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By Robert Rapier on Feb 4, 2010 with 1 response

Biofuel Developments

I woke up in Switzerland this morning after having spent the past 3 days in the Netherlands. Later today I travel to Germany. The weather here is cold. I love Europe, but do not miss riding my bike in rain that is 1 degree above freezing (as I had to do in the Netherlands on Tuesday). Switzerland is blanketed with snow; the country from the air looks like a Christmas card. I have been told that there is even more snow in Dresden, which is my next stop.

I have been trying to keep up on energy news, and there have been some interesting developments. The previous essay has also hit the 200 comment mark (Blogger is clearly not designed to deal with over 200 comments), so it’s time to put something else out there. A number of people have either commented here or sent me an e-mail about the recent LS9 news:

Bacteria rebuilt to make oil

Researchers have engineered a common type of bacteria to produce biodiesel and other goodies from plain old plants. The microbial trickery, detailed today in the journal Nature, promises to add “nature’s petroleum” to America’s energy supply within the next few years.

“We’ve got a billion tons of biomass every year that goes unused,” said Jay Keasling, a co-author of research study and chief executive officer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, or JBEI. “We’d like to turn that into fuel.”

Keasling emphasized that the study published in Nature was a “proof of concept” rather than the demonstration of a commercially viable process. He and his colleagues are looking for a process that would utilize as much of the feedstock as possible, and not just the hemicellulose. “We got about 10 percent of the theoretical maximum yield, and we will continue to work on this to try to increase the yield,” he said.

One of the funders for the research is LS9, a California-based biotech company that intends to market fuels and other microbe-produced chemicals. “I’m reasonably optimistic that we’re going to have high-level production of these kinds of biofuels in the next couple of years,” Keasling said. Check out this Berkeley Lab news release to learn more about the research.

I have written a number of articles about LS9 (see LS9′s Oil-Crapping Bugs from three years ago), which I could summarize in this way. There are metabolic pathways that produce molecules that are very close to the structure of fuels. Our bodies produce fats, which aren’t chemically that far removed from diesel. It is probably technically possible to tweak those metabolic pathways to produce drop-in replacements for transportation fuels.

On the other hand, it is going to be technically quite challenging. So I deemed this a very interesting approach (in fact I have called it a Holy Grail), but I don’t place the odds of commercial success very high. If enough companies are attempting this, maybe someone will make it work, but the odds for any individual company to succeed in this area will be low in my opinion.

Then there was Shell’s announcement on a sugarcane ethanol JV in Brazil:

Shell, Cosan Sign $12B Brazilian JV Pact

LONDON (Dow Jones)–Shell International Petroleum Company Ltd, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSA), and Cosan S.A. (CZZ) said Monday they have signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding, or MoU, to form a $12 billion joint venture in Brazil for the production of ethanol, sugar and power, and the supply, distribution and retail of transportation fuels.

-Shell will also contribute its 50% share interest in Iogen and its 14.7% share interest in Codexis.

Sugarcane ethanol is also a story that I have covered in great detail:

Brazilian Ethanol is Sustainable

The key to the success of sugarcane ethanol as a true competitor to fossil fuels is the fact that massive amounts of bagasse end up at the sugarcane plants. That bagasse is then essentially free fuel for driving the ethanol process – and the logistical issues of getting biomass to the plant are already worked out. If you had to go out and harvest bagasse for use as fuel, then it would be a totally different process. But all of those logistical steps – including the labor and energy of getting the bagasse to the plant – are already being done as a result of processing the sugarcane.

At the plant, the bagasse has been pulverized and washed during the processing of the sugarcane, so it is a relatively clean fuel that has had many ash components washed out. Burning bagasse for fuel means that sugarcane ethanol isn’t nearly as dependent on cheap fossil fuels as is the case with some flavors of ethanol. For this reason, I am a fan of sugarcane ethanol as a model of how to do biofuels in a sustainable manner (not that sugarcane production as is often practiced is completely sustainable, but it is definitely in the right direction in my opinion).

On the other hand, we have to bear in mind that tropical countries have certain advantages with respect to rainfall and solar insolation, and just because Brazil can do it doesn’t mean temperate climates can follow the same model:

That’s all the time I have for now. Bis bald!

  1. By Owen Stiles on August 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    I am interested in any current data on the costs of converting biomasses, such as rice straw to syngas and then to biofuels, such as diesel fuel.

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