Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Are Biofuels Practical?

In previous posts I have discussed the possibility of biofuels, and the issue of greenhouse gases. One approach to the problem of greenhouse gases, or at least the excess of carbon dioxide, is to make biofuels. The carbon in the fuels comes from the atmosphere, so at least we slow down the production of greenhouse gases, and additionally we address, at least partially, the problem of transport fuels. Sooner or later we shall run out of oil, so even putting aside the greenhouse problem, we need a substitute. The problem then is, how to do it?
The first objections we see come from what I believe is faulty analysis and faulty logic. Who has not seen the argument: "Biofuels are useless? All you have to do is to see the energy balances and land requirements for corn." This argument is of the "straw man" type; you choose a really bad example and generalize. An alternative was published recently in Biomass and Bioenergy. 56: 600-606. These authors provided an analysis of the land area required to provide 50% of the US transport fuels. Corn came in at a massive 846% of current US cropping area, i.e. to get the fuels, the total US cropping area needed to be multiplied by a factor greater than 8. Some might regard that as impractical! However, microalgae came in at between 1.1 and 2.5% of US cropping area. That is still a lot of area, but it does seem to be more manageable.
There is also the question of how to grow things, fuel needed, fertilizer needed, pesticides needed, etc. Corn here comes out very poorly, in fact some have argued that you put more energy in the form of useful work in growing it than you get out. (The second law bites again!) Now, I must show my bias and confess to having participated in a project to obtain chemicals and fuels from microalgae grown in sewage treatment water. It grows remarkably easily: no fertilizer requirements, no need to plant it or look after it; it really does grow itself, although there may be a case for seeding the growing stream to get a higher yield of desirable algae. Further, the algae removes much of the nitrogen and phosphate that would otherwise be an environmental nuisance, although that is not exactly a free run because when finished processing, the phosphates in particular remain. However, good engineering can presumably end up with a process stream that can be used for fertilizer.
One issue is that microalgae in a nutrient rich environment, and particularly in a nitrogen rich environment, tend to reproduce as rapidly as possible. If starved of nitrogen, they tend to use the photochemical energy and store its reserves of lipids. It is possible, at least with some species, to reach 75% lipid content, while rapidly growing microalgae may have only 5% extractible lipids.
That leaves the choice of process. My choice, biased that I am, uses hydrothermal liquefaction. Why? Well, first, harvesting microalgae is not that easy, and a lot of energy can be wasted drying it. With hydrothermal liquefaction, you need an excess of water, so "all you have to do" is to concentrate the algae to a paste. The quotation marks are to indicate that even that is easier said than done. As an aside, simple extraction of the wet algae with an organic solvent is not a good idea: you can get some really horrible emulsions. Another advantage of hydrothermal liquefaction is, if done properly, not only do you get fuel from the lipids, but also from the phospholipids, and some other fatty acid species that are otherwise difficult to extract. Finally, you end up with a string of interesting chemicals, and in principle, the chemicals, which are rich in nitrogen heterocycles, would in the long run be worth far more than the fuel content.
The fuel is interesting as well. If done under appropriate conditions, the lipid acids mainly either decarboxylate or decarbonylate, to form linear alkanes or alkenes one carbon atom short. There is a small amount of the obvious diketone formed as well. The polyunsaturated acids fragment, and coupled with some deaminated aminoacid fragments, make toluene, xylenes, and interestingly enough, ethyl benzene and styrene. Green polystyrene is plausible.
As you may gather, I am reasonably enthusiastic about this concept, because it simultaneously addresses a number of problems: greenhouse gases, "green" chemicals, liquid fuels, and sewage treatment, with perhaps phosphate recovery thrown in. There are a number of other variations on this theme; the point of what I am trying to say is there are things we can do. I believe the answer to the question is yes. Certainly there are more things to do, but no technology is invented mature.
Posted by Ian Miller on Aug 5, 2013 5:17 AM Europe/London

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