The Earth can take care of itself

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2008

Hungry African kidsDid you enjoy Earth Day?

Well, not everyone did. In fact, people in some equatorial countries are rioting over food shortages – a situation that even the slow-poke UN is worrying about.

One of the causes of spiralling food costs is the corn ethanol boondoggle. While it’s a good thing that we’re turning away from our dependence on oil derivatives, all the ethanol cars in the world will be of little comfort to hungry people … so we should probably be getting right behind the cellulosic ethanol researchers. And while we’re on the subject of cutting down on our oil diet, we could be making plastics from pig piss.

Perhaps you think I’m being a tree-hugger. If so, you’re missing the point. As happens so often, Jamais Cascio sums it up in the intro to an essay you should go and read:

The grand myth of environmentalism is that it’s all about saving the Earth.

It’s not. The Earth will be just fine. Environmentalism is all about saving ourselves.

[Supplementary links sourced from MetaFilter, Slashdot, BoingBoing and more; image by Felipe Moreira]

Moving beyond turning food into fuel

Edward Willett @ 09-04-2008

800px-Straw_Bales Producing biofuels from food crops is beginning to look like maybe not the greatest idea.

What does look like a good idea is producing biofuels from agricultural and forestry residue: straw from cereal crops, stover from corn, and left-over wood from lumber operations. After all, every tonne of grain is generally accompanied by another tonne of residue, which for now is generally baled, burned, or simply chopped and mixed back into the soil. (And some of it does need to remain on the land to prevent erosion and maintain soil nutrient levels, but vast amounts could be harvested.)

Research is underway and pilot plants being built to convert this “lignocellulosic” material into biofuels, and things are looking better for it all the time. For example, scientists from Michigan State University have created a genetically modified corn plant that contains three enzymes enabling the stem and leaves to be more easily converted into ethanol. One, from a microbe that lives in hot spring water, cuts cellulose into large pieces; a second, with a gene from a naturally occurring fungus, breaks the large cellulose pieces into sugar pairs, and the third, which is created by a gene taking from a cow’s stomach, breaks the sugar pairs into simple sugars easily convertable into ethanol. Current methods of converting the cellulose from agricultural residue are expensive because the enzymes have to be purchased and added during the process.

Better yet, University of Massachussetts researchers report they’ve made a breakthrough in the development of “green gasoline,” a liquid identical to standard gasoline created not from petroleum but from biomass sources like switchgrass, poplar trees, and straw and stover:

For their new approach, the UMass researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process. They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

The entire process was completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used “as is” for a high octane gasoline blend.

“Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and does not incur the 30 percent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel,” said John Regalbuto, who directs the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF and supported this research.

“In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce,” Regalbuto said. “Making it from cellulose sources such as switchgrass or poplar trees grown as energy crops, or forest or agricultural residues such as wood chips or corn stover, solves the lifecycle greenhouse gas problem that has recently surfaced with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel.”

You can read more about the latest efforts to produce “green” fuels from the parts of crops we don’t need to feed a hungry world in “Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries,” a report sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the American Chemical Society.

And perhaps best of all, another set of researchers believes they’ve got a revolutionary process for producing hydrogen from biomass, which might eventually lead us all to the Nirvana of the hydrogen economy.

(Image: Shaun MItchem via Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]biofuels, alternative fuels, ethanol, agriculture[/tags] 

Brazilian ultra-compact cars running on ethanol, petrol, natural gas or electricity

Tomas Martin @ 05-02-2008

The dinky Obvio in front of a less efficient example of automobile construction…

Lotus and Brazilian car manufacturer Obvio have a number of versions of cute VW Beetle-esque cars that run on any combination of ethanol, petrol or natural gas. They also have optional upgrades to become plug-in electric vehicles. They have a very consistent design style and the car even features an inbuilt ‘carputer’ with GPS, details on nearby locations such as restaurants and virtual instrumentation. You can also use the console as a normal PC. The engine uses continuously variable transmission (CVT) rather than distinct gears which aims to cut down on fuel use.

The Obvio 828 is projected for sale at around $14,000 and the more sporty Obvio 012 is projected at $28,000 although the electric versions are currently a lot more.

[thanks to Alex Thorne for the link, picture via the Obvio website]

The Great Ethanol Swindle

Paul Raven @ 01-08-2007

cornVia PZ Myers: an article at Rolling Stone that looks at the sudden swing into favour of ethanol as an alternative fuel in the US … does the word ‘ subsidies’ ring any bells? There’s little doubt we need alternatives to crude oil derivatives, but we should probably be picking them on the merits of their environmental impact, rather than how much money they can make for shady business-persons … and how many votes they can garner in an election year. [Image by WayTru]

Edited for extra: the panic is over, we don’t need to switch to ethanol. A biotech start-up claims it will have created bacteria capable of making “petroleum-like fluids” within the next three to five years. Rather than voicing my opinion on the plausibility or practicality of such a solution, I’ll instead point out that Julian May posited that very idea in her 1988 novel, Intervention.