R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

Disruptive Technologies Are So Overrated

It’s the end of a very long day, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the recent story from Joule Biotechnologies:

Joule Biotechnologies Introduces Revolutionary Process for Producing Renewable Transportation Fuels

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Joule Biotechnologies, Inc., an innovative bioengineering startup developing game-changing alternative energy solutions, today unveiled its breakthrough Helioculture™ technology—a revolutionary process that harnesses sunlight to directly convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into SolarFuel™ liquid energy. This eco-friendly, direct-to-fuel conversion requires no agricultural land or fresh water, and leverages a highly scalable system capable of producing more than 20,000 gallons of renewable ethanol or hydrocarbons per acre annually—far eclipsing productivity levels of current alternatives while rivaling the costs of fossil fuels.

Joule SolarFuel liquid energy meets today’s vehicle fuel specifications and infrastructure, and is expected to achieve widespread production at the energy equivalent of less than $50 per barrel. The company’s first product offering, SolarEthanol™ fuel, will be ready for commercial-scale development in 2010. Joule has also demonstrated proof of concept for producing hydrocarbon fuel and expects process demonstration by 2011.

The press release is a couple of weeks old now, and I ignored it at first. It almost reads like satire. Maybe it is? But I have seen it picked up now and reported at face value by some sites. So I thought I would weigh in.

Seriously, since we starting running cars on oil 100 years ago, how many disruptive technologies have there actually been in this area? None. There have been improvements, but we are still running most of our cars on oil. A disruptive technology would be something that resulted either in us running most of our cars on something other than oil, or something that caused us to abandon our cars for something else.

Cold fusion-powered hovercraft? Now that would be disruptive. A battery with a 200-mile range for a full-sized car? Also disruptive. When we start to run short of oil? Disruptive in a different way. But the press release above? I have seen a thousand others just like it. Eventually maybe one of these disruptive pretenders will pan out. But if I was a betting man…

Tom Whipple elaborated on this story today (which is what prompted me to go ahead and write this up):

The Peak Oil Crisis: More Disruptive Technology?

Yet another potentially disruptive technology has been announced. This time a small company, Joule Biotechnologies, up in Cambridge MA says it has developed a process to produce hydrocarbon based fuels from carbon dioxide and water. As with any too-good-to-be-true announcement skeptics abound – just on general principles.

The process is centered on a “photobioreactor” (think a solar panel with liquid inside) which contains brackish water and a still secret microorganism that has been genetically engineered to absorb carbon dioxide and excrete hydrocarbons when subjected to sunlight.

Somebody with a mathematical bent calculated that if an area the size of the Texas panhandle were covered with photobioreactors, they could produce enough fuel each year that we could say goodbye to oil – drilling, depletion, OPEC, refineries, some forms of pollution, and all the rest. This is sounding much too good to be true for the company estimates the fuel could be produced for $50 a barrel.

The next step, of course, is to get this out of the laboratory and into a pilot plant so we can all see if turning CO2 and water with the help of some sunlight into fuel can really work. A pilot scale plant is planned for the southwest (where they have lots of sunlight) early next year which would be followed by a large scale demonstration plant in 2011.

These people haven’t even built a pilot plant, yet they are talking about widespread production at $50/bbl. Please. Just once I would like to see one of these far-fetched press releases end with “Product is currently for sale for $50/bbl.” If you notice, this is always what is expected. It just never materializes.

August 21, 2009 Posted by | algal biodiesel, technology | 29 Comments

Fuel from Air?

One thing we seem to have in limitless supply is gullibility. You may have seen the story sweeping through the energy circles of the Web:

Federal Lab Says It Can Harvest Fuel From Air

We love the painless technological solution. “This solves Global Warming AND produces carbon neutral fuel!” I talk to people all the time who say, in reference to our energy and environmental problems, “They will figure something out.” So along comes a story like this, and the layman reads the headlines and breathes a sigh of relief. We can make fuel from thin air. This must be even better than cars that run on water or cold fusion.

So what’s the deal? Here is an explanation from the linked article:

In the category of things that sound so good they have to be checked out more thoroughly (so stay tuned) is this news out of Los Alamos National Laboratory:

Scientists there say they have developed a way to produce truly carbon-neutral fuel and useful organic chemicals at large scale using water and carbon dioxide removed from the air as raw materials. There are plenty of schemes brewing to capture carbon dioxide, both directly from the atmosphere and from the stacks of power plants. All of them, for the moment, are costly or hard to envision at the billion-tons-a-year scale that would be needed to blunt the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere coming mainly from fuel burning.

I like to think I check things out thoroughly, and I try to approach things realistically. I consider myself to be a realistic optimist. It has nothing to do with being a naysayer, it is all about understanding basic science and engineering and knowing what’s likely, what isn’t, and what simply violates physical laws. So, is this pie-in-the-sky or a serious candidate for an energy solution?

Let’s take a critical look. First, details are sketchy (aren’t they always?). They are supposed to be released next week:

Details on the Los Alamos approach will come next week when Dr. Martin gives a presentation at a government and industry meeting, Alternative Energy Now, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The conference, held at a resort for military personnel, is sponsored mainly by the U.S. Air Force.

Let’s be perfectly clear. Could you produce fuel out of carbon dioxide and water? Sure you can – with massive energy inputs. You can’t get around the chemistry. When you burn something like natural gas, oil, coal, or just about anything organic – you get carbon dioxide and water. The amount of energy to turn it back into fuel is greater than the energy that was released in the first place. That is a fundamental law of thermodynamics.

As a simple illustrative example, let’s say I burned a quantity of natural gas and it released 10 BTUs per the following reaction: CH4 + 2 O2 = CO2 + 2 H20. Then to reverse that reaction is going to take more than 10 BTUs, and potentially a lot more. So where is this energy going to come from? Why, nuclear reactors of course:

This plan has a minor hurdle, too; the electricity for driving the chemical processes, according to a white paper describing the overarching concept, would come from nuclear power.

That’s more than a minor hurdle. If the fuel takes more energy to produce than it contains – and the laws of chemistry are against you in this case – then you have to ask whether there is a better use of that energy. If (for instance) I take 20 BTUs of nuclear energy to produce 10 BTUs of liquid fuel – was there a better end use for that nuclear energy? How about putting those 20 BTUs into an electric car, which has a much greater efficiency than an internal combustion engine? That is a much better net than the wasteful route of turning it into liquid fuel.

Make no mistake, technical feasibility is certainly there. Likewise, I can technically run a car off of water, or make fuel out of dirt. I could mine Titan for hydrocarbons. I could even build a colony on the moon or at the bottom of the ocean as a “solution” to overpopulation. These are things that one could technically do. That doesn’t mean any of them make sense.

That’s what I would say about this proposal. Unless they have figured out a way to violate the laws of chemistry, there is no free lunch. If you had vast quantities of cheap electricity, then sure, you could do it. But in that case why not just use the electricity directly?

Conclusion: The proponents have gotten way ahead of themselves, and I have yet to see anyone point out the basic fact regarding the energy balance: It will necessarily be a net consumer of energy, not an energy producer.

One other thing:

As described in a news release by Mr. Martin, it sounds like a possible candidate for Richard Branson’s $25 million carbon-capturing prize:

“Our concept enhances U.S. energy and material security by reducing dependence on imported oil. Initial system and economic analyses indicate that the prices of Green Freedom commodities would be either comparable to the current market or competitive with those of other carbon-neutral, alternative technologies currently being considered.”

First, you would be trading dependence on imported oil for dependence on imported uranium. Again, no free lunch. Second, I know someone else who has a much stronger case for Branson’s prize. 😉

April 16, 2008 Posted by | Argonne, carbon sequestration, electric cars, global warming, technology | 29 Comments

World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

While I try to be very careful about posting hype masquerading as a legitimate technology breakthrough, this story is too good to pass up (even though it contains a lot of hype). I don’t know about the prospects for commercial success (as I have said before, I have been waiting for my DNA computer for 15 years) but this story is interesting and topical:

New mini petrol engine

There is a copyrighted picture at the link showing the engine resting on a fingertip. Some excerpts from the story:

Scientists have built the smallest petrol engine — tiny enough to power a watch.

The mini-motor, which runs for two years on a single squirt of lighter fuel, is set to revolutionise world technology.

It produces 700 times more energy than a conventional battery despite being less than a centimetre long — not even half an inch. It could be used to operate laptops and mobile phones for months on end — doing away with the need for recharging.

Experts believe it could be phasing out batteries in such items within just six years.

I guess that depends on the prospects for mass production. If it takes a team of scientists and engineers to build each one, it won’t be replacing batteries any time soon. And the article mentions nothing about the difficulty of manufacture.

The engine, minute enough to be balanced on a fingertip, has been produced by engineers at the University of Birmingham. Dr Kyle Jiang, lead investigator from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: “We are looking at an industrial revolution happening in peoples’ pockets.

“The breakthrough is an enormous step forward.

“Devices which need re- charging or new batteries are a problem but in six years will be a thing of the past.”

Other applications for the engine could include medical and military uses, such as running heart pacemakers or mini reconnaissance robots.

Hmm. Not sure I want a combustion engine operating next to my heart, especially in light of:

One of the main problems faced by engineers who have tried to produce micro motors in the past has been the levels of heat produced.

The engines got so hot they burned themselves out and could not be re-used.

The Birmingham team overcame this by using heat-resistant materials such as ceramic and silicon carbide.

Anyway, regardless of whether it pans out, it is an interesting story and a neat technological achievement.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | combustion engine, technology | Comments Off on World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

While I try to be very careful about posting hype masquerading as a legitimate technology breakthrough, this story is too good to pass up (even though it contains a lot of hype). I don’t know about the prospects for commercial success (as I have said before, I have been waiting for my DNA computer for 15 years) but this story is interesting and topical:

New mini petrol engine

There is a copyrighted picture at the link showing the engine resting on a fingertip. Some excerpts from the story:

Scientists have built the smallest petrol engine — tiny enough to power a watch.

The mini-motor, which runs for two years on a single squirt of lighter fuel, is set to revolutionise world technology.

It produces 700 times more energy than a conventional battery despite being less than a centimetre long — not even half an inch. It could be used to operate laptops and mobile phones for months on end — doing away with the need for recharging.

Experts believe it could be phasing out batteries in such items within just six years.

I guess that depends on the prospects for mass production. If it takes a team of scientists and engineers to build each one, it won’t be replacing batteries any time soon. And the article mentions nothing about the difficulty of manufacture.

The engine, minute enough to be balanced on a fingertip, has been produced by engineers at the University of Birmingham. Dr Kyle Jiang, lead investigator from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: “We are looking at an industrial revolution happening in peoples’ pockets.

“The breakthrough is an enormous step forward.

“Devices which need re- charging or new batteries are a problem but in six years will be a thing of the past.”

Other applications for the engine could include medical and military uses, such as running heart pacemakers or mini reconnaissance robots.

Hmm. Not sure I want a combustion engine operating next to my heart, especially in light of:

One of the main problems faced by engineers who have tried to produce micro motors in the past has been the levels of heat produced.

The engines got so hot they burned themselves out and could not be re-used.

The Birmingham team overcame this by using heat-resistant materials such as ceramic and silicon carbide.

Anyway, regardless of whether it pans out, it is an interesting story and a neat technological achievement.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | combustion engine, technology | Comments Off on World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

While I try to be very careful about posting hype masquerading as a legitimate technology breakthrough, this story is too good to pass up (even though it contains a lot of hype). I don’t know about the prospects for commercial success (as I have said before, I have been waiting for my DNA computer for 15 years) but this story is interesting and topical:

New mini petrol engine

There is a copyrighted picture at the link showing the engine resting on a fingertip. Some excerpts from the story:

Scientists have built the smallest petrol engine — tiny enough to power a watch.

The mini-motor, which runs for two years on a single squirt of lighter fuel, is set to revolutionise world technology.

It produces 700 times more energy than a conventional battery despite being less than a centimetre long — not even half an inch. It could be used to operate laptops and mobile phones for months on end — doing away with the need for recharging.

Experts believe it could be phasing out batteries in such items within just six years.

I guess that depends on the prospects for mass production. If it takes a team of scientists and engineers to build each one, it won’t be replacing batteries any time soon. And the article mentions nothing about the difficulty of manufacture.

The engine, minute enough to be balanced on a fingertip, has been produced by engineers at the University of Birmingham. Dr Kyle Jiang, lead investigator from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: “We are looking at an industrial revolution happening in peoples’ pockets.

“The breakthrough is an enormous step forward.

“Devices which need re- charging or new batteries are a problem but in six years will be a thing of the past.”

Other applications for the engine could include medical and military uses, such as running heart pacemakers or mini reconnaissance robots.

Hmm. Not sure I want a combustion engine operating next to my heart, especially in light of:

One of the main problems faced by engineers who have tried to produce micro motors in the past has been the levels of heat produced.

The engines got so hot they burned themselves out and could not be re-used.

The Birmingham team overcame this by using heat-resistant materials such as ceramic and silicon carbide.

Anyway, regardless of whether it pans out, it is an interesting story and a neat technological achievement.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | combustion engine, technology | Comments Off on World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

While I try to be very careful about posting hype masquerading as a legitimate technology breakthrough, this story is too good to pass up (even though it contains a lot of hype). I don’t know about the prospects for commercial success (as I have said before, I have been waiting for my DNA computer for 15 years) but this story is interesting and topical:

New mini petrol engine

There is a copyrighted picture at the link showing the engine resting on a fingertip. Some excerpts from the story:

Scientists have built the smallest petrol engine — tiny enough to power a watch.

The mini-motor, which runs for two years on a single squirt of lighter fuel, is set to revolutionise world technology.

It produces 700 times more energy than a conventional battery despite being less than a centimetre long — not even half an inch. It could be used to operate laptops and mobile phones for months on end — doing away with the need for recharging.

Experts believe it could be phasing out batteries in such items within just six years.

I guess that depends on the prospects for mass production. If it takes a team of scientists and engineers to build each one, it won’t be replacing batteries any time soon. And the article mentions nothing about the difficulty of manufacture.

The engine, minute enough to be balanced on a fingertip, has been produced by engineers at the University of Birmingham. Dr Kyle Jiang, lead investigator from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: “We are looking at an industrial revolution happening in peoples’ pockets.

“The breakthrough is an enormous step forward.

“Devices which need re- charging or new batteries are a problem but in six years will be a thing of the past.”

Other applications for the engine could include medical and military uses, such as running heart pacemakers or mini reconnaissance robots.

Hmm. Not sure I want a combustion engine operating next to my heart, especially in light of:

One of the main problems faced by engineers who have tried to produce micro motors in the past has been the levels of heat produced.

The engines got so hot they burned themselves out and could not be re-used.

The Birmingham team overcame this by using heat-resistant materials such as ceramic and silicon carbide.

Anyway, regardless of whether it pans out, it is an interesting story and a neat technological achievement.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | combustion engine, technology | Comments Off on World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

World’s Smallest Gasoline Engine

While I try to be very careful about posting hype masquerading as a legitimate technology breakthrough, this story is too good to pass up (even though it contains a lot of hype). I don’t know about the prospects for commercial success (as I have said before, I have been waiting for my DNA computer for 15 years) but this story is interesting and topical:

New mini petrol engine

There is a copyrighted picture at the link showing the engine resting on a fingertip. Some excerpts from the story:

Scientists have built the smallest petrol engine — tiny enough to power a watch.

The mini-motor, which runs for two years on a single squirt of lighter fuel, is set to revolutionise world technology.

It produces 700 times more energy than a conventional battery despite being less than a centimetre long — not even half an inch. It could be used to operate laptops and mobile phones for months on end — doing away with the need for recharging.

Experts believe it could be phasing out batteries in such items within just six years.

I guess that depends on the prospects for mass production. If it takes a team of scientists and engineers to build each one, it won’t be replacing batteries any time soon. And the article mentions nothing about the difficulty of manufacture.

The engine, minute enough to be balanced on a fingertip, has been produced by engineers at the University of Birmingham. Dr Kyle Jiang, lead investigator from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: “We are looking at an industrial revolution happening in peoples’ pockets.

“The breakthrough is an enormous step forward.

“Devices which need re- charging or new batteries are a problem but in six years will be a thing of the past.”

Other applications for the engine could include medical and military uses, such as running heart pacemakers or mini reconnaissance robots.

Hmm. Not sure I want a combustion engine operating next to my heart, especially in light of:

One of the main problems faced by engineers who have tried to produce micro motors in the past has been the levels of heat produced.

The engines got so hot they burned themselves out and could not be re-used.

The Birmingham team overcame this by using heat-resistant materials such as ceramic and silicon carbide.

Anyway, regardless of whether it pans out, it is an interesting story and a neat technological achievement.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | combustion engine, technology | 10 Comments