Jumping on the technology bandwagon

Not me...that would be Wired magazine.

Not surprisingly, I guess, the cover article of Wired for December is called "Why $5 Gas Is Good for America". Why, you ask? Well, because it's going to kickstart funding for new, clean, alternative technologies, of course.

I'm going to let you guys read this article and form your own opinions, but I did want to provide just a few reasons why this article managed to push my buttons.

The basic gist of this article by author Spencer Reiss is that while it may actually be true that oil is in depletion, it's not a problem because (a) there are many alternatives to oil already somewhat developed, and (b) rising gas prices gives companies (big oil, I guess?) the incentive to really invest in these new options.
So rising oil prices are more than just an irritant or even an ominous nick out of the GDP. They're an invitation to corn and coal and hydrogen. For anyone with a fresh idea, expensive oil is as good as a subsidy - with no political strings attached. Indeed, every extra penny you pay at the pump is an incentive for some aspiring energy mogul to find another fuel.

What bothered me the most about this article is that there's absolutely no concrete examples of said "aspiring energy moguls" and their projects to back up his claims. Maybe I've been a scientist in academia for too long, but I find it irresponsible to be making grandiose claims about our happy future without a single example.* The mere mention of tar sands and synfuels is not good enough for me; even if he doesn't have room in his article to discuss specific projects, this is the web after all, and some links are critical to making his point. Thus, I can only assume he doesn't provide such links because no projects are sufficiently well developed that they convincingly provide the silver bullet, even in combination with one another.

A look at a recent thread of ours demonstrates that for every promising alternative someone mentions, someone else points out a problem. For example, NW Rich mentions that biofuels from algae look interesting, but Coffee17 worries about how clean such a process can be. TJ worries that coal gasification will take a rather long time to come online, and other have noted that not only may we not have that time, but it will take an enormous amount of fossil fuel input to get the relevant technologies in place—input we may not have if we wait too long. I won't even get started on Reiss's suggestion of synthetic diesel made from natural gas, which many people believe has already peaked.

If technology is going to save us, why aren't the technogeeks (sorry) already showing us working prototypes and convincing us of how easy it will be to scale the technology up to current levels of consumption? I'm hoping as much as anyone else that technology will be our savior, but I have yet to get really excited about one or more of the possibilities being able to replace petroleum in all of its many forms someday.

*I guess that the BP announcement about their plans to spend $8 billion in investments in wind, solar and hydrogen was too late to appear in the Wired article, but even if Reiss had mentioned this, it would only have shown that companies may now be willing to invest, but not that there are any proven technologies that will eventually be able to account for a significant proportion of worldwide energy consumption.

Sure, Yankee, you're entirely right in your remarks. The "Wired" cultural point of view may be OK for ipods and cell phones but as far as alternatives to oil go, this technogeek stuff isn't going to cut it. This reminds me that in this online interview with Tom Ashbrook, Daniel Yergin mentioned as examples of technology innovation cell phones and PCs as if these inventions were even remotely comparable to what has to happen with energy issues. That's when the emptiness of the technology argument really came home to me. There's a nice discussion of this at the Energy Bulletin titled Open letter to Daniel Yergin on optimism and addressing Peak Oil seriously.

What did I miss? Why are you no longer 'Ianqui'?
yergin's answer to the question of the hirsh report:

   "...Yergin's response, "I wonder what...I'm not sure what report that is, but I expect there to be a few reports coming out from the U.S. Government, from the geological side, that I think are more confident about the resources...."

yeah sure, yergin's never heard of the hirsh report...and we're in iraq to instill democracy...don't pay any attention to the man behind the curtain, dorothy!

The taking-us-for-suckers argument is deconstructed by Jane Smiley in this rebuttal to another similarly framed article:
Computer-type techies are made optimistic by the long-term and continuing success of Moore's Law; what they tend not to realize is that that law takes advantage of a second-power relationship.  That is, the thing chipmakers improve over the years is the resolution of their machinery -- the number of lines per linear unit on the substrate.  When you do that, the number of elements on the chip -- essentially the thing Moore's Law measures -- goes up as the square of the improvement. Double your resolution, and the number of elements on the chip goes up by four. No such relationship exists for improvements in things like the efficiency of extracting energy from wind or processing tar sands.
I've made and seen the Moore's law contrast in other forums.  Someone made the observation that shrinking electronics means that LESS mass (electrons) is moved in each generation, increasing efficiency.  On the other hand, US automobiles have been trending toward slightly more mass.

The SUV trend aside, there is no way we are going to make a four passenger car 1000x lighter.

  It might be nice if just for once someone used the space program instead of computers as their technology referent.  After a half century of development, it's just gotten more expensive and more complicated.  Or look at medical science, for pete's sake.  You don't get the result you like just because you want it a lot.
  This artticle is just more King Canute. It struck me as another example of someone trying to spin reality away.  Without magic markets and magic technology the Wired way of life would be doomed; no one is going to be interested in wrist computers, Google Universe and AI when you can't heat a house.  Therefore if you say it can't happen often enough then it won't.
I have to agree. We spend lots and lots of money on rocket engineering and we still can't beat three solids and a pressure fed for getting off the planet. Hydrogen, liquid fuel bipropellant, liquid oxygen, etc, are simply not cost drivers. Three solid fuel rockets in a stack and a pressure fed for regularizing the orbit is still the way to go. All the fancy accounting they use to persuade us that Ariane and the Shuttle are cost effective is not going to change the fact that their budgets are still way too high for the prices they qoute.
In fifty years we have made no progress. That's when the Scout program started up.
The power of a wind turbine is proportional to the SQUARE of its diameter. Its sort of like Moore's Law.

I think you nailed it.  They didn't discuss anything specific because they didn't have anything specific to discuss.  Typical mindless Wired boosterism of anything new and technical.
The thing that bothered me most about this article was the suggestion at the end that the toper thing to do about the energy crisis was to 'put the peral to the metal' and 'drive more'! Really!!!!
No matter how perverse it may sound they might be right.
If there is more wasteful consupmtion when the crisis hits there will be much more time to go by just going on a diet... the difference is time - supposedly this will give us more time to find a way out. If it is not already self-evindent nothing will be commenced neither by the government, nor companies and individuals until they feel the heat with their own pockets.
Fuzzy logic? The Aramco man tries to explain [to Simmons] the science of complex systems and partial information, but Simmons hears only tidings of a bleak future. Obviously, the end of energy as we know it is nigh. Well, blow us down - algorithms in the oil patch! What next? Hydrogen-spewing superbugs? In a word, yes. And that's just the beginning.

Simmons' techno-cluelessness would be funny - calling Jed Clampett with his 12-gauge! - if he weren't the spearhead of a whole hand-wringing school of petro-pessimism. The oil fields are running dry, the gas gauge is on empty, the American way of life is doomed - these ideas bob like plastic shark fins on the storm surge of current oil prices. -part of the Wired article

These mind twist manipulations are pretty effective on Joe SixPack because tucked away in his head are rememberances of "Going to the Moon", the home computer, and the Internet; all indeed great successes of science. What Joe forgets is the slice of foam that knocked the knees out from under the Space Shuttle program.

Call it hubris. Yes we humans are the greatest thing since canned tuna fish. But we don't know why gravity is. We can't make even a single tree (we can cut 'em down & run for sure). And we can't make an efficient solar panel even though we've been trying for years.

Biggest problem might be that the news journalist is a technical illiterate. Gone are the days when the science reporter had to have a degree in science.



I believe the target audience for WIRED magazine is young 20's. Just look at the ad's in there.
I have scanned through their magazines before and since i am not hip or 20 something of age, i found nothing of interest to a mid 40's guy like myself. IPODs are neat, (see? i'm already showing my age), and cell phones are very handy, i still despise 99% of cell phone users. but thats a different rant. Can ya dig it?
A lot of magazines try to structure their stories as fables (Forbes?).  We like that when the fable aligns with our morality ;-).

FWIW, it sounds like this story was structured as a gee-whiz fable of the future, when we know it should have stronger shades of grey.

(there are gee-whiz stories out ther, PO just isn't one of them)

That's a very telling point, odograph. Things that make you go "hmm..."
Yes, I can indeed dig it!  I am a sixty-year-old Sixties person who happens to despise  most 'modern' things like ATMs, cell phones, i-pods, plasma TV, and all young males with military crew cuts  who wear theses gang-banger  baggy jeans that are eight sizes too big. Call me prejudice, but I think the worst of the Sixties was better than the best of the 'oughts', i.e., the 2000 to 2010 period. Hell, I am one of a steadily dying breed that is capable of using a slide rule (you know, those sticks with little numbers on them).  

But I realize oldsters have been saying the same sort of thing since the time of the ancient Greeks. However, I think what is different here is that most young people have an almost wired-in acceptance of State authority, no doubt a product of the current public school system plus TV shows like 'Cops'. It really make my skin crawl when I see young people so willingly subjecting themselves to searches at checkpoints, fully believing that such is for their own safety against this amorphous threat called 'terrorism'.

It will only get worse, that is until things get so bad that they have no place to go but to only get better. But who knows, maybe there is a movement out there, totally invisible to us older ones, that has the will and wherewithal to pull us out of the hole. But I will not hold my breath.

Joule, can you imagine what the '60s anti-war movement would have thought about this government and its corporate media? They wouldn't have just closed down the college campuses, they would have closed down Fox and CNN with massive protests.

I think they were the last free Americans. Now we're in to something else. Something very docile. The end, I guess ...

So lets talk about ethanol:  The US gasoline consumption is 9.5 million gallons / day,  9.5 * 365 * 42 = about 145 billion gallons annually.  The US annual corn crop harvest is 10 billion bushels.  10 * 2.5 = 20 billion gallons of ethanol. Ethanol yield is about 2.5 gallons per bushel.  20 / 145 = about 13.5% If we used the entire annual corn crop to produce ethanol, the 13.5% would be used for increased demand before the new ethanol plants came on line.
The NG price by the end of the week may be past $15 after the current cold snap, see what song they are singing by Saturday.
"The US gasoline consumption is 9.5 million gallons / day,  9.5 * 365 * 42 = about 145 billion gallons"

What's the 42?

42 gallons to a barrel
I thought you only refine 19 gallons of gasoline out of a 42 gallon barrel of oil?
Of course ethanol isn't a silver bullet that will make make up for the onset of PO.  Neither is wind or solar or biodiesel or wave/tidal or hybrid cars or geothermal or conservation or CTL or nuclear or fusion.  Only a moron (like the people who write for WIRED, in my opinion) would suggest such otherwise.

Instead of looking around for the silver bullet, we have to realize that we have the solution in a combination of all those things.  I call it the Silver BB Solution.

Ok but you don't need to replace the total US gasoline consumption tomorrow! you can gradually reduce our oil dependence by using a mixture of ethanol and gasoline (engines don't need modifications under 10% of ethanol I believe). As LouGrinzo is suggesting, there is no need to find THE substitute of oil but using a gradual mix of different alternatives is the most probable scenrio.
Hey: My Math is wrong 2.5*10=25 or about 17%
You also mis-stated 9.5 million gallons per day instead of barrels.
Thats what the 42 was for.
That doesn't make "9.5 million gallons" right.
If technology is going to save us, why aren't the technogeeks (sorry) already showing us working prototypes and convincing us of how easy it will be to scale the technology up to current levels of consumption?

It isn't going to be possible to scale up technologies to current levels of consumption. The doomfreaks (sorry) are pushing a false dilemma: either technology can maintain our current obese habits, or we are screwed.

My view lies in the middle. Technology is perfectly capable of saving us if we meet it halfway. Step 1 of the solution is conservation. Step 2 is technology.

I don't think that people who believe in PO necessarily are pushing your false dilemma—most of us want conservation and we've argued for it many times here on TOD. I just didn't mention it in this post, because I was trying to take Reiss's arguments at face value. HE believes that we'll be able to maintain current levels of consumption, and I was trying to point out that his solution simply won't work under that scenario.
I was trying to point out that his solution simply won't work under that scenario.

I agree with you. I don't like Reiss's facile tone either. He is greatly underestimating the complexity of the transition. He is also thinking in U.S.-centric terms, and ignoring the larger world-wide problems that peak oil will cause in other countries (like the UK and Mexico) which don't have huge coal and oil shale reserves.

On the other hand, I don't think shooting down his solution means much. The genuine solution is conservation+technology. It's not so easy to trash that idea, and that's the position of the informed technogeeks.

The genuine solution is conservation+technology.

Yes, though I think it is more like the `rational' solution is conservation+technology. Give us 100 years and maybe we will know if it was the "genuine" solution.

I don't look at peak oil as a football game where we all place our bets, have a beer, and find out who won on Monday morning. The rational solution is something to work for, not a prediction.
From the economic side, there is no halfway. If you give up the growth component, our economy collapses.
When my young  pregnant wife demanded I grow up and get a real job instead of playing around as a perpetual grad student, I went to Cornell looking for a faculty position in ME.  The prof who interviewed me kept sketching beautiful turbine blades as he dumped withering scorn upon my head for even thinking of energy efficiency when oil was $10 a barrel or whatever it was in 1958.

Ever since then I have stupidly stuck to my self-appointed task of working on energy efficient designs, and always, here and overseas, I have been rebuffed by the same old argument "it's not economic when oil is so cheap".  My argument that oil only seems cheap because we can get away with counting only part of its true cost, and that conventional economics is the outgassing of Beelzebub  gets me  nowhere.

I'm not saying that any of my gadgets are all of themselves world savers, but they and lots of other good stuff can be helpful.  Almost everything in a normal american house that uses energy could be made to use a lot less of it if we just applied what we already know.

A couple of simple examples- a fridge that is connected to the frigid outside by a heat pipe so that it doesn't have to run as much in the winter.  Bubblewrap insulation, Wood stoves ( or any heater) with big water thermal stores and built-in stirling generators,   And of course all the car mods we know about, like plugin hybrids, not to mention straw fired power plants for farm equipment.   And of course all the things Amory Lovins has been hawking these many years.

And I betchya a hundred megabucks the above CAN be scaled up and have no serious unkunks

So high oil prices might help some, in my worn out humble opinion.

Let me repost and review in the future, and also not after fishing all day, burp.

So lets talk about ethanol:  The US gasoline consumption is 9.5 million barrels / day,  9.5 * 365 * 42 = about 145 billion gallons annually.  The US annual corn crop harvest is 10 billion bushels.  10 * 2.5 = 25 billion gallons of ethanol. Ethanol yield is about 2.5 gallons per bushel.  25 / 145 = about 17% If we used the entire annual corn crop to produce ethanol, the 17% would be used for increased demand before the new ethanol plants came on line.
The NG price by the end of the week may be past $15 after the current cold snap, see what song they are singing by Saturday.

Not to get tech. on ya

We only use 50% of the oil for gas, so it would be more like 35% of our gas needs, with bio-diesel making up a possible 10% of our diesel needs...every little bit helps I guess.

Nevermind I not sure what I'm smokin
I think corn is going to be a big waste of time anyway.  I would bet most farmers will switch to Rapeseed/Mustard instead.
And I think you would lose that bet. Most farmers do not go around capriciously choosing what crops to plant. They plant what they know how to and are equipped to grow and harvest. They are limited in their choices by the soil and climate conditions and what their local grain elevator will purchase. Farming is not an easy business. My father once planted one of our southeastern Iowa fields in wheat. The prolific wheat rust on the harvested grain convinced him not to try that again. Heck, most grain farmers won't even try a different brand of equipment let alone a crop about which they know absolutely nothing.

Basically, they are trapped and ADM, Cargill, et al like it that way.

Yup.  I think most of the people who are claiming biodiesel or shifting to organic farming will save us, or that farming doesn't really require a lot of petroleum, are not commercial farmers.  Farmers don't have a lot of choice in what they grow.  Their land is priced according to the ideal crop that can be grown on it, and that's what they have to grow if they hope to make their mortgage payments.  Disease, soil type, rainfall, etc. are what determine crop choice.

Algae is most definitely not the answer.  It's only another crop, with all the problems any crop has.  And even higher water needs.  They've been trying to get algae working since the '70s oil crisis, to no avail.  Weeds - algae that doesn't make good biodiesel - are a huge problem, and harder to control than weeds with other crops.  

Thx dipchip

Use these numbers on a different forum where this is also being discussed.


Intresting to see Thailand's King expressing his understanding of the current PO situation.

In his yearly birthday speech, the King of Thailand made the following comments ( translation done by artical author)

We have to try to find new kinds of fuels to replace the current ones that could run out in years or decades. If the current sources of fuel run out in 40 years, I will be then 118 years old.

Palm oil seems to be a viable substitute. The prime minister may have seen a Royal car that runs on biodiesel, 100 per cent of which is produced from palm oil. The exhaust smells good and causes no cancer.

I have created such a substitute fuel because I may still have it to use when I am 118. Everybody must think of themselves and they must consequently try to find substitute fuels.

And in another another the following was remarked

His Majesty the King also called on everybody to adopt his Sufficiency Economy theory as a way forward, echoing remarks made by His Majesty in 1996, before Thailand plunged into a full-blown economic crisis the following year.

The principles of the Sufficiency Economy urge Thailand to stand on its own two feet no matter what happens in the outside world. People must thus live within their means and use the country's natural resources wisely.

I'm sorta with you, Yankee... and sorta not.

The thing that chaps my ass (love that term) about the Wired article is that it implies that everything will be taken care of, don't worry your little head about it.  Just sit back and enjoy the techno-toys.  Of course, that's not true; someone has to make the techno-toys, and come up with the new ways to power them.  There's no hint in the article that the author thinks this job is interesting, worthwhile, or even exists in this world.

The real world is different.  Someone's going to have to do the engineering to make the energy systems.  Someone is going to have to gene-splice the bugs that turn the trapped oil in spent fields into methane, munch cellulose and turn out ethanol, use sunlight to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen.  If you don't have the people capable of doing the job, it doesn't get done; if you have the people but don't pay them to do the job, they do something else and the job doesn't get done either.

Or it gets done by somebody else, who gets a patent on it and you're stuck buying your necessities from them.

We've got a lot to do, and while I see hints that things are happening there is no movement big enough to address these problems as fast as they're going to hit us.

Why $5 Gas Is Good for America

The author Mr. Reiss' tone is too breezy. The whole piece is glitteringly general. Yet, he hints of inside knowledge "Smarter money is betting that using plant waste will prove more economical." Or "...Shell has found a better way to extract oil from shale, reviving a long-abandoned resource", except that he is incorrect, ramping up to market quantities of shale oil is still a long way off. I just wish Reiss had spent that second day studying his subject. Maybe he has a concussion.

I commented on this in our blog - particularly the lack of any mention of the climate problem: every single solution mentioned in the Wired article involved releasing MORE CO2, not less...

That doesn't mean $5/gallon gas would necessarily be bad, but the article just didn't touch on the real issues at all.

First--I find the oil drum and contributors an incredible source of knowledge that has me riveted.  Thanks to all.  

I am a biochemical and chemical engineer with grad degree (MIT) who has worked in renewable energy for 35 years.  My own experience included (a) working as a renewable biofuels engineer at Exxon (yes, they really had such a program--over 25 years ago.  It went extinct in company with much else, a solar group and Paraho oilshale in Rifle, CO.  Bob Hirsch was there at the time) (b) Biofuels-fueled electricity generation at the Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto CA. (c) 35 years of working on a "silver bb" which is landfill gas.  I credit Steve Andrews for the "silver bb" term (d) much experience with renewables in other organizations as well.  

I will offer comments and am willing to back them up with analysis to the extent anyone wants. My view is that no amount of rising price will pull off some of the most widely touted biofuels alternatives, most prominent of which is ethanol from cellulose.  I with others recently analyzed municipal solid waste to ethanol processes in all main variants for a large company managing waste and found prospectively (a) a fuel yield of 5-15% of the input waste heating value as ethanol product (b) that the conversion EROEI for ethanol from solid waste was about 0.1-0.2, ie godawful.  I think barring a miracle the situation with lignocellulose is equally miserable and unlikely  (we are more likely to see a 200 MPG petroleum product fueled  car than ethanol from solid waste or wood or cellulose, for reasons I would find a way to discuss for anyone interested)  

Ethanol from corn and mixed tank solid waste digesters are at best so-so or marginal with EROEI of about 2/1 to 3/1 The best of them have parasitic energy consumption of about 35-50% of  gross product energy they produce.  One can show (I have done so) that the cost of methane from the mixed tank digesters equates to over $30/mmbtu or about $200/bbl oil.  And that's with embedded European subsidies that may not be fully counted.  The corn ethanol cost is well over $100 boe without the subsidies and corn ethanol is likely marginal as a fuel solution, at best. It's as much for farmers as anything else.  Mixed tank digesters for animal manures are a mixed bag, but the best of them can make fuel (mixed methane/CO2) at well under the current oil or natural gas energy price.  But that's without cleanup which is a "whole nother issue".

Landfill gas "works" with a total potential for optimized landfills (my field for over 30 years) of about 200 billion +/- CFY of methane for the US.  This would be about a 4-fold increase from current gas energy from waste landfills.  Electric power is the easiest use.  Cost today varies widely, but is generally quite economical for mixed impure gas, range 2-6/mmbtu.  But contaminants can get in the way.  And about 1% of current US natural gas supply is the upper limit for this resource. There's not enough waste -- in this case a reversal of usual complaints.

Combustion works--but we knew that.  And wood stoves are out of favor and do not address  many peoples' need for an easily delivered fuel for home heat.  Having been in New England for 25 years I think that wood stoves will come back.  Their emission controls will be less than perfect but such stoves could make up for a lot of shortfall.  Re wood, I  have had long discussions long ago with large forest products company people who do well at running their plants on as much heat from wood combustion as they can get.

Algae do not work.  Period.  I can turn you over to the realists, the Deffeyes and Colin Campbells of algae, but having worked on algae myself it's worse than that with algae.  They are unlikely to start.

For all of the biomass things that ":work" in substituting for oil and gas, I think we are looking at less, possibly much less, than 5% of the potential shortfall expressed as the heating value of oil and gas imports today. But 5% of our shortfall would still be 1 mmboe/day, more or less, and is not to be dismissed.  

So my view is that rising fuel costs, and probably more importantly shortfalls, will cause alternative biofuels energy resources' uses to rise.  But Wired magazine greatly overestimates the added renewable fuel of one sort or another coming from the "moguls", that could fill the gap. The biomass field offers other significant hope. I haven't mentioned everything, particularly some other options for vehicle fuel (running cars on wood and the like--you can do it) that have been surprisingly widespread in times like WWII.

My name is Don and if you want to email me I am at nietsnegua@aol.com.  Send me your phone number and we can talk--it's easiest.  

But Michael Lynch and Peter Huber also have degrees from MIT and they would claim just the opposite.

Who should I believe?  :-) :-) :-)

Great comments pomona96! I'm sceptical of the silver BBs. I think we'll all be walking a lot more in the very near future (my main peak oil preparations are several pairs of very sturdy walking boots). However, I think you're right, biofuels could make enough of an impact to be important to a future world impoverished in energy. Poorer countries could at least run their ambulance fleets.

It would be good to have a thread to discuss the economics of various biofuels, estimate maximum production and costs. This might give us a better idea of what lays ahead. It would also counter the technogeek cornucopians argument. There certainly is enough skill lurking around the Oil Drum to get an estimate of the different alternative transport fuels, including biofuels.

Hydrogen, corn to ethanol, canola based biodiesel all seemed doomed to fail to me. But why do you suspect cellulosic ethanol fails muster too?

For those who are not aware:  US gas consumption 9.5 million barrels/day,  diesel 4.5 million barrels/day, oil 20.5 million barrels/day . Of course the gas and diesel are refined from the oil.  The balance is used for plastics and etc. World wide oil currently about 83.5 million barrels/day. So 17% is the correct amount of ethanol available to replace our gas consumption, if we used 100% of the annual corn crop.
People pinning hopes on abundant ethanol from lignocellulose need to be extremely wary.  Here's probably "more than you wanted to know" for most oil drum readers on this topic.  This is from my life in the trenches.  

Here I will stick to why I think ethanol from lignocellulose is not likely to happen. That alone gets us into a great deal of complexity.  My history includes telling my former thesis adviser, who was founding Biogen 25+ years ago, that ethanol from lignocellulose was unlikely.  That was unwelcome but has proved true to date. There is no detailed reasoning or process evidence that shows me the contrary.   (Iogen Canada and even partner Shell is not necessarily onto any solution for reasons I can discuss)  The reasons remain the same now as they were then. 

Start with evolution of plants.  Digestibility, alpha-(C6) cellulose purity and small particle size are needed to facilitate the hydrolytic process.  But plant composition is the result of a 100 million or so year evolutionary process, (biowarfare in a way, another area of mine by accident and experience following military draft), between bacterial and other biota that want to eat the plant, and the plant.  The upshot is that the bulk of just about any plant biomass (lignocellulosics more or less) is hard to hydrolyze.  The edible or easily bioconvertible fraction, (carrots, cane juice, cotton, corn etc etc that are there for the plant's or sometimes humans' purposes) always turns out a lesser fraction of total plant organics than we engineers of biofuels processes would like. 

So we seem compelled to consider lignocellulose, ie basically wood, as feedstock.  Its problems include

(a) Pretreatment and small particle size are needed,  But the pretreatment is closely akin to pulping for paper manufacture which has been developing and improving for well over a century.  Whatever the process, it seems hard to believe that costs will fall below $ 100/US ton of convertible feedstock product.

(b) Generalizing, the lignocelllose has a lot of "other" stuff, lignin of course but also polypentose hemicellulose.  Even though fermentable in principle, (and patent of Lonnie Ingram notwithstanding), the pentose sugar cannot give enough energy for bacterial growth and a self-sustaining ethanol fermentation.

(c) The hydrolytic process, whether acid or ezyme mediated, is outside-in and involves trades of various sorts.  (I have a lot of experience with the hydrolytic decomposition of high-alpha cellulose fractions of solid waste and even that can take many months--more on request).  And enzymes have been evolving for ca. 100 milion years with the same purpose as humans' and the whole world as a reactor .  Further improvements would seem likely to come slowly and incrementally (although I will acknowledge the possibile improvements in high temperature stability which has been under less developmental pressure from an evolutionary standpoint)

(d) Acid hydrolyses give at best 50%of stoichiometric glucose yield on alpha-cellulose.  By my calculations the heat energy required for acid hydrolysis can be a 2x or more mltiple of any potential lignocellulose-derived ethanol energy out

(e) When starting with lignocellulose, acid hydrolyses break down over half of C6 cellulose and almost all C5 hemicelulose to wastewater.  In sum, over 50% the C6 and C5 celluloses' reducing (potential fuel) value ends up as wastewater.  It would seem to take about 5000-10,000 btu/lb BOD of prmary energy to treat the wastewater.

(f)  Organics residues both from lignocellulose preprocessing and also associated enzymatic treatments and fermentation residues are a problem

(g)  Nobody has satisfactorily explained to me how the necessarily long-term enzymatic hydrolysis avoids contamination with acidogens and methanogens that can hijack the sugar products. 

(h)  Parasitics relating to distillation of necessarily dilute ethanol add stll more energy use to an already dismal EROEI balance sheet.

(i)  The truly available bulk pure cellulose substrates like waste paper have higher value on the recycle market than they can possibly have as feedstock for fuel.  And their recycling spares fuel so recycling rather than ethanol seems at first look, an energy win anyhow.

And there's more in the way of what I call "where forgotten bodies lie buried".  And I was with experts at MIT and my guesses (we are all guessing to extents) have proven among the accurate so far.  But email your phone numbers to me at nietsnegua@aol.com. And we can talk over the likelihood of overcoming what I consider multiple barriers. 

Don aka Pomona96

That was an excellent little tutorial on the problems of producing ethanol from cellulose!  

I am a chemical engineer, having spent most of my time in the environmental field, and I have quite a bit of experience in performing techinical/economic analyses of pollution control and hazardous waste treatment processes. So, I am familiar with some of the uncertainties trying to determine the economics of a new process.  

But one the things that puzzles me is that the claimed EROEI for ethanol from corn and sugar cane appears to be all over the map.  One would think by now that this number would be more firmly nailed down, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Is this just a matter of different assumptions regarding the disposition of byproducts and waste materials, different EROEIs for different process configurations, or is there some other difficulty inherent in the analysis?

The problems you cite regarding ethanol via cellulose is largely inherent in almost all biomass-to-energy schemes.  I would  summarize the general problem as one of having to transport, handle, and process large quantities of very low-value raw material and to then do much the same with the byproducts and wastes. And if you are dealing with high-volume, relatively dilute aqueous solutions, that fact alone bleeds energy and increases cost.

Methane from waste via anaerobic digestion has some good points, but largely as a least-cost disposal method rather than as a primary means of energy production.

I think biomass gasification has something to be said for it, as it at least eliminates the need to handle large volumes of aqueous liquids and sludges.
I am also somewhat familiar with the powering of cars in Sweden and Germany  during WW II with wood-fired gasifiers. Some of these were pretty wild-looking contraptions!

I have some questions and thoughts on these subjects which are probably too long to tie up website space with. So, I will email you fairly soon.

What about thermal depolymersation?
Please tell  us what is wrong with running at least farm tractors and local transport in places where there is a lot of biomass (like where I live) with pellets burned in stirling engines.  I know the stirlings will run great, since I have run them with pellets, tell me about the EROI of wood pellets.  Don't tell me stirlings won't work, I know they will- and put out lots of power for a long time at good efficiency.
I think $5 oil will have an impact on our consumption of oil and other petro products.  I don't think it will lead to a sudden revolution in alternative energy supplies.  I do think that it will force people to get much smarter about their energy use.  Especially those that live in the more extreme climates, whether desert southwest or New ENgland and the northern Plains.  

As of right now there are many simple things that people can do to make their lives much more efficient and cheaper, without having to be a scientist or engineer.  If every new home was built to the highest practical efficiency standards, how much energy coupld be saved annually?  If every new car was super efficient how much oil would be saved versus the gas guzzling SUV's that are so prevalant now?  How much could be saved if the Federal Government mandated that all fleet vehicles purchased for general usage, mail trucks, that sort of thing, were powered by hybrid engines?  What buying all of those vehicles every year do to the cost of hybrid engines?  I'm sure that would help the cost decrease dramatically, especially if our contract was a stable one for a few companies for an extended period of time.  If we said to Auto company X, "We are going to purchase 10,000 hybrid cars a year every year from you."  They would be able to pen in 10,000 hybrid sales and not have such a great risk for investing so much money in a new plant line.  Also, if the government tried to purchase a conversion kit for cars to convert them into hybrids.  If this could eventually be done for half the cost of a new car, it could provide the impetus for people to take their gas guzzlers off the road before the usual ten year cycle for a new car.

The following (very long) post is a description of a nuclear plant variant that claims to solve existing and future waste problems, and further described in this month's Scientific American. In my view, there are few solutions that address both PO and global warming; this is one possibility.

Environmentalists have been worrying about global warming for years. There is growing evidence that the process and consequences are accelerating.  In addition to other events, such as encroaching deserts, there is concern that Greenland and Antarctica ice might melt over the next 100 years or so - if it all went, sea levels would rise nearly 200-ft. The really bad actor is coal, which puts more CO2 into the atmosphere per unit energy than any other hydrocarbon.  Meanwhile, peak oil could be here fairly soon, so the challenge is to stop burning coal while finding an alternative for at least part of our oil usage. Conservatiom is already happening as oil price rises, and renewable sources such as windmills will help at the margin, but we will have to move in a new direction if we want to maintain any semblance of our current lifestyles.
The seventies saw the widespread introduction of commercial nuclear power into the US, ending with just over 100 electrical generating stations. Perhaps 1 unit/month was installed during the heyday. Since then, and in response to three-mile island/Chernobyl, the US reverted to 100% hydrocarbons for new capacity, mostly coal but recently substantial ng. We are now concerned with both global warming and peak oil, resulting in some reconsideration, not least in GB but including some US environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, of the nuclear option. Many countries are in the process of expanding nuclear power, both in Asia and in Europe, but hydrocarbon rich US remains hesitant.
Many remain concerned about nuclear waste, probably because a major waste constituent, the actinides, remains quite hot for hundreds of thousands of years. To counter this, some are now proposing plant types that attempt to address the waste issue. One of these, developed at Argonne National Lab, and designated the advanced liquid metal reactor (ALMR), is described in the Scientific American December issue.
Commercial reactor nuclear fuel starts with around 4%U235 and 96%U238. The U235 fissions (divides, creating daughter products plus heat), some of the U238 transmutes to PU239 and some of this also fissions.  Some Uranium transmutes to other actinides (a group of mostly man-made heavy metals, such as plutonium, that also includes naturally occurring thorium and uranium).  Some of the actinides do not fission because commercial reactors moderate (slow) the neutrons to a speed that does not promote fissions among actinides. After a period, daughter products from the fissioning elements accumulate, and some of these are neutron absorbers, which eventually reduces the available neutrons for further fissions, at which point the fuel must be removed and replaced with fresh fuel. Removed fuel is called spent fuel, even though around 95% of the potential fission energy remain unused.  When it first comes from the reactor it is extremely radioactive, so is stored in pools for at least ten years.  At this point it can be transported to a repository, but remains hot enough to require special transport casks.
At one time it was thought that spent fuel would be reprocessed, recovering the uranium and plutonium for reuse in new fuel rods. However, President Carter thought this process could lead to proliferation of material that could then used for bombs, particularly the plutonium, and by executive order stopped US reprocessing of spent fuel from commercial reactors on the grounds that our forgoing reprocessing would encourage others to do the same. (Rather inconsistently, special reactors on US military reservations continued to transmute and harvest plutonium from U238 to increase our arsenal.)  Sadly, this action did not dissuade the Chinese, North Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis and Israelis from going forward - indeed, only Israeli unilateral action prevented Saddam from having his own bomb.
The new reactor solves essentially all the objections to varying degrees. First, spent fuel from commercial reactors is chopped, and the metals from these fragments are plated out at high temperatures, meaning the non-metallics are left behind. Then, cadmium, a neutron absorbing metal, is melted and removed, and the remaining metallic mass of uranium, plutonium, and other actinides are cast into new metallic actinide fuel (AF).  This fuel is proliferation-resistant because the material is very radioactive, and just as difficult for potential thieves or terrorists to handle as current spent fuel. AF is then fed directly into an ALMR. The ALMR is liquid-sodium cooled, and because liquid sodium does not slow neutrons, the fast neutrons are able to eventually fission all the actinides.
The non-metallic elements, constituting around 1% of the original spent fuel, are placed in a long-term repository.  The non-metallic wastes will decay to near background in less than 500 years, providing confidence that the storage methods will be able to protect the future environment.  
Spent fuel is starter fuel for ALMR reactors, but once started, the reactor can be fed a variety of actinides, including the common (and depleted of its U235, so useless for bombs) U238, of which we have hundreds of thousands of tons left over from bomb and commercial reactor programs. Accordingly, the world's energy-intensive enrichment plants, which can be used for creating bomb material as well as enriched fuel for reactors, could be shut down.  In addition, thorium is fairly common, and this material could presumable be added to the stream, along with plutonium, if we decide we do not need all of the material we now have for bombs. My guess is, the fissioning potential from already mined and depleted uranium is sufficient to replace the world's coal-fired plants for a millennium, and there are readily available ores for far longer.
It is well known that nuclear fuel is cheap (although anti-nukes complain that the energy-intensive enrichment process is government subsidized) while plant construction and maintenance costs are expensive. Spent fuel is less than free - it is worth money (storage costs) to the government and utilities to get rid of the unwanted spent fuel. Processing the spent fuel into AF is not energy intensive but hardly free (everything must be done remotely), but with credit for reduced storage costs the net is probably not much.  And, the political value of reducing the time required for repository waste to decay to background, thus allowing the nuclear solution to proceed with reduced resistance, is incalculable.
A concern for liquid-sodium cooled reactors is that the metal burns in contact with water. The US, France and Russia have gained substantial experience with handling liquid sodium over the last thirty years as they experimented with various fast reactors, and over this period there have been sodium/water fires. In spite of the lessons learned, there will probably be more accidents in the future. Of course, water is not allowed anywhere near a sodium-cooled reactor or its containment building; reactor coolant is piped to an intermediate heat exchanger, and liquid metal from this component, not necessarily sodium, is then piped to a boiler to generate the steam that eventually generates electricity.  Accidents with sodium have never affected a reactor or caused any serious problem within the reactor containment building.
The US hydrocarbon price increases are not yet alarming here.  GB, on the other hand, is under considerable stress from insufficient ng right now, which explains their move towards nuclear; unfortunately, new plants will probably not come on line for at least a decade. The US is probably about five years behind GB in severe ng shortages, this winter notwithstanding. The production of NA ng may "fall off a cliff" by 2010 whether oil peaks or not. As has often been mentioned, the sooner we embark on alternatives, the better.
The world is in the process of learning hydrocarbons are "worth" far more than the extraction cost, and meanwhile we cannot afford the long term cost of burning them all. Coal and ng can be turned to liquid fuels and plastics while otherwise useless actinides can be used for electricity generation (and, therefore, home heating.)  As fossil prices continue to rise renewables will get their chance, but indications so far are they will not generate anything like what we have become accustomed to. As an aside, the world does not have large tracts of arable land to turn to bio-fuels. The Brazilian success story comes along with denuding the Amazon.  Forests "attract" rain.  When the trees are gone temperatures rise, causing highs that repel clouds; desert encroaches. It is far from clear that the Brazilian miracle is any more renewable than an oil field.
If we could install 1 nuke/month in the seventies we could install at least 2/month today, with the first plants coming on line by 2015.  At this rate we could replace all existing coal and ng electric generating plants, plus all of our existing aging nukes, by 2035.  Coal and ng could then be reserved for transport (coal gasification to liquid fuels, said to be feasible at $40/barrel oil) and plastics. Perhaps somebody could be persuaded to calculate the reduction in CO2 emissions if such a plan were implemented.