Biofuels to Power Transport

No sooner do I post something than someone says something to contradict the post. In this case, immediately after the last post, an airline came out and said it would be zero carbon by some time in the not-too-distant future. They talked about, amongst other things, hydrogen. There is no doubt hydrogen could power an aircraft, as it also powers rockets that go into space. That is liquid hydrogen, and once the craft takes off, it burns for a matter of minutes. I still think it would be very risky for aircraft to try to hold the pressures that could be generated for hours. If you do contain it, the extra weight and volume occupied would make such travel extremely expensive, while sitting above a tank of hydrogen is risky.

Hydrocarbons make by far the best aircraft fuel, and one alternative source of them is from biomass. I should caution that I have been working in this area of scientific research on and off for decades (more off than on because of the need to earn money.) With that caveat, I ask you to consider the following:

C6H12O6  ->  2 CO2 +2H2O + “C4H8”

That is idealized, but the message is a molecule of glucose (from water plus cellulose) can give two molecules each of CO2 and water, plus two thirds of the starting carbon as a hydrocarbon, which would be useful as a fuel. If you were to add enough hydrogen to convert the CO2 to a fuel you get more fuel. Actually, you do not need much hydrogen because we usually get quite a few aromatics, thus if we took two “C4H8” and make xylene or ethyl benzene (both products that are made in simple liquefactions) these total C8H10, which gives us a surplus of three H2 molecules. The point here is that in each of these cases we could imagine the energy coming from solar, but if you use biomass, much of the energy is collected for you by nature. Of course, if you take the oxygen out as water you are left with carbon. In practice there are a lot of options, and what you get tends to depend on how you do it. Biomass also contains lignin, which is a phenolic material. This is much richer in hydrocarbon material, but also it is much harder to remove the oxygen.

In my opinion, there are four basic approaches to making hydrocarbon fuels from biomass. The first, which everyone refers to, is pyrolysis. You heat the biomass, you get a lot of charcoal, but you also get liquids. These still tend to have a lot of oxygen in them, and I do not approve of this because the yields of anything useful are too low unless you want to make charcoal, or carbon, say for metal refining, steel making, electrodes for batteries, etc. There is an exception to that statement, but that needs a further post.

The second is to gasify the biomass, preferably by forcing oxygen into it and partially burning it. This gives you what chemists call synthesis gas, and you can make fuels through a further process called the Fischer-Tropsch process. Germany used that during the war, and Sasol in South Africa Sasol, but in both cases coal was the source of carbon. Biomass would work, and in the 1970s Union Carbide built such a gasifier, but that came to nothing when the oil price collapsed.

The third is high-pressure hydrogenation. The biomass is slurried in oil and heated to something over 400 degrees Centigrade in then presence of a nickel catalyst and hydrogen. A good quality oil is obtained, and in the 1980s there was a proposal to use the refuse of the town of Worcester, Mass. to operate a 50 t/d plant. Again, this came to nothing when the price of oil slumped.

The fourth is hydrothermal liquefaction. Again, what you get depends on what you put in but basically there are two main fractions from woody biomass: hydrocarbons and phenolics. The phenolics (which includes aromatic ethers) need to be hydrogenated, but the hydrocarbons are directly usable, with distillation. The petrol fraction is a high octane, and the heavier hydrocarbons qualify as very high-quality jet fuel. If you use microalgae or animal residues, you also end up with a high cetane diesel cut, and nitrogenous chemicals. Of particular interest from the point of view of jet fuel, in New Zealand they once planted Pinus Radiata which grew very quickly, and had up to 15% terpene content, most of which would make excellent jet fuel, but to improve the quality of the wood, they bred the terpenes more or less out of the trees.

The point of this is that growing biomass could help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make the fuels needed to keep a realistic number of heritage cars on the road and power long-distance air transport, while being carbon neutral. This needs plenty of engineering development, but in the long run it may be a lot cheaper than just throwing everything we have away and then finding we can’t replace it because there are shortages of elements.

2 thoughts on “Biofuels to Power Transport

  1. The more I read, the more I think carbon reduction has to be a multi-pronged approach. Different ways of producing energy. As this post says, a process should match the purpose.

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