum based fertilizer.

    The governmen

  • 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!

"This is lemma 1.1. We start a new chapter so the numbers all go back to one." -- Prof. Seager, C&O 351