Peak Oil News: Biomass Chemistry

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Biomass Chemistry


Biomass Chemistry
A Newly Electric Green – Sustainable Energy, Resources and Design

"Peak Oil" continues its march to memetic dominance, and a greater number of pundits and politicians not previously known for talking about the environment have started to ask what happens when oil runs out. For many who embrace the "Peak Oil Is Here" idea, the answer is simple: chaos, because petroleum is at the heart of much of industrial and agricultural production, not just transportation.

But that's not the only scenario. There has been quite a bit of research into alternative means of producing the materials we now make using oil. Biomass is the top candidate for oil equivalents, and indeed biodiesel has been getting more attention of late as a renewable and low-net-carbon method of fueling vehicles, both by renewable energy advocates trying to move away from fossil fuels and by researchers trying to improve the efficiency of biodiesel production. Biomass is also being used as an experimental feedstock for chemicals now requiring petroleum. And by stretching the definition of biomass a bit, even fertilizer -- a favorite of the apocyphiles -- can be made without fossil fuels.

Converting biomass to biodiesel is not terribly efficient -- depending upon the base plant, it can sometimes only produce marginally more energy than is used by the conversion process. But researchers at the University of Wisconsin have come up with a new method of biofuel production that is significantly more efficient than previous technologies (and is double the efficiency of current ethanol production). This development is able to convert the carbohydrates in plants -- about 75% of the dry weight -- into fuel. In an interesting bit of biomimicry, the process is similar to the way in which carbohydrates are used in the body to produce energy:

"It's a very efficient process," says Huber. "The fuel produced contains 90 percent of the energy found in the carbohydrate and hydrogen feed. If you look at a carbohydrate source such as corn, our new process has the potential to creates twice the energy as is created in using corn to make ethanol."

About 67 percent of the energy required to make ethanol is consumed in fermenting and distilling corn. As a result, ethanol production creates 1.1 units of energy for every unit of energy consumed. In the UW-Madison process, the desired alkanes spontaneously separate from water. No additional heating or distillation is required. The result is the creation of 2.2 units of energy for every unit of energy consumed in energy production.

Although the UW process takes many steps, the researchers are confident that it can be improved quickly. The bigger roadblock to implementation is the need for biofuel refineries:

The key is building biorefineries that balance the energy. A refinery balances energy requirements of each process with those of other processes and the chemical intermediaries of each process are either separated as final products or used elsewhere in the refinery, said Dumesic.

As noted, biomass can be used to replace more than fuel. Green Car Congress notes that chemical company Codexis and Cargill has announced a new process that converts corn sugars to a "chemical intermediate" called 3HP.

The new process will utilize very low-cost, clean agricultural feedstocks instead of petroleum to produce 3HP. 3HP is a key intermediate for several commercially important chemicals. The chemicals that can be produced from 3HP include acrylic acid, acrylamide and 1,3 propanediol. Acrylic acid and its derivatives are used to create a wide range of polymer-based consumer and industrial products, such as adhesives, paints, polishes, protective coatings, and sealants. This new process is cheaper and more environmental friendly than the old process that uses petroleum as a feedstock.

[...] Sugars and lipids from agricultural crops can be used in many products, replacing increasingly expensive oil and natural gas, which are currently the main feedstocks of the chemical industry [...]

Undoubtedly, more work needs to be done to make the resulting chemical products more environmentally friendly, but the point here is the ability to find alternatives to petroleum feedstocks.

But the loss of chemical production ability isn't the chief fear of those who say that oil production has nowhere to go but down. Rather, the inability to create nitrogen fertilizer for industrial farming is what they worry about most.

First, a quick note: as we've explored at length, industrial farms are not the only way or the best way to provide food for the world's citizens. There are healthier, more environmentally-friendly ways of growing food not requiring masses of petroleum fertilizer or pesticides. That said, absent a global revolution in thinking, industrial food production will likely continue for quite a few more years, and industrial agriculture techniques may turn out to be necessary to maintain food production during serious climate disruption.

So what's the biomass-based alternative to using petroleum for fertilizer?


Engineer-Poet at the Ergosphere breaks it down. Algae can be used to produce hydrogen, and hydrogen can be used to "fix" nitrogen. With the hydrogen production operating a mere 1% efficiency, a hectare of hydrogen-generating algae could produce the nitrate to fertilize around 20 hectares of agricultural production. That same hectare could fertilize 200 hectares if H2 generation efficiency is brought up to the 10% thought possible.


If 10% efficiency can be achieved, the hydrogen production goes up to 38 tons/ha/year (1.55 MWh/ha/yr) and it can become the basis of a general energy business. If crop wastes such as corn stover and wheat/rice straw are used as carbon inputs and have a general chemical formula of (CH2O)n, addition of H2 is all that is necessary to produce methanol (CH3OH). If the process can use the inputs with 100% conversion efficiency, 2 grams of hydrogen plus 30 grams of carbohydrate yields 32 grams methanol; 38 tons of hydrogen becomes 608 tons of methanol (about 203,000 gallons, holding the energy equivalent of 122,000 gallons of gasoline). At this level of production, inputs of crop waste are probably the limiting factor; long before this level was reached, the fuel production would satisfy all needs for cultivation.

Conclusion: it is not only possible to generate all required nitrogen fertilizer from solar energy using known processes or slight improvements, at the limit they could lead to large-scale production of biofuels from crop wastes. All it requires is hydrogen.

Algae farms may not be quite a sexy as fields of corn or soy, but may well be far more important.

The use of biomass to replicate the services provided by petroleum walks a fine line. As noted, these replacement processes allow the continued use and/or production of aspects of modern life that could by no means be considered sustainable. It's possible that a Peak Oil crisis could drive the adoption of far more sustainable methods and materials; unfortunately, it's also possible that a peak oil crisis could drive the onset of greater global conflicts, starvation and chaos.

I don't look at these developments as being permanent substitutes for sustainability, I see them as transition technologies. Work on improving the efficiency and utility of the more sustainable practices will continue, and -- as I fully expect -- when they are recognized as being demonstrably better, large-scale adoption will follow. A world of Peak Oil crisis and conflict is far less likely to let us get to that point.


At 11:27 PM, June 23, 2005, Blogger The Organist said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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At 9:10 PM, August 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have finally found a chemist who can validate some of my general arguements and answer some of my questions; can used vegetable oil be used to create fertalizers? then why is it being used to fuel cars? How will important soil nutrients used to grow the crops for biofuel products be returned to the growing fields? How will the price of grain, such as corn, be effected by the creation of biofuel for industry and transportation? Will the rising prices affect the international price of grain and oil? At these higher prices will grain and vegetable oil be accessable to people of the 2nd and 3rd world? What soil, where, and what fertilizers will be used to grow the agricultural products needed to create biofuel? the true issues to address are the auto use of biomass for transportation. Mass transit and lowered production of plastic, metal and stuff/garbage products is the true answer to the growing need for other fuel sources.

Algea sounds great, where are we in the process of true production and use? what effects will it have on the ecosystems related? Clearly the attempts to replace petroleum based products with biomass production is not sustainable. Using the word in this context is misleading. Tell me what you think. See Below for more.

I have been a long standing critique of the biofuel movement. I have friends who have biofuel vehicles and we have often disagreed on the long and short term effects of the development of a biofuel industry. There are a few very simple topics to consider when looking at biofuel as a sustainable source of fuel for the means of automobile transportation in the industrially developed world.
Stated simply, the use of biofuel in any form is a misuse of the basic nutrients of the top soil of the planet and will simply increase the stress that humans have placed on the biological system of our planet. It will also threaten to increase the possibility of food shortages as the annual global stockpiles of grains dwindle relative to the growing human population (;;
Apart from the relatively immediate (next 50-500 years) threat to biological stability of the planet as a result of global warming, the one of the greatest biological social threat to the well being of the human race and other biological entities on the planet is the loss of useable top soil (;,3604,537002,00.html). The top soil and important nutrients there contained are essential elements for the continuation of agriculture as the foundational source of food for the homo spaien species. The important organic material is necessary to maintain a complex bio-social community of plant and animal species of which human beings are only one.
I was in Havana, Cuba in December of 2000. When I was visiting friends of family and coworkers, the hottest item on the gift list from the different families was vegetable oil. Everyone uses it when they can afford it. Vegetable oil is food; it is an important source of nutrients to many peoples of the Caribbean, Latin America and other parts of the world. This includes first, second and third world nations. People in Havana wanted oil as a present because they couldn’t afford it. At the beginning of the new millennium, in Havana a liter of corn oil from Mexico cost about $1.50. With the common monthly income of $20, few families can afford this expensive commodity. I believe that vegetable oil is an expensive food item for many people in different parts of the developing world.
Today, I wonder how this growing demand for vegetable oil changes the cost of the oil. With a growing demand of a product, unless the production of this product increases along with the growing demand, the price of the product rises. I wonder if the current growing demand has already affected the cost of vegetable oil on the international market. I hate to think that the hungry automobiles of the first world will begin to compete with the greater human population for this important source of fat, carbohydrates and top soil nutrients.
Stated simply, using vegetable oil as a source of fuel for the automobile is consuming top soil and important nutrients necessary for the survival of many species. Yes these nutrients will eventually recycle back in a form that is accessible to living land plants and animals, but because the land surface of the planet is a small portion of the total surface area of the globe, much of this cycle will include a long term process that could take hundreds of thousands of years. Top soil and related organic matter and nutrients that have arrived at the ocean by air or by stream will need time to get back to the tops of mountains and onto the plains of “middle earth”. How can it be that my basic need to travel around in a 2,000 pound mass of metal is more important than feeding the human population of the planet? To think that my car will compete with Cubans and Mexicans for the consumption of this food is outrageous. If it is not a competition for the food source itself, then it is inescapably a competition for the important organic materials and food nutrients of topsoil.
The true solutions to the dwindling source of fossil fuel and the resulting threat to the functioning of the industrial world is the creation of other means of transportation. The automobile is not the only consumer of petroleum. Industry and some forms of energy production use petroleum, but this consumption is minimal when compared to the amount of petroleum consumed by the first world “automobile transportation system”. The automobile is the dinosaur of the industrial age. The true solution to the problem of a fuel shortage is a fundamental change in our concept of transportation; this true (and mundane) solution is public transportation. This includes not only the modernizing and upgrading of existing systems (i.e.-the deteriorating subway systems of greater New York City), but a whole new web of transportation must be woven into the many levels of community. This web must include downtown, city, local, intercity, regional, interstate, national and international systems. Where is the money? And how long will this take?
A three step strategy led by government must be embraced in order to create a sustainable means of transportation. First, it is important to immediately reduce the consumption of fossil fuel & biofuel; this is both for immediate environmental survival and long term sustainability. In order to do this, apart from the appropriate reallocation of existing government funds, it will be necessary to impose a high tax on the price of fossil fuel; the price of gas should be raised approximately 5 to 20 times the market rate. This imposed tax on the price of fuel will help decrease the consumption of this valuable resource. In addition, bridge tolls and interstate highway tolls should be increased and/or instated; it will cost $100 in order to cross the bay bridge to get from Berkeley to San Francisco; professional needs, purpose of transport and socio-economic status will affect the sliding scale pricing of tolls and bridge crossings.
Immediate funds should be directed to the production of a fleet (approximately 100,000 or more) of buses that will serve throughout the big cities and small towns of this country. There will be a bus that you can catch on almost any street corner in order to get to work today. There will be buses that run throughout the day with a scheduling that makes the bus system accessible, useful and inexpensive to riders. Fossil fuel will still be consumed but in a far more efficient manner. Along with public transportation routes, inner city traffic systems should be upgraded by making the bicycle and walking the dominant forms of travel. The resulting walkways, bicycle paths, independent bicycle thoroughfares and prohibition of automobile travel (i.e.-center of towns, down towns) will help people to get out of their cars. As much as I would like to, it is not in the focus of this essay to further discuss the possible positive social benefits of such a change in the use of outdoor space within a city. Many European cities such as Amsterdam, Netherlands are good examples of city planning which emphasizes pedestrian, bicycle, and public transportation in the center of town.
The second government led step is to begin a long term creation of an intricate (post-highway) national transportation infrastructure. Paris becomes the model for an inner and inter city, regional, state and federal (other Canada, Mexico and other neighbors) transportation network. This network will include: buses, subways, trolleys, boats, small, medium and large train systems. You will be able to take a train or boat to any city in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico etc….the list can continue to grow according to the funds properly delegated. This is the long term sustainable solution to the possible problems that we face as fossil fuel dwindles. The creation of this new system will be to finally create a transportation system that is similar to exceed the already existing systems in Europe.
The third step is a long term evolution of community centered socio-economic regions that respond gracefully and caringly to the environmental regions which define the shape and size of regional production and consumption. This is a long term response to the needs of the greater organism known as the planet earth and an attempt to continue the human species as an organic part of a greater biological organism.
Some might argue that you can’t get an “American” out of his car and onto a bus. Apart from the cost motivators prescribed by this new transportation system, up to date information on the risks and results of different false solutions such as biofuel will help people begin to see the reality of the problem and this reasonable solution. “Americans” would vote to save their lives and the life of the bald eagle however; International law may be needed in order to protect other nations of the world from the decimation of their valuable top soil led by corporate strategies to grow uneatable “macro-corn” for the creation of biofuel. We must also remember that human beings have the neurologically imprinted need and a heart felt desire to take care of their mother; earth.


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