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By Robert Rapier on Feb 21, 2007 with no responses

Odds and Ends

It has been really difficult to find time to write lately, but I have run across some stories of interest this week that I wanted to comment briefly on.

Wall Street Journal Energy Blog

First, I got an e-mail last night from an editor at WSJ saying that they had started an energy blog (and that they regularly read this blog). I obviously believe energy is going to be an incredibly important subject going forward, so I think this is a good move by them. There is a lot of interest in the topic, and we have a great deal more gas shocks/ethanol legislation/gas tax debates to come. Anyway, here is a link to their new blog, and I have added it to my blogroll.

WSJ’s Energy Roundup

Genetic Engineering and Cellulosic Ethanol

I was in graduate school in about 1993 when I first came to believe that commercial cellulosic ethanol was going to be highly dependent on advances in genetic engineering. I still believe that is the case, and an article this week caught my attention because it really highlights some of the issues:

Scientists working out bugs for use in biofuel production

In fact, some of the things mentioned in the article were things I did in graduate school:

In the hunt for efficiently destructive bugs, scientists for such companies as Diversa Corp. are reaching into the stomachs of cows, tapping hot volcanic vents and hiking deep into Costa Rica’s jungles to trap some of the worlds most ravenous termites. They are finding huge communities of bacteria, fungi and protozoa work together.

I have had my arm in a cow’s stomach all the way to my shoulder (I have a picture somewhere) where I was pulling the contents out to extract the cellulose digesting microorganisms inside. I also conducted some experiments where I attempted to use termite gut bacteria to produce chemicals. To my knowledge, I was the first to attempt this.

But the subtitle of the article, surely to be glossed over by many, is:

Genetically engineered energy crops could still be years away

I must admit to being very surprised at how slowly genetic engineering has advanced. I underestimated the opposition to it years ago, and Monsanto didn’t really help advance the cause with their approach. Still, I think advances will slowly be made in the biofuels arena. These advances will take at least two forms.

First, microorganisms will be genetically engineered that are more efficient at converting biomass. Others will be genetically engineered to provide a different product spectrum. Butanol and higher alcohols are a promising target, as (unlike ethanol) they can be sent down current fuel pipelines and the energy content is comparable to gasoline.

However, this alone will not be enough. The other advance that will need to take place is development of crops that give up their cellulose more easily, or that potentially even start the conversion process internally upon harvest. Right now, a substantial fraction of available biomass is in the form of lignin. This can’t be converted by microorganisms, and it also makes the cellulose harder to get at. Lowering the lignin content would be a good target for selective breeding and genetic engineering if the goal is to produce dedicated energy crops. Of course this problem is precisely why I favor gasification over fermentation, as gasification does convert the lignin into usable syngas.

We have to keep in mind, though, that genetic engineering is not magic. Too often I see people fall into the trap of thinking that there is no problem that genetic engineering can’t solve. In that case, why don’t we just engineer a microorganism that consumes the carbon in dirt and excretes gasoline? Because, while this is probably possible in theory, there is a tremendous amount that we do not know – and may not know for many, many years – about things like metabolic pathways and what specific genes even do. Some of these systems are mind-bogglingly complex, and can’t even be effectively modelled by present computer technology.

A Nice Solar Story

I hold out a lot of hope for solar power. After all, what is biomass anyway? It is very inefficiently captured solar energy. Ditto for gasoline, coal, natural gas, and almost all of our energy sources. It would be much more efficient to directly capture that solar energy and turn it into electricity. If the solar cells could be made cheaply enough, you could start to cover rooftops around the world and use the produced electricity to drive an electric transportation grid.

So, I was happy to see this story:

Cheap solar power poised to undercut oil and gas by half

Of course I am not knowledgeable enough about developments in solar power to know which claims are realistic and which are exaggerated. For instance, having seen some of the more unrealistic claims in the biofuels arena, I have to wonder if this bit isn’t exaggerated a bit:

Within five years, solar power will be cheap enough to compete with carbon-generated electricity, even in Britain, Scandinavia or upper Siberia. In a decade, the cost may have fallen so dramatically that solar cells could undercut oil, gas, coal and nuclear power by up to half. Technology is leaping ahead of a stale political debate about fossil fuels.

Anil Sethi, the chief executive of the Swiss start-up company Flisom, says he looks forward to the day – not so far off – when entire cities in America and Europe generate their heating, lighting and air-conditioning needs from solar films on buildings with enough left over to feed a surplus back into the grid.

The secret? Mr Sethi lovingly cradles a piece of dark polymer foil, as thin a sheet of paper. It is 200 times lighter than the normal glass-based solar materials, which require expensive substrates and roof support. Indeed, it is so light it can be stuck to the sides of buildings.

The article paints a very promising picture, but then again so did early press releases of Xethanol. Maybe someone who is knowledgeable about solar power could weigh in on this story. So how about it? Will we start to cover rooftops around the world ten years from now? Or is there a reason that we might never achieve this?