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## Generating Alcohol Fuels From Electrical Current and CO282

New submitter AcMNPV writes "A news release from UCLA describes a new process for producing biofuels using microorganisms, electrical current and carbon dioxide (abstract). Quoting: 'Liao and his team genetically engineered a lithoautotrophic microorganism known as Ralstonia eutropha H16 to produce isobutanol and 3-methyl-1-butanol in an electro-bioreactor using carbon dioxide as the sole carbon source and electricity as the sole energy input. Photosynthesis is the process of converting light energy to chemical energy and storing it in the bonds of sugar. There are two parts to photosynthesis — a light reaction and a dark reaction. The light reaction converts light energy to chemical energy and must take place in the light. The dark reaction, which converts CO2 to sugar, doesn't directly need light to occur. "We've been able to separate the light reaction from the dark reaction and instead of using biological photosynthesis, we are using solar panels to convert the sunlight to electrical energy, then to a chemical intermediate, and using that to power carbon dioxide fixation to produce the fuel," Liao said.'"
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## Generating Alcohol Fuels From Electrical Current and CO2

• #### Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (Score:5, Interesting)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @10:38AM (#39523297)

...and reaction rates. I'm guessing this wouldn't be useful in a regenerative-braking regime, but I'd love to know whether it's fast enough for grid load-balancing, efficient enough to eventually become cheaper than alternatives, or just an interesting proof-of-concept. My money is on the last.

• #### Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (Score:5, Insightful)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @10:44AM (#39523377) Homepage

You might want to cut them some slack. This is a proof-of-concept, er, give-me-more-money demonstration. Of course, most of these sorts of things don't scale, don't work outside the bottle and won't end up commercialized, but it is an interesting way to go about doing things.

In general, I'm leery of using bioreactors as a production tool. They're expensive, cranky of maintenance and tend to smell bad.

But you've got to start somewhere.

• #### Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (Score:5, Funny)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @11:17AM (#39523769)

In general, I'm leery of using bioreactors as a production tool. They're expensive, cranky of maintenance and tend to smell bad.

-> insert ex-wife joke here <-

• #### Re: (Score:2)

And if you think about it as a carbon-fixing tool that can replace the carbon credit system, these things are even less relevant.

Use a little electricity to re-fix some of the CO2 you have released, and you can immediately and locally offset CO2 instead of growing a tree farm hundreds of miles away.

The fuel would likely be a side effect, kinda like whatever is behind the gas flare of an oil operation. It costs more to store and transport than it's worth, so they burn it off. In other words, not the primar

• #### Re: (Score:3)

Use a little electricity to re-fix some of the CO2 you have released, and you can immediately and locally offset CO2 instead of growing a tree farm hundreds of miles away.

And everything would be just peachy if we could do that. But thermodynamics, that hidebound, officious boor, insists that undoing our messes takes more energy than making them in the first place. In other words, if you "use a little electricity", you'll re-fix only a very little of the CO2 you produced.

Fixing CO2 to make fuel inherently consumes more energy than burning fuel to make CO2. You win if the energy you're consuming is extremely cheap, or something that would otherwise be wasted. But if your effic

• #### Re: (Score:2)

Indeed. Last time I saw this sort of research, they'd made a 'stunning breakthrough'.... achieving 0.6% energy efficiency. Trees still do it better.

• #### Re: (Score:3)

But how much space and time does this need vs. trees? That's the problem with biofuels, maybe this could make them more practical on a large scale.

• #### Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (Score:4, Insightful)

<rgb@@@phy...duke...edu> on Friday March 30, 2012 @12:03PM (#39524421) Homepage
Agreed. I'd be a lot more impressed if they can build an entire catalytic converter, perhaps using templated nanoscale catalysts, that take hot CO_2 and H2_O in on one end, use either sunlight or electricity as a free energy source, and spit pure octane out the other side. That one might be able to figure out well enough to where one could engineer large scale electroconversion, production of ethanol or octane (ideally the latter) on an industrial scale. If it can work efficiently with natural CO_2 levels in the air, so much the better.

Of course they can synthesize gasoline out of e.g. coal now -- I recall perhaps the Nazis doing this in WW II? -- but I think the process is still uneconomical compared to pumping and refining oil. I'd really like a rooftop collector that takes a gallon or two of water, atmospheric CO_2, and spits out a couple of gallons of pure gasoline in an normal day of sunshine. At 37 kW-hours per gallon, this wouldn't be terribly easy, actually (or rather, it would require a pretty big roof:-) but that's precisely why it is hard to beat gasoline as a fuel. A 5 kW rooftop collector, an 8 hour day, nearly perfect efficiency would make just one lousy gallon of gasoline. But that's more than I USE in a typical day, and at $4/gallon it would be$1200+ return per year...
• #### Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (Score:4, Interesting)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @01:55PM (#39526099)
An added benefit would be that if you lived in a rural setting, you would have more space for panels and could use the fuel as a storage mechanism for generating electricity at night. It would make off grid solar more reasonable.
• #### Re: (Score:2)

Truly excellent point. Also, one could cover deserts with panels and get them to literally drip gasoline. If one assumes a gallon of gasoline per 4x4 meter grid square (16 m^2 of collector), then a square kilometer of collectors would produce 250x250 = 62500 gallons of gasoline a day. 100 km x 100 km would produce 6.25 \times 10^8 gallons a day, or about 2 gallons per US citizen. A comparatively small patch of e.g. Arizona or New Mexico could make the US entirely self-sufficient in gasoline and do so in
• #### Re: (Score:1)

synthesize gasoline out of e.g. coal ... is still uneconomical compared to pumping and refining oil

Where coal is cheap enough, it can be extremely profitable [wikipedia.org]

It is however also the single largest point source of carbon dioxide in the world [csir.co.za]

• #### Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (Score:4, Informative)

on Sunday April 01, 2012 @07:36AM (#39540023)

The process your thinking of to make gasoline from coal is called the Fischer tropsch process and is currently economical however the facilities are not cheap and the end cost is equivalent to fifty dollar a barrel oil. The reason nobody has built them large scale other than south Africa is that once you start producing on a huge scale if it became a threat then the oil companies would probably ramp production crashing the price of oil and putting you out of business.

• #### Re: (Score:2)

It sounds like oil is coming up against an economic barrier, though. While oil is highly profitable companies have a tendency to expand to fill their margins, and after years of operation at a given level of profitability belt tightening beyond a certain point no longer is feasible. If oil companies "ramp production" and crash the price of oil, they no longer can sell the increased production -- indeed, it is this that causes the price reduction, having more oil around than people want/need to buy. The e
• #### Re: (Score:3, Funny)

I'm guessing this wouldn't be useful in a regenerative-braking regime

I donno, every time you hit the breaks, you get a little bit of candy?

• #### interesting proof-of-concept (Score:2)

My first thought a "Dune suit" to wear clubbing that turns your breath back into drinkable alcohol?

Dude, have a taste of this stuff I got in my catch pocket!

• #### Re: (Score:1)

It's fast enough for grid load-balancing. There, do you feel better now?

• #### I read ACLU... (Score:1)

and was like..what?

• #### Now this could be potentially game changing.... (Score:5, Interesting)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @10:40AM (#39523331) Homepage

Butanol is an excellent replacement for petrol, because it can be used in cars with minimal/no modification to the engine (unlike running on ethanol) making it more akin to the petrol equivalent of biodiesel.

It is also one of the highest density methods of storing energy, and can make use of existing infrastructure (which also doesn't need modification to store, like with ethanol)

However I clicked a few links down and could not find the paper itself, anyone got a link? The ability to generate butanol without sunlight (and by removing CO2 from the atmosphere) sounds too good to be true quite frankly, as this could potentially solve a lot of problems (without needing to take up huge amounts of land, compete with food production, etc...).

TFA mentions using solar panels, but the thing is that it uses electricity, you could just as easily generate it from Nuclear, Hydro or any other power source. The potential in future of people being able to generate their own fuel if they so desire could really be a game changer IMO.

• #### Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

For mass production it's likely they would just connect to the power grid and use whatever was available. I'd imagine they demonstrated it at this stage with solar to show that the output of that panel was sufficient to drive the reaction, thereby making it a standalone system.

So would they envision the entire system being in place on a vehicle, or putting larger systems in place at refueling stations. Seems like the latter would be more efficient as well as necessary for extensive night driving. It'd be

• #### Re: (Score:2)

I wonder what the maximum practical efficiencies are.

If they are very high then they might be better than battery vehicles. You go electricity/whatever-> butanol/hydrocarbon. Then at the car you do butanol/hydrocarbon -> electricity.
Otherwise batteries would beat them.

If the efficiencies are high but not high enough for cars, it still could be good enough for some aircraft. I don't think you'll have battery powered vehicles flying near the speed of sound any time soon.
• #### bioethanol or hydrogen instead (Score:2)

butanol/hydrocarbon -> electricity in a combustion engine will have terrible efficiency. It might be more efficient in a fuel cell, I don't know if there's one that operates on butanol.

Planes are going to need liquid fuel because of its high energy density, but it seems more likely that either some reaction to produce bioethanol from cellulosic or algae can be industrialized, or we'll compress hydrogen. CO2 is the end of the line, turning it back into a fuel will take a lot of energy.

• #### Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (Score:4, Insightful)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @01:26PM (#39525603)

For mass production it's likely they would just connect to the power grid and use whatever was available. I'd imagine they demonstrated it at this stage with solar to show that the output of that panel was sufficient to drive the reaction, thereby making it a standalone system.

I suspect they chose solar because virtually any other source of power creates more CO2 than this process would use.
Solar or Wind, which become available on their own schedule, and not always in sync with mankind's needs could use a good sink, and that makes them the logical choice for this type of project.

We don't have enough power on anybody's national grid to accommodate all the recharging of electric vehicles planned for the market as it is. So in my mind its doubtful this process would EVER make economic sense, because its a pretty inefficient storage mechanism, and merely a short term sequestration of Carbon.

• #### Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (Score:4, Interesting)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @10:51AM (#39523451)

In theory, this would be the next best thing to room temperature superconductors for getting electricity long distances.

I can envision a nuclear/solar/wind farm out in west Texas generating energy, then using this method to create butanol, which runs via a pipeline to a burning facility that is near a populated area, which powers the grid. Yes, this is not that efficient, but neither is the large energy loss from long distance power lines.

• #### Re: (Score:3)

And what percentage do you regard as "large energy loss"?

I doubt butanol creation and "transmission" losses will be lower than 6.5%:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission#Losses [wikipedia.org]

• #### Re: (Score:3)

On transmission I agree with you, there are minimal losses moving electrical energy. However, storing energy is a whole different issue. Storing electricity as a liquid fuel is a very attractive possibility.

• #### Re: (Score:2)

On transmission I agree with you, there are minimal losses moving electrical energy. However, storing energy is a whole different issue. Storing electricity as a liquid fuel is a very attractive possibility.

We lack a good storage capability for electrical power, but I'm not convinced this would be the solution.

Not when you calculate the losses likely involved in liquid storage. I suspect the CO2-->Butanol-->Combustion-->Kenetic/heat would be much more lossy than simply pumping water up-hill, and releasing it thru generators, something like done at Grand Coulee [wikipedia.org] where the pump generators are used to pump water uphill, and the exact same device us used to create electricity from the release of that wate

• #### Re: (Score:2)

I agree that pumped hydro is by far the cheapest energy storage. However, there are only limited areas where this is useful. You also lose a lot of energy due to evaporation. Believe me, if it were possible I would power the world with hydro energy. Sadly, we consume far too much energy for that to work. And if we can't get fusion figured out and all the idiots that hate fission prevent new plants from being built we'll have to rely on other generation methods that are not controllable.

• #### Re: (Score:2)

Listen, this is a simple problem. It's one that I solved in 2005, and which eventually morphed into the Pickens Plan. Synthetic liquid fuel doesn't need to be converted back into electricity. It can be used to fuel vehicles. It does a fine job of that, better than batteries. The inefficiencies don't matter, because of the cost premium of liquid fuels. Just build enough intermittent electric capacity to cover the average usage, and let the market do the rest.

• #### Re: (Score:2)

The other issue with grain alcohol is that the energy output from grain alcohol is only about 1.2 thims the energy required to produce it and that is not even taking into account the energy required to produce the organic material to produce the mash. To distill alcohol from conventional material requires a lot of heat and then cooling. That heat has to come from somewhere and that is the energy that goes into production. As an additive to reduce emissions alcohol, produced conventionally, works well. As a

• #### This beats war any day (Score:5, Interesting)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @11:23AM (#39523857)
Our current energy policy subsidizes pumping crude oil from the ground. The subsidy consists of a massive influx of American military forces into the Middle East. Imagine life without that. Before you say it is too expensive, make sure you are comparing the cost of this promising new technology to the current costs of war.
• #### Re: (Score:2)

Even if (and it's a big if) this works with tolerable efficiency the electrical energy has to come from somewhere. Burning coal/gas/biomass to make electricity to make oil substitutes is unlikely to make sense compared to more direct conversion processes like fischer tropsch. So this kind of electricity to liquids conversion is only likely to be worthwhile in a world where the overwhelming majority of electricty comes from either nuclear or renewable sources.

• #### Slight modifications needed ... (Score:2)

to generate ethanol rather than butanol and next pipes for ice and fruit juice, then voila - a solar powered cocktail machine!

• #### Wow, *another* inefficient solar collection scheme (Score:2)

that has no chance of scaling up to replace any significant portion of the 160 exajoules of energy currently added to civilization by oil each year. Phew. I haven't seen one of these stories in *weeks.* Next up, algae saves the world (again)!

• #### Re: (Score:2)

It's not an algae. It's a bacterium [google.com]!

Prokaryotes rule!

(Who do you think will be around after silly humans trash the planet back to the Proterozoic?)

• #### DARPA interest for forward military bases (Score:5, Informative)

on Friday March 30, 2012 @12:00PM (#39524363) Homepage Journal

DARPA was funding research into something like this recently. The idea is that for forward military bases, such as in Afghanistan, you can install a small nuclear reactor for electrical power (much like the navy's reactors), but you have a huge logistical issue with supplying adequate fuel for trucks and planes. So the solution is to synthesize the fuel from the excess electricity, greatly reducing the resupply needs of the bases.

Apparently European countries like France that generate a lot of nuclear power are also interested because nuclear reactors don't scale their power generation with dynamic demand, so there is often excess power. If there are enough non-nuclear plants that can be idled when demand drops, that's great, but if not, then being able to produce diesel fuel for free with the excess is a good option.

I wonder if this was funded as part of that DARPA program?

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