09 April 2008

Escaping Petro City: Living In A Biological World

Today's global economy is based on oil. Petroleum products are used for fuels, plastics, fertilisers, and a large number of other essential products. When oil prices go up, food prices go up--and so does everything else. Even with the 200 billion barrels of oil in the Dakota/Montana/Saskatchewan Bakken play, the days of peroleum are numbered. Smart chemists and industrialists have been looking at a way of using biologicals to replace petroleum for over a decade. The future is looking brighter, in a biological world.
To make biobased manufacturing economically appealing, researchers are also determining ways to reduce the energy costs of transforming hydrocarbon building blocks like sugars and alcohols obtained from biomass into polymers. Dr. Gross and his colleagues at Polytechnic University have been using enzymes for that goal — making, among other things, a biodegradable polyester coating.

Some researchers are exploring renewable feedstocks as a source for novel materials, which could provide another economic incentive to companies to pursue biobased chemical production.

Dr. George John, a chemist at the City College of New York, and others, for example, have designed a polymer gel for drug ingestion using a byproduct of the fruit industry as a starting point. By adding an enzyme to the gel, which breaks it down over a few hours, the researchers can control the release of the drug after it is swallowed.

More players are expected to enter the field as rising oil prices force countries to increase production of biodiesel, providing a bigger supply of the byproduct glycerol.

“It could prove to be a very valuable commodity,” said Keith Simons, a chemist who consults for the Glycerol Challenge, a project started by a group of British companies and universities. The $3.6 million-a-year effort is aimed at developing catalysts and other technologies that will use glycerol as a feedstock “for making various downstream chemicals,” Mr. Simons said.

The payoffs from developing biobased chemicals could be huge and unexpected, said Dr. John Pierce, DuPont’s vice president for applied biosciences-technology. He pointed to DuPont’s synthesis of propanediol, which was pushed along by the company’s goal to use the chemical to make Sorona, a stain-resistant textile that does not lose color easily.

Soon DuPont scientists realized that bioderived propanediol could also be used as an ingredient in cosmetics and products for de-icing aircraft. The high-end grades that are now used in cosmetics are less irritating than traditional molecules, Dr. Pierce said, and the industrial grade used in de-icing products is biodegradable, which makes it better than other options.

“It looks like we found a bit of a gold vein,” he said. ___NYT__via_kurzweilai.net
The learning curve has been steep, but transforming biological feedstocks to replace petrochemicals is beginning to pay off.

The hyper-Luddites who try to obstruct the bio-energy and bio-chemical industries have very deep hooks into the environmental movement and the governments of many countries. But if the market is allowed to work out the technology and the economics, biological solutions for the problems caused by the high cost of petroleum will make believers out of most people.


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Blogger Bruce Hall said...

It is certainly worthwhile to explore all kinds of power alternatives and biomass is abundant.

But just to remind you that you had a slightly different take regarding oil on March 31.

Wednesday, 09 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Yes, I like to look at a lot of issues from slightly different angles, to accentuate different aspects of a problem.

Scarcity of a resource such as oil has to do with supply and demand. It is always a relative scarcity. Prices of a commodity are one imperfect way of monitoring relative scarcity.

Peak oil is a virtually meaningless concept for the world as a whole, although for a particular oil field it can certainly have meaning. No one knows when or where a new field the size of Bakken or larger will be discovered.

Bio-oil is plentiful and getting more plentiful every day. We are seeing the opposite of peak bio-oil.

The resistance to bio-energy (in its nascent whole) is as boneheaded as is the blind-faith enthusiasm for global warming and peak oil.

Thursday, 10 April, 2008  

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