I meant to cover this when it was reported on last week, but got tied up with other things. The news in the energy sector is happening faster than I can comment on it. So, this may no longer be news to you.
Often, when a scientific breakthrough is announced in the press, it is difficult to determine whether it is really meaningful, or whether for one reason or another it won’t pan out. I am still waiting to drive my cold fusion-powered car to work so I can use my DNA computer . I come from a research background, and I have seen many, many promising developments fail to turn out as we thought they would. I have seen people put the best possible spin on research results, glossing over difficulties that ultimately prevent the idea from being implemented. Others take much longer to get from the lab to production than we anticipate. So, it is with a bit of scientific skepticism that I report on this next story. It appears to be a very significant breakthrough, but there are some questions that need to be answered.
There were a pair of articles in the past week reporting on a biodiesel breakthrough by Professor Goran Jovanovic at Oregon State University.Forbes.com reported on the story in Tiny Reactor Boosts Biodiesel Production. The article begins:
A tiny chemical reactor that can convert vegetable oil directly into biodiesel could help farmers turn some of their crops into homegrown fuel to operate agricultural equipment instead of relying on costly imported oil. (1)
The article goes on to explain why this is an improvement over the status quo:
The device – about the size of a credit card – pumps vegetable oil and alcohol through tiny parallel channels, each smaller than a human hair, to convert the oil into biodiesel almost instantly.
By comparison, it takes more than a day to produce biodiesel with current technology.
Conventional production involves dissolving a catalyst, such as sodium hydroxide, in alcohol, then stirring it into vegetable oil in large vats for about two hours. The mixture then has to sit for 12 to 24 hours while a slow chemical reaction forms biodiesel along with glycerin, a byproduct.
The microreactor under development by the university and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute eliminates the mixing, the standing time and maybe even the need for a catalyst.
“If we’re successful with this, nobody will ever make biodiesel any other way,” Jovanovic said.
The device is small, but it can be stacked in banks to increase production levels to the volume required for commercial use, he said.
To me, this sounds very promising. But lab scale tests sometimes can’t be scaled up to large scale production for one reason or another. Lab scale research is often not concerned with economic realities, so sometimes an economic assessment will kill a promising research project. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, only cautious.
Another article in The Corvallis Gazette-Times brings to mind more questions:
Jovanovic keeps a design prototype in a sandwich bag in his office. It’s a plastic plate with 30 microreactor channels running parallel to each other, each about the width of a human hair. The entire plate can easily fit in the palm of a hand.
At one end of the plate are two indents. Jovanovic fills one with alcohol and the other with oil. They flow down the channels, reacting and producing glycerol — a common ingredient in soap.
“One microreactor makes a small amount, but millions of them make a lot,” Jovanovic said.
He noted that microtechnology produces biodiesel about 100 times faster than the classical method. Another benefit is the small size of the plates, which makes the microreactors discrete and deployable. (2)
The reaction rate is reportedly fast, which is good. But what is the actual production rate per hour for one of those microreactors? Is it micrograms per hour? Is the reported reaction speed with or without a catalyst? What is the difference in speed with and without a catalyst? Are those microchannels prone to plugging? What is the anticipated cost per gallon of biodiesel produced?
Jovanovic said he strongly believes this could be a profitable enterprise, but he is quick to note that money isn’t the only way to measure success.
“Is there a price on a cubic meter of clean air?” he said.
This bit concerns me a bit. It makes me wonder if this is a warning about the possible expense. Regarding his question, of course there is a price on a cubic meter of clean air. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have air quality issues. The reason we have air pollution is that it costs money to make sure the air is clean, and governments, businesses, and taxpayers are not universally enthusiastic about paying the necessary price. We found that out today, when President Bush relaxed some clean air rules in order to take pressure off of gasoline prices. That is a sacrifice some are willing to make. But, I digress.
I have indicated that I think biodiesel is the best candidate for a fossil fuel replacement. Hopefully Professor Jovanovic is onto something here, and makes a load of money off of his invention. That way, we can slap a windfall profits tax on him. 🙂