Biofuels – why we should be interested?

At the end of July, I am self-publishing an ebook on biofuels, and it will be available for those interested at most ebook outlets. But leaving aside the commercial, why do I think I am in a position to write this? Sure, there are a number of very skilled scientists and engineers involved in this work, but whoever cuts their paychecks will have them under confidentiality. Also, most will not have time to do this sort of thing. I have had a long if intermittent involvement with this work, the intermittent being due to interest and funding coming and going. In the 1970s I worked for Chemistry Division, DSIR, which was the New Zealand Government Laboratory for the chemical sciences, and when the oil crisis struck, I was given the task of surveying what was being done around the world, and also a generous travel budget to make observations. At the end, I wrote a survey that identified the issues as I saw them, and then started an experimental program on what I thought was the most promising and, from my point of view, likely to be productive technology for me to work on. This last point is important. With a rather small budget, the work had to be in an area where it was likely to be productive, but not “me too”, and this can be a little difficult. Anyway, I made a start, I thought I was making headway, but two things stopped me. First, the price of oil collapsed as the OPEC agreement fell apart at the seams, and second, I resigned to go out and form a private laboratory. More on this some other time.

Now there have been further oil price rises, and this time it is serious and not artificial, so we should do something, right? I acted as a consultant for a New Zealand company, and they made real progress, but instead of re-financing when there was an excellent opportunity, they waited until Wall St decided to implode, and found it almost impossible to refinance. So I now find myself in a state of semi-retirement, and I thought I should share my thoughts.

Why do we need biofuels? My answer is, we need transport, and while we can presumably cut back and conserve by not taking silly trips and using more efficient vehicles, no matter what, we need fuel. Electricity will take some of the slack, but unless we invest very heavily in nuclear power, or make fusion power work, we shall have insufficient electricity, and some parts of transport will still require liquid fuels. There is a limit to how much oil we can find and it must run out eventually. The fact that we do not know when is irrelevant because to replace the current oil products with something else would require the replacement of 150 years of investment in infrastructure. Not all of that is still working, but its use led to the improvements we now have. And herein lies a fact of chemical engineering not usually appreciated: unlike the making of new electrical products, chemical plant has to be developed in stages and it takes a long time to get major plant right. I estimated that it would take 30 years before a new process in biofuels could make an impact. You believe it is much quicker? Search the web for “Range Fuels” to see what goes wrong when you try short cuts.

People will protest and say, look how soon we got corn ethanol. True, but that still does not make a major dent in the world’s oil, and there is a limit to its expansion, and that limit has probably been reached. There are other problems, one of which is peak food. That means we cannot just expand agricultural land indefinitely, and we may be hitting the limit sometime soon. So what do we do? My argument is, look carefully at the options, decide which ones will really give room for expansion, and start to learn. What I suggest is that we really get to work removing problems from the “don’t know” basket to the “answers” basket.

The ebook is called, Biofuels An Overview, and is available from 31 July. (Pre-orders help me!) I shall give some more thoughts in this blog, but in the meantime, what is your opinion on what should be done?


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