Holiday Travel Plans and a Letter from a Reader

I will be traveling from December 16th until January 13th with intermittent Internet access. During this time, I hope to put up some posts covering the year in energy, my $1,000 bet on oil prices (which I think I will win by the skin of my teeth), finalize my ethanol FAQ, and take a look back at my resolutions for 2007. I probably won’t cover This Week in Petroleum during this time, as I am unlikely to be around a computer when the report comes out. I may also pull up some interesting mail from readers that I have gotten from time to time and post the exchange from a few of those.

In fact, I will go ahead and start off with one of those. I won’t post last names or e-mail addresses. This was an e-mail I received on 11-29-07.

Dear Mr. Rapier,

As one who is interested in “renewable” fuels, I came across your blog regarding “Ethanol: From Panacea to Pariah” on the WSJ. While my arguments differ from yours, I agree that ethanol from grain is not a long term solution.

My questions to you has to do with your comments: “The difficulty in producing ethanol from cellulose is probably an order of magnitude greater than it is for producing ethanol from corn. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the growth curve for cellulosic ethanol production (presuming it is ever commercially viable) will rival that of grain ethanol.”

While not a chemical engineer (my late father-in-law was a professor emeritus in Chemical Engineering at Berkeley and I avoided the subject like the plague), I do have a MSME from Berkeley and became interested in producing alcohol from cellulose (specifically the piles of old newspapers we were accumulating) while I was at Bell Labs almost thirty years ago. When I realized that the process required using sulfuric acid in the preliminary process before fermentation and distillation, my interest quickly waned. As attention has grown in recent years, I’ve come to realize that the key to the success of the nascent cellulosic ethanol industry will be the identification of efficient and inexpensive catalysts (enzymes). Once development, I believe the industry will take off, and ethanol from cellulose will become a viable substitution for gasoline.

You more than most understand this missing link, so I am curious why you pose the weakness of cellulosic ethanol as ramp up issue rather than a breakthrough issue.

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this. My immediate interest has to do with identifying companies that may develop such breakthrough technology for investment purposes.

In the mid-seventies I remember: the gasoline crisis, my father-in-law talking about greenhouse gases and the end of fossil fuel based energy, my most revered mechanical engineering professor saying that the US would have a hydrogen based energy infrastructure before the turn of the century, and my fellow research assistants at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab proclaiming that the polysilicon based solar cells they were developing would make solar competitive within five years. These, along with my personal experience attempting to commercialize CNG in southern California have left me jaundiced to the notion that there will be significant changes to the energy status quo. However, cellulosic ethanol does make sense to me, although I’m no expert.

My last question is, where do you see energy situation going?

Thanks for you input.


Long Beach, California

PS While in Scotland, I highly recommend a visit to Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye (rest assured I don’t receive any kickbacks)

My response:

Hi Glen,

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t written off cellulosic ethanol. In fact, I am working on a cellulosic project right now. (And I did my graduate school research on cellulosic ethanol). I think the current efforts are doomed: Transport a lot of biomass to a central location, convert a small fraction into a highly dilute ethanol mix, and then have to transport all that wet waste back offsite. I have written a number of articles on the severe logistical issues. I once did a calculation that showed it would take 850,000 mature trees a year to support a mid-sized cellulosic ethanol plant. You quickly conclude that this is not going to supply us with a lot of fuel.

There are several technologies that I think are promising. Renewable diesel (not biodiesel) either produced from biomass gasification or from hydrotreating plant oils and animal fats should do well. Electric transport, with electricity supplied from wind, solar, tidal, geothermal – and even coal and nuclear in the beginning – is to me a home run solution. And in tropical countries like Brazil, sugarcane ethanol makes a lot of sense. But cellulosic ethanol has been over-hyped at the moment. It has some serious issues. I am hoping that my current project will address them. We are already significantly better than the technology behind the 6 pilot plants that have been announced in the U.S. [although Range Fuels is really apples to oranges].

I think in the short-term, we may see a real energy squeeze. People will have to adopt more efficient lifestyles to buy us some time. Politicians have got to quit adopting pandering solutions that don’t really address the issues. It’s a sticky situation for them. The citizens need tough love, but they tend to vote out politicians who give it to them. So the politicians promise them cake and lollipops.

Cheers, Robert

This may give you some idea of why I took my e-mail address out of the side bar. I generally feel compelled to answer every e-mail, and it got to the point that I was answering e-mails for 2 or 3 hours a day. On top of that, I was trying to work, make time for family, and write blog posts. But, if I use some of these letters as blog posts, I can kill two birds.

As far as the cellulosic project I am involved with – that will come to light in 2008. I have been chomping at the bit to break this news for 6 months now, and hopefully I won’t have to wait too much longer. It will be the best cellulosic technology in the world, via a completely different approach from all the others.

18 thoughts on “Holiday Travel Plans and a Letter from a Reader”

  1. Heh, Sulfuric Acid.

    Say, what types of methods are used by the various companies?

    I know RangeFuels does FT, Iogen does Enzymes, and BlueFire does Acids.

    But what do the rest do?


    Also assuming Cellulosic Ethanol goes the route of Fischer Tropsch, whats stopping them from using that same infrastructure to do Coal-to-Liquids? (If anything)

  2. Here’s another interesting process where ethanol is the co-product to pulp.

    One such development is the American Value Added Pulping (AVAP) process, developed by Atlanta-based American Process Inc. The company has entered into an agreement with Flambeau River Biorefinery LLC, a 20 MMgy cellulosic ethanol biorefinery under development. The biorefinery will be collocated with Flambeau River Papers LLC, a paper mill based in Park Falls, Wis. AVAP is a patent pending, hydrolysis-based technology focused on converting hemicellulose to ethanol. The major pulping chemical is alcohol. Flambeau River Biorefinery President Ben Thorp says the process completely separates the cellulose and lignin from the liquor. “What’s left is a broth containing the pulping alcohol and the hemicellulose,” he says. “We heat it to the boiling point of the alcohol, evaporate and recover the alcohol, and reuse it in the pulping process.” This leaves the hemicellulose ready for saccharification and fermentation.

  3. The citizens need tough love, but they tend to vote out politicians who give it to them. So the politicians promise them cake and lollipops.

    Really? Seems like a lot more politicians are offering “tough love” than lollipops — alleged anthropogenic global warming will destroy the planet, for God’s sake!, unless you voters pay more taxes right now!! Even normally-sensible Australians voted in one of those recently.

    The political problem is the lack of a coherent plan, probably because politicians’ fear-mongering has no real scientific basis. Look at Germany, where politicians have done OK telling voters that (a) human-produced carbon dioxide will destroy the planet, and (b) we are still going to shut down CO2-free nuclear plants.

    But the absence of any coherent plan from panic-mongering uninformed western politicians is only a problem for the west. Technological solutions are certainly possible, given the right breakthroughs. Those solutions will get implemented by China, India, Russia, etc when they are developed. And the human race will survive.

  4. Some good sense in RR’s reply, about transporting huge quantities of biomass to central locations. But a bigger problem looms: There will be insufficient biomass for the industry to use in the first place.

    Previously I predicted that biofuel plant operators will find themselves in direct competition with food growers, who will want all the organic inputs they can get their hands on. That will be caused by the increasing price and unavailability of chemical fertilizers. And that future is already here.

    Fertilizer prices in developing countries are already skyrocketing. For example, according to a Japanese report, fertilizer prices in Vietnam have doubled over the past year.

    As such, farmers will quickly begin falling back on what they were using before chemical fertilizers came along. Well, you say, we will cultivate jatropha on marginal land. But weeds also grow well on marginal land. And what looks like worthless weeds to people who use chemical fertilizers (or those who want to cultivate jatropha) are actually valuable material to people who use organic fertilizer. I myself mow literally pickup truck loads of weeds (from “marginal” land) from early summer to late fall, and I still have to buy some compost to make up for the shortfall. People who do not grow food organically simply have no idea of the magnitude of organic inputs needed to build and maintain soil fertility and health.

    Therefore, the large-scale biofuel industry will be literally starved to death for lack of feedstock. I urge those developing biofuel technology to concentrate on small-scale digesters and distillers that can be used to produce small quantities of fuel for local use.


    It may be there is no future for biofuel. That is okay. I think RR is on the right path, to PHEVs powered by electrical grids juiced by solar, wind, nukes, geothermal, even clean coal.
    It occurs to me that France, with 70 percent of its electrical power from nukes, must extremely interested in PHEVs, when not eating buttery concotions or drinking wine.
    However, a one million hectare jatropha plantation may be able to supply two days US oil consumption, even at current profligate rates. I wound not rule out biofuels entirely.
    What if jatopha yields rise, with selective breeding?

  6. Hello Benny — I am not ruling out biofuels and I think they do have a future. It’s just that their future is small-scale and local. I am counseling against getting our expectations too high.

    Further, I am in agreement with going for electricity and PHEVs. But here again, we can’t let our expectations run wild. How many PHEVs will actually be built and put on the road? We can’t hope to replace our entire current fleet. How about keeping roads and bridges in repair? They are already beginning to crumble. Does anyone realize how much petroleum energy is embodied in our current vast road networks? And that was cheap oil.

    So in the future, motor vehicles are going to play a much smaller role in our lives. I do agree that things like biofuels and PHEVs can help maintain some degree of mobility, thought he days of two cars in every garage are numbered.

  7. Robert,

    I’d like to ask you a question about your view of electric transport.

    Obviously, electrified rail (or busses on overhead wires) are a great way to move people around with renewable energy.

    But insofar as we are going to be able to (or at least try to) maintain our culture of individual automobility, we will need some kind of highly efficient storage system. As far as I know, the only technology that is a serious contender for lightweight mobile electricity storage are the various lithium battery chemistries. But producing lithium batteries is pretty energy intensive in its own right, and there are concerned about having sufficient lithium. While I am agnostic on the issue of “peak lithium”, it isn’t exactly an abundant material. And tying our next-generation transportation infrastructure to an essential non-renewable material seems like a good way to repeat the mistakes of the past.

    So, I would like to know how this issue fits into your vision of future electrified transportation. Do you think that lithium supplies are not an issue? Do you forsee some other storage technology taking over in the small, mobile category? Or is your vision of an electrified future primarily focused on rail/transit, with the assumption that personal automobility will become a luxury of the rich?

  8. The problem with cellulosic ethanol is not the cellulosic part, it’s the ethanol part – especially if the ethanol is produced by fermentation. Fermentation-based ethanol is for internal consumption only. Hence RR’s implicit aknowledgement that Range Fuels may be on to something.

    I also note that RR talk of a break-through cellulosic project, not a cellulosic ethanol project…

  9. But insofar as we are going to be able to (or at least try to) maintain our culture of individual automobility, we will need some kind of highly efficient storage system.

    That’s the key to the whole thing. Certainly, the storage system isn’t there yet, or the whole electrical transport concept would be a no-brainer. Storage is an issue, and in my opinion we should be devoting more resources to that problem than to biofuels. There is the technical risk that battery technology won’t improve much, and that we will be stuck with lithium batteries that can’t scale up to meet demand.

    But because of the many ways we have to produce electricity, the much greater efficiency of the electric motor, and the fact that the batteries should not be problematic to recycle, I like the potential of this option.

  10. Storage is an issue, and in my opinion we should be devoting more resources to that problem than to biofuels.
    OK, so how about liquid fuels as a form of storage? In other words, solar->electric->hydrogen[+ CO2]->liquid fuels.

    Or more likely, use an alternative to the above, such as artificial photosynthesis to produce the hydrogen, or some other high tech scheme…

  11. The problem with liquid fuels as storage is that the conversion efficiency sucks. Lithium batteries can do better than 90% “plug-to-wheel” efficiency. I think an hydrolysis/fuelcell system gets around 40%.

    And H2 really doesn’t qualify as a liquid fuel for these purposes: even as a liquid, it lacks most of the attributes that make liquid fuels attractive.

    The other liquid fuels are, I believe, worse for conversion efficiency, although they have the storage attributes we desire.

    As an aside, I can see H2 being a good storage mechanism for grid-scale storage, especially if you have a chemical or biological system that produces H2 directly. But for mobile systems, forget it.

  12. I think an hydrolysis/fuelcell system gets around 40%.
    Well, I guess somebody think they can make this work, although, admittedly they streamlined the idea quite a bit.

    Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are extending work on the development of a device for the solar thermochemical production of hydrogen from the splitting of water to recycling CO2 into liquid hydrocarbon fuels.

    We’ll see.

  13. That CR5 thing is in fact pretty cool. I don’t know what the efficiency is like, but if you’re working with heat rather than electricity, you don’t have to care so much if the efficiency stinks.

  14. Developing batteries that are efficient and cost-effective is a challenge. I know this because for many years I have been translating technical materials by a major Japanese battery developer. They are trying lots of new things (which I am unfortunately not at liberty to divulge), but let me say that the going is tough. Barring a major technological breakthrough — which of course cannot be ruled out — coming up with a battery that has high capacity and is also dirt cheap is a tall order.

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