Thursday, February 28, 2008

Next Generation Biofuels

The NSF (National Science Foundation) in conjunction with the DOE has unveiled what it believes is the roadmap to hydrocarbon biofuels production. Hydrocarbons are chains of carbon with hydrogens attached and you might commonly know these mixtures as gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. Science and scientists have been unable to bridge the gap between plants and gasoline production on a large scale like what they've done with ethanol. NSF hasn't answered the problem, but it lays out in a concise form how hydrocarbons could be produced using biological and engineering techniques, (some of which they anticipate the pathways being elucidated or refined in order to maximize production ability). This announcement is good news for scientists, such as myself, who are already looking into the problem as it signals a new round of interest, and possibly funding, for projects dealing with next-generation biofuels. This is not to say that the age of ethanol is over, far from it, this is merely the gearing up of what might amount to several years of research to hopefully uncover the answer. What NSF provides is an umbrella of support to bring scientists and engineers together to solve a problem that will probably take a little of both.

Here is a layout of what they see as a "Roadmap to Hydrocarbon Biofuels Production"

For the full article, follow the link below:

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hydrogen/Fuel Cell Update

Although I haven't ventured far into a discussion on the merits of hydrogen powered transport, (or lack thereof), I'll save that for another day. However, there is an interesting report coming out of Santa Clara Valley, California, where a test fleet of hydrogen--fuel cell driven buses are being tested as part of California's "zero-emissions" research. They report that the buses cost $51.66 dollars to drive per mile compared to $1.66 per mile for conventional diesel fuel. To be fair, hydrogen production technology and fuel-cell technology are still in their infancies and so I think it's great that there are tests underway to indicate whether hydrogen is a viable fuel and what improvements might need to be made. At the same time, I think this demonstration should show people that for all the beautiful talk of cars that run on hydrogen and pure, clean water gently wafting out of the tailpipe is not a reality by any means. The fuel itself cost 4 times that of diesel per mile and the parts cost nearly 160 times more per mile because of the large expense involved in fuel-cell technology.

The photo shows the zero-emissions bus pulling up to a hydrogen fueling station.

For the full article, follow the link below:

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ethanol Distribution

The Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group set up to monitor and promote the distribution of ethanol in the United States, released its ethanol outlook for 2008. In later posts I plan on going into some of their projections, but for this post I wanted to look at a couple of cool tables and graphs. The first is seen below, which is a report on the current production levels of ethanol in millions of gallons, the second column is the capacity about to come online, and the third column is the projected total capacity for 2008. Although I knew that Iowa led the United States in ethanol production, I had no idea we were head-and-shoulders above any other state. This of course will change as soon as the cellulosic ethanol industry kicks in in the next few years and we see states like Georgia taking a larger role in ethanol production.

The second table is a map of the US showing the areas where ethanol plants exist and where plants are being built. I think it's very important to keep track of where these plants are being built because it shows the state of the industry better than most numerical values can. What I mean by this is that since most of the plants are centered in the Midwest, we can see that the ethanol industry is still very much dependant on corn for ethanol. However, notice the ethanol plants coming online in California, Idaho, Texas, and Georgia. These trends will signal the conversion between the corn-based ethanol industry that we see today and the cellulosic-based ethanol of tomorrow.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Biofueled Aircraft

Over the weekend, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to test its aircraft using a mixture of gasoline and biofuel. A flight from London to Amsterdam was loaded with 20% coconut and babassu oil into one of its four fuel tanks, making the flight a 5% biofuel blend. Although the numbers and distance traveled are small, it is encouraging to see that this idea is being tested. Richard Branson said that the flight was "historic" and while I think the enthusiasm should be downplayed a little bit, the fact that this type of blend could be used in the airline industry could be a sign of something major occurring in a few years. I say this because just last week Boeing announced that they would like to see more research going into aircraft capable of running on biofuel blends and more research into making these types of fuels.

The fact is that airplanes use a large amount of energy separate from the conventional gasoline loaded into our cars. With technology being developed right now to convert several feedstocks into fuels, such as trash, corn, switchgrass, and others, it will only be a matter of time before the capability exists for large-scale aircraft fuel. Recently the United States Airforce also stated that they would be interested in exploring biofuels as an alternative in their fighter jets. And the fact is, as far as I know, there is no way to use BEV (battery electric vehicle) technology in airplanes and so regardless of the direction cars go in, airplanes will still require an upgrade in their transportation fuels.