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Carbohydrate-Based Synthesis To Replace Petroleum Derived Hydrocarbons? 166

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.

    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      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.

      Google for EROEI and maybe theoildrum.com re-evaluate. If you have to burn 10 barrels equivalent of crude oil to make 1 barrel equivalent of food grade veg oil, then what is the break even point? (And no, I very unfortunately do not have that backwards)

      • Google came up with something about "Old McDonald had a farm..." WTF...?

        Oh - you said, "EROEI," not "EIEIO". My bad...

      • EROEI is a very useful metric for energy sources. The less your product resembles energy generation, the less usefull it is. As far as I know, plastics don't resemble energy generation at all.

        By the way, what would you use as the numerator when calculating the EROEI of a kilogram of PET?

      • by TheInternetGuy ( 2006682 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @08:29PM (#39105467)

        If you have to burn 10 barrels equivalent of crude oil to make 1 barrel equivalent of food grade veg oil

        I have read and heard this so many time here on Slashdot now, and I am gonna call you on it.
        If it takes a ratio of 10:1, crude to produce vegetable oil. Then how come a cheap vegetable oil can be found for a 3-4 bucks a gallon?
        While the cost of 10 gallon of crude costs 30-40 dollars?
        Are the producers just giving us all that crude for free out of the goodness of their hearts?
        Seriously people use your brains, think for your selves.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 21, 2012 @12:22AM (#39106843)

          A barrel of crude is 42 gallons. So one barrel of crude would make, by your calculations, about 4 gallons of vegetable oil. At current prices of $105/gallon, that would be a cost of about $26 her gallon of vegetable oil.

          However, I believe those 10-to-1 figures are for energy, not volume. According to wikipedia, a gallon of crude oil is a standard measurement: 1.7 MWh. Per gallon, that's 40.4 kWh. I can't readily find the energy in vegetable oil from google, however a quick conversion from calories (120 kcal/tbsp = 80,832 kcal/gal) gives us 94 kWh/gal.

          That's quite a but more per gallon, giving us only 1.8 gallons of vegetable oil per barrel of crude oil, raising the cost to $56.66 per gallon. Obviously these figures aren't right.

          Is that the whole story? Let's consider how vegetable oil is made. Corn oil is rather cheap, so let's look at it. You have to extract the oil from the germ of the corn. Wikipedia again tells us that one bushel of corn yields 1.55 pounds of oil. One bushel is 35.24 L dry. Corn oil has a density of 9.25 g/c^3 (g/mL). Conversions (9.25 g/mL = 77.2 lbs/gal).

          Phew! So that 35.24 L (one bushel) of dry corn only yields .02 of a gallon of corn oil! So you need FIFTY bushels of corn to yield one gallon of corn oil!

          How much energy is in 50 bushels of corn? Conversions again: one cup of corn (raw) is 132 kcal. So that's 2112 kcal/gal. A bushel is defined as 8 gallons dry, so there are 16,896 kcal/bushel of raw corn. 50 bushels of corn means you need 844,800 kcal of corn to make one gallon of corn oil, which is only 80,832 kcal.

          There's your missing energy. You need about 10.5 calories of corn for every calorie of corn oil. Or to put it another way, you need 982.5 kWh of corn energy to produce 94 kWh of corn oil energy.

          Take our earlier estimate of 10-to-1 gallon-for-gallon of $56.66, divide by 10.5, and you get a much more reasonable $5.40 for a gallon of corn oil. Figure in some government subsidies, and differences in the two markets and some market fluctuations, and you are very close to your $4 a gallon bulk price for vegetable oil.

          Use your brain, think for yourself, but be sure you have all he data and knowledge you need to draw a valid conclusion. The 10-to-1 figure is a general estimate that I just demonstrated is reasonably accurate. Adjust your tinfoil hat and start scrutinizing your conspiracy theories a little more closely. :)

        • I just wrote a long post explaining it, and somehow I wasn't logged in, it got posted as AC, and now it's not here anymore. I am very frustrated because I spent about 20 minutes doing calculations.

          Here's the gist of what I had put:

          The 10-to-1 figure is for energy, not volume.

          A barrel of crude is 42 gallons and has 1.7 MWh of energy. Current market price is $105 per barrel. That's 40.5 kWh/gal. Corn oil has 94 kWh/gal. (Calculated from 120 kcal/tbsp.)

          That would mean you could make 1.8 gal of corn oil from a

        • There are two things that you are forgetting. First one gallon of crude oil does not make one gallon of gas. That, and all of the energy that is required to turn the crude oil into gas makes gas much more expensive than crude oil. Secondly, corn, and by extension, corn oil, is highly subsidized in the US. Corn is a major ingredient in most "vegetable oil" and fuel grade ethanol in the US. Please note, I do not know whether or not you are right. I just had to make those two points.

        • The problem isn't the cost of a barrel of veg oil vs. a barrel of crude, the issue is production to run things. Ultimately we'll need to balance our energy needs between the Big 4 (Wind, Solar, Hydroelectric, and Hydrogen). Biofuels are great but fall short of being able to cover the loss of oil as an energy source. Course I also support the Big 4 as a major turning point for humanity and wish for it to come sooner. It will be a great source for transportation though. I could totally see most cars in t

          • Hydroelectric is maxed out in the US, and hydrogen isn't an energy source at all, just a possible storage mechanism. Wind and solar alone will never meet our energy needs. It actually takes more energy to transport food than it does to grow it, and your brave new world can't get food to the grocery store on 3 gallons of biofuel.

            • Hydroelectric on a large scale is maxed out. We have many small scale choices to use. Hydrogen is our greatest future asset in storing power from both the sun and wind. Ultimately I look at the reality of our lives requiring far less power as the way out of a great deal of this issue. In the past 5 years has been the first time in history electrical consumption went down on average as CFLs took over for regular incandescent light bulbs. With power savings occurring in each new device we buy for mobilit

      • That makes an unfortunate presumption that the energy must come from compustion, and not some other source.

        Energy comes in more forms than black gold my friend. The problem is getting people to stop measuring energy in "equivalent barrels of oil". Energy is better measured in units designed for it, like joules.

        When you agnosticize the unit, and permit non-oil energy sources for the reaction, and further eliminate the notion of creating the oil for the purposes of combustion (the whole idea is to stop doing

    • by djlowe ( 41723 ) *

      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.

      While I don't have the background to refute this, it makes sense to me, but only when you consider the fuel production side of the equation.

      It seems to me that there are other factors that might make up, in part or whole, for the lessened ef

      • 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.

        • Currently we are able to drill for steak and eat it.

          Quoted for truth.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          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

          We already have that part in the form of solar thermal. Infinite free and clean energy. The problem is storing it, basically we need better batteries that charge fast and have a higher energy density.

          We should be throwing money at developing better batteries.

          • We already have that part in the form of solar thermal. Infinite free and clean energy.

            Not really. Our current technology in making solar cells is highly toxic and leaves a lot of waste behind. Sure, the energy that the solar cell itself makes is clean and infinite - if you don't take into account the degradation of the cell itself. but therin lies the problem. Photovoltic cells degrade over time and produce less and less charge. Solar thermal plants produce many by-products in their upkeep and regular maintenance.

            Even keeping all this at bay, batteries are still a problem. We do indeed have

            • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

              Our current technology in making solar cells is highly toxic and leaves a lot of waste behind.

              Newer technology does not. Organic solar cells in particular.

              Solar thermal plants produce many by-products in their upkeep and regular maintenance.

              No they don't. What by-products are you talking about?

              Plus you don't just have to generate electricity, you can use it on your house to heat water.

              Wind isn't always there, and solar cycles on a regular basis.

              Do some research. There are plenty of places on earth where wind is completely reliable, 356 days of the year. It never stops so all you need is sufficient capacity for the lowest speed. If these winds did ever stop we would have bigger things to worry about.

              As for solar it doesn't matter that the sun g

  • Death Throes (Score:1, Insightful)

    One has to wonder just how hard the petroleum industry will fight these developments, though.
    • Re:Death Throes (Score:4, Informative)

      by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:57PM (#39104655)

      One has to wonder just how hard the petroleum industry will fight these developments, though.

      Until we have a better means of producing the carbohydrates, I'm guessing you'll see more death throes from the people who are starving because of the food we'r'e not growing.

      • by tragedy ( 27079 )

        Except of course that there's tons of land that isn't suitable for growing food crops that we can use to grow crops for industrial material. There's quite a lot of contaminated land out there, for example.

        • And when we burn the fuel that was grown on contaminated land, it turns into contaminated air? Somehow I don't think that's going to be as popular as you expect. Not that the fuel we burn now doesn't emit contaminants, of course.
          • by tragedy ( 27079 )

            The plant material will be heavily physically and chemically processed before being used in much the same way that crude oil is now. A good deal of the contaminated land I'm talking about is contaminated with petrochemicals or even natural crude oil in the first place. Given that the source materials for most of our current plastics and fuels are contaminated by definition already, using plants grown in contaminated soil shouldn't really be a problem. The crops won't meet standards for human consumption any

    • by gatkinso ( 15975 )

      They will fight it as long as it is more profitable for them to exploit their existing manufacturing base for crude oil.

    • 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.

      • Very much so - but no points to mod you up I'm afraid. Some will adapt and survive, some will die, alternate strategies or not. And there will be some players in future we don't know of yet thriving too. We need to get used to this idea - no corp ever lasts forever, the most interesting question is who will live and who will die? Short term arguments about patents are trivial - who do we think is really going to be around in 100 years in anything like their current guise? Love to know
  • It's not going anywhere. If bio-fuels do become economical the billions or trillions of barrels of petroleum that's left will be used for synthesis instead of for running cars and the like.
  • by Bonobo_Unknown ( 925651 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @06:57PM (#39104653)
    Oil isn't going away any time soon. The fact is that for a very long time after it no longer makes sense to burn oil for fuel that oil will be available and will still make economic sense to use as a precursor product for all of those complex compounds that currently can only be made from oil. Perhaps in the far, far future it will become necessary to reinvent processes to build these things out of other precursors, but not for a long time. There's still going to be plenty of that black gunk in the ground long after people stop being able to burn it to get from A to B.
    • Why wait?

      And yes, I know the answer is "money". But isn't waiting too much exactly what did put we in the situation we are now with energy? Let people research.

      • I'm not saying wait, just correcting the notion that the day oil becomes too expensive to put into your car will also mean that oil won't be available for anything else.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MetalOne ( 564360 )
      "Oil isn't going away any time soon". You know I really hope you're right. However, according to wikipedia, the 17 largest reserves total 1.3 trillion barrels. If I divide that by world usage of 88 million barrels per day, I get 40 years. Plus population growth is still happening and the third world is becoming more advanced. Of course eventually this oil will become harder to get, driving up its price and possibly slowing consumption. I believe expensive oil is going to severly impact this world. So
      • I am assuming that at some point in time that we will replace a substantial part of our energy needs with alternative sources.
        • Alternatively, we can replace a substantial part of our population with corpses. Both are viable strategies, we just need to decide which one we're going for.
          • Well, yeah. I think the 'lots of corpses' option is the one which will eventuate if we don't find a cheap, alternative source of energy.
      • it's scarier

        http://www.grida.no/publications/vg/water2/page/3209.aspx [grida.no]

        "It is estimated that two out of every three people will live in water-stressed areas by the year 2025. In Africa alone, it is estimated that 25 countries will be experiencing water stress (below 1,700 m3 per capita per year) by 2025. Today, 450 million people in 29 countries suffer from water shortages."

        that's in 13 years... not 70... and it's freaking WATER! (pop quiz, what do you require, oil or water to live?)

        • There is plenty of water, just not a lot of fresh water. If you have energy you can turn salt water into fresh water. It just means that water is going to be very expensive and so food will have to be grown using less water. There are hydroponic and aquaponic systems already that use as little as 10% of what is used for dirt farming.

          The real issue is still energy.

      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        Oil ISN'T going any anytime soon. Oil is created as a biological process of decomposition of organic matter.

        What's ending is the era of CHEAP, EASILY ACCESSIBLE oil. There's lot of oil, but it's going to get increasingly expensive to get at.

        In fact, we should get used to gas prices. Just 15 years ago oil prices bottomed out and we enjoyed $1/gallon gas. Now it's over $3 a gallon. Prior to the economic meltdown (which is responsible for keeping gas and oil prices low) we're seeing $4 a gallon. When the econo

      • Except that people have been doing that calculation, and coming up with similar numbers for 80 years.

        Over the last 3 decades, we've consumed more than 3x the worlds TOTAL known reserves in 1976. And today's proven reserves are 2x what they were then.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      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.

  • by tp1024 ( 2409684 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @07:08PM (#39104773)
    Who are you kidding? Wood for heating and charcoal for iron smelters was responsible for deforestation of large parts of Europe long before the industrial revolution. People turned to burning coal and lignite for lack of trees in the comparably sparsely populated countries of the 17/18th century. What exactly do you expect this around, with 8 times the size of population and much larger energy needs?
    • While you have a good point, there are a few points to consider:
      - The wood was not being used efficiently. A startling amount of the energy in the wood was going up the stack.
      - The forests were not being managed in any real way. No replanting, clear cutting. Forestry in North America, for all its warts, is currently sustainable.
      - We aren't limited to wood from trees - switchgrass gives you a bunch of cellulose and grows much faster than a tree.
      - This discussion isn't about energy, but about raw materials.

      • by tp1024 ( 2409684 )
        Erm, google: "medivial forest management" - you'll find out that sustainable forestry was invented in Europe and Japan independently (because it was unsustainable before). And both coincided with the introduction of coal as fuel. But don't worry, thanks to wood pellets being used as a replacement for heating oil, sustainability is just one of those quaint old concepts going the way of the wooly mammoth.
        • Europe, not being under a uniform set of rules, has a mix of history when it comes to forest management. Some rulers saw their strategic importance and took steps to protect them, some were unable to, and others just went for the short-term. Japan had the good fortune(?) to have an emperor who claimed all forests to be exclusively his, thus preserving them. These are exceptions rather than the general rule - most cultures use their forests up entirely.

          But don't worry, thanks to wood pellets being used as a replacement for heating oil,

          So far, those are being made out of scrap (at least in N

          • by tp1024 ( 2409684 )
            No such luck in rightpondia. People are using twigs and litter, growing fuel wood plantations (3-5 year growth period) and other things for wood pellets. They were mostly made from scrap a decade ago or so, but there wasn't enough of that to meet demand.
            • Ah, that's too bad - you should never have given up Canada! :)

              In all seriousness, I suppose that wood plantations are better than clear cutting whatever forest you have left.

              • by tp1024 ( 2409684 )
                Erm, wood plantations *are* clear cutting whatever forest you have and treating trees as something like grain or whatever. The "trees" (mostly poplar, but also birches, willows) don't grow for more than 5 years, they are harvested (clear cut) as soon as possible for their fuel value. There is not the least resemblence between those and what Europeans enthusiastically call forests (which themselves are often trees standing on rectangular grids, true forests are exceedingly rare e.g. less than 1% of all Germa
                • Erm, wood plantations *are* clear cutting whatever forest you have and treating trees as something like grain or whatever.

                  Right, but you aren't cutting down any new forest - presumably just using existing cleared land. It is sustainable so long as good farming practice is used and the land is not exhausted.

                  true forests are exceedingly rare e.g. less than 1% of all German "forests").

                  Yeah, I remember that from traveling through Germany. The "Black Forest" sure wasn't what it was when the Romans wrote about how it blocked out all light! :)

    • The problem of replacing oil for transport is much smaller than the problem of replacing fossil fuels entirely. (Whether it is enough smaller remains to be seen.) Nobody is talking about relying on trees as fuel for power stations and steel refineries.

      (Also, I don't think they deforested Europe like this - trees for charcoal were (or certainly could be) managed sustainably - it is just that supply could not keep up with growing demand as steel production increased.)

  • ... argues against it. This is why I am perpetually skeptical of all solar, wind, and tidal energy schemes: they inevitably and always elide crucial details about the economic availability of storage, or of the energy/dollar cost (the latter reflecting the former) of buildout, frequently demanding subsidy to bring them to parity with fossil fuel systems. Biofuels have even worse things to contend with, including biologic sequestration from competing species (expensive containment), and corresponding reducti

  • A paper by a professor named Jeff Dukes back in 1997 calculated that in that year we burned 400 years worth of biomass using fossil fuels.


    The idea we can consume the same amount of energy by growing biomass is a pipe dream. Many of the processes that produce liquid fuels via biological processes end requiring more input energy that can be extracted, usually because water has to be removed from the final product which requires heat. That is why so many com

  • by Seraphim1982 ( 813899 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @07:45PM (#39105105)

    Out of all the examples you could pick you picked rayon? Rayon is produced using cellulose (wood), sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide and sulfuric acid. It isn't a synthetic fiber, and there isn't any petroleum involved in the process. Rayon is just cellulose that has been dissolved and regenerated as a fiber.

  • by Maintenance Goof ( 1487053 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @07:46PM (#39105111)
    The OP said, "I can live without rayon, but, dang, I'm gonna miss polyvinyl chloride!" Rayon is made from wood. We make vinyl chloride from petrochemicals, but the original source was plant material and the majority of world production uses plant material. Acetate, is another one typically from plants. As is nitrocellulose. Casein, is a protein from milk. It is also the plastic that the buttons on your shirt are probably made of. So plastic without petroleum is not that hard to find.
  • Both fossil fuel and biofuel are essentially vehicles for transfering the sun's energy to a tangible, packageable format. Biofuels are great, and we should continue to develop them, and deploy where economically viable. But biofuels cannot solve the basic problem of what fossil fuels provide: in addition to being incredibly convenient (dense portable energy from a hole in the ground), fossil fuels provide stored sun energy from accumulated years past. Millions of years.

    Biofuel can deliver only one year'

  • Is someone invent a process to convert air, water and sunlight into light sweet crude with decent efficiency.(Man, that'd be a game changer.)
  • To make any significant amount of bio*, we need fertilizers in general and nitro in particular, which is produced directly from natural gas. Yes, we could use electrolysis, but it'd take much more energy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process [wikipedia.org]

    BTW, we are, in a sense, made from gas. The process eventually generates half of our protein and feeds at least 1/3 of humanity. But without it there probably would be no WWI, Revolution, WWII... It was developed by the same guy who created Cyclon-B. http://en.wi [wikipedia.org]

  • I don't get why they keep fermenting it into alcohol when there exists many species that produce lots of oil and there are micros that will turn cellulose into oil. I don't get it.

    Here's a wild and possibly half baked idea... I warned you... do we know of any insects that will eat just about anything and produce an oil? I don't know if that's a commercially viable process but if you gave big colonies of insects all our agro waste... maybe they could turn it into a fuel source?

    I'm thinking something like ter

    • They're trying exactly this with species of algae. Unfortunately, they have problem with scale, and with separation, if I remember correctly. But it's a problem that's being actively worked on.
    • by Whuffo ( 1043790 )

      It's because alcohol is an almost perfect replacement for gasoline and can be used to extend the current supply or replace it if needed.

      Replacement fuels are only useful if they actually, you know, replace what we're already using. Or would you have the biofuel companies give everyone a free car that use their special fuel?

      • I'm not sure if we're having the same question.

        I asked why the biofuel isn't an oil rather then a fermented sugar? Because they can obviously make oils from plants... and if we could get an oil based fuel from them it would fit into our existing industrial paradigm better.

  • Wait, this is new? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Daetrin ( 576516 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @08:57PM (#39105685)
    It's called thermal depolymerization [wikipedia.org] and you can do it to just about anything organic. So unlike what some other posters are saying, you don't have to devote huge agricultural areas to producing stock just for this process, you can use preexisting waste for the job. There was a company running prototype plant in Carthage, Missouri. They situated themselves right next to a turkey processing plant with the hope they could "process about 200 tons of turkey waste into 500 barrels (79 m3) of oil per day". The plant ran for a number of years, and was supposedly able to produce oil for about 10% less than the price of crude ("supposedly" as in the oil was definitely produced, the question was exactly how much it cost them and how much of a profit they were making.) However they suffered from a number of lawsuits and eventually had to declare bankruptcy.

    It seems like they jumped into the game a little too early, or just weren't able to find enough venture capital to perfect the system. Certainly as the price of oil continues to rise and the technology improves this is a process that could certainly be brought back. And note that since they're using organic waste the process is carbon neutral.
    • by swb ( 14022 )

      I remember that site.

      IIRC, they had problems with emission odor complaints which also caused some shutdowns.

      I also seem to remember that they had some problems with the turkey processor either raising the price of turkey guts to the point that the plant wasn't economical or they had another buyer and thus cut the supply.

      Wasn't the plant net energy positive, too? Although that would be just the process and its hard to know if the larger system (involving delivery) was net energy positive or if it only reall

  • nutrient cycling (Score:5, Interesting)

    by proclomeesius ( 2558685 ) on Monday February 20, 2012 @09:12PM (#39105783)

    As an agricultural scientist, I always feel slightly uncomfortable when biofuel producers start talking about using 'agricultural waste'. Increasingly, this 'waste' is now used by farmers as an integral part in boosting soil carbon and increasing biological activity as it breaks down, improving soils and improving subsequent crop yields.

    The value of this, though often difficult to measure is significant and very real. But I worry shortsighted farmers looking for a quick buck may lose these less tangible benefits, leading to further soil degradation and lower yields in the future.

  • This is the company to watch. They are using cyanobacteria and spitting out ethanol and diesel fuel directly. i.e. no processing other than removing water (and diesel floats on water). What does it use for feed? Waste. Sewage. They built a small 100 acre system in Texas on less than 30 million. They just got 70 million and are building a 1000 acre system in hobbs NM. Once they have the scaling in place, they are going to erect these outside of cities all over. According to their numbers, they will have les
    • According to their numbers, they will have less than $30/bl equivelence as they scale up.

      Everyone claims, nobody delivers. File it with fusion, practical photoelectric (yeah, yeah, I know, just around the corner), and flying cars. Joule has been making claims since 2009. Remember Changing World Technologies and their oil-from-anything claims? Lots of hype, ending in bankruptcy.

  • It's absolutely ridiculous that this question is still being debated. It was clear way back during the OPEC oil embargo, where the future was... Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House to make a point.

    There is absolutely, positively NO QUESTION that the future of passenger cars is direct storage of electricity, very likely in plain old rechargeable batteries. Electricity which was mostly supplied by solar power. The math worked decades ago, and it works now. It's insane that, now t

  • which is about what oil contributes energetically, each year, to the world's economy, and NOT create an ecological catastrophe or starve everyone in the 3rd world, please do get back to me on that. In the meantime, I suggest you review a summary of the numbers regarding the energy situation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil [wikipedia.org].

"To take a significant step forward, you must make a series of finite improvements." -- Donald J. Atwood, General Motors