10 November 2007

Peak Oil: Meet Oil from Wood

It is getting harder and more expensive to find large new reserves of petroleum. While "peak oil" is impossible to calculate without better knowledge of true global oil reserves, it is almost certain that the cost of oil will continue to trend upward--and energy planners should take those higher costs into account.

But while we transition from a fossil fuel dependency to a more sustainable and diversified energy repertoire, what other "tricks" may science/technology hold up its collective sleeve?
The way to make cellulosic biofuels viable, says Bioecon's founder, Paul O'Connor, is to use catalysts to convert biomass into a hydrocarbon biocrude that can be processed into gasoline and diesel in existing petroleum refineries. After decades developing catalysts for the petroleum industry, O'Connor started Bioecon in early 2006 to develop methods for converting biomass directly into biofuels. His first success is a catalytic process that can convert cellulosic biomass into short-chain hydrocarbons about six to thirteen carbon atoms long. Khosla Ventures agreed to provide an undisclosed amount of series A funding to spinoff Kior in order to commercialize the process. Vinod Khosla, founder of the venture fund, believes that converting biomass into liquid transportation fuels is key to decreasing greenhouse-gas emissions and compensating for dwindling petroleum reserves. Khosla is funding a number of biofuels startups with competing technologies and says that Kior's approach is unique. "They have some very clever proprietary catalytic approaches that are pretty compelling," he says. "They can produce relatively cheap crude oil--that's attractive."
Technology Review

Alternative processes for making usable hydrocarbons from cellulose/lignin involves high temperature and pressure processes to produce syngas as an intermediary. This is too expensive at current oil prices. Likewise, previous methods to use catalysts in the conversion have had low yields.

Kior's method would reportedly:
would eliminate the need for the superhigh temperatures and toxic catalysts used in other thermochemical methods for cellulosic-biofuel production. While O'Connor says that he is still improving Kior's catalyst, his first versions are different kinds of modified clays, which are both cheap and environmentally friendly. The product is high quality as well, containing less acid, oxygen, and water. These characteristics make it suitable for burning as heating oil or for use in petroleum refineries, which can use existing processes and equipment to convert it into the longer hydrocarbon chains of gasoline and diesel fuel.

It may take up to five years for this method to prove itself in the marketplace. But it is certainly reasonable to look for technological ways to "speed up" the conversion of bio-waste to hydrocarbons--to use industrial processes to produce in days what nature takes millions of years to produce. Once nanotechnology learns to create more efficient catalysts, the process will be speeded even more--and decentralised as well.

The next 5 to 10 years are the pivot. While peak oil scenarios are being spun for maximum impact on the public imagination, real scientists and engineers are busy creating alternative paths from here to there--paths that do not involve massive death and destruction such as that imagined by peak oil enthusiasts.

Hat tip KurzweilAI.net

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Blogger Hell_Is_Like_Newark said...

I tend to stay skeptical in regards to these alternative fuel source until I see some sort of energy balance study: How much energy goes into making the fuel and how much do you actually get with the finished product.

BTW: Al Fin.. have you ever checked out these guys? http://www.apolloenergysystems.com/

There claim to fame are fuel cells that use ammonia as the base fuel (a cracker is used to produce hydrogen). I have no idea if their product does what it claims though.

Sunday, 11 November, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Interesting. There are several approaches to using "proton donor compounds" to replace pure hydrogen in fuel cells. They will all have to battle it out in the marketplace.

I am amused by the rapid switch in trendy media circles from "biofuels are our salvation" to "biofuels are a cursed road to destruction." Neither is true.

But biofuels can be extremely useful if they are pursued economically. Ideological science, like current climate alarmism, is always stupid because it ignores basic economic facts.

Sunday, 11 November, 2007  

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