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Biomass to Play “Essential Role” in Reducing Global Dependence on Fossil Fuels; Time to Get On It

27 January 2006

Writing in the journal Science, a group of scientists from the UK and the USA said that using biomass rather than oil or coal to produce fuels and chemicals could play an essential role in reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The scientists from Imperial College London, Georgia Tech and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have evaluated the scientific and technological potential of a future based on biomass. Their conclusions form the basis of a strategic alliance between the three institutions, the AtlantIC Alliance.

The paper in Science describes the scientific challenges of creating a facility to process all the components of biomass. Such a facility would make a range of fuels, foods, chemicals, animal feeds, materials, heat and power in proportions that would give maximum value with minimum waste.

The scientists believe that efficient refining of biomass will be vital for producing renewable products with reduced carbon emissions. Biofuels and biomaterials are derived from plants which take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Their net contribution to the addition of greenhouse gases can be very small if minimal non-renewable energy is used when processing them into useful material or energy products.

We’re looking at a future for biomass where we use the entire plant and produce a range of different materials from it.

Biomass has a completely different molecular structure compared with hydrocarbons from oil. That means we’ll need to develop new techniques so that we can transform plant material into everything from specialty, high value products such as perfumes and plastics to higher volume products such as fuels.

—Dr. Charlotte Williams, Imperial College

Imperial hopes that the partnership with Georgia Tech and Oak Ridge will combine their complementary areas of expertise and examine the critical issues from alternative angles. The project has been given a major boost by the award of a UK Office of Science and Technology grant to develop the alliance, backed up by internal funding from each of the partners.

An editorial in the same issue of Science by Steven Koonin, chief scientist for BP (earlier post), calls for a global scientific focus on biofuels.

Credible studies show that with plausible technology developments, biofuels could supply some 30% of global demand in an environmentally responsible manner without affecting food production. To realize that goal, so-called advanced biofuels must be developed from dedicated energy crops, separately and distinctly from food. This is a multidisciplinary task in which biologists, agronomists, chemical engineers, fuel specialists, and social scientists must work to integrate and optimize several currently disjoint activities.

There are major technological challenges in realizing these goals. Genetic improvement of energy crops such as switchgrass, poplar, and jatropha has barely begun. It will be important to increase the yield and environmental range of energy crops while reducing agricultural inputs. Plant development, chemical composition, tolerance of biotic and abiotic stresses, and nutrient requirements are important traits to be manipulated. The combination of modern breeding and transgenic techniques should result in achievements greater than those of the Green Revolution in food crops, and in far less time.

[...]There is substantial technology “headroom” for advanced biofuels to enhance energy security, reduce emissions, and provide economical transport. It exists largely because the world’s scientific and engineering skills have not yet been focused coherently on the challenges involved. It is now time to do that through a coordination of government, university, and industrial R&D efforts, facilitated by responsible public policies. In the jargon of the petroleum industry, the “size of the prize” is too large to ignore.

—Steven Koonin

Resources:

  • The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials”; Arthur J. Ragauskas, Charlotte K. Williams, Brian H. Davison, George Britovsek, John Cairney, Charles A. Eckert, William J. Frederick, Jr., Jason P. Hallett, David J. Leak, Charles L. Liotta, Jonathan R. Mielenz, Richard Murphy, Richard Templer, Timothy Tschaplinski; Science 27 January 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5760, pp. 484–489; DOI: 10.1126/science.1114736

  • Getting Serious About Biofuels”; Steven Koonin; Science 27 January 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5760, p. 435; DOI:10.1126/science.1124886

January 27, 2006 in Biodiesel, Biomass, Biomass-to-Liquids (BTL), Ethanol, Research | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

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The implications of this will be lost on most people. By the time the 30% has come on stream, oil may have declined by a larger amount and will still be declining. If we refrain or are unable to replace oil with alternative non-bio fuels like tar sands it means our highways will look like ghost towns. Without any other way of propelling vehicles it means 70% less driving or in effect 400 million cars off the road.

Let's make most cities largely car free. While we're at it, let's make intercity travel mostly light rail and heavy rail. When I lived in Europe, I did not have a car and had no problem getting around by foot, bicyle, subway, light rail, and heavy rail. Occassionally, I would need a car and would just rent. But that was just for convenience purposes. It wasn't really necessary. The beauty of it was that getting rid of the car caused me to lose weight, save money, and improve my health.

If there is some need for residual travel by car in the cities, let them be micro cars mostly fueled by electricity.

Yes we need this project, if only to provide substitutes for those uses of oil that are not related to transportation.

I don't think a world without massive consumption of oil is all that scary if we take the right actions. Of course if we just fiddle while the oil burns, it will be a grim future, especially for those live in much of suburbia and exurbia.

The image of highways as ghost towns sounds like a beautiful thing, not an image to afraid of.

Aussie, assuming you are from Australia, it sounds like your country is about as dysfunctional as the U.S.A. when it comes to transportation.

Take those 400 million cars of the road and recycle them.

t: I'm with you.

The answer to the 'oil crisis' is not to replace the oil in kind, but to organize society such that we use much lower levels of energy.

"Because it's what they do in Europe" has to be the lamest argument ever presented.

Both Australia and the USA are full of refugees from the way they do things in Europe. Europe is in decline, and certainly does not provide any sort of model for dynamic growing countries that have shed all that baggage.

Let Europe ride bicycles and bow to Mecca. It's what they deserve. As for me, I am getting in the V-16 SUV to go to the market for a quart of milk.

The argument isn't because they do it this way in Europe. The argument is that an alternative future is possible and there is already a workable model for this. This so called dynamic, growing country is headed for disaster if Fuego's approach is the model.

Fuego - Do you work for Chrysler or for an Oil Co?
t - I like your approach. I live 35 Km from downtown and the electric suburban train takes me there in 26 minutes while the car stays home. For about $3 CDN round-trip it is five times less than the $15/day downtown parking and it is 2 to 2 1/2 times faster. Living very close to a suburban electric train station is very convenient. However, we are not all that lucky. For people without convenient train or bus services, the car is sometime the only way. Public mass transportation is normally much better organized and used in Europe than in North America. Does the $7-9 per gallon for gas/diesel has anything to do with it? Most certainly. Unfortunately, cheap gas in North America, promotes the use of inefficient individual vehicles (V-16 SUV)over electric mass transportation systems. Switching to biofuels or ethanol will not change our acquired attitude. Personally, I think that hitting our pocketbook with a gradual but hefty fuel tax may be the only thing that will make mass transportation and efficient vehicles more appealing to most of us. Our politicians will not want to take the risk but may not have another choice. We will not have enough fuel (fossil or biomass) for all our V-6, V-8, V10, and V-16 gas guzzlers within a few more years. Smaller, more efficient vehicles and electric mass transportation systems may be forced on us sooner than we think.

I don't think it does much good in the broad scheme of things to scale back our demand for energy if there is a compensating culture on the planet that uses more and more and more. Demand is going to continue to grow globally. Unless you can convince enough people to regress into communes and throw away their culture trappings and broad selection of food and merchandise, energy use is going grow in this country as well - let's not fool ourselves.

We need a paradigm shift to BioConversion cellulosic ethanol made from waste feedstock. Then we are actually decreasing pollution and landfill requirements while producing renewable fuels in sufficient quantity to replace fossil-fuels. BRI Energy has an elegant solution on demonstration at their pilot plant, and they are getting investment from the D.O.E., among others. It's a race to see who will lead - not is it possible.

I am also for plug-in hybrid flex-fuel vehicles. Some people claim that a plug-in Prius could get 500mpg. Replace that gallon with E85 ethanol and you are talking about 2000mp gasoline gallon. That might put a dent in the petroleum scene. Better yet, if it is made from biomass, production could be decentralized to every region of the world - each specializing on their on feedstock assets to make a universal fuel - ethanol. Think how much wasted energy would be saved if we could decentralize its production.

Energy has got to be clean and it's got to be renewable - and preferably locally produced.

http://www.theautochannel.com/news/2006/01/02/202904.html

Brazil improved upon this Flex-Fuel technology and these vehicles captured
2003 - 6 %
2004 - 17 %
2005 - 53 %.

Awesome growth.

Also in 2005 Brazil sold 4.4 billion gallons of Ethanol and USA sold
4.0 billion gallons. That may be roughly equal to 32 million tons.

Last year 3,700 million tons of Oil is sold. So Ethanol sales have
are nearly 1.0 % of Oil sales.

Also last year, oil consumption increased only 1.5 %, but Ethanol
is growing by leaps and bounds as many countries are looking forward
to it.

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