Questions and Answers on Energy Issues

Not too long ago, I nearly quit writing, because I was losing control of my free time. I came to a compromise solution that has worked out well for me: I have continued to write, but I have reduced time dedicated to debates, correspondence, and addressing questions or criticisms about my essays. It is now apparent that it was not the writing, but instead the peripheral stuff that was really eating up all my time.

However, as a result of the change, some comments and questions that are directed at me go unanswered. Sometimes someone will make a criticism or comment that I would like to address, but I know it will lead to several more responses. In order to "catch up" with some of this without once again getting involved in protracted exchanges, on my way out of town for a business trip I put up a brief post inviting readers to ask questions or make comments. I hadn't originally intended to post it here, but there were quite a few topics that have been discussed at length here at TOD. So, I went through, picked out some of the questions, and took a stab at answering them.

There are questions on biobutanol, gasoline inventories, refinery margins, debunking, ethanol, investing, the future of the oil industry, where to live to ride out Peak Oil, and whether I have now lost hope. I sometimes excerpted the questions, but I linked to the originals so you can see them in complete context.

The Questions

Chris said: Dr. Ramey has created a new and more efficient method of production which increases the yield of butanol and decreases the number of and volume of byproducts....not all species of high oil yielding algae are perfect but there are plenty to choose from.


1. Don't you think that at least one of these species could efficiently produce oil if the electrical energy input was reduced?

2. What was the reasoning behind the #3 point saying that closed bioreators are "totally absurd"?

3. Since you have ruled out the two most efficient and promising fuel alternatives, what do you propose we replace gasoline and diesel with? Answer

Tad asked: Where do you see the oil industry in 20 years? Answer

Jeff Sutherland asked: It seems to me that electricity is going to be the key energy source in the future....Biofuels, like ethanol, if produced with electrical equipment seems like a good method to store energy....What do you see as the best option for a transportable form of energy in the future? Answer

Rob asked: Have you given up hope? Based on your more recent posts, it certainly looks like it. Answer

Doug asked: What would be an optimal location to live in ten or twenty years from now? Answer

Armchair261 asked: There's always a lot of press about gasoline prices and inventory levels. How are these inventories affected by demand for other products, like diesel, propane, or fuel oil? Are refiners having trouble meeting demand for those products too, and is this siphoning some crude away from gasoline production? Answer

anonymous asked: What is the motivation to maintain high gasoline inventories? Answer

Optimist wrote: Here's my request: write a posting describing how one might tell if a given technology is promising or not. I think this would be immensely helpful to non-technical readers. Answer

Fat Man asked: You said you were going to cut back on blogging in order to spend more time with your family. You seem to be a blogging as much, or more, as you were before that promise. Are you doing what you said you would, or are you shorting your family? Answer

Anonymous asked: Would ethanol make more sense if it was simply burned at the production facility to make electricity vs trying to build infrastructure to transport it? Or is the EROI still to low even in that case? Answer

Rice Farmer asked: ...can ethanol be produced by powering the farm machinery and trucks on ethanol and still come out ahead? I think not. So it seems to me that ultimately, the large-scale biofuel industry will collapse and that biofuels will just be produced locally and on a small scale for local needs. Powering the current huge fleet of cars and trucks on biofuels is just a pipe dream.

So what's your take? Answer

Anonymous asked: Then would the EROI of using biomass for electrical generation actually work out to be favorable from an realistic economic standpoint (i.e., not completely propped-up by subsidies)? Or is it still a big enough sink as far as energy consumed per unit created that it would still be unfeasible to use for energy production? Answer

scp222 asked: Refining margins are quite low now after been about $30 a while back. What do you think the future holds for crack spreads and the refining business in general? Answer

garsky asked: A couple of posts ago you mentioned some things you were doing to prepare for a worst-case scenario. How about some details? Especially the part about your savings. Answer

The Answers

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First of all, I certainly don't want to denigrate Ramey's work. It is a good contribution. However, it is clear to me that many people do not understand the real problem with bio-butanol. It is not a problem of conversion rate or reaction speed. Those are the areas that Ramey addressed, and while those things are nice to have, there is a knock-out factor that has not been addressed. That is, if you read Ramey's patent (which I have done many times), he is still talking about butanol concentrations in the range of 2.5%. That is the problem, not whether the conversion is 25% or 35%.

Butanol is highly toxic to the "bugs", so it is very difficult to increase the concentration of butanol in the solution. What is needed is a breakthrough that would allow the bugs to thrive at the solubility limit of butanol, which is about 8%. (This would be similar to humans thriving in an atmosphere with 5% oxygen). In that case, excess butanol production would phase out of solution, and separation would be much less energy intensive than a distillation. But you can't afford to distill off a 2.5% solution of butanol. The energy inputs into the process will be far greater than the energy content of the butanol. I know this from experience. I have spent several years doing butanol distillations. At a 3% concentration of butanol, we didn't even attempt to separate it out. Even using relatively cheap (at that time) natural gas, it didn't make economic sense to extract that butanol. Those levels of butanol are sent to wastewater treatment for disposal.

Believe me, I have a soft spot for butanol. I want to see it work. But right now there are serious issues. That's not to say that it isn't worth pursuing. In fact, I am working on it myself. But I have to be realistic.

Now, your specific questions:

1. Don't you think that at least one of these species could efficiently produce oil if the electrical energy input was reduced?

The collection is the problem. If you go back to first principles of solar insolation, in the absolute best case a square meter of water can produce about a gallon per year of biodiesel. Once you add up the costs and energy inputs to harvest that meter and process the oil, it becomes an exercise in economic futility. Will it ever be economical? I won't say never. I will say that it is nowhere close.

2. What was the reasoning behind the #3 point saying that closed bioreators are "totally absurd"?

I didn't write that. It was written by Dr. John Benemann, who was involved in the algal biodiesel work and coauthored the closeout report of the project. He has 30 years of experience in the field, and like me, he likes to reel in hype when it gets out of hand. That's what he was doing. His reasoning is that the cost of closed bioreactors is far too high - by a couple of orders of magnitude - to justify the amount of biodiesel that you could produce from the process.

3. Since you have ruled out the two most efficient and promising fuel alternatives, what do you propose we replace gasoline and diesel with?

It's going to take conservation, efficiency, inputs from biofuels, electric transportation, public transportation, etc. There is nothing out there, and nothing on the horizon, that can actually replace our current usage of gasoline and diesel. We have to come to grips with this as soon as possible, and start spreading our bets a bit more. Right now, everyone is counting too heavily on biofuels to deliver.

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I think the oil industry is going to evolve quite a bit over the next 20 years. There will still be a lot of oil in 20 years. I don’t believe supplies can possibly meet the demand growth projections I have seen, which of course means continued high prices.

I see a fairly high probability that the U.S. government will pass punitive measures as the public continues to be outraged at the cash flowing out of their pockets into oil company coffers. It won’t matter. I have yet to see a punitive measure that I truly believe will result in lower prices for consumers.

Now, while there will be oil in 20 years, I don’t think there will be enough oil. So, oil companies are going to be tuned to developments in alternative energy. A number are already involved in these areas. Even the pure oil companies like ExxonMobil will find themselves moving into this space. And because of continued high oil prices, they will find themselves with the cash to get into any field that looks promising.

The apparent widespread perception that oil companies will sit around twiddling their thumbs while alternative energy companies put them out of business is ludicrous. I have said before that if they wanted, the oil industry could own the ethanol industry. The entire ethanol production of the U.S. only amounts to the output of 1 mid-sized oil refinery. So, why don't they own the ethanol industry? Because they see that their capital is better employed elsewhere at the moment. But if that changes - or if a significant breakthrough occurs in butanol, for instance - the oil companies have the infrastructure and the expertise to capitalize.

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First, I agree that electricity is going to be key. We have the ability to produce much more electricity than we do now, but I don't think we have the ability to significantly increase our output of liquid fuels. However, I would not produce biofuels from electricity. It would be too inefficient to go that route. For instance, if I started with biomass, I wouldn't convert it into electricity, I would gasify it and convert it into a liquid fuel. The heat produced from the process could be used to produce electricity, but the energy efficiency of the biomass is going to be much higher if you go straight to liquid fuels (if that's what you intend the final product to be).

As far as the best option, I think electric transport will be the core of our transport system long-term, but we will always have a need for liquid fuels. I think biofuels can fill part of this gap. But we have to get away from this belief that we are going to displace most of our current oil usage with biofuels. That kind of thinking is very dangerous, because it could divert too many resources and waste precious time that could be used on more sustainable long-term solutions. Right now, governments are banking far too much on biofuels as THE solution, when they should be spreading the bets a lot more than they are doing.

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Absolutely not. In fact, I am more hopeful than I have been in some time. I believe I am realistic, in that we are going to have to reduce our energy usage. But I am cautiously optimistic that if things get really tough, we can change in ways that don't seem likely at the moment. We don't give ourselves enough credit for our adaptability. If oil did peak soon and the price went a great deal higher, a lot of people would find areas of fat that they could cut out. This sort of behavioral shift would give us added time to formulate a better strategy than counting on biofuels to provide the net equivalent of 40 or 50 million barrels per day of oil.

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I think it will be safe within the walls of my compound. :-)

Seriously, if you strongly believe in a worst-case scenario, there are certain attributes that I would look for. I want to see a high ratio of farmland to surrounding population. I want to be relatively close to decent medical facilities. I would like to be close to transportation via rail or water. I want the place to have a reliable water supply. Those are just a few of the things that would be on my check-list, and there are some places that fit the bill. I think certain areas on both coasts of the U.S. will fare well. Needless to say, I think Scotland - which will still produce a lot of oil and gas for a long time - will fare well. I absolutely would not want to live (among others) in Houston, L.A., Phoenix, or Las Vegas (although one could argue that the latter two are well-placed for reliable solar energy).

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Refiners are always looking at margins on diesel and gasoline. When margins for diesel are higher than for gasoline, they will shift production toward diesel (which will also affect things like the propane balance). A typical refinery can shift between diesel and gasoline to a limited extent - perhaps 5%. If production is shifted toward diesel, then that should eventually improve the gasoline margins as supply is taken off the market, and as this happens they will shift some production back. And they literally look at this and adjust multiple times per week.

The one big caveat is that commitments to existing customers take precedence. So, if margins for diesel look better, but you would have to short an existing gasoline customer to take advantage, you are stuck. You can't declare force majeure for something like that. Maintaining relationships with your customers sometimes means that you have to give up short-term profits.

Are refiners having trouble meeting demand? Yes. Refinery utilization has been down since Hurricane Katrina, and the only thing that has kept this from resulting in $4 gasoline are strong gasoline imports. If the imports dried up, refiners would attempt to maximize gasoline, and this may precipitate a distillate shortage. And we don't import much in the way of distillates, because demand is high elsewhere in the world (unlike gasoline, which is produced in excess, allowing some to be exported).

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Ideally you only keep inventories where they need to be to make sure that you are always able to supply product to your customers. If you keep inventories too high, you obviously have money tied up that's not doing anything for you. But let's say you were maintaining high inventories in 2005. Suddenly, Hurricane Katrina comes along, prices go through the roof, shortages start to crop up, but you are in fat city because you had high inventories. So, it's a balancing act.

One thing you will see if you look back, is that after Katrina refiners started to keep their crude inventories much higher than before. They saw the effects of a supply disruption, so they played it cautious for a while. Over time, I think we will start to forget, and inventories will creep back into the normal ranges.

Gasoline inventories are a different matter. I think refiners would like to put more product on the market, especially back when margins were so high, but they just couldn't make enough to satisfy demand and refill the tanks.

One other time that refiners are motivated to keep gasoline inventories high is when they are headed into a turnaround. You need to have very full gasoline tanks when you shut down, so you can supply your customers while you are down.

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If it was that easy, people wouldn't keep offering me money to vet technologies for them. Seriously, there seems to be a great big vacuum in this area. I get questions from intelligent people who can look at an energy idea with a major flaw, but they can't see it.

There is no magic formula. I think it requires experience, and you have to take them on a case by case basis. If someone brought me a potential breakthrough in biotechnology, I would be in the same boat as a lot of people are when they try to interpret the latest hyped energy breakthrough. Even though biotech is an interest/hobby of mine, it may be difficult for me to spot a fatal flaw. A molecular biologist may take one look, and say "You see that step where they say 'insert gene A into position B?' Well, the status of the technology is nowhere close to being able to do that."

I think it just pays to be a skeptic first. There is nothing wrong with being a skeptic, even though many people confuse skepticism with negativity. I always tell people that I am a skeptic, but also a problem-solver. I am not shooting these ideas down for fun; I want some of them to work. But you have to sort the wheat from the chaff.

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You are correct that I am blogging about as much as I did before. However, I realized that it wasn't the blogging that was taking time away from the family. I write very fast. I can knock out an essay very quickly, and I usually do it when I am up early before everyone else. But it's all of the peripheral stuff that was taking up so much time: Answering e-mails (this was consuming over an hour every day), getting involved in debates (another hour), answering questions in the comments section, etc. I have cut those things out.

I have taken my e-mail address offline (although a number of people still have it, and others still find me), and this has cut down the time required to handle e-mail by 90%. While I still have essays put up at The Oil Drum, I haven't commented there since August. I rarely comment on my own blog anymore (and this post was an attempt to catch and address a lot of comments at once.

Now, do I ever short my family as a result of the blog? Sure, sometimes I have to tell my kids to wait just a bit as a finish something up. But do I come home from work and spend the rest of the evening doing correspondence? No. I think I have found a reasonable compromise, and one that my family is pretty happy with.

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Joules answered this question in the same way I would have: You would burn the biomass directly to produce the electricity. The EROEI is not the problem; capital costs for biomass-to-electricity plants are much higher because it is more difficult to handle the biomass. But long-term, I think this option will be one that we will count on heavily.

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I agree. I believe that if ethanol had to be used to provide energy to grow the corn and produce the ethanol, the whole thing would collapse. Remember, the energy balance is already very marginal. The only reason it is 1.3 or so is because of the credits for DDGS byproduct. On a fuel in versus fuel out basis, it is very close to parity.

I am convinced that we have to learn to get by on a lot less energy, but biofuels will provide a portion of our energy needs. I personally believe that the bulk of the solution must come from electricity. I contend that it is simply not possible for the world to produce enough biofuels to displace our current usage of petroleum. Conservation, greater efficiency, and electricity are going to have to be big parts of the equation.

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I am a fan of biomass gasification to produce electricity. In the long run, I think we really need it. But as I stated above, it isn't the energy balance that is the problem; capital costs are much too high to enable it to compete with coal or natural gas. If carbon emissions were taxed, it would give the biomass to electricity option a boost.

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With gasoline inventories still so low, I think crack spreads are likely to explode again - certainly by late spring. Right now, with oil as high as it is, and with gasoline inventories where they are, it doesn't make much sense that gasoline prices are soft. There is a bit of disconnect here, but one that I have seen frequently. This situation should put to rest any notion that refiners are in control of their margins, such that they boost profits by boosting margins. I know this seems to be a very popular notion, especially among those with the Oil Watchdog mentality, but any time I hear someone say it, I immediately know that at least on that topic, they are ignorant of the facts.

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I am not a financial planner, so bear that in mind. I will tell you what I have done, but I can't say that this strategy would work going forward, and it may not work for you. My strategy is very long-term; I do not attempt to time the market. Going all the way back to the early 90's, I put a lot of thought into a very long-term strategy. I tried to identify sectors that I thought would fare best over a 20-year period. Health care/biotech was one of the sectors that I could see outperforming, especially as the Baby Boomers grew older. People are going to spend money on health care. I still believe that, so I have a fair amount of money in that sector (and have had for many years).

In the late 90's and early part of this decade, I partially abandoned my long-term strategy and jumped on the tech bandwagon like many others. I got burned like many others. Why did I get burned? Primarily, because I didn't really understand the things I was investing in, and I was lured by the prospect of the incredible returns that tech stocks were delivering. I joined the flock with the other sheep and got sheared. So, I reevaluated, and decided: Stick to the areas that I really know, and focus on those. I brainstormed on what I thought the future held, and I concluded that higher oil prices were very likely. But the U.S. is very dependent upon oil, so it appeared to me that the economy in the U.S. is very vulnerable to higher oil prices.

So, these assumptions were the basis of my strategy. I left my position in the chemical industry for a position in the oil industry. I figured that as oil supplies tightened up and the price rose, and people continued to need energy, the people providing that energy would have very good job security. To hedge against the dollar, I put about 20% of my portfolio into international funds (this is more than financial advisors typically recommend). I also made a bet that energy stocks were undervalued. More recently, because I have taken a position in the UK, I have further insulated myself against the falling dollar because my compensation is now tied to the British Pound.

Following the tech stock fiasco, my strategy since 2001 has paid off. The size of my portfolio has increased by 6.3 times since 2001 - which translates to an average annual increase of 36% for 6 years. If I exclude the money that I have added into the portfolio over the past 6 years, the returns alone have averaged 26% a year for 6 years. To put that in perspective, 26% a year will quadruple your initial investment in 6 years. I am now in the process of using some of that capital to acquire land in various locations, which will provide further diversification. (Someone here recently said that while I may know a lot about geology, I can't seem to make the connection between geology and finance. Frankly, I think I have done well with my finances precisely because I made that connection).

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Thanks to all who asked a question or made a comment. I think this has been a productive exercise, and I hope you find my answers useful. I may do this again at some point, but for now, I am back to posting and then lurking.

I really like butanol also. What about higher alcohols. The beauty of butanol and higher alcohols is if you can get the fermentation to work to the solubility limit then you have basically water free alcohol that can be simple poured off.

The key for alcohol fuels when you look at EROI really seems to be to eliminate the distillation step.

Maybe someone could do a overview on the various fermentation technologies and their relevance to fuel and if they can be done without a distillation step.

And what about other fermentation products alcohols are not the only choice ketones could be interesting. Carboxylic acids can be isolated as a salt and thermally Decarboxylation

If you consider the wealth of possible fermentation products and our ability to do dna modification it seems reasonable to assume that a good approach could be found.

Although I agree that corn/ethanol and probably ethanol in general is probably not the right solution the sheer number of possibilities makes me believe that in time a good solution can be found.

The ugly about butanol and larger chain alcohols is that they are so toxic, it is hard to design bugs that can survive up to the solubility limit.

What about seperating water and alcohol with filters the way they desalinize water?


I haven't escaped from reality. I have a daypass.


Desalination of water via hollow wound fiber membranes, reverse osmosis.

You need shittonnes of pressure. I am also unware of the solvent activity of butanol in water. This is a considerable problem, if the solvent activity is too low, nothing will flow. This would actually be a difficult problem to solve, because it is typically designing the polymer membranes which is difficult. You would need to select for a polymer membrane which was specific for butanol and not ionic molecules. (or specific for water and not butanol, then you collect the rejection). Efficiency will be high, but prefiltration will be needed, 1 for dirt, 1 for bugs, 1 for smaller particles.

Even larger problems will occur if butanol does not dissolve in solution, the micelles will not want to go through any of the above filters, so you would have to mess with the water chemistry at that stage.

You would probably be better off using gaseous stripping, collect water at some location, bubble significant volumes of air through it, cool that air, reheat the exit water with the exchange heat, collect the resulting butanol.

toxicity is not a problem so long as you can keep the concentration low. However the pressures on each side of gas / liquid interface are proportional, I have seen studies about alcohol distillation noting some 30% of the produced ethanol in batch was lost by gaseous stripping. The extracted ethanol was then refluxed into the original mix.


I love the unit of measure "shittonnes". Nice.

RR, I've finally found something I can wholeheartedly agree with you on, namely posting and lurking. JHK showed me the way. Every week he puts out on Monday and every week Dangerbird or someones else poops on his effort. The next week JHK ignores it all and posts another one on Monday morning presumably because he enjoys writing. Responding to critics is a waste of time, just assume your ideas will be torn to pieces and post them anyway. It's the nature of the Internet with it's anonymity and ease of response that makes taking critics seriously a bad idea. And it's more fun ignoring critics. Successful politicians and public figures all have to learn to ignore critics. Usually I don't respond to anyone anymore if it's about something I posted. I don't even read the critics. All it does is lead to a shouting match. No one's mind will be changed. The critics can put one is such a bad mood that giving up posting seems like a good option. I will sometimes respond to what others post. And others can take it or leave it, I don't care. The benefit of this is that the lurker, which is what I usually am, gets more enlightenment, enjoyment and fewer heated arguments.

all alcohols will be soluble in water (that pesky hydroxyl group), large enough alcohols to precipitate out of solution will not be made by small organisms (the single chain high MW ones we want).

You can attempt to complex them, but the complexes must be recoverable and economical to produce (this is shifting the buck). Anything which complexes a simple CCCOH will also probably complex with H2O or be serverely messed up by its presence. Any other alcohols present will also complex.

dna modification is in its infancy. We actually do nothing truely difficult. We observe in nature and then cut and paste.

See a gene you like? chop it out, splice it into a bacteria, and see what happens.

There are no human designed proteins or reaction chains currently which produce anything. Monsanto probably has the most advanced private labs in the world with regards to this. The best they have come up with is a crop which is sterile the next season.

I'm not suggesting that we can solve this problem in a reasonable way in the short term but these types of problems are ones that will fall to a 20-30 year effort.

And I think the goals will be different since over this time period we will convert to electric completely outside of the airline industry. And even here we may see a move to fuel cells for a lot of flights.

It's important to understand I don't give a rip about people thinking of creating liquid fuels to keep the current economy going this a waste of time.

But even in the brave new world of the post oil economy we need liquid organic fuels and probably more important feed stocks for chemical synthesis. And I'm sure that the people of this period would treat using fossil fuels with the same horror we do for nuclear now.

Now for these uses cases you don't want to waste good farmland or the edible part of the crop so your looking at cellulose IMHO.


Thanks for all your contributions to the peak oil dialog. I suspect that ethanol and biodiesel will end up dead in the water by the time a new administration and a new Congress takes office, and that your expertise and generosity in debating Khosla and rapid development of accurate statistics and research into energy return on energy invested will be the reason.

Its a real shame, I'd much rather see the country and the world on sustainable, renewable resources as does almost any thoughtful person. But its hard to argue with physics, and ethanol and biodiesel won't be a big part of the mix. Your research and response to the issue will save a lot of money from going down a dead end.

Its always hard to balance your time, and I'm amazed at your productivity. With a demanding job, a wife and two small children I'm suprised that you have much time for peak oil. I do have one request, though. I really enjoyed your blog columns on the books that you are reading. Not only were your choices interesting, I loved the responses where people discussed what they were reading. This is a great crowd and the suggestions are great from everyone!

I read about your health problem during the conference and wish you a speedy recovery.
I should add that at the beginning of the conference on Wednesday your name came up as a significant volunteer and was thanked for your contributions.
You were one of the few TOD'ers present that I missed meeting.

When I see in Green Car Congress a scooter from India that can run on ANG (Adsorbed Natural Gas) -- then think of disposable lighters -- I do wonder whether it would be possible to create such a re-fueling infrastructure at convenient bio-generation stations and replace millions of polluting two and now four-stroke scooters running on petrol?

there are compressors available that can take natural gas at line pressure from a home delivery line and compress gas enough to load up the LNG cannisters. The current price is about $3500 US. I don't know how much time this takes per vehicle., or the original conversion cost.

Sooner or later we will have more shut-offs like the two OPEC embargos in the 1970's. If our fearless leader decides to attack another nation in a war of aggression like Iraq its guaranteed, and the increasing competition for oil and gasoline in the world markets suggests it won't be too long before everyone experiences shortages.. Having a gas compressor at home or in a business may be the solution that will prevent this kind of cut-off from being totally paralysing, so it might be great insurance for a family or a business that needs guaranteed transportation fuel.
Bob Ebersole

I would like to second the motion that closed bioreactors are far too expensive to be practical. Square miles of plastic is expensive and gets fouled after a few years, needing replacement. Perhaps someone can figure out how to make a bacteria that will prevent algal build up on the walls. Perhaps the better configuration would be closed bioreactors to scale up density, followed by injection into large open ponds. That solution has been used in Hawaii to reach 18g biomass/m2, which would mean 2000 gal/acre/year. California would need about 5m acres of ponds to run the transportation system.
I will have lipid yield data for a good variety of Amphora and a second wild strain from a waste water treatment plant next month. We are growing them in the lab and are plannig lipid extraction soon. Let me know if you are interested in seeing the data. I'm not very optimistic however.

... gets fouled after a few years ...

Ever tried to keep a freshwater aquarium going? It doesn't actually take years.

The problem will solve itself.
But not in a nice way.

Try checking the NREL,

They pretty much have everything you need, and more. Check if your strain is one of the ones they examined.

In another comment, I was wondering if anyone had done an investigation of furans (or HMF) as organic feedstocks.

If we are willing to overlook the inefficiency of photosynthesis, furans generally have the following advantages:

  • not infinitely soluble in water, so like butanol they tend to separate
  • derived by chemical refining of sachharides, so there isn't any messy wet fermentation step
  • likewise, they don't have to be distilled from a dilute zymurgical beer

It seems there were a couple articles on them floating around last spring, but no real analysis of the energy inputs. Some midwestern graduates students had discovered a process for hydrogentating them, as I recall (hydrogen being an obvious energy input).

The problem will solve itself.
But not in a nice way.

RR--As a non-technical visitor to The Oil Drum, I daresay your new approach to writing is more satisfying to me as a reader. You collect questions of interest to you and respond to them rather comprehensively instead of responding to this criticism and that piecemeal. You feel less fragmented and diverted from your family. I feel like I get more benefit from your expertise. Win-Win from my perspective.

I now know what holds up butanol as a fuel source when before I never quite understood.

HMF is a product of the maillard reaction (aka browning food)

it's mutagenic as well. (not sure if its more or less toxic than gasoline)

It could be fuel source, but this is basically a direct conversion of sugars into a fuel. We all know about where this is going. The wiki says that cellulose and starch can be used, but breaking down cellulose is still the big problem. (seriously if we could break down cellulose efficiently it would be nice!)

furthermore the wiki on furalfural notes it explosively decomposes above 250C. it's also pretty toxic.

Thanks, I read the wiki articles. I was hoping RR knows more about the subject than WikiPedia. And is willing to write about it.

Thanks for the lead. I drew some wood gas through water and wondered what could have condensed in it...furans, acetals and tar-like compounds seemingly. Methane, hydrogen and carbon oxides would have passed through without condensing. A giant bong or water pipe could maybe collect serious amounts.

I note the EPA listed furan along with dioxin as an unacceptable pollutant at a proposed new paper mill nearby.

I do not think using biomass to generate electricity makes any sense for a few reasons:

1) We have other non-fossil fuels ways to generate electricity that are cheaper than biomass electric.

2) Biomass for energy is most valuable for making liquid fuels.

3) Biomass energy uses far too much land that is better used for food crops.

Biomass to energy might be 30-40% efficient
From the grid to your home is 80-90% efficient
Your battery is roughly 90% efficient at storing energy
the transmission and everything, probably 75% efficient
You get to recover breaking power with an electric vehicle, 4X less energy used to get from A to B.

Therefore going to electricity is probably best.

Biomass to liquid fuels(50% eff) to ICE(10% eff) to driving is probably 5-10% efficient.

working from an equal quantity of biomass here, moving from A to B.


This really doesn't get into the dumb idea of using land for fuel. and point #1 which is true!

Biomass to liquid fuels(50% eff) to ICE(10% eff) to driving is probably 5-10% efficient.

Biomass to electricity (50%+ via fuel cells, perhaps as high as 70% using DCFCs) to EV wheels (60-70%) may hit 40%.  It can also substitute wind, hydro, nukes and anything else that makes electricity.

Liquid fuels may be required for standby, very long-range vehicles, off-grid etc. but we should be aiming for on the order of 80% of our on-road transport energy coming from electricity.

The advantage of biomass electricity is its continuous and consistent vs other natural sources. And I think it could be efficient if you have non-specific fuel cells that could handle a variety of organic compounds.

And if you did get a good electrolysis solution then you would be looking at pure hydrogen/co2/ch4 as feed stocks to organic synthesis this would give pure organics when needed.

What role do you feel nuclear will play in our energy future? Particularly, the Fast-Neutron Breeder Reactor?

For organic reactions any other source energy source is either providing heat or electricity(redox)/hydrogen.

Nuclear could easily be coupled with organic synthesis and in fact this is the route proposed for mars missions.

I actually like "atomic battery" concepts if your coupling to
organic reactions I think you probably get better conversion of both the heat and ionizing radiation if its used to drive reactions.

Its my understanding these are not very efficient but they are a lot simpler than a reactor.

None of this is really a way to create organics on the scale we use them now but its ways to get consistent sources and make efficient use of the reduced plat materials either via conversion to electricity or too syngas. All you need is a extra source of some excess hydrogen. We have plenty of reduced carbon in the form of C-C bonds but what we need is more C-H bonds for our fuels. We can afford to be somewhat wasteful with the C-C bonds.

Nuclear is the best baseload point source method of generating gigawatts of thermal power besides coal, so it's not going away.

Fast neutron breeder reactors however, there's no point. They solve a problem we'll never have: A shortage of plutonium. Oh sure, fast neutron liquid chloride reactors are great actinide incinerators, and can be used to build up U233 for liquid fluoride reactor fleets, but thats more aesthetic desirability that pragmatism. The real problem with fast neutron breeder reactors is the economics of all solid fuel breeders are inherently worse than solid fuel once through reactors. Every fast neutron breeder reactor built in the next two centuries at least will be for political or military purposes, if any more are built at all.

Hello all,

As far as I understand the whole biofuel thing is to convert food into oil to fuel cars and economy. The fundamental thing that apparently everybody is forgetting is that post peak we not seem to have enough food to even feed all humans on planet. Before the green revolution, right after second world war, in 1950 world population was 3 billion and since then total food producing land in world not change. What change is the food output, that due to green revolution jumps on average 2.5 times, so now we have food for 7.5 billion people. Once we past peak oil (which i believe we already did in 2005) we start using more natural gas (NGLs, LPGs etc) so peak natural gas comes near. Once we past peak natural gas too we get short of natural gas that is used in producing fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides etc. When that happen food production start dropping to the level that there would not be enough food for everybody on a global basis. For densely populated regions things would be tougher, for sparsely populated regions things would be a bit relaxed. Add in it the lost of transportation and storage so that even what food is produced would not be available for many for large part of year. Given all that how can one supposed to have enough surplus of food or food producing land to make bio fuels to run cars, make electricity etc. The problems we are facing is not just economy decline or collapse, lost of electricity, lost of transport but a real long term brutal shortage of food.

What do you mean by "we" kemosabe. Rich people can pay more for fuel than poor people can pay for food.


I haven't escaped from reality. I have a daypass.

Given all that how can one (be) supposed to have enough surplus of food or food producing land to make bio fuels to run cars, make electricity etc.(?)

As I said in previous posts, the problem when analyzing biofuels' feasibility and prospects is that analysts think globally, considering the world as one unit, while that's NOT the way it works. Whereby their analysis - though conceptually perfect - becomes practically useless.

I reproduce below an edited version of a July 26 post of mine in response to this such statement from Robert Rapier:

"the petroleum equivalent yield from planting all of the world's arable land in one of the more popular biofuel options is just under 30 million barrels per day."

Robert, your analysis of biofuels is useless in practice because you are considering the world as one unit and that's not the way it works. Present and potentially arable land as well as liquid fuel usage intensity are NOT evenly distributed around the world. The countries with more biofuel production potential (e.g. Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay) have much lower liquid fuel (and energy in general) usage per capita than OECD countries. Therefore if they maximize the allocation of their agricultural potential into biodiesel production (plus sugar cane to ethanol), they will be able to run their current infrastructures FOR EVER, and it is just not reasonable to expect they will forego that possibility.

This is another way to look at it: there is no argument that after global crude oil production starts to decline, prices for crude oil and petroleum products will get more and more expensive. Is it reasonable to think that soybean oil will not follow them, when it is straightforward to turn it into biodiesel? And is it reasonable to think that other crops will remain cheap, when land can easily be switched to soybean?

Therefore people in countries that today depend on imported food will have a problem.

These are my conclusions:

- Once significant biodiesel production capacity has been built, land arbitraging based on farmers' profits per acre will drive the allocation of land to biodiesel crops (soybean, sunflower and rapeseed, SSR for short) or to grain crops.

- From that moment onward, fuel arbitraging will make the price of diesel fuel (however high it goes after crude oil production starts to decline) set the floor for the price of SSR oils. Land arbitraging in turn will set the floor for the price of wheat and corn.

- There is a food Export Land Model, where food exports will be falling not because rising internal consumption, but because of ever increasing feedstock and land diversion into biofuels production.

- This does not even take into account the reasonable prospect of lower yields because of fertilizer issues.

- Poor food importing countries, and poor people in general, will be priced out of food.

- The world is NOW at peak food.

- Demographic scenarios of 9 billion people don't stand a chance.

- To minimize future (starting next decade?) starvation, people should be encouraged to:

* Stop procreating at higher than the replacement rate.

* Stop building, particularly suburban houses that imply a loss of farmland.

- In view of the above, it is clear that opposition to the expansion of arable land by way of Amazonia deforestation, in order to preserve biodiversity, amounts to condemning millions to starvation. (I am aware this last statement is politically most incorrect, but I rather be right.)

Robert, thanks for all your contributions. I've been commenting here for over two years (under this and a previous userID) and appreciate your informative articles and posts. The industry and technical insight you bring to TOD is valuable, as is your non-hysterical evidence-based attitude.