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Biotech Science

Biology Could Be Used To Turn Sugar Into Diesel 355

Posted by samzenpus
from the goodbye-mr.-fusion dept.
ABCTech has an interesting article about an Emeryville-based tech startup, Amyris Biotechnologies, that is planning to use microbes to turn sugar into diesel. Ethanol is made by adding sugar to yeast, but Amyris believes that it can reprogram the microbes to make something closer to gasoline. The company was initially given a $43 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to attempt to research the applications of Synthetic Biology for making a cost-effective malaria drug. Jack Newman, the Vice-President of Amyris said, "Why are we making ethanol if we're trying to make a fuel? We should be making something that looks a lot more like gasoline. We should be making something that looks a lot more like diesel. And if you wanted to design, you name it, a jet fuel? We can make that too."
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Biology Could Be Used To Turn Sugar Into Diesel

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  • by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Thursday February 01, 2007 @02:34AM (#17839502) Homepage
    I'm sure this will be on the market just in time for me to fill up my flying car.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by gevil (938764)
      Actually, here in Brasil we already have it, and you can fill your tank right now. its a tech developed by Petrobras, and it is mixed with Petroleum based diesel. Nowadays the mix is in 2%Bio. In 2008 will increase to 5%. You could unse it pure, and your car would move, but this way the increase in prices are dilluted to everyone. The same thing occurs with Gas here, which has a 30% mixture with sugarcane based Alcohol. There is also a new tech that permits your car to run in Gas/Alcohol in wichever mixtur
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jackedup (1058444)
      Probably a starter in about 10 years. There are lots and lots of sugars out there in a multitude of forms, but until then..... I had a dream last night. I dreamed I was awake and wondering why I had dreamed I was awake..... Then I woke up and went to work on my fusion-powered camel, thinking of myself poetically as the other cowboy in the boat of Ra, and on my right, hugging herself tightly, was the lovely older woman who lives down the corridor from me in Warren #1,234,563, perched atop the corner Exxon S
  • by macadamia_harold (947445) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @02:34AM (#17839506) Homepage
    Ethanol is made by adding sugar to yeast, but Amyris believes that it can reprogram the microbes to make something closer to gasoline.

    They should add suger to beans. They're great for making gas.
    • by drgonzo59 (747139)
      Isn't sugar more expensive than disel? Wouldn't it be better to turn your tank of diesel into a huge bag of Domino sugar and bake some doughnuts? Or did all the Americans decide all of the sudden to live a healthy life style and stop eating doughnuts, hoho's and stop drinking pop, thus creating a large surplus of corn syrup?
  • By the time this is a viable way to get your gasoline, I'd really hope we'd be onto higher technologies then this. You know, like that Eleck Trick stuff, Or that Hydro Jen whatchamacallits.

    -E
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by LoRdTAW (99712)
      But then there are all those older cars and trucks that run on gas or diesel. You cant force everyone to switch to electric, hydrogen or any other fancy new energy storage method. We have proven gas and diesel engines in our vehicles today. We need to keep supporting them until it no longer becomes necessary.

      I hope this isn't snake oil, we need an alternative to oil as it wont last forever. If you look at the current crop of alternative energy offerings, none of them offer the same energy density or ease of
      • Nevermind that Hydrogen is currently produced by steam cracking natural gas, as that is the only cost-effective method available. Why do you think the oil companies quash biodiesel, straight veggie oil burners, resist ethanol, kill the electric car, but embrace hydrogen?

        Also, slightly pedantic, but the fuel component of diesel #1 and JetA are the same damn thing, so the article (summary) is kinda mis-leading.
        -nB
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by mpe (36238)
          Nevermind that Hydrogen is currently produced by steam cracking natural gas, as that is the only cost-effective method available. Why do you think the oil companies quash biodiesel, straight veggie oil burners, resist ethanol, kill the electric car, but embrace hydrogen?

          Hydrogen simply dosn't make a good replacement for existing fuels. Where as biodiesel, even regular vegetable oil, can go straight into the tank of an unmodified vehicle. Especially a modern one which comes complete with a computerised eng
      • by mpe (36238)
        What about trucks, planes, ships and rail vehicles that need hundreds or thousands of gallons of fuel just to make one trip?

        IIRC Both Rudolf Diesel and Frank Whittle ran their prototypes on vegetable oil. So that covers two of the three commonly used internal combustion engines.
    • by joshetc (955226)
      By the time this is a viable way to get your gasoline, I'd really hope we'd be onto higher technologies then this. You know, like that Eleck Trick stuff, Or that Hydro Jen whatchamacallits.

      What you want us to get to higher technologies, then go back to using diesel? OH you meant technologies with a higher state of greatness than this technology. Why didn't you say so?
  • by Propaganda13 (312548) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @02:56AM (#17839668)
    We're still dying from Malaria, but thanks for the cheap fuel.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by GMontag (42283)
      We don't want you to get sick from DDT, sorry.
      • by NoTheory (580275)
        Actually the major concern for DDT is environmental. There are other suitably effective insecticides with much less harmful environmental effects that would (do) save children's lives every year. The major problem is that there is a significant lack of funding for mosquito eradication programs in places that need it. Americans spray frequently, and the scariest thing we have to deal with is the West Nile Virus, while large portions of Africa and Asia are crippled by malaria.
    • by TapeCutter (624760) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @03:15AM (#17839808) Journal
      "thanks for the cheap fuel"

      Quiet, if you tell the whole world you have cheap fuel, someone is likely to liberate you and/or the fuel.
    • well, "cheap" depends on where you live; see "tortilla crisis" on google news. [google.com]
  • by hpa (7948) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @02:57AM (#17839670) Homepage
    If you're making it from sugar, it's going to suck from an energy-balance point of view no matter what. The real challenge is to turn waste cellulose into motor fuel -- be it ethanol or biodiesel.
    • by simm1701 (835424)
      Since cellulose is a complex sugar then making it from sugar is not a problem. You just have to have the extra step of converting cellulose into those sugars (a problem that has already been solved - ask your nearest rat)
    • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @03:47AM (#17840024) Journal
      The real challenge is to turn waste cellulose into motor fuel -- be it ethanol or biodiesel.

      That's easy: Add xylene. (Either in a batch, or by incubating it with the sort of bacteria that hang out in the guts of termites.)

      This cracks the cellulose back into starch.

      Cracking starch to sugar is similarly trival. (Either add acid or feed it to certain microbes.)

      Once you've got sugar, getting to ethanol is a previously-solved problem (as is getting it to "something more like gasoline or diesel fuel" if the other bioprocesses work out on an industrial scale.)

      Of course if you are willing to go with METHanol, just heat the cellulose, in a centuries-old industrial process. (That's why they call it "wood alcohol", after all.)
  • Perhaps... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ZombieEngineer (738752) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @02:57AM (#17839674)
    Biology already have the means to make long chain parafins in the form of triglyerides.

    Gasoline will be a bit harder as you don't want long chain parafins, you want branch chained C7 / C8s (seven and eight carbon hydrocarbons) as a straight chain C8 hase an octane number of zero (by definition) while the fully branched C7 has an octance number of 100 (again by definition). Getting octane numbers >90 is difficult without using aromatic compounds (benzene & toluene which have octane numbers in the 120 to 150s).

    The original source for the octane 100 reference was from the cones of a particular pine tree.

    So in theory there is a biological precendence but it could take 10 years to get there, once we do then the scale up will be very quick.

    ZombieEngineer
    • As I recall and FWIW from my organic chemistry classes: 2,2,4 Trimethylpentane defines the 100 octane point... quick check, fwiw Wikipedia says the same thing. They also use alcohol as an octane booster as well... what a waste.
  • by spangineer (764167) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @02:57AM (#17839676) Homepage
    People don't like to talk about peak oil [wikipedia.org] as something that could really rock the way we live, but it's got that potential. Modern economies are based on growth, which means that more and more energy must be consumed. Eventually, however, we're going to have to figure out a new way to satisfy that growing demand, because oil isn't going to cut it.

    Most alternatives require drastic infrastructure changes—converting hundreds of millions of cars to hydrogen or batteries isn't going to be easy or cheap. Adding ethanol to the mix could help, but the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) isn't all that great, and it will force food prices up as well. This company seems to have something rather novel up its sleeve—it'll be interesting to see how effecient their process is. If it's good, it'll be much more than a $10 billion company before too long.
    • Mod Parent Up (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SeaFox (739806) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @04:07AM (#17840116)

      People don't like to talk about peak oil as something that could really rock the way we live, but it's got that potential. Modern economies are based on growth, which means that more and more energy must be consumed. Eventually, however, we're going to have to figure out a new way to satisfy that growing demand, because oil isn't going to cut it.
      Agreed. Bit it isn't Peak Oil affecting out transportation that worries me, it's our products. How much of our modern products are made of plastics? Practically everything. Plastics are made of petroleum, and many products we make today may not be possible without the moldability of plastics available compared to glass and wood. I can see us finding a substitute fuel in the form of ethanol and hydrogen, but a replacement bag and case material? Not at the same relative cost.
      • by Kozz (7764)
        But we can also make some plastics from soy [google.com] right now. I don't know how many kinds or whether this is currently feasible on a large scale. Nor am I suggesting it would summarily replace all petroleum-based plastics. Anyone know more about soy plastics?
  • A Tad Repugnant (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jomama717 (779243) <jomama717@gmail.com> on Thursday February 01, 2007 @03:04AM (#17839712) Journal
    From TFA:

    Jack Newman, PhD, Amyris Biotechnologies VP: "This was technology that was really great for the current application of making an anti-malarial drug and we said, great, pharmaceuticals, that's a wonderful model and then we realized, our market is in Africa and they make less than a dollar a day."
    Dr. Newman went on to say "not only do they make a dollar a day, but they all have malaria for god's sake!!"

    Am I mistaken, or did this company start with a $43 million gimme with the explicit goal of saving people from malaria?
    • by ppanon (16583)
      They're also short-sighted. Malaria and its anopheles mosquito carrier are also in Central and South America. With the advent of global climate change and warming, its pretty highly likely it will eventually spread to southern parts of the US as well.
    • That's what I was thinking too. Even if they don't give a fuck about solving malaria, I'd expect then they'd give the money back, since it was for a specific purpose.

      Now I realize that a donation isn't always a "you have to deliver X in Y days for Z million dollars" contract, but at the very least certain promises have been made. It's basically like saying "donate some money to help the latest tsunami/tornado/whatever victims" and then going "wtf, now I'm supposed to just give them that money? That's a stup
  • by bananaendian (928499) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @03:05AM (#17839724) Homepage Journal
    This will not work. Sure, you can make almost anything but as anyone who's worked with bioreactors or bacterial colonies will know they do not scale well. Also comparared to good-old sythetic chemistry, bio-processes are inherently inefficient energywise. If you want to take energy from the sun don't mess around with stupid stuff like this. Instead improve upon the COTS solutions available and help them grow in scale for mass-market. Most energy production should be local and thermal (solar-thermal, geo-thermal etc.) with the main net running on nuclear power. Vehicles should be plug-in EV. The reason for this is that we're gonna need our ever diminishing arable land for food production to feed the almost 10 billion people we'll soon have here...
    • by patio11 (857072) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @04:53AM (#17840380)
      Malthusians have been wrong for several hundred years now on the relationship between arable land, population, and well-fed people. The key conceit is that food production is directly proportional to arable land and that arable land increases linearly while population increases geometrically. There are a couple of problems here, and the most salient one is that food production also increases with technological and social progress.

      Our food production on a *per acre* basis beats the hell out of any reasonable expectation of human population growth. Human population going to be 100 billion by 2100? Thats a big *yawn* from the perspective of our untapped agricultural capacity -- yields per acre in the US from 1900 to 2000 increased by over a factor of about 6 to 8 (depends on crop), due to improved agricultural practices, improved agricultural business models (sorry, family farm, agribusiness grinds you into dust on the efficiency scale), the Green revolution, etc etc. The best farmers in Iowa get over 20 times more yield per acre than the average farmers in Africa, and its not inherently due to the Iowa dirt just being superior dirt. Take modern technology plus modern societal organization, mix in some cruddy desert land that had been impoverished for millenia, and you get Israel (which is an agricultural powerhouse, especially compared to anybody in the neighborhood).

      Over the same 1900 to 2000 time period, Japan had an even better relative increase in productivity, mostly because (like much of present-day Africa) they were starting from pretty darn close to the bottom of the curve.

      Even assuming that technological progress in agriculture stops today (unlikely -- we're just getting the party started when it comes to GMO crops, and "640k should be enough for everybody"-type "All progress has already been accomplished" thinking is always a loser), all we'd have to do to feed 10, 15, 20 billion people is take the technological and organizational know-how of the leading edge of First World farmers and get that know-how to land which is already used for agricultural purposes. Sure, we could claim extra land too, but its hardly necessary.

      So why, with this abundance of technology, do people still starve? Bad government, in every single case in the modern world. Governments practically evolved to combat famine and some countries in Europe (e.g. the Netherlands) haven't seen a non-war one in a couple hundred years. Many nations in Africa, North Korea, the Ukraine under the Soviet Union, on the other hand, have a government which either uses famine as a weapon to commit democide against their opponents (Sudan), or is just maliciously incompetent (North Korea, "Hey I've got an idea lets take all the land from the white farmers and give it to our black powerbase who have no experience managing farms, no possible downside there" in Africa).

      Give your stock poor African nation 20 years of stable economic growth (i.e. capitalism and democracy, pretty much) and I'll guarantee you their main food-related health problem will be obesity, like it is for "poor" people in the United States. (Quote marks around "poor" because you can't speak about poor Americans and poor Africans in the same sentence, the situations are utterly incomparable.)

      Now, as it regards bio-anything for a power source, I'm skeptical that we can increase agricultural efficiency faster than our energy needs, so I agree with you. Lets hear it for nukes, nukes, and some more nukes. (Solar, geothermal, and hydropower are all heavily dependent on you living somewhere they actually work, but you can split the atom pretty much anywhere.)
    • by ottffssent (18387)
      I don't know a whole lot about chemistry, but I do know that if you start with photosynthesis, you can afford to blow an awful lot of efficiency before you're competing with something like PV cells, even the really good ones. Granted solar-thermal, which you explicitly mentioned, is more efficient but that only works when your ultimate goal is heat. Once you start using that heat for something else, like driving turbines to generate electricity, you're burning that efficiency again.

      Of course it's immediat
  • by kmhebert (586931) <kev&kevinhebert,com> on Thursday February 01, 2007 @03:09AM (#17839752) Homepage
    I'm going to go pour sugar into my gas tank! Wait here!
  • Judge: So even though you admit to pouring sugar in your ex's gas tank you are claiming to be innocent of damaging her car?
    Defendant: Yes your Honor. I mistook it for a diesel.
    Judge: A Diesel? What does that have to do with anything?
    Defendant: I was just trying to use Biology to fill her tank.
    Judge: Of course. Bailiff! Take him away. fsckn slashdotters...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mpe (36238)
      Judge: So even though you admit to pouring sugar in your ex's gas tank you are claiming to be innocent of damaging her car?
      Defendant: Yes your Honor. I mistook it for a diesel.


      Or even Defendant: It won't do anything to harm the engine. I call up on my expert witnesses Savage and Hyneman.
  • yes, but... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by toQDuj (806112) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @03:28AM (#17839906) Homepage Journal
    I think this would suffer from the same problem other biodiesel projects suffer from, which is that they require such vast amounts of land to produce, that the entire process becomes inefficient, expensive and not that environmentally friendly anymore.

    (That has to be the longest sentence I've written on /.. I hope it is still intelligible.)

    B.
    • by Teun (17872)
      And as the recent 'Tortilla Crisis' in Mexico shows it drives up the price of food stuff for the masses.
  • Not to be completely off-topic: diesel from sugar? Good for them!

    And now ... can you please soften a bit this jarring, eye-popping yellow you use for the "opinion center". Yea, we get it: they pay you a lot to have it there, blazingly obvious and right on top of everything, but it's totally out of place and distracting when I want to read something.
  • by edwardpickman (965122) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @04:05AM (#17840108)
    Ah, the sweet smell of diesel!
  • Obviously whoever came up with this scheme has no understanding of either biology or chemistry.

    Hey! wouldn't it be great if we could make bacteria ferment diesel! Yeah man! Cool!

    I like alternative energy schemes, but I just get the "ain't gonna work" feeling from this one. For one thing the products would have to be water soluble to be fermentation products, so you're looking at some kind of carboxylic acid or long chain alcohol probably. These would then have to be dehydrated in an industrial process by

  • If they can really synthesise jet fuel they'll make a bucket load of money. Pure biodiesel is too viscous to be used at high altitude, ethanol's energy density is too low, liquid hydrogen's volume too great. There really just aren't many alternatives to good old kerosene.

    The US DoD recently [janes.com] had a successful trial of synfuel on a B52 but it was synthesised from natural gas, which is also finite. Successful production of kerosene from sugar would be a great achievement.
  • Why diesel? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by lennart78 (515598)
    Why is the western world so utterly addicted to the internal combustion engine? It might be an easy way to get around, but we generate a lot of harmful waste gasses that way. By finding alternative ways to produce diesel and gasoline, we're not addressing the fact that internal combustion is just an outdated technology which we keep clinging on to.

    Research should focus on an efficient way to turn energy from a portable source into movement, and an efficient and clean way to produce portable energy sources.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by TooMuchToDo (882796)
      While an ICE may not be the best way to extract work from an energy source, gasoline/diesel fuel still has a much higher energy density then alternatives. Batteries simply aren't there yet, and you're going to burn a ton of energy dragging low energy density fuels with you (be it in a plane or a car).
    • by QuantumG (50515) *
      Just in case you don't actually know the answer: people get rich by selling oil. They get rich by selling techniques for drilling it. They get rich from working with the people who have it. These same people control what research gets funding and what research doesn't.
  • I know everyone is drawn to filling the shortfall caused by dwindling petroleum supplies is causing something of a gold rush in ethanol and bio-diesel, but why go through the effort to convert it at all?

    Sugar is fuel. In fact, any food with any number of calories is fuel. If it's so cheap and easy to make large volumes of sugar to convert to other fuels, and run vehicles on, then it would be easier, more efficient, and more profitable to just start designing cars/engines that run on pure sugar, instead of
    • Or....we could simply perfect the conversion of cellulose into a liquid fuel, and skip the whole boilers issue.
    • by o'reor (581921)
      it would be easier, more efficient, and more profitable to just start designing cars/engines that run on pure sugar

      I think I have a few suggestions for that design. Here [wikimedia.org] is an example of a one-person vehicle running (mostly) on sugar. Here's another [wikimedia.org].

      The main issue with both of these is efficiency. It could be measured in terms of "miles per bushell of oatmeal", I guess...

  • by iminplaya (723125) <iminplaya.gmail@com> on Thursday February 01, 2007 @04:21AM (#17840194) Journal
    Or is that now on the back burner?

    Jack Newman, PhD, Amyris Biotechnologies VP: "This was technology that was really great for the current application of making an anti-malarial drug and we said, great, pharmaceuticals, that's a wonderful model and then we realized, our market is in Africa and they make less than a dollar a day."

    So they decided to aim for a more lucrative market as well -- bio-fuels -- a clean alternative to petroleum products.

    Within months they had $20 million dollars in venture capital funding and a new CEO.


    Well, well, well, isn't that nice...

    So, whadup with that malaria thing?

    Man...Damn chumps make less than a dollar a DAY! How we gonna make a livin' on that?

    Oh yeah, right.

    An now we need to clear cut a billion acres for our sugar plantation. Gonna get us some giant ants to run the place.

    Cowabunga.
    • by khallow (566160)
      That's a fact of life. There's no money in saving people in Africa because those people are literally almost worthless (economically). Just means that someone will have to subsidize the research and someone will have to clean up the societies of Africa. Pretty self-serving comment there from Mr. Newman though. I bet he sang a completely different tune when the previous CEO was in power.
  • Will this make our cars diabetic, too, like the ever-increasing percentage of Americans who drive them?
  • I've been turning carbohydrates into methane for years.

  • by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @07:59AM (#17841288) Homepage Journal
    ``Why are we making ethanol if we're trying to make a fuel?''

    Ethanol is actually an excellent fuel. I'd say it's actually _better_ than gasoline. While the mileage you get from either is about the same (provided you tune the engine for the fuel), ethanol burns cleaner, which is better for the environment and for the engine.

    So, as far as I am concerned, the question is why we are _not_ making ethanol. And I think the answer to that is that some powerful entities don't want us to. For example, governments don't want you to produce ethanol - which is, after all, alcohol, and bad for your health, etc. Besides, many governments get a cut from all alcohol sales. And of gasoline sales, too. Which are also the lifeline of the powerful oil industry. I am not saying there is a conspiracy here, but it's undeniable that there are powerful parties who have much to lose from cars switching to gasoline for fuel.

    By the way, all the above applies to gasoline engines. Diesel engines are a different story. They don't run on gasoline, and they don't run on ethanol (or at least, not well). However, they do run on biodiesel, and even straight vegetable oil (will need pre-heating in cold weather, though). Vegetable oil is much less problematic, and, if I ever get a car, I will make sure it's a diesel, fit it with the necessary fuel heating system, and run it on sunflower oil (or whatever vegetable oil is cheapest).
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Bacon Bits (926911)
      We're not making ethanol fuel because it's cheaper to use petroleum. Natural resources have a lower opportunity cost than refined agricultural products do.

      To get petroleum and natural gas, you drill a hole and suck out your product. You spend resources to construct drills, transportation, and refining equipment.

      To get biofuels, you stop producing food or other cash crops, spend fertilizer, clean water, pesticides, etc. to produce the crop. Now you have to harvest it all, transport it to a production faci
    • Ethanol tends to eat most seals and plastics, requiring MUCH more expensive gaskets and parts. It LOVES water- so dehydrated ethanol (100%) rapidly drops to its azeotropic point and is no longer clean burning.

      While that can be fixed by using regenerative zeolite molecular sieves it requires still more engineering and cost (zeolites are pretty cheap in the 55 gallon drum, from what I remember- we designed a separation plant to use them).

      As you say, everything can be overcome with engineering there. I just
  • by Zaatxe (939368) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @08:02AM (#17841300)
    Why are we making ethanol if we're trying to make a fuel?

    My car runs with ethanol (it runs with gasoline too). Isn't it a fuel? (According to the dictionary, yes, it is.) More than that, my car does 11.8 kilometers per liter (27.75 miles per gallon for americans, 8.478 liters per 100 km for europeans) with ethanol and it costs only 65% of the price of gasoline.
    It would have to run 18.15 km per liter with gasoline (42.69 mpg, 5.51 l/100km) to have the same cost per kilometer, but it doesn't go further than 15 km/l.

    Gasoline? Not for me, thanks!
  • by cdn-programmer (468978) <terr AT terralogic DOT net> on Thursday February 01, 2007 @08:40AM (#17841462)
    It doesn't really matter all that much what the end product is... ethanol is perfectly fine. The point is one ton of dry woody biomass is about the same as 2 barrels of oil and this if you can convert for free.

    Starches are fine to start with, but only a small amount of the plant ends up as starch. An even smaller amount ends up as oils. Celulose, pentosans and lignins compose the majority of plant tissues. There are many fungi which digest these and some can be harnessed to produce alcohols. The issue is we are still stuck with one ton of dry plant matter equals about 2 barrels of oil.

    The USA burns about 20 million barrels of oil per day. From a plant source this is 40 million tonnes per day.

    A cheaper and more promising way to produce this oil is using the Fischer Tropche process and doing coal->liquids or coal->gas. Note that Alberta Tar Sands operations are essentually bitumin->liquids. Bitumin is a little closer chemically to what we need than coal is... IE both are hydrogen poor in that liquid fuels in the Alkane series (most of what we use) have about a 2:1 ratio of hydrogen to carbon.

    Coal depending on the type is about 0.6:1 and bitumin is closer to 1:1.

    Methane is 4:1. This means that methane is a good chemical feedstock from which to obtain the hydrogen needed.

    This also means it is stupid to be burning methane... it is far more valuable as a chemical feedstock than a fuel.

    Plant matter does fit into the equation, it is not as hydrogen poor. Plant matter is basically (CH2O)n and from this we can see that it is a partially oxidized hydrocarbon. This means that plant matter is hydrogen poor unless we can break the H2O bonds and this is the same problem we face with coal and bitumin. Ie... in the case of coal and bitumin, we can break H2O bonds in river water or lake water or ocean water to obtain our hydrogen.

    Note that alcohols are also partially oxidized hydrocarbons. Ethanol for instance is C2H5OH. This means it is easier to obtain ethanol from sugar because both the sugar and the ethanol contains Oxygen. The flip side of this is that since the molecule is already partially oxidized, it doesn't contain as much energy as an un-oxydized Alkane such as the ethane (C2H6) parent molecule. Also note that ethane for instance has an atomic weight of 30 while ethanol has an atomic weight of 46. So you have less energy with about 1.5 times the weight.

    (BTW - this is the short of why the oil industry is building LNG tankers. Methanol (CH3OH) is safer and easier to transport than CH4 (liquid), but 1/2 the weight of methanol is oxygen).

    All this means is there isn't a free lunch. Production of any fuel from a sugar polymer source (dry plant matter) is going to require energy and the only biological source of this energy comes from oxidizing carbon to obtain the energy required to salvage the hydrogen. This results in massive releases of CO2 (of course - its the raw material plants use to create dry matter - hense it is not polution and is in fact fertilizer). Next you lose a significant amount of the total mass of the dry matter we start with. We eventually are left with one ton of dry plant matter is equivalent to 2 barrels of oil - if we can convert it for free.

    We are back to needing 40 tonnes of dry plant matter per day and massive factories which don't exist.
  • A few items back engineer-poet posted this link: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2006/12/solix_and _ color.html [greencarcongress.com] which claims to get to jet fuel-like stuff:
    "The algae oil can also be refined into other liquid fuels, including ethanol and jet fuel."
    In this case they can leave out the intermediate step of making sugar and take advantage of the higher photosynthetic productivity of algae over rooted plants. I wonder if the two groups should get together to try to further process the algae biologically to get i
  • Ethanol is Better (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Thursday February 01, 2007 @09:58AM (#17842160) Homepage Journal
    Why should we make something that looks a lot like diesel when we can make ethanol? Ethanol is close to the energy content of gasoline. It burns much more cleanly in fuelcells than does gasoline. Diesel doesn't burn in fuelcells - it needs more complex, pressurized, much less efficient mechanical parts. Ethanol is much less toxic and more easily handled than gasoline or diesel.

    Sure, gasoline goes right into existing cars. But so does high-concentration ethanol/gasoline mixtures. By the time gasoline is too scarce to add, even if in a decade or two, we can have upgraded engines to fuelcells to use ethanol. And the greenhouse gas pollution we'll pump into the atmosphere will be much less: solving our two biggest "carbon economy" problems at once, instead of perpetuating one while taking pressure off by solving the other.

    If anything, we should be looking at lower-energy/impact production techniques for methanol, which has 1/2 the carbon of every ethanol molecule to pump into the atmosphere as pollution.

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