Biofuels as Alternative Fuel Sources

In the previous post I suggested that municipal refuse could be converted to liquid fuels of similar nature to modern hydrocarbon fuels from oil. There are some who think transport can be readily electrified, but three other considerations suggest not. The first is that, as noted by Physics World, a publication by the Institute of Physics, there is a very good chance that a car sold today will still be being used twenty years out. The second is that electric vehicles also have considerable greenhouse emissions. The actual running of the car is free of emissions, but you still have to make the car, which has significant emissions and may exceed that of the standard car; you have to generate the electricity, and the majority of the world’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, and much from coal; and finally you have to make the batteries, and this is also a serious emitter. There are also parts of the vehicle fleet that will not easily electrify, such as the big road trailers that go into remote Australia, heavy construction equipment, simply because the extra mass to store the batteries would be horrendous, and recharge is not simple in remote places. Shipping will continue to use oil, as will aircraft, and as noted in a previous post, so will much of the vehicle fleet because it is not possible to make satisfactory batteries for replacement vehicles because with current technology there is insufficient cobalt. So what else can replace fossil fuel?

One such possibility is biofuels. The case for biofuels is that in principle their combustion is carbon neutral: their carbon may return to the air, but it came from the air. The energy source is essentially solar, and that is not going to run out soon. The problem then is that biomass is a strange mix of different chemicals. Worse, we eat biomass, and we must not remove our food supply.

The first problem that gives biofuels a bad name is the urge to take the low hanging fruit, especially for tax benefits. Palm oil for biodiesel has made a terrible mess of the Indonesian rain forests, and for what benefit (apart from clipping the tax ticket?) Corn for ethanol similarly makes little sense exceptfor the case where the corn would otherwise go to waste. The problem in part is that corn also utilises so little of the sunlight; most of the plant is simply wasted, and often burned. Seed oils do make sense for specialist uses, such as drying oils in paint, or in cosmetics, or as a feedstock to make other specialist chemicals, but something like “biodiesel” from palm oil makes the overall situation worse, not better. It will never replace the carbon fixed in the rain forest.

Forestry is another interesting case. We are much better off to use the logs for timber in construction: it is worth more, and at the same time it fixes carbon in the buildings. However, if you have ever seen forestry, you will know there is an awful lot of biomass just left to rot: the branches, twigs, stumps, roots, leaves/needles, etc. That is essentially free to use. There are big problems in that it packs extremely badly, so transport costs for any distance are too great.

From a technical point of view, the processes to use woody biomass would come down to the same ones for municipal wastes as noted in the previous post, except that gasification is unlikely to be suitable. A significant plant was put up in the US to gasify biomass and use the gas for a modified Fischer-Tropsch process, but it failed. There were probably several reasons for this, but one is immediately obvious: if we rely on market forces we cannot compete with oil. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the oil is “free” originally, and since liquids can be pumped, it is easily handled, while the second is there is a huge infrastructure to process oil. The cost per unit mass of product becomes lower, usually the ratio of the throughput rates to the power of 0.6. The reason for this is simple. Costs of processing plant are proportional (all other things being equal) to the area of the container, which is proportional to r squared, while the production rate is proportional to volume, which is proportional to rcubed. The huge oil processing plants are extremely efficient, and no much smaller biomass processing unit can have any hope of matching it. The reason for the 0.6 as opposed to 0.66666 is that there are also some extra savings. Control equipment, gauges, etc tend to cost much the same because they are the same, and pumps, etc, tend to be excessively costly when small. The six-tenths rule is, of course, only a rough approximation, but it is a guide.

My approach to this, when I started, was to consider biomass hydrothermal liquefaction. The concept here was that if we merely heated the biomass up with water and simple catalysts under pressure to approaching the critical point, we could end up with liquids. These would have to be refined, but that could be done in a large central plant, while the initial processing could be done in smaller units that could be, with effort, portable. One of the surprises from this was that a certain fraction was already effectively a very high-grade fuel, at least for petrol craft or jet engines without further refining. Exactly what you got depended on catalysts, and a case could also be made to add certain other chemicals to enhance certain products. A lot more work would be needed to get such technology operational, but needing more work is not a reason to discard the concept if saving the world is at stake.

So why did I stop doing this work? Basically, because I felt the desire to change my working environment, and because the funding for this work was drying up. Regarding my working environment, there is a funny story there – well, sort of funny, but it did not feel that way then. The journal Naturedid a quick survey of science in New Zealand. I worked in a Government laboratory, and I had the rather dubious honour of having Head Office describe me in Natureas “an eccentric”. Why? Because I was trying to promote an industry based on a by-product of a synthetic fuels plant constructed at Motunui that would make a key starting material for high-temperature plastics. I suppose some of my antics were unusual, for example there was a program on national television of the dangers of flammable foam plastics, so I went there and pointed out they did not haveto be flammable. I had a piece of foam I had made in the lab that afternoon in the palm of my hand and I fired a gas torch at it so the foam was in my hand, yet yellow-hot on the outside. I held it there for quite some time, until everyone got bored. Anyway, when your employer decides you are eccentric, it felt like time to quit and start up by myself. There were two consequences of this. Before I left, the technical staff made me a brass “eggcup” with a large glass egg in it. One of my prized possessions. The second was I got a letter of apology from Head Office, in which it was explained they did not mean I was eccentric, but rather my ideas were. Not a great improvement, as seen by me. I suppose there was a further example of eccentric behaviour. The laboratory was set up with the purpose of promoting the New Zealand economy by finding new industrial opportunities. I suppose it was somewhat eccentric to actually be following “the Prime Directive”.