Monday, December 22, 2008

Advanced Biofuels Initiative

I've finally wrapped up my scholastic responsibilities that have kept me away from blogging these past few months, which hopefully means that I will get back to a semi-regular schedule of postings. What better way to jump back in then to talk about the new plan by the Department of Energy to fund $200 million worth of test-phase biofuels plants that will work to produce advanced biofuels from cellulosic feedstocks. Their goal for the test-phase plants is to have at least 1 ton per day of cellulosic biomass be processed with the production of advanced biofuels. Advanced biofuels pertain to the production of non-ethanol or biodiesel liquid fuels from plant biomass that generally relates to those biofuels from cellulosic-derived sources.
The DOE plans to award 5 to 12 institutions/companies with the money to explore these possibilities, which could be the final push necessary to move the research in the industry beyond the lab and into the commercial realm. Several problems stand in the way, however, including how to properly release the energy held in the cellulosic biomass to produce the biofuel, and how to form the desired biofuel once this has occurred. It appears, however, that the government on the federal level is already taking the initiative to move some of these projects forward.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wind Power Storage

As more and more wind turbines begin to dot the countryside, particularly here in my area of Central Iowa, the debate intensifies between those that see wind energy as one of the most convenient and cost-effective power generations of our time and those who see it as a nuisance that clutters the sky and provides no real benefits.
I see the debate now as shifting as most accept that wind energy can and should be a part of our future power generation needs. Now people want to know how we make the technology small, more powerful, and more responsive to human needs. Groups working at NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Colorado are working towards making windmills much smaller but still capable of producing electricity comparable to their larger cousins -- this could allow 'back-yard' wind generation to occur in residential neighborhoods. But perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome for wind, and the reason that I am still not totally sold on the whole idea, is the problem of storage.
Since electricity is impossible to store in quantifies large enough to sustain a city, many people balked at New York's Mayor Bloomberg's announcement that the city should install windmills all over -- on buildings, bridges, and off the coasts. But how was New York going to be able to power itself during hot, stagnant days when no wind is available? This problem would necessitate New York to build an equal electrical capacity in coal or nuclear power plants no matter how many windmills were put up in order to provide for the times when wind power would not keep up.
While the problem is a long way from being solved, a New Jersey company has an interesting solution -- store the power as compressed air during the night or during high-wind periods so that the stored energy could be used at other times. The idea is interesting but implementation will be hard to come about since the group working on the project estimate that it would take an underground container full of compressed air the size of New York's Giant's Stadium in order to provide 300megawatts of power -- only enough to power a large hospital for 300 hours. Still, I like the idea and that innovations are being considered. After this companies announcement, however, wind energy proponents pointed out that a DOE report indicated that 20% of our power could come from wind by 2030 without the need for electrical storage.... I guess we will just have to wait and see.

For the original article, go to:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bacteria Boost Efficiency

A group at Washington University in St. Louis have managed to use bacteria to break-down unusable portions of the ethanol process in order to make methane. With this extra methane, the researchers are able to provide a readily usable fuel to power the ethanol making process, thereby increasing the efficiency. While only in the laboratory stages, the researchers hope that the process will scale up to the size of commercial ethanol plants. The numbers from their tests prove promising -- they are able to cut the natural gas/coal usage for the ethanol process by 50% when using this technology. Since natural gas accounts for approximately 60% of the process energy needed to produce ethanol, this could mean that the new technology would increase corn-ethanol's energy efficiency from plus 20% to up to plus 70%! This would be an emphatic jump and would contribute to the short term benefits of retrofitting current ethanol plants, which is the goal of these researchers. If the numbers hold up, this might be a great energy and cost-effective patch to put on current ethanol plants, minus the obvious need for initial capital to build another bacterial reactor and the needed infrastructure to capture the methane.

For more information go to:

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ethanol Mandates to Biopetroleum

A couple of interesting things to talk about today. The first is that the US EPA has denied Texas Governor Rick Perry's request to cut the ethanol mandate in half this year. Perry's request came at a time when corn prices skyrocketed to over $7 per bushel and put a squeeze on livestock farmers, particularly located in Texas. However, now that corn has dropped off its previous high prices, the EPA denied the request. This is the right move because the ethanol mandate, created by Congress to set a goal of 9 billion gallons of ethanol produced by 2008 and 11.1 billion gallons produced for 2009, is just that, a goal. Since the US is already very close to the 9 billion gallon per year mark necessary to satisfy the 2008 standard, cutting it would not significantly affect the production of ethanol or the prices for the feedstocks that go into it. At the same time the EPA, in its ruling, stated that it found sufficient corn to satisfy the 9 billion gallon level for 2008. In the end, I fear that Perry's clamor for a cut in the ethanol mandate comes in an election cycle where politicians look to satisfy some of the discord among their base -- in this case, the cattle farmers. While the situation for livestock farmers isn't desirable, the path that Rick Perry took to try to alleviate the problem wouldn't have solved anything -- a more efficient method would be to increase the price of fed cattle on the CBOT (Chicago Board of Trade) in order to give these farmers a fair prices.
The entire article above leads into the importance of the next piece of news since corn-based ethanol is emerging as the bridge to a whole new generation of biofuels. A group of researchers in China have developed a way to convert sunflower shells (biomass) into liquid petroleum. Although the fuel has several contaminates that make it impossible to go directly into fueling a car engine, the researchers are working hard in developing the methods needed to "upgrade" the fuel. For those of you familiar with Fischer-Tropsch, this method is very similar in converting biomass into liquid alkanes. However, it effectively eliminates many of the organic acids that resulted in corrosion and decay of the fuel when stored over time. The excitement about this new method is that while it may not be a simple way to convert biomass directly into a liquid transportation fuel, it can be built in small scales, which would allow it to be taken to a farm of other location and used to convert the low energy-dense biomass into a higher density liquid. This liquid could then be transported to the large "biofuel-refinery" where the fuel is converted chemically or biologically into the appropriate fuel (ethanol, butanol, gasoline...). For this reason, this new method is very exciting and we will probably hear more from this group in the future.
For more complete details on the "deoxy-liquefaction" technique, go to

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ceres, Inc.

For any cellulosic ethanol industry to take off, there needs to be an abundant, biomass intense area from which to cultivate the plant material. The great hope is that this will not only pertain to areas already covered in biomass, such as corn-stalks or forested areas in the Southeastern United States, but that this will allow for the development of crops that can be grow in many areas of the US that are not hospitable to current agricultural growth. This includes the ultra-arid Southwestern United States where the development of a perennial crop could produce a valuable crop on marginal land but also would hopefully improve the land in the process by decreases soil erosion as well as providing a more humid environment where more rain development might occur.

A company called Ceres Inc. is trying to establish this idea of optimum energy crops for each region of the United States. To do this they have sequenced many of the genomes of switchgrass, miscanthus, and other plants and have then used selective breeding technologies to isolate varieties of the plant that match different areas, such as the desert Southwest.

Here is a map and diagram of their outlook for the next several years:

Go to the website shown above for more information about the crop varieties listed above.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ethanol Plants Lower Costs and Save On CO2 Emissions

As the ethanol industry continues to establish itself, ethanol plants are improving their efficiency as well as their carbon dioxide emissions. This is not a totally selfless act, but it is done so that the ethanol plants are both able to survive in a climate where it can at times be hard to make a profit as well as a way to improve the overall efficiency of their process.
With the spike earlier this summer in corn prices, ethanol plants struggled to even make a penny on a gallon of ethanol sold, even with oil prices as high as they were. Now that corn has retreated and oil has remained comparatively high, ethanol plants have begun to breath a small sigh of relief. However, they are no where near out of the woods yet. Ethanol plants face dangers from possible rises in grain prices to the very volatile natural gas market that is most commonly used to power the large heaters used in an ethanol plant to boil off the ethanol from the water.
Two ethanol plants are leading the way in establishing a more sustainable process towards ethanol production. The first is an ethanol plant in Johnson County, Missouri that is teaming up with a local landfill to help make its process more efficient. Mid-Missouri Energy's ethanol plant will team up with the landfill to supply enough natural gas to offset 90% of the natural gas needed to power the plant. This is an amazing amount of renewable energy that, if calculated specifically for this ethanol plant, would make ethanol's benefit in GHG-emission reductions much greater than the 16% reductions seen in conventional plants. This is not only good because of the decrease in green-house gas emissions, but one of the biggest expenses for an ethanol plant is the energy needed to drive its distillation, (which can amount to 60% of the entire plant's energy requirements). So by establishing a reliable, cheaper source of natural gas, the ethanol plant, which is owned by a local farming cooperative, should become much more competitive in its industry.
The second ethanol plant to mention is located in Superior, Iowa. The local ethanol plant has won approval to install three wind turbines on site to generate electric power for the plant. This will not speak to the power needed to drive the distillation process but it should go a long way in providing renewable power to the ethanol plant at a cheaper cost as well as driving down some of the GHG emissions.
Both of these two plants are using unique ideas in an effort to improve the production of ethanol. From an innovative standpoint as well as a practical financial standpoint these improvements make sense if ethanol plants are to move forward in producing an environmentally friendly product at a price that competes for consumers.

Sources for the information above can be found at:

Monday, July 28, 2008

Nuclear "Deep-Burn" Technology

I've said in the past that my mission is to focus these posts on matters directly related to ethanol. However, the current evolution of our energy situation has made the entire field complex and interdependent. For this reason, this post is about nuclear energy and, while not speaking directly to an ethanol issue, I think it is connected in that if we are to have flex-fueled cars with PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) technology included, we better have an efficient, reliable, and clean source of energy to power the electric side of these vehicles.

The Department of Energy recently announced grant money going towards two labs, the Argonne National Labs, and the Idaho National Labs for the study of "Deep-Burn" nuclear reactors. These designs are slated to go into the technology for the next generation of nuclear power plants, known as Generation IV nuclear reactors, which may be put into electrical production sometime around the year 2020. The idea of a Deep-Burn is to coat the outside of the plutonium or other nuclear fuel particles with a ceramic shell. This allows the nuclear fission process to occur at much higher temperatures, thus dramatically increasing the efficiency of the electricity generation as well as eleminating almost all of the nuclear waste produced in the process. In fact, in preliminary studies, the process is so efficient that it makes reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from LWR (light water reactors) economically feasible for nuclear power plants.

What this means is that if the process of the Deep-Burn nuclear reactor can be implemented correctly, we could enjoy efficient, cheap, nuclear power with much less nuclear waste. Of course, the problems of the plant over-heating resulting in a nuclear meltdown would still exist, and since the process would still result in some nuclear waste, it is by no means perfect. It is however, a great step forward. One last thing to keep in mind is that with this event horizon (at least 10 years away), the technology for a fusion-style nuclear reactor may be perfected in that time frame and allow for much more efficient fuel burning with little or no nuclear waste. We will just have to wait and see on that one.

For more detailed information, go to: