Biofuels and fossil oil replacement

Today, I am publishing an ebook entitled “Biofuels An Overview”. So why do I think I should write that? Basically, because this is an area in which I have actively worked and published on and off over the last 35 years. The reason I got into this research was that early in my career, while working for the main New Zealand government chemical research lab, I was given the job, and a useful travel budget, to try to survey what were the possibilities, and to unravel what the more promising (if any) options were. As a consequence of that, I have now repeated the exercise (without the travel budget!) and put my conclusions into this ebook.
The first question is, why do we need biofuels anyway. My answer to that is, there is only so much fossil oil on this planet and the planet is not making more at anything like the rate we are using. There are also issues with climate change and ocean acidification, and of course we have to eat. We also have to get around, maybe not as much as now, but we have to get to work, get groceries, and have a social life. We may not have to make biofuels to compensate for our current oil usage, but I try to show we have to make a lot of them.
What I felt was important was that such a book must explain why it is important to develop biofuels and to do that, numbers have to be put on the assertions. I feel that is the biggest problem with most other writing about biofuels. The objective of most writing on this topic is to advocate something, which in itself is laudable, but somewhere along the lines we have to form some sort of a plan for the long term. It is true, and I conclude this in the ebook, that there is no single ‘magic bullet’, and that a very large number of resources will have to be used, and there is no harm in using resources that are available, even if, by doing so, you will be doing something that is not general. But it is also important to end up with a limited range of fuels. There is no point in having 120 different fuels on the market, when a given motor can only reasonably operate on one. Now, if you put numbers on resources, you very quickly find that if you want to eat, and you want to retain something of the natural land-based environment, you cannot replace oil from the land. There is simply insufficient area that is reasonably useful. Accordingly, I conclude that eventually we have to utilize the oceans. Now the problem here is that we have very little truly adequate technology to do this with. On the other hand, we know that in principle we can grow the algae. Problems include getting past “in principle”. There have been clear demonstrations of growing macroalgae in deep water, but the experiment by the US navy started in the 1970s got wrecked in a storm, and when, at the time, the price of oil collapsed, the project was stopped. That does not mean it cannot be restarted, but it will require more work to solve the obvious problems. Similarly, it is reasonably easy to grow microalgae at sea, but very difficult to harvest them at a reasonable cost.
Accordingly, any survey of resources comes up with a variety of different resources, each of which shows different problems. The issue then is, how do we convert those to fuel? The book shows the limitations and advantages of a variety of potential methods. For those who say, use electricity, we still have to make that, and a quick survey of battery technology shows that will not be the answer to all of our problems any time soon. That may change, but I think we shall always need liquid fuels. My preferred option is hydrothermal liquefaction, primarily because it can process any biomass and with some reservations, it succeeds with only minor adjustments to the methodology as one changes resources. (In fairness, this is also the area in which I worked, so I may be biased!) It then produces a mixture of drop-in fuels, and fuels than need a little more processing, however, once one gets to the liquid state, it is much easier to transport the “pre-fuel” to a refinery for upgrading.
Can we totally replace oil? Probably not. Probably we shall have to reduce the wasted travel, but in principle we can come reasonably close. And while I most certainly do not claim to have all the answers, I am putting what I have out there. If you have any questions about this, or any alternative views, please feel free to contact me.


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