Whither Cellulosic Ethanol?

[editor's note, by Prof. Goose] This is a guest post from TLS's friend Don Augenstein (Pomona96 on TOD)

This post presents a perspective on ethanol from lignocellulose by my friend and co-worker, John Benemann. We have worked on, and been immersed in, biofuels and analyses of fuels from biomass processes for over 3 decades. We are to substantial degrees biotechnologists, as well as chemical engineers and have successful processes going today (methane from wastes. You can google Don Augenstein). We have worked long and hard on biofuels for entities including Exxon (long ago), the Electric Power Research Institute, and others. Our carefully considered view, for which we will be happy to provide abundant evidence is that severe barriers remain to ethanol from lignocellulose. The barriers look as daunting as they did 30 years ago. Ethanol from lignocellulose may indeed come to pass. But the odds against are so dismal that a hydrocarbon fueled 200 mile per gallon passenger automobile would be more likely to be developed.

We have been tied up with project work and were not able to participate in the interesting, and extensive Oil Drum discussion regarding Vinod Khosla's views on ethanol from lignocellulose.

Better late than never. I present John Benemann's statement below.

Subj: Vinod Khosla FROM Jbenemann

TO THE OIL DRUM - drumbeat

I read the presentation of Vinod Khosla and most of the responses. I have some experience in this field, about 30 years of being in the ring of biofuels technology development, with first-row seats, so to speak, on the fights I was not in myself.

Re. lignocellulosic ethanol, I am, bluntly, a skeptic. See our abstract, copied below. This is R&D, not something ready for commercial ventures, at least not in any time, or with any risk ratio, a typical venture capitalist would accept. Perhaps Vinod Khosla is not a typical VC, though I have no basis for assuming that.

Much more important, this technology is not ready for policy decisions. It compares with, for one example only, the near-late-lamented Hydrogen Program of the Bush-Cheney Administration. Coming from the same source, talk about curing our addiction to Middle East oil by substituting for it an addiction to Middle America ethanol, has just as much credibility. I note that all long-term R&D (is there any other?) for hydrogen is being terminated next month by the Dept. of Energy.

Of course, the issue is not whether Vinod Khosla is making a wise investment, one that will make him even richer and his investors too, or the opposite is true, or even what the Bush-Cheney administration dictates that our reality will be. The issue is, does the technology work now, can it be made to work in short order, or can we predict when and if it will work with any assurance?

One thing I notice from this entire discussion is an absence of any arguments based on technology. I am among other things a biotechnologist, and very familiar with the associated chemical engineering issues. I would have expected at least some mention of past and recent experiences, of problems, such as needs for extensive feedstock pretreatment or problems with fermentations, about current R&D focus, at least a few citations to the web. Nothing. Neither from Vinod Khosla nor the 360 odd Oil Drum respondents.

The only information presented is that Vinod Khosla has invested in three different technologies. Well, a fair enough investment strategy, but even with a one out of three chance, this is a long shot, even in the long term, by which I mean over 10 plus years, beyond which there are no crystal balls.

I strongly support R&D in this field. Money would be better spent on that than on just one commercial plant. Or even a pilot plant. And, let me hasten to add, that it is perfectly possible to make ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass, it's just extraordinarily inefficient, with EROEI easily determined to be about 1:5. The Soviets had some wood-to-ethanol plants running during WWII, and kept them going afterwards, with at least one going on until the Soviet Union collapsed. Not a pretty technology, without even looking at the energy balance (cheap coal or then-cheap Soviet natural gas to expensive state subsidized ethanol, an economic model now adopted for corn ethanol in the US.)

And we, in the U.S., even made butanol from seaweed harvested off San Diego during WWI, in a major industrial enterprise that was set up in a few months, a perfect example of necessity as the mother of invention, and showing how fast we can do something when we need to, for our survival. But extrapolating from making explosives for war to transportation fuels for civilians driving SUVs is more than a bit of a reality stretch. I like the analogy of this being the difference between going to the Moon and Mars, another Bush-Cheney vision, I must note. Of course, we still haven't figured out why to go to the Moon, aside from the feel-good factor.

Bottom line, making ethanol from lignocellulosics is a technical issue, actually many separate technical issues: can we really make 60 or 80 or 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of biomass, can we really ferment pentoses outside the laboratory, will we have a positive energy balance and not run this on fossil fuel as we do corn ethanol? And, coming to the details, can we really use commercial enzymes, or the same fermentation vessels that are used in the corn ethanol business, or do we need to go to very, very expensive contained fermentations. And at the end, do we get a high enough ethanol content in the fermentation beer (above 10%) to have a reasonable distillation cost? And, finally, can we put it all together, starting with the necessary pretreatment of lignocellulose (and what kind at what cost?). Actually, some applications for particular, minor, biomass waste resources, could make ethanol now at food processing plants, breweries and such, but this is not what Bush-Cheney or Gates-Khosla are promoting, to bring up another "venture" investor's name.

Not that Vinod Khosla lacks information - his semi-public presentations on the topic earlier this year (I saw one of the power point presentations) provide some technology background, which, perhaps not too surprisingly, was almost exactly what was presented just before (or even on) January 31st in the briefing papers for White House, to support the "oil addiction" talk in the State of the Union speech. Another great example of sales of good sounding policy first, supporting facts to be provided later, a well used modus operandi. And now the Bush-Cheney administration has reshaped the federal government funding priorities for biomass R&D, to support their ethanol from lignocellulosics visions.

However, these visions of tens of billions of gallons ethanol per year from biomass must, by all reasonable analysis, be considered a distant possibility not an imminent accomplishment, as is being portrayed. That is the bottom line.

Of course, reasonable researchers will argue about where exactly we are and when and how can we could get there. As one close colleague told me, all the technical problems I talk about (see attached abstract) are actually viewed as "opportunities" by the R&D community. I agree, but there is now the belief that with current high ethanol prices, we have the means to this end at hand. After all, if for the past 25 years we were almost there, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others working on this. It stands to reason that with ethanol prices two or three times that high we must now be in clover. Right?

Well that is the rub of it. Wrong. We aren't any more "there" or in clover than before. Yes, we can shave down some of the assumed costs to reach such low, low costs, but the assumptions are still there, only slightly closer to reality. Need I point out that there is only one pilot plant operating, Iogen in Canada, at a quarter of initially announced capacity? That is all we really can, and actually need, say about the commercial status of this technolgoy.

Thus jumping on this bandwagon and joining in the suspension of disbelief, which seems to pervade public discourse, outside some participants of this esteemed Peak Oil blog, is premature.

There is more to this argument, however, than just the issue of whether there is real technology (real could be defined, loosely and very charitably as less than $10/gallon of ethanol, or about a $100/mmBtu liquid fuel). The most important question is: what is a better way to use our billion plus ton per year potential biomass resource (and I stress potential, also not real, maybe one or two hundred million tons are real): conversion to ethanol or use for other purposes? Would it not be better to use surplus and waste wood, crop residues, or energy crops (another whole subject) to heat our homes, using wood pellets or even gasification to make heating oils?

And if we really want ethanol from crops, and I would favor some, 10%, to 20%, of our use if ethanol is economically or energetically feasible, would it not be better to grow high starch crops (requiring lower fertilizer inputs than corn)? Then we can make ethanol the way we know how, while using part of the crop residues for the process heat, rather than coal or natural gas. That should be an improvement what we are doing now, the corn to ethanol fiasco.

Well Vinod Khosla is probably correct, as I read him, that there is nothing that can be done about the world as we find it, and the function and reward of capital is to serve the system as is, not as it should be. And when I ask, do we want to drive our SUVs or freeze in our homes, that is rhetorical, as I do realize that the question is becoming irrelevant, the "we" will include only those who can do both, and they won't really care, any more than any other ruling class has, about those that can't heat their houses or drive their cars.

And a final question, should we, including our venture capitalists, foist on to other countries, let me give India as an example I know of personally, our simultaneously myopic energy policy and visionary technology focus? The answers to this and the prior questions are apparent, they hardly need to be answered, but they are not being sufficiently asked.

So I sincerely wish Vinod Khosla all the success in his enterprises. I hope they work for him and his investors, and for all of us. However, I am not enthusiastic about the free enterprise tail enabling -- or even able to enable -- this preordained policy dog to wag. Bluntly, we should not put our trust and future in ethanol from biomass saving the day. No more than in to that prior canard that H2 would save the day after tomorrow (remember those GM ads so long ago, was it last year, saying that todays' toddlers would get their H2 cars for high school graduation?). And remember all the venture capital that went into those hydrogen companies? Anyone into financial forensics? But that is not our problem.

OK, as I said, reasonable people can argue the merits of this case, but these merits, particularly the technical nitty gritty, have not been argued to the extent necessary in this forum, neither by Vinod Khosla nor the many who responded to this blog. I hope to add to knowledge, in a minor way, by pointing this out, and some of the technical issues, and suggesting that ethanol from lignocellulosics is not something we should count on, any more than most of the other 1970s ideas and technologies being re-floated (biodiesel from algae being a personal favorite of mine).

Yes, biofuels are and will be very important, we are already doing some things, and need to do much more. Much work is required, in many areas, from anaerobic digestion to crop production, and including R&D on lignocellulosics to ethanol. Maybe we will get the proverbial breakthroughs. But multiple barriers must be overcome, and betting the farm on just this one ticket, on only ethanol from switchgrass and such, is foolish in the extreme. And that is, what I am afraid, the Bush-Cheneys are now attempting and the Gates-Khoslas accomplishing. This single rathole could easily consume most biofuels funding and, most likely, nothing real will be accomplished.

Another victory for the fossil-nuclear energy companies?

John Benemann

The following abstract is to be presented August 29th at the Conference on Biofuels and Bioenergy: Challenges and Opportunities, Univ. British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada (see www.task39.org).


John R. Benemann1*,Don C. Augenstein1, Don J. Wilhelm2 and Dale R. Simbeck2
1Institute for Environmental Management, Inc. 4277 Pomona Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94306 *Presenter and contact, jbenemann@aol.com
2SFA Pacific, Inc, 444 Castro St., Suite 720, Mountain View, CA 94041

Proposed lignocellulosic-to-ethanol processes envision a pre-treatment step, to liberate cellulose and hemicelluloses from lignin, followed by a hydrolysis step, to convert the carbohydrates to simpler sugars, and then a yeast or bacterial fermentation step, to yield ethanol, followed by ethanol recovery (distillation, drying). Some steps might be combined, such as in acid hydrolysis (combining pre-treatment and saccharification) or in a simultaneous saccharification-fermentation process. After five decades of intensive R&D, currently only a single pilot plant (Iogen Corp. in Canada) is operating, reportedly producing about one million liters of ethanol per year, though well below its planned capacity.

An independent analysis identified many problems with the currently proposed processes, including the relatively high costs of biomass delivered to commercial-scale plants (which would need to be 200 million liters per year output, or greater, for economics of scale), the problems with pretreatment, the low rates and yields of sugars from enzymatic cellulose hydrolysis, the resulting low sugar and ethanol concentrations, and the overall high energy consumption of the overall process. In addition to not tolerating high ethanol concentrations, genetically engineered organisms developed for combined hexose-pentose fermentations are subject to contamination, which will require prohibitively expensive containment systems.

Even ignoring, as most studies do, such major problems, and using available corn stover and enzymatic hydrolysis, the currently favored biomass resource and process, our techno-economic analysis estimated a cost of ethanol twice as high as that of ethanol from corn. Forest residues and wastes, biomass crops, and municipal wastes are even less promising. The conclusions of this assessment are that none of the existing processes are ready for commercial applications in any foreseeable time frame and that continuing fundamental and applied R&D is required. Some opportunities may exist for near-term applications of cellulose conversion technologies to some specific, modest-scale, agricultural wastes.

This is probably more a question for RR, but, how much harder is it to get useful amounts of butanol from a fermentation process? Given that the above problems are all solved?

Are there a lot of fermentation bugs that make butanol?

Butanol from microorganisms is a fairly new process. I made trace amounts in grad school from rumen and termite microorganisms, but nothing in commerical quantities. When I worked for Hoechst Celanese, I worked on butanol processes for many years, but we made it the traditional way from petrochemicals.

If the claims that are made at www.butanol.com are valid, then we should be shifting to butanol production as quickly as we can. The claim is that the per gallon yields from corn are almost the same for butanol as for ethanol, yet butanol has an energy density similar to gasoline, and the distillation process is much less energy intensive.

What about butanol synthesis from ethanol feedstock. If there is a good catalyst for it I'd think it would not add to the overall cost. The wike says it can be made from ethanol via electrolysis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butanol#Production But I suspect there is a catalytic route. I found one here http://www.sangi-co.com/e/index.html Butanol Synthesis from Ethanol Using a Hydroxyapatite Catalyst Everything I've read points to butanol being almost the perfect fuel as far as pollution and energy density goes.
I don't think you would want to synthesize it from ethanol. I think you would be deeply in the hole on the energy balance. Given that ethanol is already marginal, you are going to end up with a butanol product that definitely required more energy input than the final product contains. Far better to synthesize it directly.

Well I think you just answered the question about using ethanol for anything but high value needs. If its too expensive to use as a chemical feedstock then its proabably not worthwhile to burn it for general transportation.

If people don't feel its valuable as a feedstock then why the hell use it for transportation ?

Oil/Natural gass feedstocks don't suffer these problems. GTL for example is viable even CTL's.  

I think we do need to find a renewable reduced carbon source for future transportation needs mainly the airline industry and critical off grid transportation and for chemical feedstocks.

Ethanol does not solve this problem.

Would butanol need to be moved via truck, similar to ethanol, or could it be piped?
According to RR's post it might be able to be piped. It does not dissolve in water as readily as ethanol, in fact it separates spontaneously at concentrations above 7 %. Whether or not it can be piped depends on other factors, however. Does it absorb moisture from the atmosphere if exposed to it? Or could it be contaminated with water in other ways? If so, how much water does it eventually contain? How harmful would that water ratio be to a piping-based infrastructure? I've no idea if anyone knows the answer to those questions.
The claim is that it can be piped. It is not very hygroscopic. It will absorb some water, but is not completely soluble in water like ethanol, and therefore should be less corrosive. Even better options would be C5 or higher alcohols, because they are completely insoluble in water.

Interesting you mention that I was wondering why they don't do fermentation targeting a alcohol that's insoluble in water then the fermentation product separates and you don't poison your culture and you don't need distillation. Even with butanol if the fermentation culture can survive at its soluble concentration you would just have to decant the excess alcohol.

This seems the way to go to me since it solves lots of problems.

There is some discussion here.


Butanol solubility is about 9ml/100ml or 9%v/v so if a culture can withstand that your looking at a residual of 9% of the production remaining in the culture which is not bad.

Butanol can be produced by fermentation of biomass. The process uses the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum, also known as the Weizmann organism. It was Chaim Weizmann who first used this bacteria for the production of acetone from starch (with the main use of acetone being the making of Cordite) in 1916. The butanol was a by-product of this fermentation (twice as much butanol was produced). The process also creates a recoverable amount of H2 and a number of other by-products: acetic, lactic and propionic acids, acetone, isopropanol and ethanol.
(So it is "new" like most of the chemical industry)

The manipulation of the pH levels to shift the ABE reactions to buytol alcohol is what is new.  (Acetone, Butanol,Ethanol)

The manipulation of the pH levels to shift the ABE reactions to buytol alcohol is what is new.

Yes, I should have been more clear in my wording. Many chemicals have been made from biological processes long before they were made from purely chemical processes, but the claimed ability to make it in commercial quantities from biomass is new.

It was made commercially that way before the use of oil-derived hydrocarbons.

The new patent is based on keeping the biological portion in the butynol side of the reaction.

(I looked up their patent in the past....I don't want to spend the time looking it up again, so perhaps someone here will)

No need to look up the patent. They summarize the history of butanol, with links to additional information (and to the patent) at http://www.butanol.com/.
Regarding Re. lignocellulosic ethanol, I am, bluntly, a skeptic


Much more important, this technology is not ready for policy decisions

I have a simple question. Why are we talking about it then?

Who killed the electric car?

That's what this biofuels "debate" is all about. The fantasy, the dream, that people will continue their happy motoring based on liquids from biomass converted to liquids. Forget it. Kunstler's right. We are still trying to invest in a lifestyle that has no future. That's why the subject is so popular.

Let's move on, OK?

The thing is, Dave, that we are in a war of ideas. If the other side wins this war, then we may stray far down a path, and waste a lot of time, before realizing that the "solution" is unworkable. If this fantasy is demolished at an early stage, then maybe more people will get serious about taking action to prevent the worst case scenarios envisioned by hardcore doomers.

That's why these biofuels threads are so popular, IMO.

Good point.

However, there are lots of other paths we are straying down. CO2 injection for recovery of stranded oil for one. Offshore drilling of America's continental shelves for another. Coal for everything -- power generation, conversion to liquids, you name it. If you believed all the propaganda, the US has more recoverable liquid reserves than Saudi Arabia. I'm not kidding. Biofuels is small potatoes compared to what I just brought up.

Small Potatoes

So, here we are talking about corn, switchgrass, God Knows What to make stuff to put in your car. Give me a break!

It is imperative that the lumpen populace maintain their belief that life will continue as it is forever.  We all know that is the rationale for all this stuff.
EXACTLY, I keep trying to bust some such propaganda but my attempts are not well received by the naïve and simple minded.

I just had an argument with Nick (after some with odograph and eric blair), but to the idiots crowd it is ME who is the "stalker".

If bio ethanol (be it from any source) is not efficient and will not be able to sustain the current demand,why do we keep talking about it?

I think the car way of living is a dead end.  Light rail and better urban policies (implemented by legislators or by pure necessity) is more of an answer.

However, I think we need a liquid fuel substitute for some applications.  

Can anyone tell me how good biodiesel from algae could be as a product (efficiency wise and EROEI wise)?  I know that in april or may a company in New Zealand did bring a technology to use waste water to produce algae in a closed system.  Do anyone think it's a viable technology?

Do I need to go trough the literature to know the complete picture or is this techology just not ready at all?

The University of New Hampshire seems to be a good start to read on this.  Is it a good place to start?

I ask all those question because biodiesel from algae is part of my simple solution system to peak oil.  I'm currently talking with many city officials and planers in my home town and in nearby town.  I dont want to promote a solution that is doomed at the start.

Also I'm preparing for a regional conference for september 23. I will do a speach on the problem and lead a workshop on solutions that can be implemented.

The local high school is also welcoming the idea of giving small conferences in diferent classes.  I plan to go talk in geophysics class, geopolitic class, biology and environmnent class and in the brand new nature and environment program. The later is a special program, much like a sport-study or music-study program.  

All the work I do here lean on being very credible and well informed.  I dont want to mislead people in first place.

Advices on this are welcome!

Algae has huge potential.  It also has a long way to go.

FWIW, current-technology batteries are more than sufficient to provide lots of personal mobility indefinitely.  New cells on the market like the A123Systems' cells used by DeWalt can make an electric which eats Corvettes for breakfast and gets an effective 135 MPG.  Don't count the car out.


Has you certainly know, a battery is only a energy storage device albeit this one looks good.

How do you think you can power US normal current demand AND new incomming demand from car recharging using the same old electric generation technology?

You do know that unlike in Quebec most other places use coal, nat gas and oil to make electric power.

Also time and ressources are needed to produce and sell enough "any kind" of car replacement and Hirsh think that we dont have that time.  If you own an electric car and is not useful to you because the paradigm has shifted, do you think it will make you look powerful or ridiculous?

Here is the technology I think will be more useful :

  • light rail for people and goods (medium and long distance)
  • Buses and trucking (short to medium distances)
  • Walking, cycling and skiing (short distances)

That's why urban design will have to be rethinked.  That will happen no matter what the PTB will do.

in order to give you a rough idea of what is feasible in a big city with a very good public transport system:

Breakdown of personal trips in Berlin, Germany (1998)

Walking: 25%
Cycling: 10%
Public Transport: 27%
Cars, motor-bikes: 38%

Newer figures are not yet available.

How do you think you can power US normal current demand AND new incomming demand from car recharging using the same old electric generation technology?
I think it can be done because I ran the numbers two years ago.

Besides, the problem isn't technology (though new technology improves things radically), the problem in the short term is fuel supply.  Given that we can cut fuel demand by a factor of 3 or better by burning oil in IGCC turbines and charging batteries compared to gasoline, the backup fuel supply might as well be oil.

Also time and ressources are needed to produce and sell enough "any kind" of car replacement and Hirsh think that we dont have that time.
He may be right, but parking the guzzling SUV's and driving our old beater econoboxes will buy us a fair amount of time right there.
If you own an electric car and is not useful to you because the paradigm has shifted, do you think it will make you look powerful or ridiculous?
How is an electric car not going to be useful to me?  If we wind up without electricity, everybody is screwed.  Besides, I can buy PV panels and make my own electricity.
That's why urban design will have to be rethinked.
Vehicles are replaced much faster than housing.  Urban design may change, but it's always going to trail things with shorter life cycles.
A few points:  

None of the technology that you deem to be useful can be pursued on an individual basis.  That's great if light rail is going to help with transportation in the future, but I can't go out in front of my house and start laying down track.  

Walking, cycling and skiing...maybe those will be useful in the future, but in current society they face serious limitations.  I could bike down to the trolley stop, but that doesn't matter because it doesn't go where I need it to.  I could bike to the store, but frankly I'd be afraid of doing so, because the streets are not designed for bikes, and drivers are very inconsiderate of bikes and view them as an annoyance.  Regardless, walking and cycling cannot work for me, nor for many others in current society.  At the current time they are impractical.  

Now, meanwhile, converting a car to EV is something you can both do yourself, and which will allow you to function practically in today's society.  Why the animosity toward EVs?  You think someone is going to look ridiculous for owning an EV?  No more ridiculous than everyone who owns cars and who can't afford to fill them up.  And what are we talking about, 20 years down the line when everything has changed?  I doubt anyone driving an EV today, or who is thinking about converting to an EV today and does not have one yet, is concerned about what comes to pass in 10 or 20 years.  When things are changed maybe the EV won't be needed.  I don't see how that makes you look ridiculous?  

I really have a hard time seeing how someone who converts to an EV can look ridiculous except if their motivation is purely economic, and then gas prices drop to $0.99 a gallon.  I'm sure quite a few are willing to take the risk of that in stride.  

Obviously there are major process problems with algae, but it appears that the underlying energy physics---yield of fuel---is sufficiently high by enough of an order of magnitude to pursue it.

That may not be the case with ethanol etc: even if we solve all the nasty fermentation problems, what is the end yield?  Not very good.

And two titanic advantages for algae:

  •  Uses seawater, not fresh water
  •  Uses deserts, not fertile cropland

Re algae farms:

It seems that you have to keep them closed, so that they are not invaded by organisms which outcompete the fuel algae but do not produce useful endproducts, and reasonably warm.

And of course cheap.

What about arrays of water+algae filled waterbeds, clear on top (UV resistant of course), black on the bottom, made of cheap plastic, and "swimmming pool tech" connections and pumps to the oil separators?

Put them in the Sonoran desert or South Texas or South Australia or South Arabia (!), fill with seawater.

It seems that you have to keep them closed, so that they are not invaded by organisms which outcompete the fuel algae but do not produce useful endproducts, and reasonably warm.

And the cost of enclosing and maintaining  to obtain the oil-based watts VS making, placing and maintining PV cells is?

If it's as about as much as the cost of a greenhouse, it's still a lot cheaper than PV.
If it's as about as much as the cost of a greenhouse, it's still a lot cheaper than PV.

Ever looked into the regulations about greenhouses?

These days, you can't use glass... it has to re-enforced saftey glass.  And that increases the price.

So don't be too sure about the 'alot cheaper'.  Unless you don't use glass and use polycarbonite plastic.

Most of the greenhouses I see are made from plastic film.  Further, you could float this on top of an algae pond (like a bubble-wrap pool cover).  You'd still have to find some way to get CO2 to it, but the thing itself would be pretty cheap.
The National Renewable Energy Lab spent 30 years looking at algae oil production and closed its program in 1998 believing that the process was not going to work. The microorganisms are just not designed to produce lipids in a useful quantitiy and any talk of bioengineering and breakthroughs is just dreaming.

The research found that individual cell lipid production was not compatable with cellular reproduction and overall colony growth. Furthermore, microalgae are difficult to cultivate axenically. They are very vulnerable to bacterial contamination, pH fluxuation, and critical Co2 levels.

I presume that's why researcher talk about closed system production for algae.

In 1998 the price of oil was only 20$.  I know that the biology has almost nothing to do with that, as I asked I'm more interested in the effectiveness of the solution.

Huge potential = R&D = huge risk = why wasn't done before?

Feasible = investment = jobs = just allocation ressources and effort.

Why in Wikipedia do they talk about the huge differences in yield?  From Wikipedia :

From 1978 to 1996, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory experimented with using algae as a biodiesel source in the "Aquatic Species Program". A recent paper from Michael Briggs at the UNH Biodiesel Group, offers estimates for the realistic replacement of all vehicular fuel with biodiesel by utilizing algae that has a greater than 50 % natural oil content, which he suggests can be grown on algae ponds at wastewater treatment plants. [citation needed] On 2006-5-11. Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation from Marlborough, New Zealand announced it had produced its first sample of bio-diesel fuel made from algae found in sewage ponds.[4] Unlike previous attempts, the algae was naturally grown in pond discharge from the Marlborough District Council's sewage treatment works.

The production of algae to harvest oil for biodiesel has not been undertaken on a commercial scale, but working feasibility studies have been conducted to arrive at the above yield estimate. In addition to a high yield, this solution does not compete with agriculture for food, requiring neither farmland nor fresh water.

Independent results have shown that Green Fuel Technologies[7], a Cambridge, MA company founded by Isaac Berzin, has been successful in producing biodiesel growing algae on flue gas emissions from power plant smokestacks. Using a patented algae bioreactor, GreenFuel utilizes microalgae and a process of photomodulation to reduce emissions: 40% less carbon dioxide and 86% less nitrous oxide. This oil-rich algae can then be extracted from the system and processed into biodiesel, and the dried remainder further reprocessed to create ethanol. The company is testing their method at the MIT cogeneration facility and at an undisclosed 1000-megawatt power facility in the southwestern U.S. [citation needed]

Is it a good path to look into or does it smell stinky?

Is it a good path to look into or does it smell stinky?

The base unit of energy is the photon.   almost every algae scheme you have hardware being built to hold the algae, expose the algae to excessive CO2 and photons to obtain algae fat with fat.

You have capitol costs in running the reactor in addition to making the reactor.


Taking PV cells and converting photons to hi-grade electricity.

All the algae schemes are therefore tied to large producers of CO2.  Somehow these CO2 producers will have to have enough photon gathering space to support the algae-photon gathering method.  Then they will have to have the space to process the fat algae.

How many CO2 producers have that kind of space?

In the province where I live, we have 98% of electricity generation done using large scale and very large scale hydraulic dam.  We are pioneer in those technology for many aspect of it and the high-voltage electric conductor has been invented in Quebec.  Unlike most of desert and prairie land of many places, we have many many rivers and lake.  I woke up every morning beside a lake that contains 31 billion barrel of water.  I even use it has a figure for the world oil consumption.  We dont have a water shortage around here.

We DONT need electric power generation, especialy using PV cell.  Look at the study done by Ted Trainer for bemol regarding PV cell feasability.

What we need is LIQUID fuel, thus the question about the efficiency of biodiesel from algae.

We DONT need electric power generation,

Really?   On what basis are you making that assumption?   Based on the way we now live life?

especialy using PV cell.  Look at the study done by Ted Trainer for bemol regarding PV cell feasability.

Mr. Trainer analysis is flawed.   Horribly flawed.

Basic phyics shows that his analysis is flawed.

The biggest energy input into the biosphere is in the form of photons.  PV, Wind, water. organic liquids fuels from whatever source all owe the state from which we extract energy are because of the photons that hit the earth.

Without the running down of the Sun's fusion reaction, there is no energy or life on this planet.

Looking at his 'analysis' "Again a 15% loss in transmission "  The reality is that PV is used where it is generated 1st, then sent on the grid...if there is any extra power left.  So a 15% "loss" is flaws.

More of his 'analysis':
"The most significant problems for solar electricity supply are set by the need to store energy for supply at night. Storage in the form of hydrogen gas will be assumed here. "

Hydrogen storage?   Picking the storage form with the highest conversion penality.   There are other menthods, once you unlock your mind from the "we must keep things the way they always have been" mindset.   Like supply-based electrical metering.  

Tell ya what.... you want to accept Mr. Trainer's paper as some form of ultimate truth.  Fine.  Lets say that spending the money to create enought PV cells to power the nation is dumb.

Now you make the claimn What we need is LIQUID fuel,

Mr. Trainer says "Therefore the cost of a generating plant 87 million square metres in area would be $130.6 billion."
Iraq war spending to date: Overall, Congress has approved about $192 billion for the Iraq war itself,
Is $192 billion a fine way to keep what you demand LIQUID FUEL?

Yea, using the priamary energy source of photons in the most direct way is just SO costly.

Hi Eric,

regarding Trainer :

Mr. Trainer analysis is flawed.   Horribly flawed.
Basic phyics shows that his analysis is flawed.

gosh, I spent time trying not to sleep reading his paper, the hardest to read I had to in years, what a waste of time!  

I havent tought that the storage system using hydrogen was a waste of time and energy.  Altough I say to everyone that the hydrogen car is Ilusion :)

What study do you propose for me to read to get more accurate information regarding PV cell yield (that takes into acount capital cost for all the system)

What is the comparison of the capital and maintenance cost of a PV cell VS building a new hydro plant? Where we live we have a 5 month period where the sun is present only 5 to 7 hours a day.  My father is selling PV cell since 15 years and prefer selling small wind turbines because the yield is better.  I know wind is created by the sun also.

I also take into account that pure biodiesel is gelling at 4 celcius.  Thus the solution will only help when using mixed fuel.  Our local region is provided with fuel using mainly trucking and next year using train.  We are 300 km farther than the end of the oil terminal.  I dont expect us to get oil before larger cities get it.

Anyway, biodiesel fuel that could be used 6 month a year with the current capital already available is also the reason why I study the feasability of biodiesel from algae.

As for an electrical power generation, we have lots of capacity that is refrained mainly because people want to keep the river free from damming.  I think it's a good thing.  If the fuel economy bring the demand down a little bit, we may be able to cope with existing installation.

If we are able to produce biodiesel in an efficient way, we could also use that fuel to power the needed building and transportation equipment to keep the power grid installations humming.  Many electric dam are located in remote locations in northerm Quebec, we can reach them only using motor vehicles.  I dont think that an all electric (or hybrid) excavator or any building machinery is on an drawing board as we speak.  I dont think that it would work either.

I also have questions regarding the balance of system maintenance for any bio fuel powered technology.  Lubricants, hydraulic fluids, gasket, plastic and rubber is needed for any vehicle.  Will those material be available when needed?  I'm just raising a second issue here.  Altough I think replacement part would be available trough unused machinery or equipment because of fuel shortage.  You know, I have those questions running in my head at night.  But it does not refrain me from sleeping either.

As for the cost of war, in Canada we tought it was stupid from the start, we still think it's a stupid thing and I can tell that we will keep thinking it was stupid to start it.  But now it was started, you have the problem of being there.  I dont imply here that every americain were advocating it but I'm sure that it didnt bring forward a solution.  Whether we use military or not oil will peak. I have no power whatsoever in guiding the use of military for keeping the oil flow as it will diminish.  Is our country preparing for that? Is the US thinking about it? (yes) Is it going to make a difference afterall?  I'm just not sure and I dont have influence in that sphere.

In restropect, what I need to know is not if an other technology would be better or more efficient, I need to know if producing biodiesel from algea is a good idea.  If the system is flawed and results only murky, I will just put my energy and time elsewhere.

Strawman alert!

Algae don't need a specific source of CO2 to grow. The atmosphere is just fine. You don't need a closed reactor, a pond works OK.

I strongly suspect that the schemes where algae are grown in closed reactors with waste CO2, rely on carbon-tax or carbon-credit accounting systems for their overall added value.

What you actually need, at a minimum, for an algae operation is sunlight, air, a nutrient stream, an algae processing facility, and a bit of real estate. As an add-on to a large municipal sewage treatment operation, it looks like a winner. Certainly it is not in competition with PV : there is no actual shortage of photons.

Certainly it is not in competition with PV : there is no actual shortage of photons.

Looking outdoor, I still see the sunshine :) so I guess you have a point!

I think that the company in New Zealand use an open technology and waste water pond from city sewage.  I think the capital cost would also be lower than a closed system.

I just finished reading Masanobu Fukuoka "the one straw revolution" and the other book.  I think that growing algae using the most natural processes are probably better than trying to use technology to do it.  

When studying a technology for power "harvesting or collecting", I also try to remove processes that use or transform energy by adding complexity to the design.  I have a feeling that we cannot produce energy, only harvest it. So if we add complexity to the system it will only use more energy to add and maintain that complexity.  Capital and maintenance cost is increased and somehow you have to take it into account in the long run.

As for the energy needed to harvest and transform the algae into a liquid fuel (altough I dont know the numbers) could refrain from obtaining a good EROEI ratio, I think the usefulness of the product could overcome the problem.

If we use the algae to transform hydropower (electricity) to biodiesel (HTL or ETL) is it a good way of thinking or is the technology simply not there?

Can a process like this use more current or energy than setting rail almost every where and producing electrical building equipment?  

Investment in capital and developpment in one or other technology has to take into account existing rolling capital.  It's like upgrading software, you dont start asuming everyone will buy a new computer.  I know that in the long run it may only be a bridge.  Is it a good bridge?  Do I have to put time trying to build an other bridge?  

Is anyone has information or papers I can read to know the shortcomming, problem, inherent system difficulties, stuff really preventing biodiesel algae development?

Strawman alert!

Thanks for letting us know that your post is a strawman.

Algae don't need a specific source of CO2 to grow. The atmosphere is just fine.

And these demonstration systems using regular old air are where?

As an add-on to a large municipal sewage treatment operation, it looks like a winner.

Given the energy input into the average waste system VS trying to gather sunlight on land to power a process that will generate  the same level of processing of the average waste processing plant, your "winner" claim is more of a "your winner" per http://www.netjak.com/review.php/537 than a workable idea.

As an employee of a waste treatment plant don't get your hopes up for adding on an algae to fuel plant anytime soon.  The foot print of a wwtp is small so as to economize on land thru the use of mechanical advantage powered by lots of energy.  In my city we are the fifth largest consumer of electricity behind such entities as a BP research facility and a cookie bakery.  Wastewater treatment can be as simple as a treatment pond or as complex as our power hungry bacteria farm (that is really what we do raise small organisms and force them to work).  If our society had to go to pond treatment of anything from wastewater to fuel production the space needed is beyond my simple skills of calculation.  
Pay attenetion to the parent post here!  (In fact, if you could post the energy used and a bit of analysis as a front page article would be a fine thing)

The amount of energy used to bring water to and from our homes  is shocking large.   Couple that with the cost of failue - cholera and other water borne death - and the whole algae will save us via capture of photons, is a pipe dream.

Cities along coastlines where wind turbines won't get destroyed in windstorms (hurricanes) have a chance to keep up a high energy lifestyle.  Why?  Because wind turbines in the water don't have to take up land around the city already spoken for with buildings.

I'm talking about oxidation-pond type treatment plants, which already have the required real estate. The high-energy low-real-estate sewage treatment plant is a loser anyway, it'll have to go.
Who killed the electric car?


The reality of technology and physics killed the electric car, just like it's threatening to kill every other alternative to oil.

"genetically engineered organisms developed for combined hexose-pentose fermentations"

Ummm... So we start to produce a product stream af hundreds of millions, maybe billions of tons of "waste" every year from the ethanol plants which is all inoculated with genetically engineered microorganisms capable of doing novel types of fermentation, that must at some point wind up back in "the environment" (lets also call that "in the wild")

Then we sit back and see what effect these organaisms have as they mutate, interbreed, swap genes with wild forms, and change the rates, methods, and products of decomposition of plant materials worldwide.

I can hardly wait. Why not just shoot ourselves now and get it over with?

One of the biggest challenges to scaling up a genetically engineered fermentation process is to keep wild yeasts and fungi and such from getting into the culture. Because when they do, they take over and wipe out all your precious pentose-fermenters.

The probability of a lab-created organism survivin "in the wild" is nil.

tell that to all the people fighting and loosing in keeping genetically altered corn and wheat from interbreeding with wild stocks.
The probability of keeping a GM and natural variant of a species SEPERATE (untained by each other's influence) in the same environment, when they're expected to naturally reproduce, is very low.  If you consider a hybrid to be neither natural nor GM, then yeah - you're gonna be disappointed.

There is a solid distinction, however, between sexual and nonsexual organisms, or between completely incompatible organisms.  A rabbit-based bioreactor isn't going to combine with a horse-based invader - they'll compete based on whichever utilizes the environment better.  Viral mutations blur the lines a bit with genetic material.

As for algalculture, I like this system:
We use floating tanks with high walls on the surface of lakes.  We use solar concentrators on one end to power a steam engine which operates a pump between the steam engine boiler and the tank.  A second hose runs from the boiler to the water.

When the sun is strong enough, the water is drawn into the boiler, pasteurized (losing a small % as steam), and dumped into the algae tank.  When the sun isn't strong, and there's no evaporation to deal with, the pump lays dormant.

Corn is no problem that way. It's entirely dependent on humans to keep it going, and hybrid corn's genes are carefully woven together over two or three generations to get seed corn. If you plant kernels from the resulting crop, all that hybridizing comes undone and you have a mishmash of less-useful plants.

The fight is to keep stray DNA out of the breeding stock, which is carefully conserved in greenhouses and laboratories.

Golly. If thermochemical (Fischer Tropsch, phase reforming) doesn't pan out for biofuels then it leaves few options. Nukes and renewables will have to step in to electrify most transport.  Coal and tar sands will have to supply liquids but not so much we fry the planet. I'd say we've reached peak personal mobility.
"I note that all long-term R&D (is there any other?) for hydrogen is being terminated next month by the Dept. of Energy."

I must have missed the memo..  

Searching for news links to this, anybody already posted them?  That would be telling..

Here's a Bio-Fuel booster piece that continues to suggest to other investors that 'it's solved', however..

"No Longer Over a Barrel"

"BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (ResourceInvestor.com) -- In the Grimm Brother's fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. Thanks to advances in biotechnology, researchers can now transform straw, and other plant wastes, into "green" gold - cellulosic ethanol."

Wanna buy a bridge over troubled waters?

Hydrogen - on the outs?

The following may only be for Short-Term research.  (In this administration, is there any other kind?) And noting the source, possibly not in the right loop to know about more distant plans...

"Publication Date:14-Aug-2006
01:00 PM US Eastern Timezone
Projects Led by Electric Transportation Applications and GE Global Research

"WASHINGTON, DC -- The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced that it intends to fund approximately $1.4 million (subject to negotiation) for two projects to partner with industry to study the economic feasibility of producing hydrogen at existing commercial nuclear power plants.  Teams selected by DOE for funding will be headed by Electric Transportation Applications and GE Global Research.  Both teams include DOE national laboratories and nuclear utility companies as partners.

"Hydrogen is important to our economy today and will be even more important in the future as a potential clean, renewable carrier of energy, particularly in the transportation area," DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon said.  "Finding efficient ways to produce hydrogen by using emissions-free nuclear power has long been an important part of President Bush's energy strategy."

Since the hydrogen will need some kind of transportation or distribution system to reach the consumer, wouldn't it be more efficient to use the electricity directly, instead? We already have the distribution system to support that.  
  Wasn't linking these to advocate for their project, per se.. just looking at whether I could find anything about the DOE directions regarding Hydrogen.

  To me Hydrogen looks like either a red-herring, or a 'controllable commodity'.. such that if it worked out, one could structure a business on the same continual and growing demand idea that has worked so well for oil.

"I note that all long-term R&D (is there any other?) for hydrogen is being terminated next month by the Dept. of Energy."

I must have missed the memo..  

Can anyone provide proof of this?  The DOE's website doesn't seem to say this at all.


I note that all long-term R&D (is there any other?) for hydrogen is being terminated next month by the Dept. of Energy.
I'd love to see a reference for that.  I found nothing with a Google search.
Another victory for the fossil-nuclear energy companies?
I've suspected that both ethanol and hydrogen are diversions engineered by the fossil lobbies.  Interesting how that meme is gaining traction.
Australia must pay host to a few trillion termites - all of whom seem able to turn cellulose into energy. (TERMITES - any of the cellulose-eating social insects that constitute the order Isoptera. Cellulose in this case refers to wood. Termites have for millions of years been eating the majority of fallen trees, dead trees and rotting trees, from all around the world. It is said that the world would be totally covered in a ten meter pile of rotting timber, if it was not for the Termite.)

I believe they contain special bacteria - surely we should be able to "house train" this bacteria to work for us.

It's hard to house-train those naughty little rascals, isn't it?
Actually the termites do not harbor the bacteria.  Rather the termite harbors protists (nucleated single cell organisms) that harbor them.  That neither termites nor protists in the hundreds of millions of years of their existence have evolved a simpler mechanism to digest wood suggests that there is no simpler way.  Indeed the tree has evolved wood to maximally resist digestion.  The likelihood that a simple enzyme might be discovered or "engineered" in this century that can handle cellulose extra-cellularly and produce anything more useful than CO2, water and ash is vanishingly small.  For an enzyme to produce something, rather than simply destroy something, generally requires an energy input.  The enzyme must burn something on one end (ATP perhaps) to power the assembly of something on the other end. This often requires that the two ends be in different environments, that is the enzyme must be imbedded in a membrane and exposed on both sides.  These membranes are likely what the bacteria in the protists in the termites provide.  The protists have house-trained the bacteria and no doubt the bacteria can live nowhere economically but in the protist. The termites have house-trained the protists and no doubt the protists can live nowhere economically but in the termite.  Remove the structure and the system ceases to work.

I don't agree nature is constrained in the metals it uses for the key organometallic complexes found in most enzymes.

Manufactured bugs can be made to use metals not normally found in sufficient concentration in nature. Platnium, Reuthenium,
Uranium even.

So there is a vast range of possibilites not explored yet by nature.

Next not all enzymes are in all species combining genetic material to bring together enzymatic pathways that have not yet been put together by nature is also a approach with a vast number of possibilities.

I'm not saying its easy just that the constraints are different therefore different outcomes can be synthesised that would be very rare using natural selection.

Also these bugs don't need to be robust and competitive in fact its better if they have at least one fatal weakness that prevents them from being competitive in the wild.

Obviously using a rare metal is a easy way to have a robust bug that can't live in nature.

Fore example there is no intrinsic reason we could not develop the biological machinery to create synthetic diamonds but I doubt mother nature would take that approach.

A few questions.

  1. How does this compare to the various biomass gassification, TDP, TCP, and similar processes? Presumably most (all?) of the gassification/depolymerization based processes are pretty well understood, and could convert similar feedstocks into some volume of fuel with no current technical barriers. Would cellulosic be more efficient even if it did work, or is there nothing to be gained here at all?

  2. When it is said that the process requires energy, what type of energy? For instance, it's easy to imagine all the drying energy coming from simple process heat (perhaps even nuclear). If drying and distilling is the primary consumer of energy, then perhaps the process could be a commercial success even at very low efficiencies, by (effectively) converting a very large amount of cheap waste heat into a little bit of expensive fuel. A similar argument could probably be made for many of the gassification processes. If the primary consumer of energy is driving out the water at the end, then waste heat from virtually any power plant would probably be more than enough to do it.

  3. How does this compare to (for instance) pyrolytic conversion directly to methanol. Is it more efficient, less efficient? Is there any compelling reason to use ethanol instead of the chemically simpler methanol? Large differences in efficiency maybe?

Basically, I feel that these technologies are always portrayed as if they are independent, "We need both Ethanol and anaerobic digestion to achieve energy independence..." This makes sense to the layman, but if both processes are using the same inputs, then clearly we don't need to use both, we only need to use whichever one is more efficient. Using both would mean wasting fuel on a process that we know is worse than the alternative.

To what degree does ethanol (even cellulosic) overlap with other (technically simpler) technologies, and does it have any innate advantages that make it worthwhile to even contemplate?

Basically, if anyone has really good (Joules/tons of input -> Joules/tons of output, $ costs, waste heat consumption, etc...) numbers on these various processes, I'd love to see them. I know the numbers must be out there, but I've never seen anyone pull them all together.

A wiki article on TDP said that waste paper produced only 8% of its output as a liquid and 48% as flammable gas. If this is representative of all cellulose then TDP is not a good way to use that resource.
Why did John Benemann fell compelled to end his tirade against lignocellulosic biofuels with the positive spin. Isn't it enough to just say that biofuels are thermodynamic voodoo, that the energy needed to break the bonds and form a liquid fuel is much more than the energy that would be released in the oxidation of the component parts?

We will never run our complex industrial agricultural infrastructure on the fermented byproduct of that system, much less leak enough out to drive mom and the kids to the soccer game. That would be perpetual energy machine.

Biofuels are not thermodynamic voodoo. You posted a similar comment on an earlier thread saying you have never seen any evidence that ethanol from sugar can be EROEI positive.

Here are five studies that all cite figures of positive 8-10 EROEI for ethanol from sugar cane. I have given page references for three of them and will find and post the others later.

Actually I agree with Engineer Poet (or have been convinced by him), that liquid biofuels in almost any configuration are not going to be a significant contributer to vehicle fuel. However, in the short-term they can and in the long-term biomass electricy could be very important.

I have stated several times that ethanol, from sugar cane, could provide 10% of gloabl vehicle fuel use in the next 10 years. No one has refuted this assertion.

Corn-based ethanol probably won't work and cellulosic may not either. But sugar has a proven track record. Your repeated comments on this subject are wrong and without any supporting evidence.

1) FO Licht presentation to METI,

EROEI Calcs: Page 20

2) IEA Automotive Fuels for the Future

3) IEA: Biofuels for Transport

EROEI calcs: page 60

4) Worldwatch Institute & Government of Germany: Biofuels for Transport  (Link to register - study is free)


EROEI Calcs (for 12 fuel types): Page 17

5) Potential for Biofuels for Transport in Developing Countries

http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/IW3P/IB/2006/01/05/000090341_20060105 161036/Rendered/PDF/ESM3120PAPER0Biofuels.pdf

Our new lab director has been very successful in the last two years at hijacking the direction of R&D to "carbon neutral alternative fuels", by which he means cellulosic ethanol. One initiative is the "termite guts" approach through decoding of the genes in the bacteria; others include enhancing the genetics of Miscanthus as a feedstock, including inserting a gene that promotes cellulose separation at proper temperatures. This last one came with a caveat that the plants would have to be sterile so they are not released in the wild. I can understand the low probability of genetically engineered microorganisms surviving in the wild--but the chance is not nil. I am more concerned about such genetically engineered "self-destructing" plants getting loose in the wild. A range of invasive Pennisetums are bred to be sterile, but all can grow fertile sports; similarly I don't believe any control can be tight enough to prevent these cellulose busters from being released as well.

I think the problem of scale will eventually do these approaches in, but plenty of damage can be done before then. The US EPACT 2005 target for cellulosic ethanol production in 2012 is equivalent to three weeks of gasoline use in the state of California alone. It's a drop compared to the loss of oil one year post peak. But I agree with Robert. Such misadventures suck away money from areas that should be getting it.

Which are what ??

"Such misadventures suck away money from areas that should be getting it."

Conservatively speaking any genetic engineering done in a laboratory has already been done in the wild at least a trillion times in the history of the planet.  Any super bugs arising from such a process are already among us (look in the mirror).  Every Miscanthus plant in the world is a genetic engineering lab producing mutants through normal processes and transferring the new genes to other species through the kind services of viruses.  Though your lab may be millions of times more efficient in this process, the wild is trillions of times larger.  Genetic engineering consists of rearranging existing material rather than creating anything novel.  That a superbeast might emerge from your lab is about as likely and a robot emerging from a pile of scrap metal.

I feel your point is made, for that matter recognized far too seldom.  

For some Ancient History:  My Ph. D thesis adviser Danny Wang at MIT founded Biogen corp.  I was already working on biomethane at a nearby MIT spinoff company 28 years ago.  I walked into Danny's office and told him that optimizing organisms would be a hard slog, unlikely to yield benefits more than grudgingly.or in very small increments.  The main reasons:  

-- It is already to the various organisms' benefit to do exactly what we want, ie make ethanol or in my case methane, and energy, and progeny organisms.

-- The organisms have had the whole earth as a bioreactor,  and a billion years of optimization through evolution.  And that is toward doing what the organisms want and we humans want, as defined above

It became clear after the initial blizzard of claims that recombinant DNA was not going to give the "better bugs" that so many anticipated.  The work of Mary Mandels at Natick, Rutgers work on better ethanol bugs, and a hundred similar projects at SERI/NREL and around the world gave nothing like the anticipated, or perhaps hyped, quantum improvements in ethanol or methane or other biofuel productivity.  At Biogen Danny -- and other Biogen Corp. workers I know well -- were shocked  later on (about 1980) to find that the costs made manufacture of fuels or chemicals out of the question.  We can infer the actual accomplishments by noting that there is essentially nothing going now in the way of fermentation fuels and chemicals that could not have been done with modest improvements in technology extant around 1980.  

As to the present, the limitations on, and difficulty of, organism "improvement" through recombinant DNA still stand. Some slight improvements have come about in areas such as heat or tolerance of pH extremes.  But the chemical engineering and cost issues of biomass processing on the way to bioethanol, biobutanol, etc.  are another area where there are profound and mostly ignored barriers and failures that have been "swept under the rug".

With respect to the "biomass refineries" as widely touted today there is much less there than meets the eye, for the fundamental reasons summarized above.  

In essence, excepting approaches that have already worked to the point where we know some cost/performance parameters, but are commonly regarded as niche applications (1) biogas from manure and wastes, (2) combustion including (a) wood/coal cofiring and (b) limited and expensive Swedish wood fired IGCC tests (3) the presently ignored approach of producer gas engine fueling, biofuels will be limited by barriers that will last through the near term, likely a decade or more.  My view is that wood stoves, cooking fires, and biomass combustion in the pulp and paper industry will continue to be the most substantial biomass energy contributors for the next decade.  There is not much Peak Oil mitigation in the cards, only more political hype.

By the way Remig, who are you?  I would like to get in touch and you have no email address listed.  

I am Don Augenstein and anyone interested can email me at nietsnegua@aol.com

One more point in my comment (from Pomona96 to Remig):

I do not assert that a genetic engineering path to success is impossible, just a tough slog that is far more difficult than most anticipate.  

And, solutions may come from "outside the box" of standard technology we examine today.  For example we learn more about how enzymes work as time goes on, from closer quantum-mechanical and other modeling of enzymatic mechanisms.  The present enzymes that make the biofuels we want are proteins made of amino acids.  That is a consequence of evolution on earth.   Non-protein chemosynthetic enzymes are entirely possible and could in principle be made to order. We should be able to find out how, sooner or later.  Although it is hard to figure probablities (for example in research it is hard to predict "when will we invent penicillin") I think that it is possible for successes of this sort.  Solutions of all sorts may materialize to surprise us in a few years.    The prospects for successes from outside the conventional research pursuits now should be as good as those for biorefineries.  We should just know where the barriers and successes and failures have been, and be guided by the experience to date and realities as we search for solutions.

"That a superbeast might emerge from your lab is about as likely and a robot emerging from a pile of scrap metal."

If a pile of scrap was to self organize into a robot you would be seeing a contravention of the second law of thermodynamics, and a lot of physics would need to be rewritten. Living systems on the other hand have no problem creating local reversals in entropic flows In fact I think there is a tv program based on living systems (called people)making robots, or maybe its cars, from the contents of junk piles :} anyway this is a "Strawman".

"Genetic engineering consists of rearranging existing material rather than creating anything novel." Nonsense. We can now splice up arbitrary DNA bases into totally novel genes to code for arbitrary protiens.

"Every Miscanthus plant in the world is a genetic engineering lab producing mutants through normal processes and transferring the new genes to other species through the kind services of viruses.  Though your lab may be millions of times more efficient in this process, the wild is trillions of times larger." True, but GE allows many more inter-species "firewalls" to be breached. I would be very surprised to learn that an Antarctic fish had ever "naturally" with the aid of only a wild virus, tranfered the gene for the cryoprotectant protien found in its plasma into a tomato plant, or that a human being had ever transfered its insulin making gene sucessfully into a microbe. Or how about some dna from a petunia, cauliflower mosaic virus, and an Agrobacterium each finding themselves in a soybean plant which then was more resistant to the herbicide "Roundup"

Perhaps I meant to say that successful GE to date has consisted of rearranging existing material.  I know of no new arbitrary protein from a GE lab that has proven useful.  My point was really that the wild produces trillions of new arbitrary proteins for every one produced in the lab and that the likelihood of an arbitrary protein being functional, much less detrimentally functional, is very small.  Combining the probablilities, the likelihood of an arbitrary GE protein being detrimentally functional is very, very, very small.  All things are possible even if near infinitely improbable.  It is nevertheless possible to quantify the danger by consideration of the size and age of the earth, and to accept some level of risk even though human existence itself may lie in the balance.  Far greater risks to human existence are assumed all the time.
Such misadventures suck away money from areas that should be getting it.

Money spent on telling people they're all going to die isn't going to happen anytime soon.

thank you so much. khosla wants us to be like the japanese at okinawa, digging up pine roots and gathering pine needles, just to keep a few more fighters in the air, just like our current unfortunate president. the truth is, for all of us, the only form of life that will really work, is the neo-lithic, and to move into that future reality will require the death of probably somewhat well more than nine or more out of ten people, mostly from what we think about as western civilization. but, hey, who wants to think about that, as the "fat party" seems to keep going on...
That would make you a Defcon 1, if I correctly understand the scale.
ok, nobody responds. guess my guess was right-you are all asleep. we are on the way down. these questions in re ethanol, and anything other than the sustainable, are just noise. there is no answer, other than where we all were about 15,000 years ago, when it all worked just fine. i hope you all got a sharp knife, and an idea where you might get to eat.
Not all of us are asleep, especially those of us not in the Western hemisphere.   Rather, I (and perhaps others) just find your fatalism not really that interesting or useful, and most likely in the long run counterproductive to any meaningful discussion.

So too this guest article, which seems as much polemical as engineering.

Biofuels are a hot topic and certainly worthy of discussion.   Here in Japan though the efforts seem to be more centered on bio-diesel (the latest Energy plan calls for significant expansion) rather than ethanol.

Yes, this site is really devoted to keeping Our Non-Negotiable Way Of Life going by any means possible. That's the reason for 99.9% of the words here, that's the reason for all the hoping and angst.

We just can't fade that we're "On The Beach"

Face, I mean.

What you say is true of many of the peak oil/alternative energy discussion forums that I have visited (and subsequently ignored).  But if you think that's what's going on here at TOD, you haven't been around for very long.  Or you haven't been paying attention.

Random community members notwithstanding, I don't think any of the editors or contributors are so foolish as to think that "keeping Our Non-Negotiable Way Of Life going" is either possible or desirable.  The goal here is to find some combination of energy sources that are sufficient to retain something resembling an industrial base and a technological infrastructure, with the understanding that they will need to look very different in the future than they have in the past.  Otherwise, it's dieoff for most of us and back to hunting-gathering for the rest.

my dear friend, remember that your own country relied on a biodiesel and ethanol solution to their fuel travails during the second world war, under general tojo. it did not prevail. as for myself, i hold the highest respect for the culture of the japanese people, collecting specifically a deep and abiding respect for WOOD in any form that it might appear to me, and i am a true master thereby. i could build your teahouse. My discussions have no relation to an attitude of fatalism. I am simply interested in the time coming that requires me to draw my sword. if you get a bad babelfish of this, write me back, and i will give you a real kanji.
ok, hokkaido. i respect that which can be humble. domo, daimo, domo arigato. i guess its just you and me awake. you are in far worse shape than me. I live in New Mexico, and we are just flooding, not running out of seafood. our end is looser than yours. i am just, as you might say, "manuke" in myself, and i could not begin to apologize for not being like everyone else. don't think that i don't think. i been shot and cold, more than once.
An excellent post.  I hope this ends the silly talk about cellulosic being superior to corn ethanol.  For the USA it's either corn ethanol or forget it.  Whether the technical aspect of cellulosic ethanol is feasible is a small problem compared to the massive (and expensive) infrastructure changes required.  The infrastructure for grain ethanol is extensive and already in place.  All that is needed is more ethanol facilities.  Here in Iowa we're building them as fast as we can.
For the USA it's either corn ethanol or forget it.  

Nope.  Sugar beets, cattails and jeuserleum artichokes are all options.   (Cattails grown in sewage waste leachate fields as a way to 'recapture' some of the nutriants in fecal matter)

Corn looks good because the government gives it tax advantages.

Remember:  Ethanol used to represent either excessive crop yield or a way to stablize spoilable crops.

I hope this ends the silly talk about cellulosic being superior to corn ethanol.

I don't. No offence to the authors but the article lacked hard engineering data, relying instead on lots of assertions wrapped in jargon.

If you boil the article down, it becomes "Current processes are not very efficient, the Iogen plant is producing less than an anticipated, therefore it cannot work".

Also consider that something doesn't have to completely replace gasoline to be a success :)

If you boil the article down, it becomes "Current processes are not very efficient, the Iogen plant is producing less than an anticipated, therefore it cannot work".

That pretty much is hard engineering data.  Producing any thing at all is possible, if you want to spend 5% of GDP trying it.  And if you can't get it to work perfectly on a small scale, you should quit right then.

What is "perfectly"? It doesn't surprise me Iogen overestimated how much they could make .... sounds good for investors right? Plus people are naturally optimistic about their own technologies. They're still producing a fair old amount and as time goes on they'll get more efficient.
The other thing is the article seems to be wrong - I'm pretty sure I remember reading about a Japanese cellulosic plant in Izumi, run by Arkenol .... so I think it's not right to say there's only one pilot plant.
Would it not be better to use surplus and waste wood, crop residues, or energy crops (another whole subject) to heat our homes, using wood pellets or even gasification to make heating oils?

Or why not build devices to create "wood gas"
and take teh resulting pyrolysed char and create terra petra soils?

If the true boogie-man is CO2 in the air, making terra petra looks like  a way that would be carbon negative and increase the ability of the soil to grow things.

The point might rather be made in this way: Who will be able to pay the landowner/farmer more - the liquid fuel processor or the pellet/chip/brick processor?

For an indication of how the market would decide this issue, compare the energy profit of both processes.

Where's John Candy as I'm working on a new movie: Trains, Chains and Blisters.

The point might rather be made in this way: Who will be able to pay the landowner/farmer more - the liquid fuel processor or the pellet/chip/brick processor?

And there are always people who will sell their tomarrows for a sheckle today.

What do you want to see?  An unsubstainable process (like oil useage) or one that can go on until the sun swallows the earth in an expansion, an asteroid hits, man kills each other off in a global war, the unix date() function rolls over in 2037, or some bio-based thing kills the humans or plants?

From the headline:  "biomass delivered to commercial-scale plants (which would need to be 200 million liters per year output, or greater, for economics of scale)" and 'pellet stoves' gets the phosporus and other elements back to the land exactly how?

In a properly funstioning market there is a price difference because there is an actual expression of oppertunity cost.  That cost will be expressed in long-term effects on soil fertility and not locking up Carbon in the soil itself.

or the baker...
I'm sure terra preta and pyrolysis has got some potential. After all the homesteaders took charcoal and ash from the fireplace and threw it on the vegie garden. However it seems   every new or revived idea turns out to have limited application. In short order we've seen the following debunked .. hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, oil-from-algae, grain ethanol and now cellulosic ethanol. Now there doesn't seem to be any miracle technology left on the horizon.
Thank you for some reality on lignocellulosic ethanol.  This is why people in the farm states build corn ethanol plants, soy diesel plants and wind turbines.  It can be done today with positive EROEI and positive return on money invested.  I know RR disputes the ethanol claim but it is net positive now even if not great and improvements are being made weekly in existing plants.

Here is my vision living in the midwest:

  1. Use some corn to make ethanol.
  2. Feed the distillers grains to animals for meat production.
  3. Use plug in hybrids with Li batteries like this to get 60 miles plus on electric only.
  4. Trickle charge batteries using solar whenever possible using rollable solar film like this whenever the car is sitting.
  5. Augment the electricity grid using wind and solar, both utilities and home applications.
  6. Plug the hybrids in at home and trickle charge.
  7. Now that you have vehicles that almost never need liquid fuel, use E-85 to power the ICE for long trips or on the fly recharging.
  8. Save the petroleum for industrial applications and building infrastructure based on renewables and extreme energy efficiency.
  9. Build electric mass transit and freight using hybrid locomotives.
  10. Put solar panels on every roof facing south.
  11. Repeat with next generation with the goal of always reducing need for fossil raw materials.

This approach builds in less reliance on liquid fuels as the start.  At that point a small amount of ethanol will go a long ways as transportation fuel.  Starch based ethanol and oil seed based biodiesel can meet most of that need without sacrificing all the meat production.  

All these approaches must be integrated simulaneously or none of it works in the marketplace.  From my perspective only starch ethanol, oil seed biodiesel, solar, wind, and hybrids are commercially scaleable for the next 10 years.  But they are only scaleable to a point.  They can't replace current consumption of oil.  That usage must be reduced somehow.  These industries must work together to reduce the need for petroleum energy now and all fossil energy later.

I know RR disputes the ethanol claim but it is net positive now even if not great and improvements are being made weekly in existing plants.

That's not true. I don't dispute the claim that it is net positive. It just isn't great, as you say. It is possible that once you add up all of the secondary inputs and the soil erosion, etc. that it is net negative, but I have consistently given it the benefit of the doubt with respect to being net positive.

Accept my apology on mistating your postion through poor word choice.  You have consistently said EROEI is positive, just very poor as you restate above.

It is possible that once you add up all of the secondary inputs and the soil erosion, etc. that it is net negative,

I tend to agree with you here, but there may be a net negative in our convention ag side, with or without ethanol production.  

Figuring out how to grow crops without huge oil/NG consumption is a separate issue, but just as big a problem as how to maximize EROEI on ethanol from grain.

Accept my apology on mistating your postion through poor word choice.

No need to apologize. I didn't take offense. I just wanted to clarify.

"Figuring out how to grow crops without huge oil/NG consumption is a separate issue, but just as big a problem as how to maximize EROEI on ethanol from grain."

No, it's not.  It is already well established that more labour dependent polyculture is more net energy/food productive than oil/ng dependent monoculture. It is a matter of social organization.

To repeat an earlier point in a different fashion, the problem and economic opportunity (after welfare for corporate agriculture runs dry) turns on the net energy potential of the land.  In this competition, ethanol is hopelessy mismatched against solid heating fuel, such as switchgrass pellets.

I expect the abandonment of ethanol welfare programs once natural gas slides off the current production plateau and 'policy makers' have to deal with the outrage at the cost of heating homes and the pressure from the institutional sector (schools, hospitals, etc) and the commercial industrial sector for space heating alternatives.  

It is already well established that more labour dependent polyculture is more net energy/food productive than oil/ng dependent monoculture.

I agree with this statement on an energy basis but not volume of crop.  The market values volume of grain, not the best cost of goods to produce grain.  And sustainability is in the eye of the beholder.  You have to make money to keep your farm.  

This is why large farming operations making 3 cents per bushel are viable but small farms making 5 cents a bushel are not.  These numbers are made up but using those and 150 bu/ac corn the large guy keeps $9000 farming 2000 acres ($0.03x150x2000).  The little guy keeps $3750 farming 500 acres.  Both guys write off all expenses (fuel, capital equipment, land taxes, office, vehicles, etc) to their farming operations.  The less efficient operation, on a cost of goods basis, still makes more money.  

Now scale the operation up to 50,000 acres (that operation keeps $225,000 using example above) and you understand why the family farmer can't compete.  He either has to get bigger or he gets bought out if he is grain farming.  Don't blame the farmers.  They do what they have to do to survive but the market is against low volume/highly efficient operations.  The big guys have to compete against each other for efficiency as well and ultimately the high volume/high efficiency guys last year after year.  And get bigger.

I can think of a number of ways to eliminate the natural gas used to produce the ammonia used as fertilizer.

One possibility is to get the methane from alternative sources: landfills, waste water treatment plants, bioreactors using manure of sewage.

Since the methane is used as a sorce of hydrogen in the Haber process the other posssibility is to find an alternate source of hydrogen. This could be done by electrolysis using electricity from renewable enerergy such as solar or wind, using high temperatures in a pebble bed nuclear reactor to thermally dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen, or by drawing of some of the hydrogen from the synthesis gas produced in Syntech's biomass to ethanol process.

Crop production need not be as dependent on fossil fuels as the doomers claim it is.

Lets forget about cars.

Consider this can we come up with a viable source of organic fuel for two use cases.

1.) Air travel
2.) Chemical feedstocks

I think the country should focus on solving these problems first in particular the air travel problem. If we can get the airline industry moved over to renewables that would be a big accomplishment and its a much easier problem to tackle then trying to solve the problem of personal transportation.

So whats the best way to make jet fuel and we would wan't to include cellulose in the mix. Its my understanding that the Russian ran there planes off ethanol.

And I found this.


So we have a industry for which there is no substitue in the near future for organic fuel Fuel is a huge part of there expensis if we can't create a viable renewable solution for the airline industry then forget about any other problem.

Finally I suspect we can but it will be obvious that its not possible to extend to general ground transport in a big way.

Has anyone caculated how much land would be needed to meet the needs of the airline industry ?

Billionaires have a habit of saying things that are ridiculous just as often as regular people. Only that their BS is taken seriously.   Where is the large scale price-competitive cellulosic ethanol plant?

I bet that in 10 years, Virgin Atlantic's fleet will be operating on exactly 100% petroleum hydrocarbon.

Aircraft are even tougher customers than cars for energy density.  Ethanol just has sufficiently less and you have to carry all that oxygen up and down whereas with Jet A (kerosene) you get it free from the air.   Really, there is nothing better for air propulsion than today's jet fuel available in the periodic table.

I suspect biodiesel is a better approach no oxygen.
Or vegetable oil in general for jet fuel.

My point is its a much more conrolled market your dealing with a fairly small number of big companies and you need to deliver to a small number of places.

I don't agree that the current jet fuel is the best.
We need to explore the properties of alternatives. A vegtable
based fuel would not have sulfur for example refining may be cheaper etc etc.

And you just highlighted my point the airline industry in not a perfect model to convert but in my opinion the fact that distribution is much easier to control and the number of customers is small makes it the best one to go after.

In exchange for converting the airline industry gets fairly fixed prices for there fuel so there costs quite climbing.

It would make the industry sustainable.
With there main cost item fixed they can now consider investing in newer more fuel efficient planes say made of
carbon fiber etc.

If we can't develop a plan for the airline industry to kick the oil habit what chance do we have with the much larger
autoindustry ?

While ethanol is being discussed (or cussed) I thought I'd drop the following URL for a report from the USDA on "Then Economic Feasibility of Ethanol Production from Sugar in the United States". Dated July 2006
[Warning 78 page PDF]
There is some good information in the report, but it is very definitely skewed to make corn ethanol appear to be much cheaper to produce than sugar ethanol (In the USA by more than 3:1 - However they show that in Brazil sugar ethanol is less than USA corn ethanol?)
The major factor is that USA sugar prices are kept artificially high by more than 2:1 over world sugar prices.
Lets see, - You have to allow us to sell our subsidized corn and soybeans into your country but no you can't sell your sugar into our country.
I could go into a long diatribe on this report and agricultural subsidys, but I'll spare you the agony and let you read the report and come to your own conclusions.
abstract - clarification for Americans:

one million liters per year = 16.9 barrels per day

is the capacity of the pilot plant...

How can you get more than what Photosynthesis can produce ?

Do any of these scientists have a garden or have ever raised a field of corn?

What about entropy and the laws of physics ?

More energy will be used up grinding the stuff then will be realized ... to say nothing of feeding the people envolved

Ancient sunlight stored in fosil fuels has allowed all this abundence   daily sunlight is the only sustainable alternative.

Cellulose liquid fuel for your jet aircraft ...

  Get over it

Unless you are using another energy source, you cannot get more energy than photosynthesis produces.  That is always the energy check that cannot be cashed.  First and second law thermodynamics always show up for the party.  

One possible interpretation of this hadlong attempt to go to ethanol is an attempt not to be too inconvenienced by the changes that are coming and must come.  

This is not, as many of us around here figured out long ago, The Jetsons.

photosythesis is not the most efficient method for coverting photons to and alternative form. Our current solar cells are more efficient.
This entire thread is an excellent reality check on cellulosic ethanol. I recall that 'Pomona96' had posted some similar critical comments about cellulosic ethanol quite some time ago.

It is odd how cellulosic ethanol has rapidly morphed from being a concept still in the R&D stage to something that many people automatically assume is a viable and readily implimentable technology.  I'm not sure if this is just innocent wishful thinking or deliberate outright deception.

Of course, we have the question of whether it can be made into a cost-effective, high-EROEI route to ethanol with more R&D.  

The optimist will say that the development of many of today's technologies was fraught with difficulties and that we wouldn't have many of the thing we now have if people had given up trying. The pessimist, on the other hand, will say that if it can't be made to work after 30+ years of R&D, it's not likely to ever work. I myself am more inclined to take the pessimistic view, as there ARE such things as technological deadends, and the sooner these are recognized as such, the better our limited developmental resources can be allocated.

This really bugs me too.  There is the extremely naive assumption that "The Free Market" knows how to solve everything in the best possible way.  Well, the market is made up of people, not gods, and if most people are stupid, then that's what you get.


We are much closer to getting sufficiently good batteries for a reasonable plug-in hybrid than getting large scale cellulosic ethanol or even biodiesel (which appears to be better energetically), disregarding potential agricultural capacity.

And if somebody signs a check today we can get a large nuclear plant operational in 5 years which probably will produce more useful work than the next 25 years of cellulosic ethanol capacity of the planet.  

Today, we already have EXCESS electricity production at night.  

Because of the technical characteristics of coal and nuclear plants, it is not easy to rapidly change their output down and up, so that in many locations they are burning coal and uranium and turning into heat which does absolutely zero work because electricity demand is too low.   It literally is wasted.   Some places do have load-balancing pumped storage of course.

But the point is that PHEVs could start making a difference now without delusionary unobtanium.

mbkennel -

I'm all for building more new nuclear power plants ASAP.

But it is totally unrealistic to expect one to be up and running in 5 years from the time the decision to build is made.  Hell, in the US you'd be lucky if you made it through the permitting process and obstructionist lawsuits in 5 years - even for just an addition to an existing nuke.  From what I've seen of the visceral opposition to nukes, it is my opinion that under the current climate it will be virtually impossible to get a new nuke built anywhere in the Northeast. However, chronic power outages could change the general attitude in a big hurry.

By the way, large coal and nuclear power plants CAN change their output to match the difference in daytime and nightime loads without extreme difficulty.  It may not be as easy as taking your foot off the accelerator in your car, but it is not as difficult as you imply.  It is of course preferable to keep as much of the generating capacity on the grid as constant as possible and to pick of the fluctuations with as small a number of plants as possible.

THe biggest reason for coal and nuclear to be base loaded is that their fuel is far cheaper than, say, the gas peaking plants. Of course, nuclear fuel is far cheaper than coal/kwhr, but capital costs are higher.

People could move their demand to night hours, but there is as yet no incentive... they are charged the same at peak demand time as at midnight.  This could change fast, and should.

I see gw hitting much earlier and harder than po, which might be a slow squeeze for years. Someday soon there will be a push from all coastal states/nations to replace coal plants with nukes asap. Already gulf coast states are losing population, tax base, coast towns, etc...
Even germany may change its tune when sea levels rise.

I have a few problems with this article:

  1. It's basically fact-free. They provide a lot of verbiage but no actual evidence that cellulosic won't work. They talk on and on about Khosla, they list their abstract, but again, it's just claims, no facts.

  2. These guys clearly don't like the idea of ethanol in general, even if it worked. They'd rather see us use biomass to heat homes, for gassification, etc. They talk about the myopia of the "ruling class" and how this is a victory for the "fossil-nuclear" companies. In my experience, there is a strong overlap between what people want to believe and what they do believe. People who want a technology to work tend to believe it will work; people who don't want a technology to work tend to believe that it won't work. This "Institute for Environmental Management" seems philosophically opposed to technology that can replace our liquid fuel supply, and sure enough, they also believe it won't work. Without any factual data to support their argument (see point 1) this makes me tend toward skepticism.

  3. They claim that the barriers to cellulosic ethanol look as daunting today as they did 30 years ago. Yet at the same time they say that a pilot plant is now in operation! This was not the case 30 years ago, and is plain evidence that progress has been made, and that we are closer to solving these problems than we were 30 years ago. So this fundamental claim is contradicted by the facts.

  4. Looking at their abstract, they list problems with every phase of commercial ethanol production, including "the relatively high costs of biomass delivered to commercial-scale plants (which would need to be 200 million liters per year output, or greater, for economics of scale)". Yet if that were truly a problem, delivering biomass, then even today's ethanol plants would not make money (and even RR agrees that they do). Is it really credible that a major show-stopping stumbling block to cellulosic ethanol is delivering biomass to the plants? I don't think so! To me it looks like they are coming up with every conceivable objection and putting them together in one place to make the technology look bad, hoping that some of them will hold water. Diluting their (possible) good arguments with weak ones like this just makes their effort look more like rhetoric and less like objective scientific analysis.
Yes, I agree. This was the most opinionated, most data-free, and least informative article I have seen on TOD.

The biologists and their enzymes may yet have something to show us. Or the chemists and their syngas catalysts.

And just in case they don't, their efforts to cultivate large amounts of sustainable biomass will be a boon to those who simply want to burn it for heat and electricity.

I like to hear from practitioners in any field.  It often balances the news you get from advocates.
All it takes to disprove them is a commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant, with open books to how the energy (and dollars) in and out.

Personally, when it's one pilot plant I'd worry that burn rate in venture capital is as high as the burn rate of energy-in.

Not "to how," but "to show."
Odo.... Do you not think that the enzymatic process will get more efficient over time via new technologies and best practices as was the case for corn and sugar ethanol?
I'm open to new energy technologies, and I support funding for research bets spread across the board.

I don't think every bet will pay off, but I hope enough of them will.

People who want us to lock in now to hydrogen, or cellulosic ethanol, or solar roofs, are asking for a commitment to premature infrastructure.

To Halfin from Pomona96

We do not say that one cannot make alcohol from plant cellulose, or that Iogen is not making "some" ethanol.  For example the Russian lignocellulose to ethanol experience is also noted.  This situation is simply one where, after 3 decades, and hundreds of promises and projects, nothing is happening that is verifiably promising in terms of cost and by practical definitions of EROEI .  Maybe ethanol from lignocellulose will happen but that is what was being said 30 years ago.  The fact is that a practical process for ethanol from lignocellulose is yet to be demonstrated.  We last did a serious study for a very large waste corporation 1 1/2 years ago and nothing looked encouraging.  

TheLastSasquatch (Nate) asked me for a zinger question for a Washington DC panel in May 2006, and this is what I sent him:  

"---Where can one find a validated flow diagram with actual operational or even laboratory data on concentrated acid hydrolysis, dilute acid hydrolysis, or even laboratory data verifying the optimistic expectations for ethanol from lignocellulose?    There is lots of BS out there but no real information and the failures are "swept under the rug".  Verifiable process yields and verifiable process energy balances are extremely important but entirely missing."   

I received no answer.  The absence of evidence supporting a practical process must be considered in combination with the many good reasons why ethanol from lignocellulose has run into roadblocks.  The technical roadblocks and questions are multiple in chemical and biochemical engineering terms.  Many are easily identifiable.  The technical reasons for roadblocks have not gotten much airing on the Oil Drum. To list them all would require a treatise (although Remic pointed out just one of many -- we could call it "invasion of the pentose snatchers").  I can send you a paper giving some of the reasons.  As to full coverage of the reasons for failure of ethanol from lignocellulose  to materialize, they are undestandable, but it would take an extended review paper to cover and explain them all.  I have explained above why genetic engineering has fallen short of initial hopes.  But I can discuss the reasons with you or anyone interested.  My phone number is 650-856-2850.  

Don Augenstein aka Pomona96 on the oil drum

I agree with you 100% Halfin.
Wolfric, if the area you live in only gets 5 t0 7 hours of sunlight a day, then you will still get more energy from PV than algae. Both are basically converting sunlight to energy. The only difference is that the PV are initially more expensive and it will take a much longer time to recoup your capital investment. But you will still get more energy per square meter from PV than Algae.

I'm curious as to how you could have possibly missed all of the postings by me (or 'Syntec' to be precise) made in defence of Mr. Khosla's proposed ethanol trajectory and how it relates to Syntec Biofuel's cellulosic ethanol production path?

Allow me to recap...

At Sytnec, our scientists have focused on a BTL/GTL process that capitalizes on the thermo-chemical conversion of syngas -derived from any carbonaceous material- to ethanol/methanol and higher order alcohols such as butanol.

The beauty of the Syntec process is that it has been specifically designed to operate in a low-pressure, low-temperature environment (similar to methanol production) using a true ethanol catalyst - not a modified FT variant.

The by-product of the Syntec process (BTL) is char and it turns out that char might be one of the best soil conditioners we could ever utilize in a process called Terra Preta.  I have opened discussions with Cornell Univ. to investigate further potential of Terra Preta as it relates to our work.

As one might imagine, the prospect of making large amounts of ethanol efficiently from renewable waste resources has attracted expressions of interest from many industry, government and environmental groups from all over the world but as I've expressed here and elsewhere, ethanol usage/production is a huge learning curve for the general public.

Hence, if you could please do me one small favor and make sure to point out that enzymatic fermentation is but one of the many ways to make cellulosic ethanol, it would make my job just that much easier.

I look forward to your presentation at the IEA Bioenergy conference here in Vancouver.

Why not TALKING to Don Augenstein?

But I can discuss the reasons with you or anyone interested. My phone number is 650-856-2850.

Will you do it?

Kev, it's 2 different celluslosic ethanol processes here... enzymatic and thermo-chemical.

I understand the enzymatic path and know the players i.e. Iogen, Abengoa, Cellunol (VK's group) but that's about it.

I'll be attending the IEA conference at month's end and will hopefully have the time to drop-in for the presentation.

The by-product of the Syntec process (BTL) is char

Char as in charcoal? If so, have you seen E-P's posts on DCFCs? (direct carbon fuel cells)? Seems like we could get both liquid and solid fuels at the same time!

Sounds very interesting...

Lets say we have a cogen fermentation/gasification plant operating in Nebraska.  The corn goes to the fermentation side while the stover goes to the gasifier.  The char/ash from gasification goes back to the fields for charring (Terra Preta).    

Year 2 rolls around and the same process is followed but this time after charring, the fields are planted with switchgrass.

In year 3 the switchgrass is harvested for the gasifier and the char goes to a DCFC unit.  Corn is planted.  The harvest goes to fermentation, the stover is gasified and the char either goes back to the field or to the DCFC unit.  

This scenario is completely off the cuff - back of the napkin if you will.

Constructive criticism most appreciated.

why are you rotating corn with switchgrass ?
I'm sorry but this won't wash:

"The most important question is: what is a better way to use our billion plus ton per year potential biomass resource (and I stress potential, also not real, maybe one or two hundred million tons are real"

You just can't handwave 1.1 Billon tons out of the equation.  

The DOE/USDA 'Billion Ton Vision' sits on my desk, I talk with the guys who produce this waste on a daily basis and have been in the field/forest to see it first hand.

Heya, I was wondering if you could do a post here talking about your thermo-chemical process as it compares to Iogen style enzyme processes?

I guess I am not the only one unconvinced by this rather shallow analysis and would appreciate hearing the other side of the story. Specifically how small can you make the plants ... Xethanol seem to think they can cut biomass transport costs by building lots of small plants near the biomass sources. What do you think?

BTW thanks for working on this problem. Every time I see people sit down and put actual hours into solving peak oil it makes me feel better :)   (i will soon be joining this quest)

Sure thing Mike...

Both Xethanol and Iogen are focused on producing ethanol via enzymatic fermentation of cellulose from renewable waste resources.

Iogen makes their own enzymes and apply it to wheat/barley straws in a pre-fermentation process.  At last word, Iogen had sourced their first commercial operation for startup in Idaho sometime in 2007 at a cost of US$300 Million.

Xethanol research on the other hand, seems to be focused on genetically modified yeast variants that work in the fermentation stage proper.  They would still use enzymes however (either made in-house or oddly enough, purchased from Iogen) as a pre-treatment of the feedstock.

Now one of the problems with woodwaste insofar as enzymatic fermentation is concerned, is lignin - it's the filler of plant cells, 1/3 weight of dry tonnage and a bitch to break down but it remains a by-product nonetheless.  This is why Xethanol has purchased gasifying rights to convert lignin into an alt source of Nat Gas for existing ops.  In other words, they are looking to cogen their enzymatic fermentation plants.

So how does this differ from Syntec's process?

Well, we basically skip the pre-treatment phase, do not use enzymes and do not ferment anything.

There's 2 production paths we can follow (BTL & GTL) depending on the feedstock source and can utilize virtually any carbonaceous feedstock available - even tires.

Good luck on your quest.  Trying to do something about Peak as opposed to sitting on one's hands is very gratifying work indeed.

The scale of the problem though... that's the kicker.

I'd like to know exactly what the original poster/s are doing for a living at this time.  

It seems that most of these highly charged negative comments come from those who have a competing interest to protect.  

Aren't' "all bets off," if some of the DNA techniques work?  I'm not saying that they will, but they seem to be so sure that they won't, which is in direct opposition to some of America smartest (and richest) people.

What are there current projects and specifically who signs there paycheck????

* Sorry if I missed this specific information.

In response to the article posted dooubting lignocellulosic conversion to fermentable sugars, I couldn't let the record stand without providing my personal insights.  I too am a chemical engineer, registered mechanical engineer and patent coauthor of nine Arkenol assigned patents for "Concentrated Acid Hydrolysis of cellulosic materials to Fermentable Sugars".  As was mentioned in several of the comments, several lignocellulosic processes were developed and operated during WWII including those that operated in the Soviet Union after the war.  Our process utilizes the concentrated acid approach to decrystalization, followed by hydrolysis and filter separation of the lignin from the acid sugar solution.  The process proposes new technology in the recovery and recycling of the concentrated acid using continuous chromatographic separation, a process used in minimg, pharmecuticals, molasses and sugar purification.  Our process was piloted for four years in Orange California (batch method) and then piloted again in Japan by JGC for four yuears under a NEDO grant.  We have recently registered as a public company to raise capital to overcome the process risk element of debt financing the first series of commercial plants to be located at landfills under an agreement with a major operations company.  We have fuel offtake contracts and agreements for ligin fuel products and feedstocks.  We have passed several independent third party due-diligence reviews on the process and at this point I hope we can say the process is commercially viable short completion of the first plants.  I wellcome questions and hope everyone appreciates this as celebrating an important step in fuel independence rather than flogging our process or stock.