Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scientific Clarification

After last week's proclamation from Searchinger et. al that ethanol emits twice as much GHGs as gasoline does because of the release of soil carbon when turning grassland/forests into farmland, the real truth behind the numbers has been announced. Unfortunately for many, Searchinger's blatant disregard for scientific fact and wanton desire to generate a headline grabbing argument will probably sway a lot of people that are only slightly familiar with the problem towards a dislike and distrust of ethanol. What they will fail to see is that although the United States and the world needs to be constantly vigilant towards the deforestation or other environmental changes that might occur with large increases in biofuels production, this simply is simply not happening because of corn-based ethanol and it takes a person divorced from the reality that is the Midwest corn-belt to release a report such as Searchinger's last week titled, "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases through Emissions from Land Use Change."
Luckily, none of you have to take my word on this issue. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee have written a very insightful response to Searchinger's piece totally refuting his results. Although they point out, as I would, that increasing ethanol production towards 15 billion gallons per year could affect these senarios, current fact proves that this is not occurring right now, which negates Searchinger's claim that ethanol is a GHG emitter and bolsters the fact that corn-based ethanol reduces GHG emissions 16% over gasoline... not to mention that this is RENEWABLE carbon.
Anyway, back to the Argonne report, they found that while demand for corn from the ethanol industry has increased, this has not affected domestic supply and exports of corn have maintained the 2 billion bushel per year level that occurred pre-ethanol demand. Furthermore, the research from Argonne saw little land-use change in the United States due to increased corn demand because of ethanol and refuted Searchinger's claim that transitioning to cellulosic feedstocks would have an adverse affect by forcing corn onto marginal land. Argonne studies have found that more than 1 billion tons of biomass are currently available on marginal land, (such as trees, switchgrass, shrubs), and so these two feedstocks towards making ethanol would not compete.
The bottom line is that studies such as Searchinger's should have been welcomed. If he had released the report by saying that the study was a scenario of what could occur, then a discussion of more moderate increases in corn-based ethanol production or of regulations towards ensuring that imported ethanol doesn't originate from countries that practice deforestation. Instead of doing something like that to promote responsible dialogue, Searchinger chose to grab headlines and to scare people into disliking ethanol for no good reason. (I saw him interviewed last night and he didn't present the arguments with any caveats towards how the report should be interpreted).
I'm just glad that Argonne and others moved quickly to point out that Searchinger's report should be taken for what it is -- a look into what could happen, not what is going on. With the increased production of ethanol and the evolving debate over its merits and problems, this will not be the last report that seeks to scare and confuse the public. Hopefully the truth continues to be told.

For the response from Argonne labs: (Read it if you've got the time, it's very good)

Friday, February 15, 2008

BP and Dupont

Oil giant BP and chemical giant Dupont teamed up several years ago to develop a new approach to ethanol. Their solution, at the insistence from BP, was to produce butanol instead of ethanol. Shown below is a representation of the two molecules for those of you that might be... "less chemically inclined:"


Notice how the difference between the two alcohols is the additional carbon groups on butanol. Butanol is known to have an octane level comparable to gasoline (lower than ethanol) but has a much higher energy density than ethanol. Tests show that if butanol were to replace gasoline in the engine of currently produced cars, the energy penalty would be around 10%, compared to 27% for ethanol. BP tests also showed the butanol did not have the phase separation problems that ethanol has and so butanol could potentially be pumped in conventional gasoline pipelines. Also, BP preliminary tests show that butanol can be added to a conventional car up to 16%, which is beyond the current 10% allowed for ethanol. (Theoretically a flex-fuel car would run on 85% butanol as well).
Although the most recent announcement from BP and Dupont on 60 new patent applications for their butanol process, the target date for beginning the production of butanol (2010) is still a ways off. Problems with the production of butanol include a very low level of butanol produced by the microorganisms because of several bi-product formations. Also, the butanol is toxic to the organism, much the same as ethanol can be at high levels, and so proper distillation methods need to be developed. Finally, the BP/Dupont partnership has focused on conventional bacteria to produce butanol, at least preliminarily, and so they are not taking advantage of any new cellulosic technologies such as improved microorganisms or gasification technologies. It seems to me that the best method would be to combine both streams into one -- produce butanol using a microorganism shown to grow on multiple feedstocks.
The bottom line is that while ethanol transitions from corn-based to cellulosic, we will also see a gradual transition into fuels that have been termed 'second-generation,' and 'next-generation' biofuels. Second-generation biofuels are those like butanol, which are gasoline substitutes like ethanol but with potentially better qualifications to replace gasoline. Next-generation fuels look to the future where the potential exists to produce synthetic gasoline that could be an exact replacement to imported gasoline made from domestic feedstocks. Next-generation fuels also refer to non-hydrocarbon based fuels such as hydrogen. It will be very interesting to monitor the transitions, struggles, and technological advances that will allow one, some, or all of these fuels to flourish.

For the original article on BP/Dupont research:

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Carbon Capture

Researchers at the Los Alamos labs have announced their engineering method to capture carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into transportation fuels in a process that promises to be carbon negative. The beauty of this work is that carbon dioxide capture from air is very difficult because of the large amounts of air that has to be pushed over the catalyst that captures the carbon dioxide, which requires large amounts of energy. Los Alamos claims that they are able to reduce the energy demand by 96% in their new process that, from what I can understand from their press release, uses small tubing to drastically increase the surface area for diffusion and allow for much more amount of carbon to be captured in less air.

After the carbon dioxide is captured, researchers could use bacteria and known technology to produce methanol and from their produce other transportation fuels such as ethanol or butanol. The key is in the numbers, and it is hard to tell whether the claims out of Los Alamos point to a solution for carbon capture. The group states that the energy required to capture the carbon from air is .35kWh per kilogram of carbon dioxide. Factor in the additional energy needed to ferment the bacteria and the added energy might not be a beneficial as originally thought. Either way it's a great step in the right direction. Think about it -- using carbon capture technology on power plants or possibly even cars and then converting that trapped carbon back into transportation fuels would not only reduce the GHGs in the atmosphere but would provide a cheaper process to make fuel -- so long as the energy needed to capture the carbon is low. And so far, this just hasn't been proven... yet.

Below is a picture of their schematic diagram:

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Trash to Ethanol

A group in California is trying their luck at ethanol production from trash wastes. Bluefire Ethanol plans to open its first plant in Lancaster, California later this year and will construct this plant right on top of a landfill. The researchers plan to use this as a pilot ethanol plant to see if the process works. There is enough interest in the idea that the Department of Energy (DOE) will seek to invest $40 million in the ethanol plant that will use the cellulose in thrown out materials such as paper that would otherwise go into the landfill but this time it will be used to make ethanol.

Although skeptical at first, the idea might actually be pretty ingenious. They must use an acid pre-treatment step (composed of sulfuric acid) in order to liberate the cellulose (sugars) that are in the landfill wastes. This process can be expensive, and thought to be inferior to gasification because none of the lignin that might be present will be used. But it is in a different part of the processing that this plant might have a "leg-up." The project plans to use the lignin that can't be converted into usable sugars to burn in order to generate at least 70% of the heat and electricity to run the plant (instead of using coal or natural gas). For the remaining energy, the plant will harvest the methane gas produced at the landfill to power the remaining parts of the plant. This could not only save the company money and protect it from volatility, but it also significantly reduces the ratio of fossil fuels used to ethanol produced making the entire process that much more environmentally friendly.

Bluefire Ethanol is not alone in taking a hard look at cellulosic ethanol -- Range Fuels in Georgia is in the process of testing a wood to ethanol technology. Coskata, (as well as others), are looking into the same idea but using gasification as a way to liberate more usable sugars. With Bluefire only building a 22 million gallon per year ethanol plant, it'll be interesting to see what their preliminary results are as to whether the process is economical. Once that is done, the process will have to be scaled up to see whether the process can handle a 100 million gallon per year ethanol plant.

Below is Bluefire's engineering diagram:

For the original article:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Recycle Your Exhast

Something that's really cool and, if not perfected in the next few years, something I'd be very interested in getting a piece of the action is what researchers at Georgia Tech announced today. Although a VERY long way away from any meaningful goal, the team of researchers announced that they would attempt to engineer a system for carbon capture and recycling in small stationary systems. What this means is that they want to trap the carbon dioxide released from a car when burning gasoline or ethanol and then use a catalyst to generate hydrogen that can be used as a secondary system to power the engine. The economics and feasibility of this are still so far off that this type of idea is probably only kicked around in Popular Science type areas, but the idea is very cool. In this study, the engineers envision a removable system for carbon capture that can be returned to a central location for further processing of the hydrocarbons (like a reverse gas station). What would be really cool is if a special processing unit could be built in the car with a mix of methane and carbon dioxide loving bacteria that could produce gasoline or ethanol and form a looped system to extend the use of the gasoline indefinitely. The system would in no way be "closed loop" because of heat loss in the engine (which means we wouldn't be able to do away with gas-stations entirely), but a perfected system like this would be a phenomenal step in the right direction.
Similar to this idea, researchers in Wales recently produced a "green-box" that works essential the same as what the Georgia Tech team is interested in except they combine genetically modified algae to the system in order to produce biofuels from the captured emissions. Both Georgia Tech and Wales are examples of awesome technology that could be a huge step forward (and would be a great complement to hybrid cars), but it's still way too early to tell how long it will be before the systems are economical and feasible.

Here is a diagram of what the Georgia Tech researchers envision:

Here is a link to a Reuter's site discussing the Welsh inventor's "green-box:"

Monday, February 11, 2008

2008 Crop Estimates

Even the USDA guessed wrong on the acreage that went into corn and soybeans in 2007 and had to revise their totals, so don't take my word as gospel. But if the latest survey of Iowa and Nebraska farmers is any indication, 2008 should see a return to the 50:50 ratio of corn to beans seen in Midwest farms. Of the 2,500 farmers surveyed, the consensus was an increase in soybean acres by 12% and a decrease in corn acres of about 5%. The survey, conducted at the 53rd annual Iowa Power Farming Show, can be used to test the waters of what might be coming in the next few months in terms of planting soybeans or corn. From these results, it looks like the large push towards corn-dominated agriculture that was seen last year might be subsiding and a return to more normal agricultural practices will occur. A 50:50 ratio is important to balance the energy intensive corn with the nutrient-providing legume (soybeans). Rotating these crops insures correct nutrient balances, along with decreased fertilizer needs.
Although farmers in the survey sited several possible reasons for planting more soybeans this year, it might not be too hard to narrow down a few key points. The first is that in the past year, corn prices have increased 30% while soybean prices have rocketed up by 81% of their price. Add to this the fact that fertilizer prices continue to rise and soybeans begin to look more and more attractive. In the end, I think it makes good ag. sense to continue to rotate and protect the land as best as possible. Rotation the crops not only allows for more protection of soil nutrients, it also prevents a farmer's exposure to volatility that might occur in one of the markets. (Although this is unlikely because soybeans and corn have historically been tied to a 2:1 price ratio).
One more interesting fact that came out of this survey was that large scale farmers, (people farming around 10,000 acres), were less likely to reduce their corn acreage in the coming years. This is interesting and a point that I would like to comment on in future posts -- how commercial-scale farming is impacting agriculture in this volatile pricing period, particularly among cattle prices.
I'll end by repeating that I think 50:50 rotations are good policy, but it will be interesting to see if the corn acreage in the US falls by 5% across the board. If we are only going to get around 310 million acres in corn this year, we could be in for a bumpy ride in terms of corn stocks. Let's pray for good weather...

A beautiful shot of Iowa corn from: