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Let the Data Do the Talking

Although not always successful, my goal is to let data drive my conclusions. Still, we all sometimes find ourselves in debates that are based more on passion and conviction than on data. But if the data are ignored because the conviction is strong, it may be dogma driving the conclusions.

Passionate debates are fine, but passionate debates that ignore data have no business in a scientific discussion. Further, such arguments frequently degenerate because one or both sides is not listening to the other.

During such emotional debates, I have been accused of being a shill for oil and gas, or of being a shill for biomass. In fact, in the debate I will discuss here, I was called both in the same thread! I am pro-biomass. I am anti-biomass. I love the environment. I want to destroy the environment. I am a Conservative. I am a Liberal.

The thing is, my world is not a black and white place. In the right hands, a screwdriver is a handy tool. In the hands of an enraged person, it can be a weapon. Same tool, vastly different outcomes, depending on how it is used.

Biomass is also a tool in which the outcome depends on lots of different factors. And even then the answers to the questions don’t always lead to the same conclusions for everyone.

Here is what I mean by that. People die in car crashes every year. So one reaction to that is “If you don’t want to die in a car crash, then don’t ride in a car.” That is true. That is one response.

But one must then consider the impact of that response:

  • “How would this impact your mobility?”
  • “Would you still travel places, and if so, how?”
  • “Is there a bike path that you could utilize, or would you give up your automobile only to risk your life cycling next to a busy highway?”
  • In other words, what secondary conclusions result based on the response to the initial question? But another approach is to reexamine the initial question:

  • “Why do people die in car crashes?”
  • The answer may be that most people die in car crashes due to very specific issues that can be mitigated. That is not to say that this will eliminate your risk of dieing in a car crash. But if I determine that 63% of the people who die in car crashes were not wearing seat belts, then I can always wear a seat belt and improve my odds of surviving a car crash.

    This is the approach I try to take with science issues. Frequently the answers to questions are not definitive, and instead depend on any number of conditions. And in the end there will still be disagreement. Some people may feel that a 1% risk is acceptable, but that may be 100 times too high for the next person on the very same issue.

    When someone is letting their emotions drive the argument, I try to get them to confront the data. If the answer is “It won’t fit”, then I either want to see that it doesn’t fit, or I want to measure it. This was the approach that I attempted to take with Joshua Frank, the author of – Burn a Tree to Save the Planet? The Crazy Logic Behind Biomass.

    Following my recent critique – Biomass is Not Crazy Logic – Frank dropped by and left a number of comments. Not everyone wades through the comments, and the comments are really not designed for prolonged exchanges. Further, these essays are often picked up and reposted without the comments. So I thought it might be worthwhile to extract some of the comments here. (The complete responses can be found following my initial essay).

    Frank’s argument can be distilled down to this: Citing Professor Tim Searchinger, Frank argues that burning biomass creates a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere. Burning biomass creates the danger that we will cut our forests down and inefficiently turn them into energy. Burning biomass creates emissions. Therefore, the burning of biomass is crazy, and it must be stopped.

    My response can be distilled down pretty easily. I actually agree with Searchinger that there are lots of factors that have to be evaluated in the biomass/bioenergy equation. Searchinger’s point is to show that the improperly used screwdriver can be a weapon. Frank then extrapolates that position to: A screwdriver is a weapon, and therefore we must stop the spread of screwdrivers.

    Frank cites Searchinger, but Frank’s extrapolations are subjective and qualitative. Numbers are missing from Frank’s analysis. Conclusions are sweeping and rigid. He argues that there is only one way to do biomass: The wrong way.

    In the real world, the burning of biomass can present the risks Mr. Frank cites. But where Mr. Frank goes wrong is that he believes that it must present those risks. That logic does not follow. Responsible management of biomass resources can have the opposite impact of what Mr. Frank suggests.

    In the back and forth that ensued, Frank seems to be unaware that the issues he raises are known issues; that while he is bemoaning them as a reason to surrender, some are out there working on solving them.

    A perfect example of this was his frequent argument that “burning biomass creates particulate emissions.”

    JF: “Burning woody biomass produces PM25, the most deadly form of particulate matter. This is a serious public health threat. Even if you believe that biomass is carbon neutral, you cannot skate around this important, well-documented fact.”

    Regarding this issue that Frank kept trying to educate me on, here are some excerpts from a book chapter that I recently completed on Bioenergy and Biofuels from Woody Biomass:

    RR: The majority of the wood used for cooking is done over an open stove. This is an inefficient process, leading to excessive consumption of wood. Open cook stoves also result in particulate emissions. Excessive pollution from wood cooking has been identified as a risk factor in acute lower respiratory infection, the chief cause of death in children in developing countries (Smith 2000).

    So I am well aware of the particulate emission issue with biomass burning. But here was the next paragraph, in which I discussed mitigation of the particulates problem:

    RR: Modern biomass stoves have been developed that are much more efficient with respect to wood utilization. These stoves can mitigate some of the problems associated with cooking over an open fire. By operating more efficiently, the money spent for fuel, and/or the time spent collecting fuel is diminished, as less fuel is required. Because combustion is more efficient, the air pollution associated with open fires is also diminished. Due to the multiple advantages of moving to modern biomass stoves, a number of programs have emerged with the intent of disseminating these stoves to the developing world (Barnes 1994).

    In another section, I wrote:

    RR: As with wood for cooking, one disadvantage from using wood for heating is the high level of particulate emissions. Open fireplaces also suffer efficiency losses from heat exiting the chimney. The development of community advanced combustion systems (AWC) has the potential for allowing increased usage of wood for heating, because of increased efficiency and lower particulate emissions.

    So Frank is aware of a problem, but is unaware that this sort of problem can be mitigated if the framework is in effect to mitigate it. This problem has a solution, albeit many have not adopted the solutions. Frank only sees a problem.

    The biggest hang-up, though, was probably around energy balances. There was quite a bit of “it takes a lot of energy to cut trees down and haul them out of the forest.” Again, there were never any numbers associated with these kinds of comments (except for the ones I provided). I guess if you use phrases like “diesel-powered” a lot, you can infer that the energy balance is bad without ever having to crunch the numbers.

    As I told Mr. Franks, the various energy inputs in the logistical chain of taking a tree from the forest and getting it to a processing facility – or the energy inputs in the conversion process itself – are available and are used in life cycle assessments regularly. “A lot of energy” for me has numbers associated with the claim. So instead of arguing about “a lot of energy used to harvest and transport” and that no biomass process can overcome that, why not attempt to quantify that?

    Back to the chapter I just completed, I wrote a section called “Net Energy Considerations.” Here is an excerpt from that section:

    RR: When calculating the energy that one could extract from a resource, it is important to consider the energy inputs into the process, as well as the types of energy inputs.

    In that section, I spent a bit of time explaining that the net energy of a process can easily be negative, and those processes are not sustainable. I concluded that section with:

    RR: Consideration of energy inputs also highlights one of the shortcomings of biomass relative to petroleum: The energy density for biomass is much lower; less than half the energy density of oil. This is due to the fibrous nature of biomass, and the fact that the moisture content tends to be high. This has implications for recoverability of wood resources. In general, the lower the energy density of the feedstock, the closer it needs to be to the processing facility due to the energy required for transport. Economical technologies that can efficiently increase the energy density of biomass in the field are needed. Some are currently under development and will be discussed in this chapter.

    So yes, I am aware of the relationship that energy inputs have on the sustainability of the system.

    At one point Frank did actually use some numbers to show that it takes longer to grow a tree than it does to burn a tree:

    JF: “A large tree that took 20 years to go (GE trees would be less) may burn in 17 seconds (after chopped to fine pieces).”

    This must be a key concept for him, because he actually pointed it out three different times. At one point he referred to this as a fundamental fact. This leads him to the conclusion:

    JF: “Trees will be burned at a far quicker rate than it takes to replace them.”

    As a rebuttal to his “fundamental fact,” I point out that the tomato it took 60 days to grow is eaten in 5 minutes. Therefore, tomatoes are eaten at a far quicker rate than it takes to replace them and the eating of tomatoes must be stopped before they are wiped out?

    Frank made a number of other unsupported arguments such as:

  • JF: “Biomass in the US means deforestation in our national forests. Period.”
  • JF: “Almost 99% of biomass to electricity plants in the US are also burning coal or trash. That’s a huge problem.”
  • JF: “If we are going to promote biomass as a renewable, we are looking at large scale deforestation.”
  • JF: “Trees simply do NOT make for good sources of biomass for electricity. Woody debris is not a dense energy source like coal (I’m not suggesting coal is the alternative). That’s why, as you know, power plants are using other fuels with biomass to produce energy.”
  • JF: “There is no such thing as good forest management when profit is involved.”
  • It’s like arguing that red is the best color. Put some numbers to it and let’s measure it. Are 99% of biomass to electricity plants really burning coal or trash? What is the source of that claim? Or is that simply hyperbole over coal plants that have started to supplement with biomass?

    I kept wondering if he ever gave any thought to what would happen if we abandoned the use of biomass for fuel. I can tell you what would happen: In the U.S., the future would be coal until we run out of coal. (To be perfectly honest, that’s probably the case anyway). That is reality. Sure, there’s nuclear, but something tells me that this wouldn’t be his preferred outcome. In developing countries, it would eliminate the particulate emissions problem because huge numbers of people wouldn’t have any fuel for cooking.

    At one point Frank brought up the threat of genetically modified organisms (GMO). I pointed out that while my company doesn’t use genetically modified trees, I am not personally opposed to genetic engineering in principle. Nature has been genetically modifying organisms since the beginning of time, and everything we eat has been genetically modified. Every mutation (even those that aren’t expressed) is a naturally-occurring experiment in genetic engineering. This was his response:

    JF: If you are not opposed to GE (and no, cross-breeding and hybridized plants are not genetically engineered, stick to engineering because your biology stinks) then I can’t help you. GE is new to the cycle of evolution.

    That line of argumentation is certainly a tangent, but countless people are alive today as a result of genetic engineering. Incidentally, I appreciate his concern, but it isn’t my biology that stinks. I wrote that nature has been doing genetic modifications forever. That is a fact. Frank was the one who translated that as “cross-breeding and hybridized plants.” He may want to look into genetic mutations, because cross-breeding and hybridization aren’t the only things that have changed the genetics of our food.

    Ultimately when I continued to challenge his replies, it went the way emotional-arguments often go. Because I failed to yield to his subjective arguments, he concluded that I couldn’t be motivated by the science. So he threw out a couple of ad homs

    JF: You get paid to do it. Makes much more sense why you will not address the real dangers of biomass production.; You are motivated by factors other than hard science. Biomass = paycheck. I get it.

    – and then left. In light of what he actually wrote, I found the phrase “hard science” especially ironic. Maybe I misunderstood and he was simply complaining that the science is hard?

    For the record, I don’t get paid to promote biomass. I don’t get paid to write at all. I write because I like to, and I am focused on biomass because I think it is going to have to play an important role in our energy future. It can’t be the sole solution – and I have argued the point many times that it can only replace a small fraction of our fossil fuel usage – but every analysis I have ever done suggests that it must be a part of the solution.

    At the end of the day, I try to be practical. I frequently hear people suggest that what really needs to happen is to reduce the global population by 95%. My eyes just glaze over. Those are the sorts of things that are not going to happen by politics or decree. It is navel-gazing to sit around and argue about “solutions” like this. Better to focus on solutions in the context of what is likely to actually take place once the politics have been factored in.

    This is how I view biomass. Frank can spend his time dogmatically arguing that it must necessarily be a disaster. But what is likely? It is more likely (in fact, it is certain) that we are going to continue down this path. Therefore, I think a much more productive use of time is to ask “How do we do it right?”

    References

    Barnes DF, Openshaw K, Smith KR, van der Plas R. (1994). What Makes People Cook with Improved Biomass Stoves? A Comparative International Review of Stove Programs. Washington, DC. The World Bank.

    Smith, K., Samet, J., Romieu, I., and Bruce, N. (2000). Indoor air pollution in developing countries and acute lower respiratory infections in children In: Thorax. June; 55(6): 518–532.

    December 21, 2009 Posted by | biomass, biomass gasification, climate change, global warming | 99 Comments

    Biomass Is Not Crazy Logic

    I saw a story about a week ago that I flagged to comment on when I got caught up. I suppose I am caught up enough now to do so. The story is:

    Burn a Tree to Save the Planet? The Crazy Logic Behind Biomass

    The author is listed as Joshua Frank, described as an environmental journalist and the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush. Frank has previously written an article critical of Oregon’s usage of electricity derived from coal, and in the current essay he turns his attention to biomass.

    The article is confusing from the start:

    It might seem crazy that anyone would even consider the incineration of wood and its byproducts to be a green substitute for toxic fuels such as coal. Yet that’s exactly what is happening all over the country, and it has many environmentalists scratching their heads in disbelief.

    I find those comments baffling. Why would it seem crazy to believe that burning biomass – which utilizes CO2 when it is growing and helps sequester carbon in the soil through the root systems, leaves, and slash – would be greener than burning a fossil fuel like coal that has a long list of potentially undesirable environmental impacts? Do you know what happens to waste biomass that isn’t utilized? It decomposes and ends up as the same CO2 it would end up as if you burned it.

    While it is true that emissions controls on coal-fired power plants are much improved in recent years, it is also true that burning coal has resulted in acid rain and increased levels of mercury in our waterways. Burning coal also increases the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. To suggest that burning trees isn’t greener than burning coal is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard. From the tone of the article, it sounds as if the author believes that forestry and the harvesting of trees is by definition bad.

    Now it is true that if you cut down an old growth forest and inefficiently turn it into a liquid fuel, that isn’t environmentally responsible. I could certainly envision any number of schemes to make the burning of biomass come out with a higher environmental impact than from burning coal. If I cut down a chunk of the Amazon, displace the people and the wildlife living there, ship the wood halfway around the world, and combust it in an old, inefficient boiler – then yes, the environmental impact of that would be higher than from burning Powder River coal. But such exceptions aren’t the norm. This article, however, paints with a very broad, one-sided brush and acts as if all usage of biomass is by definition bad:

    NASA’s James Hansen says that the burning of coal is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic global warming, so any alternative fuel source must decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere if we are to put the breaks on climate change. Biomass, despite its label as a renewable energy source, does not solve the problem because burning trees actually emits a large amount of CO2.

    That is another very odd comment. Burning coal releases ancient CO2 that was sequestered away. Burning biomass releases recently recycled CO2. That’s why it is renewable. If the author is concerned about CO2 emissions – and he clearly is – then coal and biomass are night and day. And while they acknowledge in their next paragraph that this is what “proponents counter with”, Frank quickly tries to shoot that one down:

    An article in Science released last October attempted to debunk the myth that biomass is a good alternative to traditional coal and oil burning. The study, authored by climate scientists, claimed that when an existing forest is chopped and cleared to produce fuel, the ability of those harvested trees to absorb CO2 is eliminated entirely while the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually increases.

    This entire article seems bent on the notion that the biomass we utilize will come from old growth forest that is slashed, burned, and left fallow. The people interviewed for the article must envision a scenario like turning the Amazon into biofuels – and this is the future they must foresee for biomass to come up with these sorts of conclusions. Such a notion isn’t remotely indicative of the future of biomass. Biomass will be grown for purpose (as I explained in Don’t Weep for the Trees), and it can definitely be grown responsibly and sustainably.

    “The game is up,” stated biomass skeptic Ellen Moyer, a principal of green engineering firm Greenvironment, after the release of the report. “The problem has been identified, and the clarion call for course correction has rung out around the world. The days of biomass burning … are numbered and pending legislation needs to be corrected before perverse incentives to burn our forests are enshrined in law.”

    You will have to show me the laws that incentivize the burning of our forests. If you mean laws that incentivize the usage of biomass for energy – well that isn’t the same as burning our forests. You first grow the forest, and while that is taking place everything you are complaining about when you burn it is running in reverse. Oh, there can be particulate emissions from improper burning, but it is also true that proper forest management can result in improved soil and increased carbon sequestration in the soil.

    Another problem with biomass is that it is typically mixed with substances like coal to produce energy. In Nevada, for example, NV Energy is set to use a mix of coal and wood at its Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant. As a result, the company hopes to qualify for the state’s renewable energy credits.

    The first problem is that this isn’t true. That is not how biomass is typically used. It can only be blended with coal in small amounts due to differences in chemical and physical properties, and it requires a substantial investment in the coal plant to allow such mixing. There is a technology called torrefaction that has the potential to allow much greater mixing, as it converts biomass into something like bio-coal. But torrefaction is still mostly at a pre-commercialization stage.

    If a coal-fired power plant receiving energy credits isn’t mind boggling enough,…

    Why is that mind-boggling? You just wrote that they were going to use wood to displace coal. Why wouldn’t they qualify for the same energy credit anyone else gets for using biomass? Or do you prefer that they simply continue to use 100% coal?

    “They are burning more than trees because wood is simply not a good energy source,” said Jeff Gibbs, who resides in Michigan and is fighting the state’s six operating biomass plants. “Look, wood produces 50 percent more CO2 than coal, for the same amount of energy output. We have to stop this before more plants begin to pop up.”

    I am sorry, but that’s another ludicrous statement. I would really love to see the analysis that provided that figure.

    Not only is biomass not a good source of power, claims a 2007 paper presented at the European Aerosol Conference, it’s also not a healthy alternative to coal. The paper claimed that particulate matter (particles, such as dust, dirt, soot or smoke) was actually higher for a 7 megawatt wood gasification plant than it was for a large coal-fired power station.

    There’s that broad brush again. While it is true that wood gasification plants can have lots of particulate emissions, that is not an inherent quality. You can put the same pollution controls on them that you can on coal plants. So once again a bad starting assumption leads to a sweeping, but false conclusion.

    In summary, this was a very one-sided view that presented the worst extremes as more or less the status quo for biomass utilization. It is true that you can do things a right way or a wrong way. Water is healthy and I need it to live, but if I drink too much it can kill me. Taking a page from this article, I suppose I should avoid water from now on, as it has the potential to kill me.

    For those quoted in the article, I hope they don’t freeze to death in the dark as the biomass they are so opposed to rots and releases its CO2 anyway. As I tell people sometimes, if you are opposed to everything, then prepare to be happy with the status quo.

    December 15, 2009 Posted by | biomass, biomass gasification, climate change, global warming | 133 Comments

    Biofuel Contenders

    Introduction

    I got quite a few interesting e-mails and comments following my previous essay: Biofuel Pretenders. I probably should have mentioned – but I thought it went without saying – that pretenders usually don’t think they are pretenders and will therefore protest mightily at the characterization. A number of people who e-mailed assured me that they have really cracked the code to affordable biofuels, and that we would be hearing more about them soon. Another person who wrote to me about algae said that he has been following algae since 1973, and he wrote “In spite of all the hype and non-stop press releases, no one to my knowledge is producing algae on a commercial basis for biofuel production.” Ultimately, I would be happy to be proven wrong on this, but I am just calling it as I see it.

    On the other hand, there are some renewable fuel options that have either proven themselves as solid contenders, or have not yet demonstrated fatal flaws that would disqualify them at this point. In this essay I will cover some of those. First, I will cover a pair of first generation biofuels that have proven that they can compete with oil on a cost basis, and then a pair of next generation biofuels that I believe will be competitive.

    The First Generation Contenders

    Sugarcane Ethanol

    Sugarcane ethanol, especially from tropical regions like Brazil, has some unique attributes that have enabled it to compete on a head to head basis with gasoline pricing. Specifically, during the production of sugar, the bagasse (sugarcane residue) is pulverized and washed many times. Many soluble inorganic constituents that may normally pose an ash problem for a boiler are washed out in the process. What remains after processing is a pretty clean biomass feed for the boilers. The normally vexing logistical issues aren’t there because the biomass is already at the plant as a result of the sugarcane processing. So they essentially have free boiler fuel, which minimizes the fossil fuel inputs into the process. That enables ethanol production that is relatively cheap, and that is largely decoupled from the impact of volatile fossil fuel prices.

    There are several reasons we don’t do sugarcane ethanol in the United States. Last year I made a visit to the largest sugar producer in Louisiana, and they explained to me that the economics of their by-product molasses generally favor putting it into animal feed. If they had a year-round growing season as they do in the tropics, it is more likely that the animal feed market would start to become saturated, and conversion into ethanol might be more attractive. Further, a bagasse boiler is a major capital expense, so there needs to be a high level of confidence that in the future ethanol will be a more economical outlet than animal feed. For Brazil, this is certainly the case.

    The ultimate downside of sugarcane ethanol will come about if the U.S. and Europe begin to rely heavily on tropical countries for their fuel needs – thus encouraging a massive scale-up. First, ethanol imports don’t do much for domestic energy security. More importantly, it may encourage irresponsible usage of the land in an effort to feed our insatiable appetite for fuel. I think the ideal situation is to produce the sugarcane ethanol and use it locally, rather than try to scale it up and supply the world. In this way, sugarcane ethanol could be a long-term contender for providing fuel for the tropics, but not a long-term contender for major fossil fuel displacement outside of the tropics.

    Palm Oil

    The other major first generation contender is palm oil – which also comes with a lot of environmental risk. Palm oil is derived from the African Oil Palm. The oil palm is a prolific producer of oil, which can be used as fuel (and food). This is also a plant that thrives in the tropics, and is capable of annually producing upwards of 500 gallons of oil per acre. To my knowledge there is no other oil crop that consistently demonstrates these sorts of yields (acknowledging that algae could theoretically produce more).

    The price of palm oil over the past 5 years or so has traded in a range comparable to that of crude oil; $50-$75 a barrel for the most part (although like petroleum, prices shot up to around $150/bbl in mid-2008). Palm oil can be used unmodified in a diesel engine, although some precautions are in order (and I don’t recommend it). It can also be processed to biodiesel, or hydrocracked to green diesel. The extra processing will generally make the final product somewhat more expensive than petroleum, but demand has still been strong due to biofuel mandates.

    The risks with palm oil are significant, though. Palm oil presents an excellent case illustrating both the promise and the peril of biofuels. Driven by demand from the U.S. and the European Union (EU) due to mandated biofuel requirements, palm oil has provided a valuable cash crop for farmers in tropical regions like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. The high productivity of palm oil has led to a dramatic expansion in most tropical countries around the equator. This has the potential for alleviating poverty in these regions.

    But in certain locations, expansion of palm oil cultivation has resulted in serious environmental damage as rain forest has been cleared and peat bogs drained to make room for new palm oil plantations. Deforestation in some countries has been severe, which negatively impacts sustainability criteria, because these tropical forests absorb carbon dioxide and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Destruction of peat land in Indonesia for palm oil plantations has reportedly caused the country to become the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases.

    Because palm oil is capable of competing on price, it was originally viewed as a very attractive source of biofuels. In recent years, countries have begun to rethink their policies as the environmental implications of scaling up palm oil production began to unfold. As is so often the case, the seemingly good idea of biofuel mandates has had some pretty serious unintended consequences.

    Next Generation Biofuel Contenders

    Here is how I would define a next generation Biofuel Contender: A technology that is capable of supplying 20% of our present liquid fossil fuel consumption on a net energy basis.

    Yes, 20% is rather arbitrary, but it weeds out a lot arguments over many potential small contributors. I will focus in this essay on the United States, because I am most familiar with our energy usage and biomass availability, but these arguments should be applicable in many places around the world.

    Consider for a moment the amount of energy locked up inside the 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass that the Department of Energy suggests can be sustainably produced each year. Woody biomass and crop residues – the kind of biomass covered in the 1.3 billion ton study – contains an energy content of approximately 7,000 BTUs per pound (bone dry basis). The energy content of a barrel of oil is approximately 5.8 million BTUs. Thus the raw energy contained in 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass is equivalent to the energy content of 3.1 billion barrels of oil, which is equal to 42% of the 7.32 billion barrels the United States consumed in 2008.

    This calculation tells you a couple of things. First, the 42% represents an upper limit on the amount of oil that could be displaced by 1.3 billion tons of biomass. The true number would be much lower because energy is required to get the biomass to the biorefinery and then to process it. So replacing oil with biomass isn’t going to be a trivial task, and a process must be capable of turning a respectable percentage of those biomass BTUs into liquid fuel if it is to be a contender.

    Imagine a process that only captures 25% of the starting BTUs as liquid fuel. The liquid fuel production of 1.3 billion tons would then be 10.5% of our oil usage instead of 42% – and that’s before we consider the energy requirements from the logistical operations (like getting that wood to the biorefinery). This is the realm of the pretenders; they waste a lot of BTUs during the production of their liquid fuel. What we really need is a process that can capture >50% of the BTUs as liquid fuels. That’s what it will take to be a contender, and quite frankly I don’t believe cellulosic ethanol has a chance of pulling this off on a large scale.

    However, there are at least two technologies that can achieve net liquid fuel yields in excess of 50% of the BTU value of dry biomass. These technologies are flash pyrolysis and gasification. I will talk about each below.

    Flash Pyrolysis

    Flash pyrolysis involves rapidly heating up biomass to around 500°C. The reaction takes place in about 2 seconds, and the products are pyrolysis oil (also called bio-oil) and char. The process can handle a wide variety of feedstocks, the oil yield is approximately 70% by weight, and the energy content per pound of oil is similar to the starting material. Thus, approximately 70% of the initial BTUs are captured in the oil before we have to start subtracting out energy inputs.

    Char is frequently mentioned as a great soil amendment (as terra preta, for instance), but I don’t really know if there is a market for it. As someone recently said to me, it may be like biodiesel and glycerin. In theory there are all kinds of uses for glycerin, but the market was quickly saturated as biodiesel production ramped up. Glycerin suddenly became a disposal problem. Terra preta does in fact appear to be a great soil amendment, but people are going to have to show that they will buy it. It seems to me that the ideal solution would be to use the char to help heat the biomass, unless the ash properties are problematic for the process.

    There are definite downsides to flash pyrolysis. Heating up to 500°C will subtract from the net energy production, and while heat integration is possible, it would be more difficult to achieve in a hypothetical mobile unit (which I think could finally provide an outlet for the millions of acres of trees destroyed by the Mountain pine beetle). The properties of the raw oil are such that it isn’t suitable for transport fuel as produced. It is not a hydrocarbon and is very acidic. Without upgrading, it can’t be blended with conventional diesel. There are various issues around reproducibility and stability, especially if the biomass quality varies. The oil is suitable for power generation or gasification, and can be upgraded to transportation fuel, albeit at greater expense and lower overall energy efficiency.

    With those caveats, it is still a contender. It could be knocked out of contention as a viable transportation fuel if the upgrading process is too expensive or energy intensive, but at present no fatal flaw has emerged. There are a number of companies involved in pyrolysis research. Dynamotive Energy Systems has been working on this for a while (I first wrote about them in 2007). UOP – a company that specializes in product upgrading for refineries – has teamed with Ensyn to form a joint venture called Envergent Technologies. The company intends to make pyrolysis oils from biomass for power generation, heat, and transport fuel (this is where UOP’s skills will come into play).

    Gasification: Biomass to Liquids

    The following example is just one reason I think gasification is going to play a big part in our future. During World War II, the Germans were cut off from liquid fuel supplies. In order to keep the war machine running, they turned to coal to liquids, or CTL (coal gasification followed by Fischer-Tropsch to liquids) for their liquid fuel needs. At peak production, the Germans were producing over five million gallons of synthetic fuel a day. To put matters into perspective, five million gallons probably exceeds the historical sum of all the cellulosic ethanol or synthetic algal biofuel ever produced. Without a doubt, one week’s production from Germany’s WWII CTL plants dwarfs the combined historical output of two technologies upon which the U.S. government and many venture capitalists are placing very large bets.

    South Africa during Apartheid had a similar experience. With sanctions restricting their petroleum supplies, they turned to their large coal reserves and once again used CTL. Sasol (South African Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation) – out of necessity – has been a pioneer in gasification technology. Today, they have a number of gasification facilities, including the 160,000 bbl/day Secunda CTL facility, which has been highly profitable for the company (but very expensive relative to oil prices when constructed). In total, Sasol today synthetically produces about 40% of South Africa’s liquid fuel.

    While we can speculate on the source of future fuel supplies in a petroleum constrained world, we do know that two countries that already found themselves in that position turned to gasification as a solution. The technology has a track record and is scalable. The same can’t be said for many of the technologies upon which we are pinning our hopes (and taxpayer dollars). We hope these other technologies scale and that technical breakthroughs allow them to compete. But gasification has already proven itself as a viable go-to option. There are presently a number of operating CTL and GTL plants around the world. Shell has been running their Bintulu GTL plant for 15 years, and is currently building the world’s largest GTL plant with a capacity of 140,000 barrels/day.

    The biomass to liquid fuel efficiency for gasification is around 70% (See Section 1.2.2: Second-Generation Biofuels), a number cellulosic ethanol will never approach. In short, no other technology to my knowledge can convert a higher percentage of the embedded energy in biomass into liquid fuels.

    Of course there’s always a catch. Despite large reserves of coal, the United States has not turned to gasification as a solution. Why? High capital costs. At the end of the day the desire to keep fuel prices low consistently overrides our desire for energy security. (There is also environmental pressure over using coal gasification which should not be an issue for waste biomass gasification).

    But biomass is more difficult to handle, so there are added costs above those of coal gasification. So you are talking about a process that is more capital intensive than a conventional oil refinery, or even a cellulosic ethanol plant. But what you save on the cellulosic ethanol plant ultimately costs a lot in overall energy efficiency. Until someone actually scales up and runs a cellulosic ethanol plant, we can only speculate as to whether the process is truly a net energy producer at scale.

    Interestingly, one of the “cellulosic ethanol” hopefuls that we often hear so much about – Range Fuels – is actually a gasification plant. (Ditto Coskata). The front end of their process is intended to produce syngas in a process very similar to that of World War II Germany. For their back end they intend to produce ethanol, which in my opinion is an odd choice that was driven purely by ethanol subsidies. But this is definitely not the optimal end product of a gasification process. They are going to lose a lot of efficiency to byproducts like methanol (which is actually a good end product for a gasification plant) – and that’s assuming they get their gasification process right. They are then going to expend some of their net energy trying to purify the ethanol from the mixed alcohols their process will produce.

    The question for me is not whether BTL can displace 20% of our petroleum usage. It absolutely can. The question is whether we are prepared to accept domestic fuel that will cost more to produce. In the long run – if oil prices continue to rise – then BTL plants that are built today will become profitable. The risk is that a sustained period of oil prices in the $50-$70 range will retard BTL development. But I don’t expect that to happen.

    Conclusions

    In my opinion, the question of which next generation biofuels can compete comes down to fossil fuel prices. If oil prices are at $50 for the next 10 years, it will be difficult for renewable fuels to compete. Despite the many promises of technologies that will deliver fuel for $1 a gallon, I think that target is likely to be reached only on paper. My view on which technologies will be competitive is based on 1). An expectation of an average oil price over the next 10 years that exceeds $100/bbl; 2). An expectation that we will need to efficiently convert the available biomass. I expect biomass prices to rise as well, and inefficient technologies that may be competitive if the biomass is free and fossil fuel inputs like natural gas are low-priced will not survive as the prices of both rise.

    I am certainly interested in helping develop promising next generation technologies, so if you think I have missed some really promising ones then feel free to add your thoughts. It is possible that a company like LS9 or KiOR will ultimately be successful, but they are going to require some technical breakthroughs. Given the great number of renewable energy start-ups, it won’t be surprising if one or more of them eventually makes a contribution, but the odds are against most of them. I selected pyrolysis and gasification as strong contenders because they don’t require technical breakthroughs in order to produce large amounts of fuel. The technical aspects of gasification at large scale are well-known. This is not the case with most companies seeking to compete in the next generation arena.

    Personal Note on Technology Development

    On a personal note, since I have long believed in the promise of gasification as a future solution to our liquid fuel problem, it will come as no surprise that my new role in Hawaii has connections into this area. While a few have figured out what I am doing (and quite a few others know because of various meetings I have attended), I still don’t have the green light to explicitly discuss it. We still have some pieces to put in place, and then I will explain why I believe we are building a platform that is unique in the world. I can say that my new role is as Chief Technology Officer of what we are building, and that it involves quite a few pieces.

    One of the things I am very interested in is developing conversion technologies for woody biomass and crop wastes. I have a number of technologies on my plate right now, but I am searching for other pieces that improve the economics (scalability is important).

    For example, in the earlier example of the beetle-infested forests, the logistical challenge of getting the biomass to a processing facility – without consuming a large fraction of the BTU value of the tree – is significant. Biomass has a low energy density relative to fossil fuels, and cost-effective technologies are needed for improving that equation. I am speaking to a number of people with promising technologies around this area, but am always open to speaking to others who have ideas, prototypes, or pilot plants demonstrating their technology. You can find my contact e-mail hidden away from the spambots in my resume.

    September 3, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, Coskata, Germany, pyrolysis oil, range fuels, Sasol, South Africa | 124 Comments

    My Point Exactly

    I missed this story when it came out last week:

    Hydrocarbon biofuels’ promise tops that of ethanol, gasoline

    John Regalbuto, a chemical engineer at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and director of the NSF catalysis and biocatalysis program, wrote in Science that biomass-derived fuels are not far from being part of the energy mix as a replacement for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

    Hydrocarbon fuels can be directly produced from the sugars of woody biomass — forest waste, cornstalks or switchgrass — through microbial fermentation or liquid-phase catalysis, he wrote. They can be produced by pyrolysis or gasification directly from the woody biomass. And they can be produced by converting the lipids of nonfood crops and algae.

    “The drawback to using ethanol as a complete replacement for gasoline … is not only the high cost of its production from cellulose but also its lower energy density,” Regalbuto wrote. “Ethanol has two-thirds the energy density of gasoline, and cars running on E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) get about 30 percent lower gas mileage.”

    I am not so concerned about the energy density as I am the prospects for ever being able to produce ethanol from cellulose at a reasonable energy efficiency. By that, I mean this: If I start with biomass with the energy content of a million BTUs, how much ends up as usable energy?

    And the money quote, which has been my argument all along:

    “I’m not a lobbyist but a scientist, but if I were, I would argue for a subsidy for all biofuels and not just ethanol,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s too early to tell which route — pyrolysis, aqueous phase processing, gasification or synthetic biology — will win out; we may well have versions of all four contributing to the mix. I would simply say that lignocellulosic hydrocarbons appear to give far more promise than cellulosic ethanol.”

    Without any subsidies at all, fossil fuels would kill pretty much all biofuels except for sugarcane ethanol from the tropics. If you subsidize all biofuels equally, corn ethanol can compete as a 1st generation fuel, but gasification or pyrolysis will win out over cellulosic ethanol. The energy efficiency of cellulosic ethanol relative to gasification is far too low for it to compete in the long run. I am not naive enough to think that corn ethanol is going away – it has too much support in Congress. But the 2nd generation will only see cellulosic in niche applications. Gasification is where I am placing my bet.

    August 21, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, btl, cellulose, cellulosic ethanol | 37 Comments

    Rentech Making Waves

    The following story posed a bit of a dilemma for me. In my new role, there will be potential conflicts of interest in some of the stories I may post, and until I elaborate on what I am doing, I am trying to avoid posting anything that might fall into that category.

    When I first saw this story earlier today – and in fact received the press release from Rentech (RTK) – my first thought was that this sort of fell into that category. Why? Two reasons. First, Rentech’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Harold Wright is my former manager and a friend. Second, in my new role I have interests that are of the same nature as some of Rentech’s. That means that we could be allies or we could be competitors, but I can’t say I am a disinterested party. So I finally decided that I should simply declare this, and post the story, which is really a culmination of several Rentech developments.

    Having said that, Rentech has really been generating a lot of buzz lately. They are currently operating the only fully-integrated synthetic transportation fuels production facility in the U.S., and in partnership with ClearFuels Technology Inc., they are building a “20 ton-per-day biomass gasifier designed to produce syngas from bagasse, virgin wood waste and other cellulosic feedstocks at Rentech’s Product Demonstration Unit (PDU) in Colorado. The gasifier will be integrated with Rentech’s Fischer-Tropsch Process and UOP’s upgrading technology to produce renewable drop-in synthetic jet and diesel fuel at demonstration scale.”

    Rentech also recently announced their Rialto Project, designed to “produce approximately 600 barrels per day of pure renewable synthetic fuels and export approximately 35 megawatts of renewable electric power.” They will use Rentech-SilvaGas biomass gasification technology, and green waste as the feedstock.

    Today’s press release announced an off-take agreement with several airlines. You can read the press release below. Rentech stock was up 86% today on the news. They also announced a profit last week of $0.22 a share (triple analysts’ expectations), and were up 56% on that news.

    I have strongly voiced my views that I believe the future belongs to gasification. Keep an eye on Rentech’s developments in this area.

    ——————————–

    Rentech to Supply Renewable Synthetic Fuels to Eight Airlines for Ground Service Equipment Operations at Los Angeles International Airport

    Initial Purchasers Include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, UPS Airlines and US Airways, with Potential for Additional Purchasers

    LOS ANGELES (August 18, 2009) – Rentech, Inc. (NYSE AMEX: RTK) announced today that it has signed an unprecedented multi-year agreement to supply eight airlines with up to 1.5 million gallons per year of renewable synthetic diesel (RenDiesel®) for ground service equipment operations at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) beginning in late 2012, when the plant that will produce the fuel is scheduled to go into service.

    The initial purchasers under the agreement with Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG), the entity that provides fueling services to many airlines that operate at LAX, are Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, UPS Airlines and US Airways. Additional airline purchasers of RenDiesel® can be added under the agreement with ASIG.

    The agreement is the first of its kind to supply renewable synthetic fuels to multiple domestic airlines. The renewable RenDiesel® fuel to be supplied to the airlines would be produced from green waste at Rentech’s proposed Rialto Renewable Energy Center (Rialto Project). The renewable diesel fuel will have a carbon footprint of near zero. RenDiesel® exceeds all applicable fuels standards, is biodegradable and is virtually free of particulates, sulfur and aromatics. RenDiesel® is compatible with existing engines and pipelines, providing an immediate solution to the transportation sector’s requirements to meet targets established by California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

    D. Hunt Ramsbottom, President and Chief Executive Officer of Rentech said, “This commercial purchase contract among Rentech, ASIG and the airlines validates the growing demand for synthetic fuels produced by the Rentech Process. The low-emissions profile and near-zero carbon footprint of our renewable RenDiesel will guarantee that the LAX ground service vehicles using this fuel will be among the cleanest and greenest of their kind.” Mr. Ramsbottom continued, “We expect this agreement to serve as a model for future supply relationships at other airports and for other fuels, including Rentech’s synthetic jet fuel, which was recently approved for commercial airline use.”

    Glenn F. Tilton, Air Transport Association of America (ATA) Board Chairman and UAL Corporation Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, said, “We are proud to take part in this innovative, collective endeavor that, over time, will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve local air quality through the use of greener fuels.” Mr. Tilton continued, “This transaction promises to be the first of many such green fuel purchase agreements by the commercial aviation industry. It exemplifies the ongoing commitment of airlines and energy suppliers to diversify our fuel sources while contributing to a cleaner environment and adding new jobs to the economy.”

    ASIG is thrilled to have been instrumental in reaching this landmark deal with the airlines and Rentech, reinforcing our strong commitment to our airline customers and environmental stewardship,” said ASIG President Keith P. Ryan. “We are proud to be on the forefront of this innovative effort to advance aviation environmental progress.”

    Gina Marie Lindsey, Executive Director of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), commented, “This collaborative effort is yet another environmentally friendly initiative that we and the airlines are pursuing at Los Angeles-area airports. It shows what we can accomplish by working together toward a common and necessary goal.”

    Rentech is developing a commercial-scale facility in Rialto, California, to produce renewable electric power and the cleanest diesel in California, each with a carbon footprint near zero. The project is currently designed to produce approximately 600 barrels per day of renewable, ultra-clean synthetic fuels and 35 megawatts of renewable electricity (enough to power approximately. 30,000 homes), primarily from urban woody green waste, such as yard clippings. The facility is expected to come online in 2012.

    August 19, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, btl, investing, Rentech | 57 Comments

    Wood Gasification Plant Opens

    Been really tied up, but saw this story yesterday and wanted to bring attention to it. I think it is significant, and a sign of things to come. Not much time to comment, but some excerpts from the article:

    Plant making gas from wood opens in Austria

    GUESSING, Austria (AFP) – A new plant that produces gas from wood was opened in Austria on Wednesday, paving the way towards new possibilities in renewable energy.

    According to its backers, the gas produced at the plant can be used in urban heating systems, for gas-powered cars or by power stations that work on gas.

    “The gas produced has the same quality as natural gas,” said Richard Zweiler, from the European Centre for Renewable Energy (EEE), which is behind the project.

    A plant able to produce between 20 and 25 megawatts of power — about 25 times bigger than the Guessing project — is already in the works in Goteborg, Sweden.

    Readers may know that I am a big fan of gasification over the long haul. Whether the approach described here turns out to be the right one or not, I think gasification makes far more sense than some of the renewable paths we have headed down. I believe 20 years from now we will be doing commercial biomass gasification for heat and power. I don’t believe we will be making commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol or algal biofuels.

    June 25, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, chp, electricity | 36 Comments

    Chemistry: The Future of Cellulose

    I am not a big believer in a commercial future for the biochemical conversion of cellulose into fuels. There are many big hurdles in place that are going to have to be overcome before cellulose is commercially converted to ethanol. In a nutshell, one is the logistical problem, which I have covered before. Beyond the logistical problem is the issue that biochemistry often starts to malfunction as the conditions in a reactor change, and with cellulosic ethanol that means that if you get a 4% solution of ethanol in water, you are doing well. But from an energy return point of view, a 4% solution is about like the trillions barrels of oil shale reserves we have. If it takes over a trillion barrels of energy to extract and process them, that largely defeats their usability.

    Chemistry is a different matter, which is why I favor gasification processes over fermentation processes. But even beyond gasification, I have wondered about chemically processing cellulose in a refinery. I used to have a guy who e-mailed me all the time and told me he had invented a chemical process for reacting cellulose to hexane, which can then be turned into gasoline. If you look at cellulose (there is a graphic of a segment of cellulose at the previous link), you can envision that it could be done. (Whether he had actually done it is a different story).

    But the chemistry pathway isn’t limited to fuels. With that preface, I want to thank a reader for bringing this story to my attention. In a recently published story in Applied Catalysis A: General (available online at Science Direct), scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have reported on a new process for converting cellulose directly into an important chemical building block (e.g., for plastics and fuel):

    Single-step conversion of cellulose to 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a versatile platform chemical

    Now we all know that you can do lots of neat things in the lab that can’t really be done on a larger scale. But this particular process does not appear to be overly complicated. The abstract from the paper explains what they are doing:

    Abstract

    The ability to use cellulosic biomass as feedstock for the large-scale production of liquid fuels and chemicals depends critically on the development of effective low temperature processes. One promising biomass-derived platform chemical is 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is suitable for alternative polymers or for liquid biofuels. While HMF can currently be made from fructose and glucose, the ability to synthesize HMF directly from raw natural cellulose would remove a major barrier to the development of a sustainable HMF platform. Here we report a single-step catalytic process where cellulose as the feed is rapidly depolymerized and the resulting glucose is converted to HMF under mild conditions. A pair of metal chlorides (CuCl2 and CrCl2) dissolved in 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium chloride ([EMIM]Cl) at temperatures of 80–120 °C collectively catalyze the single-step process of converting cellulose to HMF with an unrefined 96% purity among recoverable products (at 55.4 ± 4.0% HMF yield). After extractive separation of HMF from the solvent, the catalytic performance of recovered [EMIM]Cl and the catalysts was maintained in repeated uses. Cellulose depolymerization occurs at a rate that is about one order of magnitude faster than conventional acid-catalyzed hydrolysis. In contrast, single metal chlorides at the same total loading showed considerably less activity under similar conditions.

    So they take cellulose and react it with two metal chlorides at 80–120°C for a direct conversion of cellulose into HMF – which can be easily converted to fuel or plastics. I would think then the important considerations would be 1). What happens to the lignin and hemicellulose in the biomass?; and 2). How much energy does it take? The second item is particularly important if fuel is the objective.

    While it is too early to tell whether there is a fatal flaw, this one certainly bears watching. It also strengthens my conviction that in the long-run, the right way to process cellulose is chemically.

    May 23, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, cellulose, chemistry, refining | 44 Comments

    Rentech Announces BTL Plant

    Still on vacation, but an interesting announcement yesterday by Rentech:

    Rialto Project

    Our proposed Rialto Renewable Energy Center (Rialto Project) will be located in Rialto, California. The facility is designed to produce approximately 600 barrels per day of pure renewable synthetic fuels and export approximately 35 megawatts of renewable electric power. The renewable power is expected to qualify under California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) program, which requires utilities to increase the amount of electric power they sell from qualified renewable-energy resources. The plant will be capable of providing enough electricity for approximately 30,000 homes.

    Rentech has entered into a licensing agreement with SilvaGas Corporation for the biomass gasification technology for the Rialto facility. Rentech’s proprietary technology for the conditioning and clean-up of syngas will provide the next critical link in the technology chain after gasification. The conditioned syngas will be converted by the Rentech Process in a commercial scale reactor to finished, ultra-clean products such as synthetic diesel and naphtha using upgrading technologies under an alliance between Rentech and UOP, a Honeywell Company. Renewable electric power will be produced at the facility by using conventional high-efficiency gas turbine technology. The power is anticipated to be sold to local utilities under the California RPS program.

    The primary feedstock for the Rialto Project will be urban woody green waste such as yard clippings, for which Rentech is currently negotiating supply agreements. The location of the project will provide local green waste haulers with a cost-effective alternative to increasingly scarce landfills for the disposal of woody green waste. The plant is designed to also use biosolids for a portion of the feedstock which is expected to be provided under a supply agreement with EnerTech Environmental.

    Readers may know that I am quite interested in gasification as a long-term sustainable option for delivering liquid fuels and/or electricity. (See previous essays on Choren, who have built the world’s first scaled-up BTL plant).

    Incidentally, their CTO used to be my direct supervisor at ConocoPhillips in 2002-2003:

    Dr. Harold A. Wright – Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer

    Dr. Harold Wright leverages deep experience in fuel technology development to serve as Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Rentech. He joined the Company in 2005 after serving as Vice President of Technology for Eltron Research & Development, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. This followed a 14-year tenure with ConocoPhillips where he worked in various capacities including Director of gas-to-liquids (GTL) research and development from 2004-05 and Director of synthesis gas development from 2000-04. In these roles, he was responsible for synthesis gas technology development; GTL commercial reactor design; directing GTL catalyst development; and product upgrading technology development. He oversaw all aspects of the company’s scale-up of GTL technology, which resulted in a 400 barrel per day demonstration plant in Ponca City, Oklahoma. With 24 U.S. Patents issued to his credit, he is also a registered patent agent and is authorized to practice patent law before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Dr. Wright received a B.S. in chemical engineering, cum laude, from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Purdue University.

    Returning to Texas from Hawaii this evening, with things returning to normal over the next few days.

    May 12, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, btl, Choren, Rentech | 40 Comments

    Beyond Fossil Fuels

    Through at least this week, my posting will continue to be sporadic. I have been traveling a lot the past couple of weeks, and this week (Thursday April 23rd) I head to Kansas City to give a talk that will be partially about biofuels and partially about acetylated wood:

    Economic Forum – Biofuels, Biobuildings, and Beyond

    After that, I think things will settle down for a little while. I am back in Europe next week, and I usually have more time for writing then (since my family isn’t there, I write in the evenings).

    For now, there is an interesting series of articles that will be published this week at Scientific American:

    Beyond Fossil Fuels: Energy Leaders Weigh In

    Here is the line-up:

    Monday, April 20:
    Eric McAfee, chairman and CEO, AE Biofuels
    Gerald Grandey, president and CEO, Cameco Corporation (uranium production)

    Tuesday, April 21:
    Barry Cinnamon, CEO, Akeena Solar
    Aris Candris, president and CEO, Westinghouse Electric Company (nuclear)

    Wednesday, April 22:
    Alan Hanson, executive vice president, AREVA (nuclear)
    Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer, Solazyme (microbial fuel production)

    Thursday, April 23:
    David Crane, president and CEO, NRG Energy (nuclear)
    Leon Steinberg, CEO, National Wind

    Friday, April 24:
    John Melo, CEO, Amyris (renewable fuels)
    Daniel Kunz, president and CEO, U.S. Geothermal

    Monday, April 27:
    John McDonald, CEO, ExRo (wind)
    Sanjay Pingle, president, Terasol Energy (biofuels)

    Tuesday, April 28:
    William Johnson, president, chairman and CEO, Progress Energy (nuclear)
    David Mills, founder and chief scientific officer, Ausra (solar thermal)

    Wednesday, April 29:
    Bob Gates, senior vice president for commercial operations, Clipper Windpower
    David Ratcliffe, president, chairman and CEO, Southern Company (nuclear)
    Lucien Bronicki, chairman and chief technology officer, Ormat Technologies (geothermal)

    The first question and answer from McAfee’s interview:

    What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of biofuels? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?

    The conversion and commercialization of cellulose inputs into fuel ethanol is a significant technology obstacle to the growth of the ethanol industry as a mainstream fuel. A number of companies are currently working on cellulosic technologies, and great strides have been made, but a gap remains between technology advances and full commercial deployment. Much of this challenge exists around two factors—scalability and cost. Science is no longer the primary gating issue—it’s now a matter of investment and resource allocation.

    While I agree with the first part on the technological obstacles for commercialization of cellulose into ethanol (I simply don’t believe it will ever happen), I think the last sentence can be misleading. When one says that science is “no longer the primary gating issue”, that implies that recent scientific advancements have enabled the technology. However, the science has not been the issue for almost 100 years. As Robert Bryce points out in The Cellulosic Ethanol Delusion, conversion of “straw, corn-stalks, corn cobs and all similar sorts of material we throw away” was known technology in 1921.

    The issue is simply the same as it was back in 1921: Biomass has a low energy density, and the cellulose is not easily converted. These factors worsen the energy balance, and there isn’t an easy way around this fact. (Gasification, as I have argued, is a way around some of the issues, but we are talking about a different animal from hydrolysis.)

    Coming Up

    As soon as I get some breathing room, I am going to do a book review for Oil 101– which I finally finished reading, and then to write an essay on the implications of being wrong.

    April 20, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, cellulose, cellulosic ethanol | 29 Comments

    Beyond Fossil Fuels

    Through at least this week, my posting will continue to be sporadic. I have been traveling a lot the past couple of weeks, and this week (Thursday April 23rd) I head to Kansas City to give a talk that will be partially about biofuels and partially about acetylated wood:

    Economic Forum – Biofuels, Biobuildings, and Beyond

    After that, I think things will settle down for a little while. I am back in Europe next week, and I usually have more time for writing then (since my family isn’t there, I write in the evenings).

    For now, there is an interesting series of articles that will be published this week at Scientific American:

    Beyond Fossil Fuels: Energy Leaders Weigh In

    Here is the line-up:

    Monday, April 20:
    Eric McAfee, chairman and CEO, AE Biofuels
    Gerald Grandey, president and CEO, Cameco Corporation (uranium production)

    Tuesday, April 21:
    Barry Cinnamon, CEO, Akeena Solar
    Aris Candris, president and CEO, Westinghouse Electric Company (nuclear)

    Wednesday, April 22:
    Alan Hanson, executive vice president, AREVA (nuclear)
    Harrison Dillon, president and chief technology officer, Solazyme (microbial fuel production)

    Thursday, April 23:
    David Crane, president and CEO, NRG Energy (nuclear)
    Leon Steinberg, CEO, National Wind

    Friday, April 24:
    John Melo, CEO, Amyris (renewable fuels)
    Daniel Kunz, president and CEO, U.S. Geothermal

    Monday, April 27:
    John McDonald, CEO, ExRo (wind)
    Sanjay Pingle, president, Terasol Energy (biofuels)

    Tuesday, April 28:
    William Johnson, president, chairman and CEO, Progress Energy (nuclear)
    David Mills, founder and chief scientific officer, Ausra (solar thermal)

    Wednesday, April 29:
    Bob Gates, senior vice president for commercial operations, Clipper Windpower
    David Ratcliffe, president, chairman and CEO, Southern Company (nuclear)
    Lucien Bronicki, chairman and chief technology officer, Ormat Technologies (geothermal)

    The first question and answer from McAfee’s interview:

    What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of biofuels? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?

    The conversion and commercialization of cellulose inputs into fuel ethanol is a significant technology obstacle to the growth of the ethanol industry as a mainstream fuel. A number of companies are currently working on cellulosic technologies, and great strides have been made, but a gap remains between technology advances and full commercial deployment. Much of this challenge exists around two factors—scalability and cost. Science is no longer the primary gating issue—it’s now a matter of investment and resource allocation.

    While I agree with the first part on the technological obstacles for commercialization of cellulose into ethanol (I simply don’t believe it will ever happen), I think the last sentence can be misleading. When one says that science is “no longer the primary gating issue”, that implies that recent scientific advancements have enabled the technology. However, the science has not been the issue for almost 100 years. As Robert Bryce points out in The Cellulosic Ethanol Delusion, conversion of “straw, corn-stalks, corn cobs and all similar sorts of material we throw away” was known technology in 1921.

    The issue is simply the same as it was back in 1921: Biomass has a low energy density, and the cellulose is not easily converted. These factors worsen the energy balance, and there isn’t an easy way around this fact. (Gasification, as I have argued, is a way around some of the issues, but we are talking about a different animal from hydrolysis.)

    Coming Up

    As soon as I get some breathing room, I am going to do a book review for Oil 101– which I finally finished reading, and then to write an essay on the implications of being wrong.

    April 20, 2009 Posted by | biomass gasification, cellulose, cellulosic ethanol | 50 Comments