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By Robert Rapier on Apr 20, 2009 with no responses

Beyond Fossil Fuels

Through at least this week, my posting will continue to be sporadic. I have been traveling a lot the past couple of weeks, and this week (Thursday April 23rd) I head to Kansas City to give a talk that will be partially about biofuels and partially about acetylated wood:

Economic Forum – Biofuels, Biobuildings, and Beyond

After that, I think things will settle down for a little while. I am back in Europe next week, and I usually have more time for writing then (since my family isn’t there, I write in the evenings).

For now, there is an interesting series of articles that will be published this week at Scientific American:

Beyond Fossil Fuels: Energy Leaders Weigh In

Here is the line-up:

Monday, April 20:
Eric McAfee, chairman and CEO, AE Biofuels
Gerald Grandey, president and CEO, Cameco Corporation (uranium production)

Tuesday, April 21:
Barry Cinnamon, CEO, Akeena Solar
Aris Candris, president and CEO, Westinghouse Electric Company (nuclear)

Wednesday, April 22:
Alan Hanson, executive vice president, AREVA (nuclear)
Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer, Solazyme (microbial fuel production)

Thursday, April 23:
David Crane, president and CEO, NRG Energy (nuclear)
Leon Steinberg, CEO, National Wind

Friday, April 24:
John Melo, CEO, Amyris (renewable fuels)
Daniel Kunz, president and CEO, U.S. Geothermal

Monday, April 27:
John McDonald, CEO, ExRo (wind)
Sanjay Pingle, president, Terasol Energy (biofuels)

Tuesday, April 28:
William Johnson, president, chairman and CEO, Progress Energy (nuclear)
David Mills, founder and chief scientific officer, Ausra (solar thermal)

Wednesday, April 29:
Bob Gates, senior vice president for commercial operations, Clipper Windpower
David Ratcliffe, president, chairman and CEO, Southern Company (nuclear)
Lucien Bronicki, chairman and chief technology officer, Ormat Technologies (geothermal)

The first question and answer from McAfee’s interview:

What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of biofuels? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?

The conversion and commercialization of cellulose inputs into fuel ethanol is a significant technology obstacle to the growth of the ethanol industry as a mainstream fuel. A number of companies are currently working on cellulosic technologies, and great strides have been made, but a gap remains between technology advances and full commercial deployment. Much of this challenge exists around two factors—scalability and cost. Science is no longer the primary gating issue—it’s now a matter of investment and resource allocation.

While I agree with the first part on the technological obstacles for commercialization of cellulose into ethanol (I simply don’t believe it will ever happen), I think the last sentence can be misleading. When one says that science is “no longer the primary gating issue”, that implies that recent scientific advancements have enabled the technology. However, the science has not been the issue for almost 100 years. As Robert Bryce points out in The Cellulosic Ethanol Delusion, conversion of “straw, corn-stalks, corn cobs and all similar sorts of material we throw away” was known technology in 1921.

The issue is simply the same as it was back in 1921: Biomass has a low energy density, and the cellulose is not easily converted. These factors worsen the energy balance, and there isn’t an easy way around this fact. (Gasification, as I have argued, is a way around some of the issues, but we are talking about a different animal from hydrolysis.)

Coming Up

As soon as I get some breathing room, I am going to do a book review for Oil 101- which I finally finished reading, and then to write an essay on the implications of being wrong.