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Friday, March 24, 2017

THE FUTURE OF BIOFUELS

My very first job after graduating from college dealt with biomass.  I worked as a process engineer for the Hutchinson Sugar Company in Naalehu on the Big Island for C. Brewer, then the oldest company in Hawaii.  To the right, plantation manager Bill Baldwin wishing us well when Pearl and I finally left sugar after seven years of what was probably my most difficult job for me to go to graduate school.  C. Brewer is no more and the so is the sugar industry.  Of all my life failures, this has to be my biggest.  

Sugar, however, was doomed here anyway because, first, it is bad for your health, but, too, low foreign labor expenses and high local land costs made it impossible for Hawaii to compete.  However, even then, I thought that a shift to biofuels was a possible pathway to keep the state green.

After I joined the University of Hawaii in 1972 one of my first funded tasks was to grow microalgae in a raceway, with carbon dioxide from a power plant bubbled into the reactor.  You would thus reduce global warming while producing a sustainable source of clean energy.  There were reports that, per acre per year, microbes could be ten times more efficient than any land crop in the utilization of sunlight to produce biomass.

I might have chaired more conferences and workshops on this subject than anyone else.  If you add hydrogen to the mix, then for sure, because I wrote the original legislation on this subject that became law and chaired the Secretary of Energy's Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel.  Read our report of 1995.

From the beginning I was opposed to using "food" to make ethanol.  Here is a summary from the Department of Energy.  Today we know that the Farm Lobby, through their Congressional influence, hoodwinked the country into using corn to produce ethanol.  Then to burn this ethanol to produce electricity?  Insane.

However, biofuels from the non-food portion of the crop, like using the cellulose, did make sense.  Unfortunately, the industry largely continued using fermentation, and that, too, was a bad idea.  Gasification, then catalysis into a biofuel, with methanol being best, never gained traction.  Cellulosic ethanol efforts predictably never made it.

But what about biofuels from microorganisms?  Over the past decade, companies have prematurely and erroneously suggested that these sources could produce biofuels for $1 gallon.  A study I led for the Department of Energy indicated that the best industry could do was $5/gallon, which is equivalent to $220/barrel. A 2010 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study indicated that algae grown in ponds could produce a biofuel at a cost of $240 to $332/barrel.  It is pretty clear, then, why biofuels have largely failed.  The low cost of petroleum:

At less than $50/barrel today, no biofuel has a chance.

So should we give up on biofuels?  Absolutely not!!!  First, oil prices will shoot past $100/barrel someday.    But the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has the price of oil at $54.62 in December of 2025.  This is, actually, good, for the field of future biofuels needs about a decade of smart and comprehensive R&D to develop the competitive pathways.  In my experience, the most promising processes include:

  • Gasification and catalysis of terrestrial crops into methanol.  
  • Forget fermentation into ethanol.  It takes too long and uses too much equipment.  Plus you will continue to need an inefficient internal combustion engine.  
  • An efficient catalyst to convert gaseous biomass into methanol has not yet been invented.  
  • The direct methanol fuel cell to utilize this biofuel is only in the very early stages of research.  
  • Methanol is the ONLY bio-liquid that can be processed by a fuel cell without an expensive reformer.
  • Consider that a fuel cell vehicle can take it up to five times further than any battery, and you get a sense as to where this field will ultimately be headed.
  • My HuffPo on SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR OUR BIOFUEL PROBLEM can be considered.  It was published almost nine years ago.  Nothing has changed, except that the price of oil is today less than half of what it was then.
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