My Point Exactly

I missed this story when it came out last week:

Hydrocarbon biofuels’ promise tops that of ethanol, gasoline

John Regalbuto, a chemical engineer at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and director of the NSF catalysis and biocatalysis program, wrote in Science that biomass-derived fuels are not far from being part of the energy mix as a replacement for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

Hydrocarbon fuels can be directly produced from the sugars of woody biomass — forest waste, cornstalks or switchgrass — through microbial fermentation or liquid-phase catalysis, he wrote. They can be produced by pyrolysis or gasification directly from the woody biomass. And they can be produced by converting the lipids of nonfood crops and algae.

“The drawback to using ethanol as a complete replacement for gasoline … is not only the high cost of its production from cellulose but also its lower energy density,” Regalbuto wrote. “Ethanol has two-thirds the energy density of gasoline, and cars running on E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) get about 30 percent lower gas mileage.”

I am not so concerned about the energy density as I am the prospects for ever being able to produce ethanol from cellulose at a reasonable energy efficiency. By that, I mean this: If I start with biomass with the energy content of a million BTUs, how much ends up as usable energy?

And the money quote, which has been my argument all along:

“I’m not a lobbyist but a scientist, but if I were, I would argue for a subsidy for all biofuels and not just ethanol,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s too early to tell which route — pyrolysis, aqueous phase processing, gasification or synthetic biology — will win out; we may well have versions of all four contributing to the mix. I would simply say that lignocellulosic hydrocarbons appear to give far more promise than cellulosic ethanol.”

Without any subsidies at all, fossil fuels would kill pretty much all biofuels except for sugarcane ethanol from the tropics. If you subsidize all biofuels equally, corn ethanol can compete as a 1st generation fuel, but gasification or pyrolysis will win out over cellulosic ethanol. The energy efficiency of cellulosic ethanol relative to gasification is far too low for it to compete in the long run. I am not naive enough to think that corn ethanol is going away – it has too much support in Congress. But the 2nd generation will only see cellulosic in niche applications. Gasification is where I am placing my bet.

37 thoughts on “My Point Exactly”

  1. Let's get this thing rolling……

    Robert said:

    "Gasification ie where I'm placing my bet."

    John said:

    "Electrification is where I'm placing my bet"


  2. Good point Robert, but the Corn Belt politicians would get their hackles up. To them, corn ethanol has never been about being an alternate fuel, it's been about transferring money to farmers.

  3. "Electrification is where I'm placing my bet"

    John, I have great hopes for electrification, but we are still going to need liquid fuels. You aren't going to run airplanes, ships, or long-haul trucking on electricity.


  4. Robert,

    I just said that to get the conversation going,

    Many difficu;tirs await the
    "electric car nuts".

    On the other hand, we have seen large industries such as the railroads and mining industry adopt electric traction motors and series hybrids as the best solution.

    Electric motors are just "so darned efficient."

    I'm guessing, but probably fully 90% of our trains are powered by electric traction motors,

    That's why General Electric is the largest American manufacture of so-called "diesel locomotives" The diesel engine is merely used as a gen-set much as in the bally-hooed Chevy Volt.

    Electric motors drive the train. The diesel engine putts along at about 300 to 800 rpm making electricity for the electric traction motors. Series hybrid.


  5. I'm all for subsidizing all biofuels. And if ethanol ends up being unable to compete….oh well. Energy security is the first priority. Second,is cleaner energy. May the best process win….

  6. EV's and PHEV's will be wholeheartedly embraced once people realize they can be faster and more reliable than ICE's imo John. The Buick PHEV that will do 0-60 in 7 seconds and can pull 3500 lbs. will change a few attitudes.

  7. "… so-called "diesel locomotives" The diesel engine is merely used as a gen-set .."

    To point out the obvious, that sentence fragment should have been, 'the electric motor is merely a component in turning diesel fuel into forward traction'.

    Electricity is a means of conveying power from the place where it is generated to the place where it is needed. Electricity is not a source of power. The power source today is primarily fossil fuels, with some contribution from nuclear & hydropower.

  8. "The power source today is primarily fossil fuels"

    Primarily American fossil fuels Kinuach. If the goal is to get off OPEC oil,electric engines will certainly help. We need cleaner sources of power too. Heck,if the fleet was electric,we could just burn the biomass to produce electricity. That wouldn't cost anywhere near the $5 to $10 a gallon Robert said gasification might run.


    your electrification proposal for air transport, freight truck hauling, and military transport is what?


  10. RR, one minor correx: You wrote that w/o any subsidy, fossil fuels would pretty much kill all biofuels, excepting sugarcane ethanol.
    Actually, palm oil stands on its own as well.
    Oil-bearing trees are probably a good bet in low-wage tropical countries. As palm oil tree yields keep rising–and Ventner, recently of Exxon-Mobil fame, has hinted at break-out yields–palm oil will just get better and better. In general, yields have been rising at 4 percent a year due to better hybrids. (Remember, corn yields have been rising from 2-3 percent for decades. The US has about the same acreage devoted to corn today as 1945.)
    Unfortunately, palm oil probably cannot be grown in the US except on the tip of Florida. There is a "cold tolerant" species of palm oil tree, and that might work. The tree Pongamia Pinnata might work in southerly states. I expect an small entrepreneur, working his own labor on 10 acres, could do quite nicely with Pongamia.
    Biofuels are nice, but more and more I suspect we are barking up the wrong tree with biofuels, possibly except for palm oil plantations in Brazil and SE Asia.
    We have epic supplies of natural gas in North America, and I just read Europe has shale too. The PHEV is on the way.
    Oil demand will likely decline for decades. We have passed Peak Demand already. In 25 years, crude oil might be a "boutique" fuel, used in airplanes and high-end luxury cars. Even ships can run on CNG and sails.
    As a fraction of total energy produced, crude oil will keep shrinking. We won't miss it.

  11. your electrification proposal for air transport, freight truck hauling, and military transport is what?



    I used to live in Europe and I know this sounds stupid to Americans but maybe we could take the train,

    Americans used to ride the train like crazy, until just after WW2,

    I know American trains are not the best,

    A lot of people have suggested that we ship more of our goods (especially non-perishables) by rail.

    I don't have anything against that even though I was a Teamster.

    As far as airplanes go it might be a toss-up between Robert and Rufus. We have coal to liquids technology and also can make bio-fuels. The airlines have asked that Kerosene from both sources might be accepted to use. (Boeing Newsletter)

    Besides, gasoline and the internal combustion aren't going anywhere soon. It's just that we are looking at gas supplies getting scare and expensive and should be looking at some alternatives.

    Some people say we are headed for synthetic fuels, some say bio-fuels and a few people think electricity. I just happen to be one of the weirdos that thinks electricity might might be the winner.



  12. John, you're not alone. I'm slowly coming around to the idea that electricity is going to be Way bigger than I, at first, thought.

    I think the "Volt" opened my eyes.

    It doesn't matter if the numbers are "exact." They could be off a Lot, and it would still be an exciting thing. The thing is, the numbers Can't be off "too much." We, already, know too much about the various technologies for that to be possible.

    The interesting thing is: I've always been a Big biofuels supporter, and the "Volt" will do more damage to ethanol than it will to oil. Oil's depleting, anyway. If batteries can be ramped up fast enough they could put ethanol on the pines, virtually, permanently.

    Life's a funny animal.

  13. We know that about half the gasoline used is by cars 6 years old, and newer.

    So, a really, really strong (I mean, Really Strong) ramp up in batteries (say, half the cars produced containing batteries within 4 years – I know, we're talking "Manhattan Project," here) could mean that we've cut our gasoline consumption, virtually, in half (4.5 Million bbl/day) within ten years.

    And, although we're not going to do that, We, actually, in life, or death circumstances, could.

    At the same time, if we went "All Armageddon" on putting a smallish ethanol refinery in every county we could be, for all practical purposes, gasoline-free in a decade.

    It would be, in emergency, absolutely doable. We built a courthouse in almost every county during the Great Depression. And, ramped up to "Crush" enemies on two world-fronts in only a couple of years.

    I think I'll go back to sleep, now. Wake me when we're through. 🙂

  14. "Gasification is where I am placing my bet."

    An enormous amount of carbon is sequestered in landfills. What effect would gasifying all that biomass have on the environment? Would the syngas be subject to a carbon tax? Just playing devil's advocate here Robert. Ethanol has been raked over the coals. Gasification will have the same headwinds. People only like change when it tastes better or costs less. Preferably both.

  15. I've also been a long-time fan of gasification as probably the best path to produce biofuels that can displace gasoline and diesel, but I have to think that in the near-term, burning biomass directly to displace coal is the most intelligent thing. That is drop dead easy and could start tomorrow, everywhere. It would give an immediate, secure market for biomass producers, and that would help improve production efficiency of feedstocks. Oh, and displacing coal with biomass is one of the cheapest ways to reduce new carbon emissions. And then as we get the gasification thing worked out, and/or other pathways to 3rd & 4th gen biofuels, those higher bioenergy crop yields will begin to make the whole process of using biomass for liquid fuels and electricity even more efficient.

  16. BEV are MIA and PHEV ae DOA.

    For those who like research:

    "The Economics of Using PHEV Battery Packs for Grid Storage"

    “It appears unlikely that these profits alone will provide sufficient incentive to the vehicle owner to use the battery pack for electricity storage and later off-vehicle use.”


    "Lithium-Ion Battery Cell Degradation Resulting from Realistic Vehicle and Vehicle-to-Grid Utilization"
    “Statistical analyses indicate that rapid vehicle motive cycling degraded the cells more than slower, V2G galvanostatic cycling.”

    Lots of interesting energy papers here.

  17. "… maybe we could take the train …"

    John, are you just being obtuse?

    The question is — what is the source of power? For trains, the power source is diesel, or indirectly coal, nuclear, or hydropower.

    Electricity is not a source of power, merely a convenient way of moving power around. Same as hydrogen. Where does the power come from?

    Globally, 90% of power comes from fossil fuels. If we want to replace fossil fuels, we need truly massive sources of energy, enough to supply 15,000,000,000,000 Watts of power 24/7. And that total global power demand will continue to grow.

    Nuclear fission is the only available technology today which can do that.

    That is reality. Deal with it.

  18. I don't think we would have any trouble at all powering All of our trains with biodiesel.

    I'm going to guess 10 Billion Gallons/Yr would catch it.

  19. Anon…"I know American trains are not the best"…American freight rail is quite likely the best in the world. The freight mix of rail vs truck is actually more favorable to rail in the U.S. than it is in Europe. Rail has grown enough in the last decade or so that some lines are having capacity problems.

    It's interesting to note that RR electrification not only makes the fuel source omniverous, it also increases line capacity since better acceleration can be achieved. Probably not financially realistic on more freight lines, but I bet there are some where it will be.

  20. Rufus,

    I guess when gas gets to 6 bucks a gallon I might buy some of Robert's Fisher Troppes fuel.

    On the other hand I might make some ethanol or bio-diesel in my garage for a buck a gallon.

    What the heck, if the electric utilities keep their rates low I might even buy an electric car.

    I read your article on Carbohydrate economy (see last comment from previous post)


  21. I just can't wait 'til Fisher Troppes fuel becomes available at twice or even three times the price of CNG

  22. MAURY–




  23. Yeah, John, I used to hang out at a place like that. If you didn't have a gun, they issued you one. 🙂

    On a serious note: it Is assuring to me to find out that petroleum isn't as necessary as I've always thought it was.

    I'm sure there are some things that we'll have to have petroleum for, but, there will, Always, be a little petroleum.

  24. Here is an interesting story from the LA Times. Sounds bogus. The idea is you have a tank on your porperty, and you can put any bio-waste in it, like old leaves, and ethanol comes out. It is embarrassing this ran in a major newspaper.

    I will address this shortly, Benny. This is just blatantly false advertising. It can't convert cellulose, and if you go to their website, you see this when they refer to cellulose or algae:

    ** Additional processing outside of the MicroFueler may be required.

    "May be?" Ha!


  25. Mr. COLE–





  26. What ?

    The Rentech Fisher Troppes knock-off process will be competitive at $ 5-10 bucks a gallon ?

    So will everything else…………


  27. The Rentech Fisher Troppes knock-off process will be competitive at $ 5-10 bucks a gallon ?

    So will everything else…………

    No! No! No! First, the process isn't a knock-off. It is simply Fischer-Tropsch with a biomass feedstock. People have a lot more experience with coal or gas as a feedstock, but there is nothing that keeps one from using biomass. It is just more expensive to deal with.

    Second, anything that has high energy inputs relative to the output won't be competitive at $5, $10, or $100 a gallon. In fact, certain next generation darlings are going to get less competitive as fuel prices increase.


  28. Fran,I'm aware of methane from landfills, I was voicing the complaints we'll hear from the horse and buggy crowd once gasification becomes viable on a large scale. You know,the people who are against burning fossil or biofuels. They're against nuclear power and windmills. They won't be happy until we're riding horses again,and carrying giant pooper scoopers.

    There are steps we could take today that would end our dependence on foreign oil within a decade….like Obama claims to want to do. One way is to treat gasoline like cigarettes. Put a sin tax and keep raising it until everyone quits. Of course,not everyone will quit,but eventually alternatives like gasification would be able to compete on price.

    Or,we could treat internal combustion like freon. Just declare it harmful to the environment and stop manufacturing them. Alternatives will be the only alternative. And people will somehow survive.

    But,we aren't serious yet about kicking our oil addiction. So,we'll keep yapping and doing a whole lot of nothing. Until it really starts to hurt,at least.

  29. David said..

    Probably not financially realistic on "some" freight lines, but I bet there are some where it will be.

    The French recently decided to continue to run their spur lines with Diesel-electric locomotives.

    The caveat is that they have decided to FURTHER ELECTRIFY THEM with battery packs (Li-ion) so that the trains can manoeuvre in the train yard without firing up the diesel gen-set,

    The capital investment for third rail and catenary systems is high even though they are faster, more efficient etc.

    You sound like a train buff and probably know more than most about all this.

    I think the Japanese are using hi-temp soda batteries


  30. In my one-sided debates with Khosla when Grist had a blog (he could never respond for fear of legitimizing commenters), I often predicted that he would eventually shift his investments to tropical cane, which he has since been doing with greater frequency as reality starts to sink in:

    There is no guarantee that countries with temperate climates will successfully compete with biofuels against tropical countries. Palm oil is also hard to beat as noted above. The problem remains that palm and cane destroy natural carbon sinks and biodiversity as they expand production, or usurp existing food cropland, which then expands into virgin lands. You can't preserve the biosphere by destroying it.

    All irrelevant if one can successfully rationalize away concerns about the existing extinction event and global warming.

    In other posts on the defunct Grist blog, Khosla bashed hybrid cars. His latest post praised the A123 battery. I'm glad he has finally discovered it. I mounted them on my electric bike back in 2005.

    If he was smart he might consider hiring some of his policy critics (like yourself) as advisers. Might save him a few billion.


  31. Robert

    One comment about gassification is that the output syngas, although widely varying in heat content and contaminants based on the type of gasifier and feedstock, is a well understood process, particularly C1 chemistry, clean up, upgrading, etc. Major equipment suppliers such as UOP, Air Products, Praxair, and others have syngas related processing technologies that are proven. Syngas is what is generated by SMR's which are already proven to scale (albeit very high quality).

    Thus if gasification can work economically, there is a lot of balance of plant that is available to support it. The same cannot be said of a lot of proprietary technologies.

Comments are closed.