Archive for oil from algae

Ethanol, Cellulosic Ethanol, and Advanced Biofuels

Last week, I attended the 2009 Fuel Ethanol Workshop and the Advanced Biofuels Workshop, writing two articles.  The first is a commentary on what the corn ethanol industry needs to do to rehabilitate its image, and the second looks into how the stock investor can benefit from emerging advanced biofuel, cellulosic ethanol, and
algae technologies.

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Vision of a sustainable energy future

I’ve been meaning to write an article outlining a vision of a sustainable energy future, where biomass is converted into fuel and electricity through pyrolysis and the waste product, carbon is used as a fertilizer a-la terra preta to produce more biomass.  The good news is I don’t have to.  The Engineer Poet did, and it’s just part of a much broader vision you’ll find here.   He also goes into a great discussion of transportation technologies and efficiency which would never have made it into the article I’d write.  I like it when other people crunch numbers, so I don’t have to.

Give yourself a half hour to read the whole article.  It’s worth it.

( Terra Preta: I got a comment from Erich J Knight on terra preta here that went into a lot of depth, but I deleted it by mistake.  Forturnately, he says pretty much the same thing in his blog.  I first heard about terra preta from Ron Larson, chair of the American Solar Energy Society, who is very active in the local (Denver) renewable energy scene.  If you haven’t heard about terra preta, and are concerned about globabl warming or soil fertility without fertilizers from fossil fuels, it’s worth looking into.)

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Green Diesel and Jet Fuel

On a recent tour of NREL‘s Biomass reserch lab, I learned about a new (to me) way to make biofuel.  Plant and animal oils and fats can used in conventional petroleum refineries to make diesel and jet fuel.  This idea has actually been around since the 1990s, when it was first demonstrated on a pilot scale.

Most of my readers are probably well aware of efforts to cultivate microalgae as a source of oil for biodiesel.  This is to biodiesel production what cellulosic ethanol technology is to ethanol production: an up-and-coming technology that has the potential to increase the level of production to where it can actually provide a significant volume of fuel relative to our transportation needs (corn ethanol and biodiesel from conventional crops and waste oil both fall far short on this measure.)

Green diesel and jet fuel address two major problems for biofuels:

  1. Biofuels lack an existing distribution infrastructure (they must be moved around by train, and even if it were possible to use existing pipelines, they do not lead to where most biofuel is currently produced.)  Conventional refineries, naturally, are already integrated in the existing infrastructure.
  2. Ethanol has a lower energy density than gasoline (about 30% less), and I know of no way to convert biomass into a high enough energy density fuel to power jet aircraft.  This process produces jet fuel, neatly dealing with that problem, and holding out the hope eventually reaching a 100% transport (we’d still have to massively increase efficiency to reduce consumption to a sustainable level.)

Oil refiners are interested because bio-based oils contain little or no sulfur, and removing sulfur from diesel is an increasingly expensive process as more stringent standards go into effect.  In fact, regulation for ultra-low sulfur diesel is partly behind the recent price rise in diesel vs. conventional gasoline.  It used to always be cheaper than gas, but now it is more expensive. 

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