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?

What I Think Of Biofuels

Some time ago I made a number of posts on biofuels, by concentrating on what I saw as the pros and cons of individual technologies, but by themselves, while you may have your own ideas as to their usefulness, one of the more important points is they lacked perspective. Of course it is hard to get perspective of such a wide field in a 600 word post. Another odd thing about those posts was I did not get around to posting about hydrothermal liquefaction, or hydrothermal hydrogenation, which, in my opinion, are likely to be the most useful technologies. Of course I am also biased, because these are the areas in which I have actively worked and published on and off over the last 35 years. The reason I got into those areas was that early in my career, while working for the main New Zealand government chemical research lab, I was given the job, and a useful travel budget, to try to survey what were the possibilities, and to unravel what the more promising (if any) options were. As a consequence of that, I have now repeated the exercise (without the travel budget!) and put my conclusions into another ebook that I am publishing on July 31.
The important aspect about such a survey is that it must explain why it is important to develop biofuels and to do that, numbers have to be put on the assertions. I feel that is the biggest problem with current work in this area. It is true, and I conclude this, that there is no single 'magic bullet', and that a very large number of resources will have to be used, and there is no harm in using resources that are available, even if, by doing so, you will be doing something that is not general. But it is also important to end up with a limited range of fuels. There is no point in having 120 different fuels on the market, when a given motor can only reasonably operate on one. Now, if you put numbers on resources, you very quickly find that if you want to eat, and you want to retain something of the natural land-based environment, you cannot replace oil from the land. There is simply insufficient area that is reasonably useful. Accordingly, I conclude that eventually we have to utilize the oceans. Now the problem here is that we have very little truly adequate technology to do this with. On the other hand, we know that in principle we can grow the algae. Problems include getting past "in principle". There have been clear demonstrations of growing macroalgae in deep water, but the experiment by the US navy started in the 1970s got wrecked in a storm, and when, at the time, the price of oil collapsed, the project was stopped. That does not mean it cannot be restarted, but it will require more work to solve the obvious problems.
So why do I think hydrothermal liquefaction is such a desirable technology to chase? Largely because it can process any biomass and with some reservations, provided one adjusts the methodology to be suitable for the resource. It then produces either drop-in fuels, or fuels than need a little more processing, however, once one gets to the liquid state, it is much easier to transport the "pre-fuel" to a refinery for upgrading. Can we totally replace oil? Probably not. Probably we shall have to reduce the wasted travel, but in principle we can come reasonably close. And while I most certainly do not claim to have all the answers, I am putting what I have out there.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jul 28, 2014 5:14 AM Europe/London

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