Termite Power

When I was in graduate school at Texas A&M in the early 90's, I selected chemical engineering Professor Mark Holtzapple as my research advisor. His work was exactly in my area of interest: Biofuels from cellulose. Even then, I was very concerned about the unsustainable lifestyle we were living, and I was hoping to save the world. For a very good overview on what we were doing, see this PowerPoint presentation (note the Hubbert slide) or this article. In brief, what we were doing was searching for naturally occurring biological systems that convert cellulose to organic chemicals.

The primary system we studied was the bovine digestive system. Cattle are very efficient digesters of cellulose. They eat grass, and break it down via microorganisms that live in their digestive systems. So what we did was extract those microorganisms and attempt to convert cellulose in reactors that emulated the chemistry of the cow's stomach. And while we did have success, the conversion was never as efficient as it was inside the cow.

So, I spent time brainstorming other efficient cellulose digesters. It occurred to me that probably the most efficient digester of cellulose in the world is the termite. After all, even cattle can't break down wood. So I discussed it with Professor Holtzapple, and he thought it was a great idea. I searched the literature, and as far as I could determine, nobody had ever done it before. Therefore, I had no guidance at all with what I was attempting.

I arranged a meeting with a termite expert in Texas A&M's Entomology Department. He was very keen on the idea, so he supplied the termites. The next bit was tricky. The cellulose digesters that we were looking at were anaerobic microorganisms. Oxygen would kill them. Therefore we always had to take great care to get them into the reaction system without killing them. For the cows, it was easy. We filled up a bottle with nitrogen, stuck our arm inside a portal into the stomach of a fistulated steer (somewhere there is a picture of me with my arm in a cow's stomach up to my shoulder), extracted about a liter of stomach contents, and poured it into the nitrogen-filled bottle. We then transferred the contents to reactors that were being purged with nitrogen.

But with termites, it wasn't going to be quite so easy. The volume of material I would be extracting would be very small, and therefore it would be tough to extract it without exposing it to air (with the equipment I had to work with). The other problem I had was that there was virtually no information available on the chemistry of the termite gut. How was I going to know what kind of vitamins, salts, etc. to put in the reactor? What should the pH be? The final concern I had was that I didn't know exactly what the product of the reaction would be. I wanted a reaction system that would convert the cellulose to acetic acid or ethanol, and not all the way to carbon dioxide. But I really had no idea what I would get.

So, what I did was use the same reactor conditions I used for the bovine microorganisms, and I threw in a combination of live termites, termites with their hindguts opened up, and just some extracts from the hindgut. I figured that I had a pretty good chance, given this approach, to have some of those desirable microbes survive the transfer. I then let that combination ferment in the reactor for about a week.

When I tested the contents of the reactor, I was disappointed. I was after acetic acid to turn into ethanol, but what I got was butyric acid (which can be turned into butanol). But I wasn't interested in butanol, and the amounts I got were very small. Since I was nearly at the end of my research, and I didn't really have the facilities nor the time to figure out the termite hindgut chemistry (the real critical piece, in my mind), I abandoned my termite investigation. I still thought it was an excellent idea, and if someone had 3 or 4 years it would have made a great Ph.D. research project. But I had to move on and graduate.

Since that time, I have seen the idea come up on a few occasions. Because of my previous attempt, news of these attempts always catches my attention. I recently saw a new story on this:

Fuel's gold: Termites point way to new dawn of bio-energy

Here is an excerpt, describing this latest line of investigation:

PARIS (AFP) - A team of US scientists poring over the intestines of a tropical termite have a gut feeling that a breakthrough in the quest for cleaner, renewable petrol is in store.

Tucked in the termite's nether regions, they say, is a treasure trove of enzymes that could make next-generation biofuels, replacing fossil fuels that are dirty, pricey or laden with geopolitical risk.

Next-generation biofuels would use non-food cellulose materials, such as wood chips and straw. But these novel processes, hampered by costs and complications, are struggling to reach a commercial scale.

The termite's tummy, though, could make all the difference. Like cows, termites have a series of intestinal compartments that each nurture a distinct community of microbes.

Each compartment does a different job in the process to convert woody polymers into the kind of sugars that can then be fermented into biofuel. The US team has now sequenced and analyzed the genetic code of some of these microbes in a key step towards -- hopefully -- reproducing the termite's miniature bioreactor on an industrial scale.

"In theory, they could transform an A4-sized sheet of paper into two liters (1.8 pints) of hydrogen," he said.

To be sure, they are well beyond what I was attempting to do. They are sequencing genes, using an entirely different species of termite, and they are attempting to produce hydrogen. But the core concept is the same: Scale up the internal bioreactor of the termite to produce a desirable end-product.

I guess I was just ahead of my time. :-)

As a freshman medical student at Baylor in 1952 I was required to take Biochemistry. I recall being impressed when the professor explained why termites but not humans could digest wood. It had to do with a mirror image enzyme. Termites had this enzyme but humans had the reverse. I assume that he was correct??

Well, the kid on the block here sells 5 cents a glass lemonaide
This is way cheaper than what you can buy it for in the store,

maybe we could feed the world on lemonaide, from this kid?
It would be much cheaper!

Hi Robert,

You probably won't go for something that doesn't use a reactor, but mushrooms break down cellulose.


And carpenter ants make great use of that, with a symbiotic fungus instead of a symbiotic protozoan. We could too, betcha.

If the creepie-crawlies haven't stumbled upon a given biochemical solution over their gazillion-odd generations, it may be hard to do. We should look more closely.

I looked for this but couldn't find it. The do have a bacteria symbiot blochmannia floridanus. The thing I like about the mushrooms is that you can just do it and not worry about intellectual property. That is what I was teasing Robert about. And, you probably would not go broke. Lot's of work though.


Now I have it. Just had to recall back a bit. It is leaf cutter ant that cultivate fungus. http://www.zi.ku.dk/personal/drnash/atta/Pages/Leafcut.html

Since ants have a sweet tooth, perhaps these fungii produce more starch than protein and fiber.

This might work out better than mushrooms. But, it seems that the cycle is more complex that just producing


Ah, good link Chris. Yes, I meant leaf-cutter ants but typed carpenter ants. One of the hazards of posting with too little sleep. I had been unaware of the complexity of the process involving specialized ant-poo enzymes though. There's no reason that evolution would select for simplicity per se, and moreover if it were simple to digest cellulose and produce net energy you'd expect a lot more organisms to have the ability as a fallback metabolic adjunct. Anything we find going on in ant and termite guts is likely to be complex or we'd see that it had evolved multiple times in different species. (Idle ponder - why is this only significantly seen in social insects - foraging efficiency and marginal EROEI?)

That seems like a good question. How far can we get with the idea that what in social insects is called cultivation, is called parasitism in the loners? Some wasps are evolved to lay eggs in caterpillers. If they were more social they might raise the caterpillers? Perhaps it is just a matter of needing to devote constant attention so the social structure is required?


Fungi does a great job of converting complex carbs into less complex carbs/protein.

One can find 'art' of furniture with oyster 'shrooms. Documentation of straw being used, then the colonized straw then being used for animal feed. (because few critters eat straw)

Now, if you are looking for a converting fungi for your backyard messing with - Koji (the fungus used for making sake)
Gem industries here in the US is where I get mine from. (post a reply if you want me to dig up the web page as they are mail order only.)

I really like this article, but not because I want to run my car on termite intestinal bacteria farts. :) I think humans should take a second look at termites because they are edible and could recycle suburbia into calories. Real detritovores eat detritovores!

There must be a secret ingredient in cow pats. A compost heap always goes better with a few added. However if the goal is to produce water miscible liquids via precise assemblages of bugs then I think problems are guaranteed. The first problem is optimising conditions for the microbes; these include temperature, nutrient levels, absence of competitors (that 'spoil' the brew) and acceptable levels of inhibiting wastes.

Secondly you have to extract the target fraction (eg ethanol) using energy intensive methods such as distillation. Contrast this to the making of whiskey, rum and brandy which still contain at least a few percent water and sell for way over $1.50/L or $5/gal. More money for less work in energy terms.

On the other hand with gasification at 650C the first round products are predictable. It's the next step to liquid fuels that is hard. Maybe the answer is to drive PHEVs charged by fusion power so we don't care too much about the incidental cost of liquid fuels.

I've often wondered why so little effort was being put into this. It obviously works; I'll bet total termite biomass would be one of the highest of any fauna. Indeed, I've experimented with swarming termites as a possible food source since you can draw large numbers of them with lights during tropical swarms. (so far the dog's love 'em; I don't have any recipes to recommend, but it will be a potential high-fat food source on my island if needed.)

But how about taking it the next step: humans who can digest switchgrass and sawdust? Hell, earth might actually be able to support a 10 billion population if people just grazed on shrubberies and stopped commuting to work. Perhaps we should bioengineer us some Eloi.

Thanks for posting this RR.

Back in 1982 I had my hopes heightened at the World's Fair in Knoxville. Now I see that what I saw there was just a lot of hype. Our government had no intention of following through with new energy innovations. I hope you can take a look at my peoplepowergranny.blogspot.com and vote in my poll on how much our government has let us down with empty promises.

One question pretty much in general about bacterial fermentation and I'll use acetic acid as and example. Originally almost all of the acetic acid (vinegar) was produced via bacterial fermentation but now this is only used for food vinegar. Acetic Acid for industrial use is produced via direct chemical synthesis and it on of the big petrochemical products.
I was unable to find its total production but its one of the basic chemicals we synthesis.
The point is if after all these years fermentation is not a competitive synthesis route for acetic acid except where mandated by law why would any fermentation process be expected to produce fuel at reasonable cost ?

We can't even do it today for industrial chemicals much less for fuel.

I just think we have a fundamental problem here. I'm not saying we can't do this in the future for fuels where we can't substitute but given the above I just don't see how it could ever be a replacement for today's fuel usage patterns.

In general most of the chemical we make also have alternative "natural" routes that have been used in the past. However its rare to see a natural product competitive in the bulk chemical market place and these are high value usages not fuel.

Acetic acid is made from methanol via the Monsanto or Cativa process. In turn, methanol is made via steam reformation from natural gas.

I'm not disagreeing with anything you said, but this economic advantage is underpinned by large quantities of clean, high EROEI feedstock.

This little discussion illustrates the problem with peak oil. Oil is really cheap in relation to non-oil feed stocks for almost any industrial process. When oil runs out, almost everything will be a lot more expensive. Some things will be more expensive than others and the overall differences will be small compared to what the price had been when oil was available. A big problem is to figure out now what will be cheapest then, in the future, using economic data from now, when the cost of everything is massively distorted by the availability of oil. We need to know what will be cheapest then because we will have very little time to do the development work when we start falling off the cliff.

DOE has changed over from sequencing mammals to sequencing the termite genome. Eddy Rubin (DOE) freely admitted that he didn't realize what the E in DOE stood for until recently. His words are far from encouraging:

"Adapting these findings for an industrial-scale system is far from easy," said Eddy Rubin, JGI Director. "Termites can efficiently convert milligrams of lignocellulose into fermentable sugars in their tiny bioreactor hindguts. Scaling up this process so that biomass factories can produce biofuels more efficiently and economically is another story. To get there, we must define the set of genes with key functional attributes for the breakdown of cellulose, and this study represents an essential step along that path."

I'm sure he has good intentions and perhaps he can grow enough poplars to make biofuels to run our plane fleet but there is no way that we can power all our cars and trucks with biofuels, unless you override the second law of thermodynamics. For a good overview on the subject check out UC Berkeley professor Tad Patzek's excellent powerpoint on the subject. He has published his views on biofuels in Science.

I'm sure we can develop good enzymes, but we still need to produce a very large amount of biomass (and transport it) to feed these future enzymes. Why burn it is a 30% efficient engine?

Electric vehicles for ground transport is the only realistic option in the medium and long term. Why throw good money after bad? Let the auto fleet die with declining oil supplies and start building new infrastructure. WE NEED OUR TOPSOIL FOR FOOD.

2) and we need our water for food production and 3) we need our bees to pollinate food and 4) we need our entire ecosystem to support human life.

Warren Buffett is investing in Burlington Northern and CSX because the trucking system is going to grind to a halt in 5-10 years.

Warren Buffett is investing in Burlington Northern and CSX because the trucking system is going to grind to a halt in 5-10 years.


Coca-Cola Distributor Orders Hybrid Trucks

Coca-Cola Enterprises is buying 120 new trucks this year powered by Eaton's hybrid electric drivetrain systems.

The order from the world's largest marketer, producer and distributor of Coca-Cola products represents the largest North American commercial order to date for Eaton's hybrid systems. It follows the beverage company's purchase of 20 trucks with Eaton hybrid power systems in 2007.

Extensive testing and evaluations conducted by Coca-Cola Enterprises found that Eaton's hybrid-electric drivetrain equipped trucks decreased emissions by roughly 32 percent and fuel consumption by up to 37 percent as compared to conventionally powered trucks in Coca-Cola's current fleet. Coca-Cola also reported lower maintenance costs on the hybrid-powered trucks.


there is no way that we can power all our cars and trucks with biofuels, unless you override the second law of thermodynamics.
Actually, we can.  We just have to change two things:
  1. Do not perform the lossy conversion of biomass to liquid fuels.
  2. Use the most efficient converters we have to turn the chemical energy into work.
If "The Billion-Ton Vision" is correct, we have more than enough biomass available to supply the actual energy we derive from petroleum motor fuels (after refining and engine losses); we just can't take the same lossy route to get there.

Or, golly Gee, convert the photons directly into electrical power and by-pass all the photons to bio-mass to 'work' conversions.

If you have resolved the issues of storage and capital cost, by all means.

... Evergreen Solar ...
... etc ...

I have no financial connection with any of these companies, though I did have some Ovonic stock in my IRA or 401K for a while. Or maybe I still do, I'd have to look. Being a shameful trader, I have advanced / retreated based on fad and fashion in my investments. My connection with these companies is largely sentimental, having searched for them after visiting The Oil Drum. (or simply followed links posted by others including E-P, thanks)

As for capital cost, that's another matter. With TPTB in the process of actively wrecking the economy it will be more difficult. If we had a "war on energy" maybe ... :)

I've talked up Evergreen Solar myself, but sodium-sulfur batteries are a solution for storage on the time scale of hours or days, not months.  The major benefit of biomass is that it is fixed in chemical form and is relatively stable for some time; simple and inexpensive processing can increase that period of stability to more than the lifespan of the typical human civilization.

If you have a heap of PV and wind generation and some DCFC powerplants with silos of charcoal for the times when the first two are slack, it addresses most of the objections to an RE-based economy.  I don't think sodium-sulfur can fill the same niche.

Sodium-sulfur batteries are essentially stable when cooled to ambient temperatures, and could last for eons. Of course it takes a few days with the resistive heaters to get them back online. But, yeah, they are essentially designed for peak leveling.

But most of the PV storage requirement is in the 18 hours or so when the array isn't producing an excess, isn't it? I'd think the hours/days time scale of NaS goes pretty well with PV. For cloudy / calm days, of course you need some additional storage...

If we could build something like a sodium-sulfur flow battery, seasonal storage of electricity might be practical.  Size would be an asset; the larger it was, the less it would be affected by heat loss.  But I've not heard of anything like that, so it may be a bit beyond today's state of the art.

But most of the PV storage requirement is in the 18 hours or so when the array isn't producing an excess, isn't it?

There's the diurnal cycle, but there's also the annual waxing and waning of the availability of sunlight in much of the world (especially those parts which get cold in winter).

This is where technologies which store energy outside the converter win out; they can be made larger at much smaller expense than making bigger batteries.  Flow batteries have tanks, fuel-cell powerplants have stores of fuel.  If you harvest a supply of energy once a year, you have inherent storage of energy on a scale of months at no additional expense.  This meshes well with intermittent sources like wind and solar.

I've resolved the issues the same way you've resolved all of your proposal issues.

On the capital side - how can *I* hope to change the tax laws?

Your point A was concern over the lossy nature - I just pointed out how loss can be adjusted.

On the capital side - how can *I* hope to change the tax laws?

Tax policy doesn't create capital, it just shifts it around.  No amount of tax fiddling is going to make it worthwhile to charge batteries through the summer and heat with electricity in the winter.

Your point A was concern over the lossy nature - I just pointed out how loss can be adjusted.

I think you were rather badly off-target.

The loss in conversion of biomass to conventional liquid fuels is in the region of 50%, and the drivetrains which use those fuels range in efficiency from the 40's (medium-speed diesels) to 15% (typical gasoline-powered light vehicle); end-to-end efficiency is somewhere between 7 and 20-odd percent.  If we pyrolized the biomass directly to gas and charcoal for use in high-temperature fuel cells, we could get something closer to 70%.  Total useful output would be multiplied by a factor between 3 and 10.  This is the difference between partial displacement of petroleum motor fuel, and near-total replacement of petroleum, natural gas and coal.

I think the catch is that everyone has their eyes on the same biomass:

Homeowners see wood as a fuel for heating and cooking. If other sources are scarce, they will cut down anything they can find.

Electrical utilities see wood as a renewable biofuel for their facilities. All they need to do is burn it or gasify it.

Wood is also an alternative for making furniture, benches and a lot of other things, if we don't have enough plastics and steel, because of energy shortages.

Somehow, the folks making liquid fuel for automobiles think that they will get the entire amount of excess biomass themselves. If they are going to grow their own, they will need to start very soon.

Oh yeah, you have to watch out for the fuzzy math. You can not use the biomass for everything. You might replace 30% of the oil used for gasoline OR you might replace 30% of the natural gas we use, but not both.

The forest products waste is after the lumber is sawed and the paper is made. It is another revenue stream for the forest products companies. The same with farm crop straw. The farmers can get some money from all that they can spare. Biomass can help, but it can not bring us the energy independence that people talk about.

I think the catch is that everyone has their eyes on the same biomass

Yes and no.  Homeowners aren't looking to heat with corn stover or rice straw, to give one example.

But you put your finger on something that worries me:  Suppliers lock into relationships and Congress likes mandates, so we probably have only one chance to get this right.  We need to make sure that new biomass-based energy initiatives address as much of our combined energy, pollution and climate problem as they can.

Considering they burn cow dung in certain places of the world. I think it's safe to assume corn stover and rice straw will be candidates should no higher energy sources be left to burn.

All the better reason to use the straw in something which doesn't produce fly ash.

Edit: This comment was supposed to be a reply to the next comment, not this one. Sorry for the confusion.

An off topic comment about rice straw: It has very high silica content. When burnt, very fine silica particles are put into the atmosphere. It is an air quality nightmare. Think silicosis.

Really? Silicosis? I could swear that all the rice farmers burn their fields after the harvest. I'd see it every fall when I lived in Japan. Is it really that bad for you?

One of the more interesting recent discoveries regarding silicosis is that freshly-spalled silicate particles are at least an order of magnitude more dangerous than old weathered particles. Think broken chemical bonds, free radicals. Think of the difference between water and hydrogen peroxide.

So the dust from a quarry can be extremely hazardous, while environmental dust, though still somewhat unhealthy, is much less so. The phytoliths released from burning rice straw would fall in the second category in my estimation.

From an article by David Pimentel:

All green plants in the U.S. -- including all crops, forests, and grasslands, combined -- collect about 32 quads (32 x 1015 BTU) of sunlight energy per year. Meanwhile, the American population currently burns more than 3 times that amount of energy annually as fossil fuels! There isn't even close to enough biomass in America to supply our biofuel needs.

And yet here we have someone claiming that biomass could easily power all of our cars and trucks, with a few tweaks.

Fossil Fuels - Coal, Nat Gas, Oil, Propane, Wood, etc.

Nope, we Won't replace All of Those; but, we can make a pretty good dent in our gasoline/diesel usage.

A Billion Tons of Usable biomass could equal 100 Billion Gallons of Ethanol. Add in a 50% increase in energy efficiency (the new engines coming online are there now) and, goodbye gasoline.



a barrel of oil is refined into 44 gallons of gasoline. We use 20m barrels of oil a day, or 880m gallons. In a year, that's about 320b gallons. Ethanol has about 60% the energy of gasoline, so 100b gallons (assuming yearly production) is equal to about 60b gallons of gasoline, or 19% of annual production. I think that half our oil goes to transport, so 100b gallons of ethanol could be 38% of our fuel. Not a trivial amount, but not a replacement either. It would go a long way however, assuming 1b tons of waste cellulose is available and has no competing uses.

And yet here we have someone claiming that biomass could easily power all of our cars and trucks, with a few tweaks.

That would probably be me.

What you fail to take into account is the gross inefficiency of the internal combustion engine.  The actual work which gets to the wheels of vehicles in the USA amounts to perhaps 5-6 quads/year; biofuels are sufficient to supply this if efficiency can be improved far enough.

I would not characterize my proposal as "a few tweaks".  It would require the wholesale replacement of the vehicle fleet, with most energy being supplied as electricity.  Doing this completely would take around 20 years, and involve infrastructure upgrades as well.  However, it would almost certainly be cheaper than the $20 trillion estimated for the cost of doing it with oil over the next 25 years, and cleaner too.

Shouldn't these guys be looking at the DNA of the (cellulase) bacteria that convert cellulose to sugar, not termites that just house the bacteria? This smells like a genetist's boondoggle.
The problem with cows and termites is that they don't produce alcohol, they produce cow poop and cow farts(methane).

A cow eats 100 pounds of grass a day and produces 100 pounds of poop. A 100 pounds of poop can be slowly anaerobically digested( as in the stomachs of cows and termites) to produce
maybe 350 cubic feet of biogas plus 50 pounds of reduced poop(where will that go?).
(2/3 of which is methane~650 BTU, the rest is CO2).
So 100 pounds of grass at 5000 BTU per pound makes 350 cubic feet of 650 BTU ~46% efficiency(whereas industrial gasification is closer to 60% efficient). Efficiency of GTL=75%? so the overall efficiency is 35%.

A 100 pounds of switchgrass at 5000 BTU per pound goes to make 5 gallon of ethanol is ~38%
efficient. Why bother looking at termites?
Look at cellulase in the bateria.

I think that was the whole idea behind the enzyme route that Iogen and others took to make ethanol out of cellulose. It started with jungle rot and then mushrooms to isolate the enzymes that broke down the cellulose. It still has to be fermented, which takes energy and water. I am a gasification and synthesis fan for those and other reasons. Gasification of biomass and synthesis can take many different inputs and make many different outputs.

we have cow power that we can use to power PHEVs and EVs.

as for biomass what is more efficient? converting it to a fuel or converting it to electricity and then plug into an PHEV or an EV?

Cow poop from a 100 pounds of biomass, 5000 Btu per pound-->5 gallons of ethanol or 350 cubic feet of biogas at 650 BTU/scf=227500 BTU x 30% efficency biogas electric generator/3412=20 kwh.

An EV gets 4 miles per kwh x 20 kwh=80 miles.

A hybrid car gets 40 miles per gallon EPA x .7 for ethanol E85 x 5 gallons of gas=140 miles.

140 miles by hybrid car on E85 versus 80 miles by EV golf cart.
It's a no-brainer.

And an electric assist bike gets 66 miles per kwh X 20 kwh = 1,333 miles.

1,333 miles by ebike (and getting exercise at the same time) versus 140 miles by hybrid car on E85 versus 80 miles by EV golf cart.

It's a no-brainer.

That would be a more sensible comparison if you included the value of the cow from the first example.

If you want to compare more directly, 100 lbs dry herbaceous biomass @ 17.4 GJ/tonne = 790 MJ.  Pryolize with waste heat to 50% charcoal, 50% gas and convert the gas to electricity @ 60% in an MCFC or SOFC, and the charcoal to electricity @ 80% in a DCFC, and you get ~550 MJ (153 kWh).  At 250 Wh/mile, that's upwards of 600 miles.

The question was whether biogas from a cow transformed to electricity would be more efficient than ethanol from biomass.
It is not.

You throw in solid oxide or molten carbonate or theoretical direct carbon fuel cells plus a very rich syngas, plus a very rich biomass to make your case. You love stacking the deck in favor of EV/Plug-ins. This is typically what all the EV people do
but it's just not realistic. Neither are their magical batteries.

BTW,those 'electric-assist' bikes from China, can't run uphill!

You really should invest all your money in some fancy fuel cells!

The question was whether biogas from a cow transformed to electricity would be more efficient than ethanol from biomass.

Agreed, it was an apples-to-watermelons comparison.  You could have noted that.

You throw in solid oxide or molten carbonate or theoretical direct carbon fuel cells

What's theoretical about them?  SRI International has them at a more advanced state than nuclear power was in 1940.  We all know what happened in 1945.

SOFC operation has been demonstrated on gasified chicken litter; the workability isn't just hypothetical.

You love stacking the deck in favor of EV/Plug-ins.

Please support your use of the pejoratives "theoretical" and "magical" with regard to fuel cells and electric propulsion.  Are you saying the Smith Newton electric delivery van lacks reality?

But if we're going to look at gobar gas, let's return to your calculations:

350 cubic feet of biogas at 650 BTU/scf=227500 BTU x 30% efficency biogas electric generator/3412=20 kwh.

An EV gets 4 miles per kwh x 20 kwh=80 miles.

227500 BTU * 60% efficient SOFC = 40 kWh, 40 kWh / 0.25 kWh/mi = 160 miles.  That's more than your ethanol example, and you get the cow too!  That's even using a high estimate for energy consumption for the EV (measured consumption for e.g. the tzero is under 200 Wh/mi).

There's a reason I talk up the combination of stationary FC's and EV's; they can eliminate the problems with scarcity of energy supply by multiplying efficiency, and they can be part of a carbon-negative energy system.  You can't do this with liquid motor fuels.

There's a reason I talk up the combination of stationary FC's and EV's; they can eliminate the problems with scarcity of energy supply by multiplying efficiency, and they can be part of a carbon-negative energy system. You can't do this with liquid motor fuels.

Power plant fuel cells look like BIG BATTERIES.

They are TINY. The biggest are around 3MW.

They are expensive--about $1500 per kwh.

They last at most 5 years and are not very reliable.

They run continuously and are baseload, wasting expensive natural gas.

I find it amusing that
it is considered better by some people( that would be you) to continuously burn depleting natural gas in a super efficient(47%) MC fuel cell power plant to send electricity to an EV battery than simply send the natural gas to a slightly less efficient fuel cell car(40%) which will run when it is needed.


People need to look at fossil fuel as energy storage.

Recreating comment lost to glitch:

Power plant fuel cells ... are TINY. The biggest are around 3MW.

Not for long.  A 100 MW MCFC plant is under construction in Korea, with 50 MW to be operating this year.

Small FCs make sense for distributed applications, where the byproduct heat is an important element or there is a limited fuel supply (e.g. gas from anaerobic digestion of a waste stream).  They will continue to make sense.

They are expensive--about $1500 per kwh.

More than that in some cases; the article says "FuelCell Energy had a goal of reducing the cost of it 2.4 MW power plant to $3,200-3,500/kilowatt (kW) by the end of 2006."  However, Delphi and others are shooting for $300/kW for SOFCs, and increasing volume is bound to cut the price of everything.

They last at most 5 years and are not very reliable.


They run continuously and are baseload, wasting expensive natural gas.

Nothing prevents a fuel cell from being throttled; they are most efficient at low power.

I find it amusing that it is considered better by some people( that would be you) to continuously burn depleting natural gas in a super efficient(47%) MC fuel cell power plant to send electricity to an EV battery than simply send the natural gas to a slightly less efficient fuel cell car(40%) which will run when it is needed.

Try 49% for the FCE unit during continuous operation.  If operated under pressure using a gas turbine as a bottoming cycle, efficiency can top 60%.  That cuts fuel requirements by a third.

The EV can cut them further because it can use any source of electricity.  If 25% of electricity comes from wind and another 20% from nuclear, fuel demand is cut to 36% of the ICEV case.

Last, the fuel going to a stationary fuel cell can supply byproduct heat (displacing other fuel) and be carbon-sequestered.  If you put a chemical fuel aboard a vehicle, you lose all of this.

By Jove, We've got it!!

I know your next big top secret business venture. Sorry to let the cat out of the bag, but the world will know soon enough.


Truckloads of every imaginable biomass will be dumped into the mouth end, and, Voila!, out will come pure liquid transportation fuel from the other.

You crafty devil!

If anyone could whip up a sketch of this for us I'm sure it would help illuminate, for the world, as to how awesome this whole thing is.

Now I have this pretty amazing idea myself. We feed the the oxen with little plants. The Key to this System is that the little plants are growing back there in the buckboard, behind Paps. (He got his Blue Ribbon and doesn't give a hoot or holler).

Every now and again you pull over to the side of the interstate and collect the poops and pass em back over Paps' head to the little plants for food. Then you have baby-bioreactor-biofood.

While you are at it you can raise little baby oxen in the back for extra acceleration on the fast lane. With Vlog Khosla pushing the whole deal with valuable investment methane.

Has there been significant development in optimizing microbial environments for the production of biogas (methane, butane, anything) from cellulose? The next generation of lithium ion batteries allow for true serial hybrids. I would imagine that the following setup is workable:

A small, 30hp compressed biogas genset combined with 100 pounds of altair or a125 batteries gives you 200+ horsepower for transient loads of 90 seconds or so. Enough to drag race with, but not enough to cruise at more than 90mph for extended periods of time with.

If cellulosic ethanol is actually so far off, we shouldn't be starting from the standpoint that ethanol is required (because of tax credits, PR campaigns, whatever) - now find how to make it, we should be starting from the standpoint that a liquid or compressible-gas hydrocarbon is required, now find out how to make one with a high efficiency process.

Forget the idea that compatibility with internal combustion engines is required, and you'll go a lot farther.  If we can feed a combination SOFC/DCFC system with de-ashed torrefied biomass, we could achieve a field-to-terminals efficiency of something like 63%.  Just converting to a fuel for combustion engines loses something like 50%.

I despair of adapting one to a car, though. Insulating it sufficiently to operate efficiently at 1000C turns it into something either too big or too heavy for personal transit, perhaps even bus-sized vehicles.

Also, for grid applications... take your 63% efficiency for an ideal fuel, and tell me what kind of consumption we're talking about in joules per acre of high-yield crops. And compare it to simple, raw combustion in some type of large, efficient engine/furnace.

I despair of adapting one to a car, though. Insulating it sufficiently to operate efficiently at 1000C turns it into something either too big or too heavy for personal transit, perhaps even bus-sized vehicles.

Auto exhaust temps can run 1000°C.

IIRC, Delphi and at least one other company have been working on SOFC APU's for mobile applications.  These are in the 5 kW range, but they have the same operating temperatures.  And you always have the possibility of leaving the fuel cells at home and just bringing the electricity with you, using batteries.

Also, for grid applications... take your 63% efficiency for an ideal fuel, and tell me what kind of consumption we're talking about in joules per acre of high-yield crops.

Dry herbacious biomass is, IIRC, about 17.4 GJ/tonne.  Maize yielding 150 bu/ac also produces about 2 tons of excess stover per acre; call it 32 GJ worth after conversion from short tons.  Convert this to electricity at 63% and you've got about 5600 kWh/ac/yr.

Total US electric consumption is about 4000 TWH/hr, or ~1.44e19 J.  If produced from biomass at 63% efficiency, this would require about 2.3e19 J of fuel or 1.3 billion dry tons @ 17.4 GJ/tonne.  This happens to be just about what "The Billion-Ton Vision" projected (optimistically).  This would supply roughly 2.5 times the energy consumed by vehicles, and could displace almost all motor fuel and coal.

compare it to simple, raw combustion in some type of large, efficient engine/furnace.

That's hard to do, because the large, efficient furnace will require a large, lossy transport network to get the bulky fuel to it.  I'm sold on fuel cells because they don't have the efficiency loss with scale.

Almost any one of these schemes will work better with half the number of cars presently on the road!

Many people on this site argue for population control. That is all well and good, but the main problem is energy control. Compare total consumption of energy by human beings, with total consumption by all of the rest of the species of the world as the denominator, plot that over the last two hundred years. Plot world human population over the same time, and another graph of "third world population" against those. We are way out of balance right now, and converting more termites and more biomass and more rivers and aquifers to cars-- just to allow people to drive around pointlessly-- will only make things worse.

Biomass DCFC's will require processing and similar infrastructural (transportation of raw materials) challenges.

Not so, for two major reasons:

  1. DCFC's, being efficient at relatively small size, can be sited much closer to sources of fuel and energy exported as electricity.
  2. DCFC's are roughly twice as efficient as the typical steam powerplant and need roughly half the fuel.

Moving bulk biomass is a difficult affair.  Even if you do have to ship charcoal for DCFCs, it is roughly 30% of the weight of the source biomass and both much more compact and easier to handle and process.

I like biomass gasification to methane (SNG) and Adsorbed Natural Gas (ANG) in a PHEV. ANG can put more methane in a smaller place under lower pressure. SNG is more CO2 neutral and can be put right in the existing natural gas pipelines. Think of refueling and recharging your car in your garage at night. No more gasoline stations and gasoline tankers going down the road. No more gasoline storage tanks leaking a getting into the ground water.

I hadn't looked into ANG in quite a while, it's looking incredibly attractive.
An 8"x8"x5' cylindrical carbon fiber (light) tank at 500 PSI, which achieves the 230x storage to volume@STP ratio that's currently state of the art (as of five months ago), gives you 3.14 gallons of gasoline equivalent - two of those in any configuration and you're golden. It doesn't require the kind of special, inefficient, huge pump/compressor that current CNG vehicles use - 500 PSI is pipeline pressure.

Got any information on what kind of mass is involved, though? An 8"x8"x5' cylinder of a solid and pressurized gas has got to be heavy.

While exotic ethanol may be perfected someday, the problem I have with using cellulosic ethanol is that corn grows just as fast as trees IMO. The trees look like a gold mine, but it takes a long time to grow them and they are expensive and difficult to harvest consumming lots of labor and requiring an infrastructure that for the most part does not exist, at least on the large scale required to suppliment gasoline in the near future.

The cow idea is the right one. We do not have to invent the cow. Just put cattle on the land supposedly available to switch grass, trees or whatever and let them munch away. They don't produce ethanol, but do produce beef and milk. Then kill the hogs. Take the energy being wasted in feeding corn to hogs and make it into to ethanol. This is all no brainer stuff and obvious, at least to me. I think the markets are in the process of forcing this to happen at the moment. Hog factories and the massive feeding of corn (as well as the beginnings of the ethanol industry) were the result of large corn surpluses coming from poorly thought out government subsidy programs. The genius of this switch is that it does not require technical innovation, just common sense. Oh wait, maybe it won't happen after all.

Exactly, I'd like to see a post on TOD which examines the energy loss per animal. Most Americans could stand to eat less meat anyway.

Actually, most Americans could do with eating less high-fructose corn syrup.

The idea that modern Americans eat lots of meat is a myth. 'Lots' is after all a comparative idea. From memory, Americans only get about 12% of their calories from meat. The historical hunter-gatherer figure was more like 25%. Yeah, you eat 'lots' of meat ... compared to modern-day Indian vegetarians, who are not typical of the human species across deep time. But not when compared to your Cro-Magnon forebears, or even to your own pioneer forebears.

Wanna argue, look up Cordain's research on it first. My figures are from memory only.

Americans ate 195 pounds of meat on average in 2000: 65 pounds of beef, 48 pounds of pork, 53 pounds of chicken, 14 pounds of turkey, and 15 pounds of fish. See USDA chart here: http://www.usda.gov/factbook/tables/ch2table21.jpg

A pound of beef is about 1400 calories, pork and ham 2000 calories, chicken 800 calories, turkey 1200 calories, and fish about 700 calories. All that adds up to 256,000 calories a year or about 700 calories per day. According to the USDA, the average American consumes 2700 calories per day, so meat accounts for about 25%.

There is cellulose in a lot more things than trees.

Corn stalks, for a start.

And shrubs and grass. It is a far better solution than ethanol from corn, if it can be made to work.

There are a lot of companies that grow trees for lumber and paper products, Georgia Pacific and Boise Cascade come to mind. They grow trees on large acreage in time rotation. This is a pretty sustainable method. Range Fuels is building a plant in Georgia to take advantage of what is left over in the process to make fuels. Forest waste is a major source of cellulose and one that can be contracted for and dependable.

Actually, we were all "ahead of our time."

In 1974, my ChE undergraduate project dealt with anaerobic digestion of swine waste (though I was in ChE, the project overall project was being overseen by a ChE professor over in the Bio&Ag Engineering Department. The year before that it was a project involving anuclear reactor design and the need or absence of need for a cooling tower. ). The project involved solar power and transitioning a pilot scale reactor out of the mesophillic to the thermophillic range.

All these years later I am working with several interested groups on renewable energy...one of which involves, you guessed it, anaerobic digestion of swine waste.

I'd be interested in any link you care to provide to the nuclear reactor sans tower.

Presumably it uses little water for cooling? The linkage with solar is also of interest.

Actually, the reactor ended up needing a hyperbolic, natural draft cooling tower.

The initial hope was that the water and the used for recirculation would be sufficiently large to avoid the need for some form of additional mechanical cooling. But summertime temperatures and the size of the cooling lake (it's depth and syrface area) made it impossible (with more than one reactor) to operate "efficiently."

But to be honest, I did not expect, years later to be working on nuclear powerplant or other nuclear projects. That some of the work I was involved with spanned 5 different DOE labs was not something I would have forseen as an undergraduate.

The project with the solar-powered methane digester has long-since been discontinued (in a recent conference I attended, it was funny to see the old B&W pictures of the equipment and the people from the 1970's. The hair !!! And look at those sideburns!!!!). But the fact that I was involved in those projects suggests, at least from an engineering standpoint, that nothing I studied was without value. I just could not see, at the time, how and why it would be useful in the future.


it's not completely surprising that the experiment with the termites did not work ... some bacteria are so oxygen-sensitive that they keel over when they get the slightest whiff of oxygen (EOS, extremely oxygen sensitive). You need to use an anaerobic chamber to dissect the termites in, and you have to pre-reduce the growth media.

I was also wondering if a detailed examination of the innards of a termite might not find a series of reaction chambers in which different nutrients/enzymes are supplied by the termite and differing conditions exist. And the different chambers would extract and remove various byproducts as the process proceeds.

Perhaps it takes a 'village' of microbes to accomplish the breakdown.

some bacteria are so oxygen-sensitive that they keel over when they get the slightest whiff of oxygen

If mankind is gonna play with bio-engineering things that produce a whole lotta toxins (right now I can't think of one of the proposed energy ideas that isn't toxic when made in lagre quantities/concentrated) such a 'feature' many be just what is needed to keep them from making it in the wild.

Unlike this plan:

It seems there will always be applications where the needs of cost or power to weight needs dictate IC engines and premium liquid fuels. In other words batteries, low speed diesels, steam boilers and fuel cells won't cut it. The clear example is aviation. Less clear is farm machinery; neither John Deere's early FC tractor nor battery powered tractors seem able to tow a combine harvester for hours at a stretch.

In such cases I wonder if we can accept low EROEI fuels provided other most other applications such as cars are switched to something else. I note the rogue satellite carried hydrazine for which I'd bet the EROEI<<1. If it's minor the 'system' may be able to afford it.

High value applications that do not lend themselves to alternatives may continue, if the economics support it. Maybe commercial jets will use hydrogen in the future, maybe they will use biofuels. People still like to fly and time critical cargo goes by air, so there will still be a need or at least a demand for this.

What you start to see are the uses of fossil fuels that can transition easily probably will be the first to do so, if it makes sense. I happen to think that homes and buildings should be heated and cooled by solar thermal and we should use natural gas in our cars, but pure economic models may not show actual behavior patterns in all cases.

as far as cows are concerned the following is the way to go:

Create a diaper that attaches to the cows backside and traps gas

connect the diaper to a large balloon that floats above the herd

connect the balloon to a system that collects the gas and compresses it

pipe the gas from the system to a larger collector system that pipes it to a central facility

convert all vehicles to work efficiently on the cow gas

Unfortunately most of the "gas" (ie methane) is produced in the Rumen (the first of 4 digestive chambers) and is burped, not farted from the cow.

Very difficult to arrange a collection process that still allows the cow to eat, drink, and breathe.

I am not surprised that most people think that it is a "tail end" gas, as here in New Zealand even the farmers (who should know something about cows) were refering to a "Fart Tax" when the Govt tried to introduced a carbon tax measure for livestock.

Collecting the cowpats for an anaerobic methane digester is a well established practice in many less developed nations.


Hi Robert,

I am pretty sure you know my views about bio-fuels, at least on the scale that involves 6.5 billion people and anyway I am way off the topic line of termite power but:

If one is going to use cellulose for fuelling this Hummer of a culture, do you know if there is any efficient way to produce a particle size that could be used directly? Take one strange carburettor though I would guess.

Thanks for the keypost, Robert. The AFP article is particularly interesting. It's nice to hear that a serious research effort is being aimed at decoding the secrets of termites' intestinal chemistry plants.

Although it's a silver BB, it should be an important one. Not that we'll be able to keep driving that old Duesenberg forever, but it gives some hope for a minimal supply of liquid fuel for critical applications.

Hi DIYer, Quite agree with your statement: It's nice to hear that a serious research effort is being aimed at decoding the secrets of termites' intestinal chemistry plants. next thing would be to keep the information out of our busy hands until we are wise enough to use it.

As far as your statement: but it gives some hope for a minimal supply of liquid fuel for critical applications. We got lots for that purpose if we weren't using it for uncritical applications, I won't give you my list of those as I am sure you have a list every bit as long if not longer.

My pap had a Duesenbergh just after the end of WW II, don't remember too much about it other than him lighting a fire under it in the winter to lower the viscosity of the crank oil ... I think he got it started. The auto that I would like to have had, in my teens was an old Packard that had a keyboard with a complete octave of horns attached. I think it was the the keyboard more that than the car itself that impressed me ... quite a wolf-mobile that would have been. Thanks for reviving the memories.

The reason the termite enzyme idea would probably not work is the requirement that the cellulose be turned into a high surface area powder so that the enzymes work at a reasonable pace. The energy needed to mechanically grind the wood or fiber would consume most of the fuel output. Look at termites, they eat a huge amount of wood but are hardly ahead at the end of the day-- just a few fecal pellets to show for their work. I believe most termites live in the warmer regions, perhaps because they cannot generate enough surplus energy to keep their bioreactors warm in cold weather.

biophiliac,The energy needed to mechanically grind the wood or fiber would consume most of the fuel output What about freezing to very low temperatures and then crushing, still a lot of energy in?

BTW if we really want to do the heights about turning agricultural products into fuel, powdered wheat flour can be quite explosive if properly mixed in air. Just shove a fifty pound of bread flour into the fuel tank and let the peasants eat cake instead of bread:)

The energy required would largely be independent of the process and would depend on the strength and number of the chemical bonds gluing the cellulose together. One of my hats is low temperature physics and I can tell you that cooling is not cheap/energy efficient. My guess is that fungi get around the grinding problem with patience, allowing their enzymes to slowly diffuse through the wood over weeks.

Check out this article. Termite enzymes may have to take a back seat.


Wow.. microbes that eat carbon dioxide and excrete fuel as waste. That sounds great... but what kind of energy input is required? It takes net energy to break apart CO2 - it would be impossible for a microbe to live off CO2 alone. How efficient is the process? These are the sorts of details that are conveniently omitted.

Chlorophyll, that's their secret. That and sunlight. It's only about 1% efficent but the sunlight's free so what the heck.

If you apply the 100 mile criterion to biofuels as well as food that cuts out some options. A bioreactor requiring special microbe cultures may not be viable in some backwoods or Third World areas. Same goes for a $400m Fischer-Tropsch plant.

This could also mean cities need to break up and the population disperse to where the bio-resources are. Reverse urbanisation. Lo tech areas could grow jatropha trees for diesel powered jitneys and hi tech areas could make termite enzyme ethanol for their nifty town cars. This might work for maybe one billion people.

If you could magically turn 1 cord of wood (1 tank of casoline) into hydrogen, you wouuld have 45 170 liter high pressure hydrogen tanks that you can barely lift strapped onto your care.

Hydrogen is a dead stinking horse, it isnt going to do anything but make the hydrogen people some money.

A california bus system ran their flee t of buses in california for one year.
cost was 51 dollars PER MILE

that is 100 times more expensive that diesel.

sounds goo to me bobby-sue..

Ooooops, my vad!

1 GALLON of gasoline would be turned into 45

wiat lets see here

120 grams makes 22.4 liters times 9 ok 200 liters per 120 grams/ 480 liters per pound
6000 liters per 8 pounds yes

45 high pressure hydrogen tanks PER GALLON of gasoline.
50 gallon SUV tank is 500 high pressure hydrogen tanks thereabouts

and hydrogen is absolutely NASTY on pistons and rings you would have to make fuel cells and run them electric, whic is EX pen SIVE.

dude, hydrogen is a dead stinking horse.









Insects generally have a higher food conversion efficiency than more traditional meats. For example studies concerning the house cricket (Acheta domesticus) have shown it has it is a food conversion more efficient than commonly eaten vertebrate meats. When reared at 30°C or more, and fed a diet of equal quality to the diet used to rear conventional livestock, house crickets show a food conversion twice as efficient as pigs and broiler chicks, four times that of sheep, and six times higher than steers when losses in carcass trim and dressing percentage are counted.[1]

Furthermore insects reproduce at a faster rate than beef animals, a female cricket can lay from 1,200 to 1,500 in 3 to 4 weeks, while in beef the ratio is four breeding animals for each market animal produced, thus giving house crickets a true food conversion efficiency almost 20 times higher than beef.[1]

For this reason and because of the essential amino acids content of insects some people propose the development of entomophagy to provide a major source of protein in human nutrition. Protein production for human consumption would be more effective and cost less resources than animal protein. This makes insect meat more ecological than vertebrate meat.

Forget the critters as car or other fuel producers. the fact that they convert sunlight and water and nutrients more efficiently than we and cows do and only less efficiently presumably than plants means we should definitely use them as a direct food source instead of vertebrates and fish as this would allow a stopgap at the very least to avoid dieoff and possibly long term to manintain a sustainable culture.

The WIki insect page is fascinating. the bugs really have a lot of fascinating capabilities which we could learn from.