Stories tagged biofuel

Yup, it's Friday. Time for a new Science Friday video. Today: Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"The New York Department of Environmental Protection installed a prototype "algal turf scrubber" at once of its wastewater treatment plants in Queens. The scrubber--two 350-foot metal ramps coated with algae that grows naturally--is designed to use algae to remove nutrients and boost dissolved oxygen in the water that passes through it. John McLaughlin, Director of Ecological Services for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and Peter May, restoration ecologist for Biohabitats, explain how the scrubber works, and where the harvested algae goes."
Jul
20
2009

A Forest of Fuel: Coming soon, to your gas tank!
A Forest of Fuel: Coming soon, to your gas tank!Courtesy Stef Maruch

Move over, old, lame bio-fuels!

Algae! The wondrous plants that can grow easily in controlled conditions and whose needs are very basic for rapid growth is now being tested for use in bio-fuels. ExxonMobil, looking to expand and diversify their alternative fuel options will team up with Venter's Synthetic Genomics Inc. to conduct research on different types of algae to test their effectiveness as biofuels.

The so-called "first generation" bio-fuels caused problems globally when the price of corn (for corn ethanol) sky rocketed when it was being used for food and fuel . Though a small percent of corn (or other) ethanol is added to gasoline, it still has a huge effect on the market, and is therefore not the best long term solution to eliminating our addiction to oil.

The Future?: Someday...someday. Let's keep 'em crossed for a day when all houses are like this!
The Future?: Someday...someday. Let's keep 'em crossed for a day when all houses are like this!Courtesy Bjorn Appel

Many view bio-fuels as only a transitionary solution to the oil problem, hoping that a sustainable energy type (like solar or wind) may soon be widely available. Algae if successful as a bio fuel, it may be used for a longer period than the "first-generation" bio fuels because of how fast it can grow and how easy it can be to care for. It also isn't used for much else, not like corn anyway. Engineers are hoping to develop artificial environments for algae to grow in knowing that this is the only way to produce enough of the green slime to sustain our needs.

It is encouraging, in some ways, that a big business like ExxonMobil is getting involved because research will not be short funded. If there is a will, there is some green slime that can't wait to get in your car!

Apr
18
2009

Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.
Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.Courtesy Stefan Thlesen
BTW, Buzzketeers, if I ever catch you using the term “the john” when talking about a toilet, I will erase you from the story of my life. Sure, I just used it, but think I have the right to take possession of that word to divest it of its hurtfulness. Sort of like how ugly people are allowed to call stuff “fugly.”

Anyway, let’s consider the future of energy. We all know that we have to start conserving fossil fuels, so that we can use them with abandon in a dune buggy-filled Mad Max style future. (I like to think of this as “saving it for the party.”) In the mean time, we have to get clever. This week I noticed a couple of stories about people thinking outside the box with regards to energy. In one case, they’re thinking above the box, in the other they’re thinking below the box. (Or maybe they’re thinking in the box. It depends on what you use your boxes for.)

Check it out: a company called Solaren Corp has convinced the largest energy utility in California to purchase 200 megawatts of solar power from them by around 2016. The way they propose getting that power is the interesting thing—they plan on getting it from space.

Wait… that was poorly phrased. All solar power comes from space. What Solaren intends to do is launch a massive array of mirrors (as large as several miles across) into orbit to collect and reflect sunlight onto photoelectric cells. The cells will convert the sunlight into electric power, which will then be converted into radio waves and blasted down to a receiver on Earth. The radio energy will then be turned back into electricity. Solaren claims that the system could eventually generate 1.2 to 4.8 gigawatts of power at a price comparable to that of other alternative energy sources, enough to power 250,000 homes in California. And unlike land-based solar panels, the flow of energy wouldn’t depend on weather, and the orbit would be high enough that the system could provide energy 24 ours a day. They intend to launch it up to about 22,000 miles above the surface of the planet, meaning that it would be just inside of a high Earth orbit, and therefore geosynchronous. (I think.) Pretty neat, huh?

However, getting a couple miles of mirrors up to 22,000 miles above Earth is a little tricky. A little tricky, and super expensive. Building the receiving systems isn’t going to be cheap either. Some folks think that the project is altogether… unlikely. But the California power utility isn’t actually making an investment (i.e., taking a risk) they just promised to buy the power when it’s there (or if). But that commitment is probably comforting for investors.

Solaren says that the radio waves being sent back to Earth will be one sixth the intensity of sunlight. But what kind of radio waves are we talking about here? Visible light is composed of radio waves. So are radio, um, radio waves. Nope, we’re talking about microwaves. Microwaves have the advantage of being pretty high-energy. They have the disadvantage of being a little scary to me. And to other people. But it seems like it’s not all that dangerous; the center of the microwave beam would have an intensity of about 23 milliwatts per square centimeter. The limit for workplace exposure to microwaves in the US is 10 mw/cm2, so obviously 23 mw/cm2 is beyond what the government considers safe, but the area of maximum intensity is relatively small. Near the outside of the receiving array, the intensity would be closer to 1 mw/cm2. Birds flying through the center of the beam could have some trouble, and small aircraft and hot air balloons would do well to avoid it, but the metal shell of conventional planes should protect passengers entirely (the same way that your metal microwave protects you from the forces cooking your food). I suppose a super-villain could always hack into the satellite controls, and re-aim the system at a neighborhood. But that’s assuming that it ever gets built.

So from pie in the sky (a huge mirror pie), let’s turn our attention to fudge underground. It doesn’t have quite the sunshiny appeal of space mirrors, but it’s a little more feasible at the moment.

Remember how, in Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Master Blaster was harvesting methane fuel from pig feces? Well, that works in the real world too, and not just with pig feces.

Consider the following: if you were to safe all of your… solid waste for one year, you could produce an amount of fuel equivalent to about 2.1 gallons of diesel fuel. I know—it doesn’t seem as much a it should, right? But if a city of 250,000 people was converting its waste into fuel, they’d have enough to drive 80 buses 62,000 miles each. If that figure sounds oddly specific, it’s only because that’s what Oslo, Norway intends to do. The city is all set to fuel its public transportation with brown gold. (Or with the biomethane produced by it.)

The cost of producing an amount of biomethane equivalent to a liter of diesel fuel comes to about 98 cents, while a liter of diesel costs about $1.30 at the pumps in Norway. And, unlike some other biofuels we won’t mention, it only gets into your food supply after you’ve eaten it.

Because the fuel comes from recently grown organic materials, it’s supposed to be carbon neutral, which is good. The article doesn’t say how energy intensive the process of making it is, though. Also, methane itself is a pretty bad greenhouse gas, but I suppose if it’s all burned efficiently that shouldn’t be a problem. (Burned methane makes CO2 and water.)

Energy may be plentiful in the future. We’ll just have to watch where we step.

Apr
01
2008

Most ethanol is currently made from corn. Scientists in Europe are worried that increasing production for ethanol will increase the demand for the crop, thus leading cut down forests to plant more corn. This would have a greater negative impact on the global climate than any positive impact from using ethanol instead of gasoline.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Minnesota and some place called "Princeton" have learned that converting forests and prairies into farmlands to grow corn actually releases carbon into the atmosphere, far more than is saved by replacing gas with ethanol.

OTOH, this author claims there is no evidence that forests and prairies are being converted to farm land. Rather, the demand for corn is being met by more efficient farming. He also argues that ethanol is cost-efficient and does not lead to higher food prices.

Nov
28
2007

The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.
The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.Courtesy Velo Steve

Scientists for the US Department of Energy are studying termites in hopes of developing new sources of fuel.

Termites eat wood. Wood is made of a tough material called cellulose. There’s an awful lot of cellulose in the world, and its easy to grow, making it an ideal raw material for making ethanol. Except – it’s really, really hard to turn cellulose into ethane (natural gas). It’s much easier to make ethanol out of food crops like corn – but that creates problems of its own.

Termites, however, have microbes in their stomachs which break down cellulose quickly and efficiently, as anyone who’s ever had a termite infestation in their house knows. Scientists hope to figure out how the microbes do their job, and then duplicate the process to help fill the nation’s energy needs.

The incomparable Cecil Adams weighs in with his thoughts on cellulose-based ethanol.

Oct
04
2007

The author personally investigates Indonesian flora: Photo by Ranti Junus
The author personally investigates Indonesian flora: Photo by Ranti Junus

And Borneo. And Bali. And Banjarmasin. The southeast Asian country of Indonesia plans to plant 79 million trees on a single day -- November 28. The event will take place ahead of a UN climate change meeting on Bali the following month.

Indonesia has cut down more tropical forests since 2000 than any other country. It is also the world's third-largest producer of greenhouse gases. It is hoped that this massive planting project will reverse these trends.

Many of the rainforests have been cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, which are expanding to produce raw material for biofuel -- another example of how everything is interconnected, and trying to solve a problem in one area can create a problem in another.

(Indonesia's entry into the biofuel market strikes me as odd, since they are a major oil-producing nation and a member of OPEC.)

Jun
29
2007

Dear Readers,

Now, please raise a hand or two if I’m getting ahead of you, but I think it’s time we get down to business.

You’ve all heard of “the future,” correct? Flying cars, artificial intelligence, iPhones, and excremental fuel sources? I thought so. Or is there anything here that you are, as of yet, unfamiliar with?

Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how.    (photo by Mimi K)
Do your part to solve the energy crisis: A local man prepares to save the future, the only way he knows how. (photo by Mimi K)

Ever since the release of Back to the Future Part II, flying cars have been, more or less, old news, and Tamagotchi has put to rest all fears of A.I. iPones will remain a mystery to all of us for another few hours, at least, but are we all clear on the matter of turning excrement, or “poop,” into sweet diesel fuel?

Oh. I see. We haven’t all been doing our assigned reading, have we?

Well, if the responsible among you would like to put your heads down on your desks for a few minutes, I’ll refresh the rest of the Science Buzz readers.

Chemists around the globe have been hard at work on various processes to convert organic, carbon-based waste products into something very much like crude oil. Examples of organic, carbon-based waste products include, but are not limited to, chicken and turkey guts, old tractor tires, Sega Genesis cartridges (in part), lawn compost, cookie dough, defective jewel cases, ramen noodle wrappers, my fingernail clippings, old magazines, new magazines, tennis shoes (right and left), twine, super glue, baseball hats, worn out VHS copies of “Biodome,” and, naturally, human fecal matter.

The method for turning carbon products back into something like petroleum is relatively new, although certainly not unheard of. By applying the right conditions (heat, pressure, and, uh, other stuff) to the contents of, say, a couple tons of landfill, you can end up with a crude oil like substance, and some left over minerals and metals. The trick is in refining this process so that the energy needed for the transformation is less than the potential energy of the fuel output. As scientists come closer to a workable method, government and industry have been taking a closer look at large-scale applications. This article mentions Britain’s interest in the technology needed to turn their organic waste – of all sorts – into transportation fuel.

As something that produces carbon-based fuels, this process wouldn’t exactly halt the output of global-warming CO2, but it’s not quite so harmful as burning fossil fuels because, as the article puts it, “the carbon produced when the fuel is burnt was absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants or trees used to make it.” That is to say, it wouldn’t create new CO2, because the organic components of the fuel had just been taking in carbon that was already in the atmosphere.

The facilities required for the process are, unfortunately, extremely expensive. Once everything is set up, however, the fuel produced could potentially be very cheap. And the ingredients aren’t generally difficult to produce.

May
01
2007

Some Science Buzz writers specifically go looking for science stories to write about. Then there are lazy folks like me, who just surf the web as per usual, and when something sciencey crosses our path, we bookmark it.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been running across a lot of stories on energy. None of them seemed big enough to merit its own story, but they are too good to completely ignore. So, here’s a potpourri:

Recycling nuclear waste

America’s energy needs keep growing. Producing energy by burning coal or oil pollutes the environment. Nuclear energy is much cleaner, but it produces radioactive waste. Now a government-funded project in Tennessee is trying to recycle the waste from nuclear power plants to produce a new type of fuel—one that could produce up to 100 times as much energy, and produce 40% less waste.

Gassification

One old technology that may be making a comeback is gasification—turning organic material, such as coal, into a gas which can be burned for energy. It’s cleaner than burning coal directly for energy—a lot of the pollutants are captured and re-used. And, you can gasify any organic material, including plants and farm waste.

The problem with ethanol

In other threads on this blog, we’ve discussed some of the downsides of ethanol-- increased demand for corn causes farm prices to shoot up. A report from Brazil outlines some of the other potential problems, from pollution created in its manufacture, to destroying large ecosystems to raise the crops that will be turned into ethanol.

Oil shale

When drillers go looking for oil, they look for large pockets of liquid trapped in the earth, surrounded by non-porous rock. This is sometimes called “easy oil”—ready to refine as soon as it comes out of the ground. But there are vast amounts of oil in porous rock, like sand or shale. Miners have to dig up vast amounts of oil-soaked rock, and then separate the usable oil from the sand. It’s a very expensive process. But, as the price of crude oil keeps climbing, we are getting to the point where shale oil makes sense. And what’s even better, some of the largest deposits in the world are found here in North America.

The article linked above describes a shale oil operation in Canada. There are also operations underway in the
United States. And there’s another project underway in Israel.

Aug
07
2006

Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85.  Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85. Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Biofuels are fuels that are derived from recently living organisms, such as corn or soybeans, or their byproducts, such as manure from cows. A recent study at the University of Minnesota examined the total life-cycle cost of all of the energy used for growing corn and soybeans and converting these crops into biofuels to determine what biofuel has the highest energy benefit and the least impact on the environment.
Corn grain ethanol vs. soybean biodisel
Two types of biofuels are becoming more visible as we look for alternatives to petroleum because of increasing gas prices: soybean biodisel and corn grain ethanol, such as E85. The study showed that both corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel produce more energy than is needed to grow the crops and convert them into biofuels. However, the amount of energy each fuel returns differs greatly. Soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than is used to produce it, while corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25 percent more energy than is used to produce it.
The study also compared the amount of greenhouse gases each biofuel released into the environment when used. Soybean biodiesel produces 41% less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel fuel while corn grain ethanol produces 12% less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.
Not a silver bullet
The researchers conducting this study caution that neither biofuel is ready to replace petroleum. Even if all current U.S. corn and soybean production were dedicated to biofuels production, it would still only meet 12 percent of gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand, and we still need to produce these crops for food. Biofuels are steps in the right direction, however, and can be a piece of the overall puzzle needed to be put together to solve our energy needs.