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?

Faulty Analysis In Biofuels Development

Recently I have been involved in a web-discussion hosted by the Royal Society of New Zealand on energy development. Since this is closed to members, I thought I should raise some of my points here. One of my concerns, which I raised in Elements of Theory is that modern science is not very good at reaching appropriate conclusions, i.e. we know not all that we know. I am not suggesting that conclusions of papers are not appropriate; internally most scientific papers are self-consistent and do not overlook much within their scope. (That does not mean the conclusions must be correct, but it does mean they are sensibly reached.) No, what concerns me is that they are not put in proper context. We may describe a leaf in minute detail and correctly assign its function to the tree, but the role of the tree in the wood may elude us.
I am choosing Range Fuels Inc as an example. According to Jim Lane, (Biofuels Digest, 5th December, 2011) Range Fuels received about $160 million in investor funding, and $162 million in government commitments, although not necessarily all drawn down. The process apparently involved gasification of biomass, the conversion to syngas, and the conversion of syngas to ethanol (plus some other alcohols) through its proprietary catalyst. The major funding was for a 40 million gallon per year plant, but once funding was achieved, it appears to have been reduced to a 4 million gallon per year plant, then it turned out that that would be only methanol for a while, and then, well, the influential people lost patience.
This raises some interesting questions. The first is, methanol technology from synthesis gas has been known since the early 1920s, so that should not have been a problem. There are many gasifiers available, and the water gas shift reaction is very well known. The making of a different alcohol mix apparently involves their proprietary catalyst, which should not change the plant, so the entire process from gasifier to alcohol-synthesis plant should have been essentially "off the shelf". So, what could go wrong?
My guess is project analysis. The first problem is scale. Syngas to alcohol or hydrocarbons usually involve massive plants because they need the economies of scale to be competitive. Biomass feedstock is not really well suited to processing in large-scale plants. It does not transport easily, and while the yield from an area appears to scale as the square of the radius from the plant, in practice it is closer to linear with distance travelled because the trucks have to follow roads. Gasification of biomass is not straightforward. Without appropriate care, too much water and carbon dioxide is made, while a carbon monoxide rich feed can also eventuate, which requires considerable scrubbing of CO2 and gas recycling from the water gas shift reaction. Gasification can waste a considerable amount of the available C/H, while to be economical, very large volumes of syngas are required. This simple fact, based on considerable operational experience of methanol and Fischer Tropsch processing, should have suggested this was a very bad idea.
This brings in what may be a really fundamental problem: those who have the funds were probably not sufficiently skilled to pick this up, and there has been no publicly available analysis to guide them. The issue is, $320 million still buys quite a bit. The object of a development problem is to locate the mistakes and things that will go wrong while everything is still cheap (or relatively cheap). It is one thing to take a risk, but success involves minimizing risk, and who knew what the risks were? I am far from convinced that society has the wealth to keep on throwing away these sorts of sums.
Interestingly, in early 2010, energy writer Robert Rapier wrote a stinging critique of Range Fuels funding, and noted that the decision to continue funding this very expensive project was at the expense of projects that were, perhaps, more deserving on technical grounds, but less vocal. This raises another hazard, as noted by Rapier: funding should not depend on the boldness of the claims or the loudness of the claimants. The problem is, how do we get things right?
Posted by Ian Miller on Feb 29, 2012 9:14 PM Europe/London

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