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Biotech Earth Power Science

Generating Alcohol Fuels From Electrical Current and CO2 82

Posted by Soulskill
from the we-have-those-things dept.
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

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  • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Friday March 30, 2012 @11:38AM (#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.

    • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday March 30, 2012 @11:44AM (#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.

      • by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Friday March 30, 2012 @12:17PM (#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 <-

      • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

        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

        • 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

    • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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...
        • by Belial6 (794905) on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:55PM (#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.
          • 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
        • by nroets (1463881)

          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]

        • by FishTankX (1539069) on Sunday April 01, 2012 @08:36AM (#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.

          • 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)

      by ch-chuck (9622)

      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?

    • 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!

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

  • and was like..what?

  • by Ogi_UnixNut (916982) on Friday March 30, 2012 @11:40AM (#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)

      by autocannon (2494106)

      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

      • by TheLink (130905)
        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.
        • 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.

      • by icebike (68054) * on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:26PM (#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.

    • by mlts (1038732) * on Friday March 30, 2012 @11:51AM (#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.

      • by TheLink (130905)

        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]

        • by danbert8 (1024253)

          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.

          • by icebike (68054) *

            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

            • by danbert8 (1024253)

              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.

            • 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.

        • by Dare nMc (468959)

          Losses is only a small part of cost. From what I see Electric transmission distribution costs to a home is at least $.13 /kwhr (based on electric production cost of $.03 to $10, and avg home cost $.20+ local line cost $.03.) While Fuel distribution cost to a gas station is $.25 per gallon [ca.gov] (1 gallon = 33 kwhr.) so gasoline costs $.0075 /kwhr to distribute.
          If used for charging a electric car vs hybrid, add in the weight savings of gasoline over electric, storage costs, charger costs. The reduced transporta

    • by walkerp1 (523460)

      The potential in future of people being able to generate their own fuel if they so desire could really be a game changer IMO.

      It will definitely spark a revenuer's revival.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Butanol also doesn't absorb humidity like ethanol and that makes it much easier to use in practice. Ethanol will soak up severl % of water from the air given a chance and that's not good for combustion in the engine.

      Using electricity to drive the reaction would solve the land use and contamination issue with algae based bio fuels. This reaction could occur in much more condensed and controlled circumstances. Also you can run the reaction 24/7 rather than just when the sun shines typically ~5-7 hours a da

    • by chichilalescu (1647065) on Friday March 30, 2012 @12:14PM (#39523725) Homepage Journal

      the link to the abstract is in the summary; here's the link to the full text: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6076/1596.full [sciencemag.org]

      my knowledge of organic chemistry is very bad, so I can't go through the details. what I see is "we have a process that takes in energy and can convert atmospheric CO2 into fuel", which basically means that we no longer need oil for burning (I don't know about plastics). this would be very nice because we could in principle reach an equilibrium between burning fuel and eating up CO2.

      couple this with the research from a few weeks ago that allowed "heat extraction" with tiny LEDs, and we may just solve the big problem: nuclear fusion/fission to generate electricity which is then used for a carbon neutral industry/transport, and eliminate extra heat by pointing LEDs at the sky; basically we could have a society that uses a lot of energy, but we don't produce any extra heat or CO2 on average.

      • by Hatta (162192)

        couple this with the research from a few weeks ago that allowed "heat extraction" with tiny LEDs, and we may just solve the big problem: nuclear fusion/fission to generate electricity which is then used for a carbon neutral industry/transport, and eliminate extra heat by pointing LEDs at the sky; basically we could have a society that uses a lot of energy, but we don't produce any extra heat or CO2 on average.

        Uh, no. If you can extract energy from heat and convert it into light with an LED, you can do work

        • I should have explained.
          the research I'm talking about is this one http://prl.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v108/i9/e097403 [aps.org] (slashdot discussion http://science.slashdot.org/story/12/03/08/1833224/leds-efficiency-exceeds-100 [slashdot.org]). those people showed that you can have an LED that you feed X energy (as electrical current), and it emits nX energy as light, where n>1. the extra energy comes from decreasing the temperature of the LED.

          I was talking about the fact that if we do succeed in making a carbon neutral industry, w

          • by Hatta (162192)

            There's nothing to explain, the details of the process are irrelevant. Your scheme is still thermodynamically impossible. I don't know how to explain it any simpler, so I'll just repeat myself.

            Any energy you are drawing from the heat and converting to light (by any process at all) can be used for useful work. If you direct that energy away from Earth, you are going to have to make up for that energy with some other source. Generating more energy for useful work will produce more heat than you extracte

            • You are perfectly right. However, if you are generating too much energy (and you can do that with fusion), and you don't want to over heat the Earth, then you have to get rid of excess heat.

              I am seriously talking about overheating the Earth once you can use electricity to generate stuff like natural gas because that is a lot of energy to put in, and you can't turn all electricity into useful fuel. the extra heat might need to be thrown out.

              • by Hatta (162192)

                and you can't turn all electricity into useful fuel. the extra heat might need to be thrown out.

                Any extra heat that the LEDs are extracting is useful fuel. You can do work with that heat. Throwing it out is wasting it.

    • by fnj (64210)

      Butanol has a somewhat lower chemical energy/volume ratio than gasoline, but substantially better than ethanol or methanol. Sure that makes it "one of the highest density methods of storing [chemical] energy", for SOME definition of "one of", but it doesn't make it outstanding by any means.

      The fact that you can synthesize a hydrocarbon from a source of carbon (CO2) and hydrogen (H2O) is no surprise to anyone of normal education level.

      • by Ogi_UnixNut (916982) on Friday March 30, 2012 @12:29PM (#39523937) Homepage

        Yeah, but gasoline is one of the highest methods of storing energy we have (as in, both from a scientific and economical perspective). To have something that is similar to gasoline in energy density, can use existing infrastructure (which has had what, 100 odd years of investment and process refining?), fast transfer of said energy, and is compatible with all existing gasoline engines, I think it quite outstanding.

        There may be better methods of energy storage, but a pragmatic balance needs to be found, I believe Butanol has potential.

        And yet, despite it being of no surprise to anyone of normal education level, it has proved to be very hard to do it in a cost effective way, specifically in a way that does not need light/growing on land (like other algae-based methods of butanol production).

        The idea that you could for example, bury the entire butanol production facility underground, and pipe CO2/electricity to it and get fuel, and leave the land above for conventional farming/life/etc... would be quite a cool feature.

        • by Solandri (704621) on Friday March 30, 2012 @01:46PM (#39525083)
          To put it in perspective, gasoline contains about 34 MJ per liter (129 MJ per gallon). Even if you assume an internal combustion engine vehicle has an abysmal 15% efficiency (fuel to wheels), its usable energy density is 5.1 MJ/l (19.3 MJ/gal). If you spend 3 minutes at the pump filling up 50 liters (13.2 gal), you're transferring energy at a rate of 1.42 MegaWatts.

          If you then assume the electric vehicle is 100% efficient (socket to wheels), to reach 1.42 MW with the 220 V circuit found in most homes, you'd need 6440 Amps. More than 40x the amperage which feeds into the typical home and enough to melt pretty much any wiring most people commonly deal with. This is the big problem with the idea of capacitors as batteries - unless you switch to extremely high voltages (meaning a steep step-down transformer needs to be on board the car with associated weight and efficiency losses), you're not gonna be able to use a cable in place of a gas pump hose to charge them up in a few minutes. The current will need to be transferred by something much more substantial.

          Or if you like the idea of kinetic batteries (flywheels), 1.42 MW is about the same energy dissipation rate as two 2000 kg vehicles traveling 96 kph (60 mph) colliding and coming to a complete stop within 1 second. If you imagine 180 of such crashes happening in the span of 3 minutes, that's how much usable energy you're pumping into your gas tank every time you fill up.

          Liquid chemical fuels contain a helluva lot of energy; so much that it's going to be very difficult for other technologies to supplant them for transportation. I really think the energy storage medium for vehicles in the future will turn out to be alcohol-based biofuels generated like in TFA.
          • I like the way it works in video games, such as Wipeout and a hundred others. To recharge your electric car without even stopping just pull into the lane with the glowing >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> and in a matter of seconds your fully charged. If your car could be charged every few miles you would need far smaller battery packs saving weight and whatever rare or unpleasant materials your batteries are made of. I hate filling my car with gas in the winter and I'm not ke
            • I live in the Canadian prairies. The nearest cities with over half a million people are 700km in one direction, and 900km in the other direction. I've done both multiple times.

              I've driven 3200km in three days in a 26-foot moving van. I've driven 1700km in 22hrs including a howling blizzard in the Rocky Mountains.

              For commuting electric vehicles can be great. For some trips you need energy density.

  • Basically a battery (Score:2, Informative)

    by gatkinso (15975)

    That is light, easier to manufacture, easier to transport.

  • Unless the microbes consume themselves or they fission the C or O, something's missing (probably in my understanding).

  • Slime (Score:4, Informative)

    by jklovanc (1603149) on Friday March 30, 2012 @12:04PM (#39523603)

    There is one issue that all bioreactors have when they attempt to scale; contamination. They generally work well in laboratory setting where conditions are pristine and test cycles are short but when they attempt to scale they find that the biological reactant very quickly becomes contaminated with other algae and the remains of dead algae. It very quickly become unusable slime. This is an issue that needs to be overcome before large scale bioreactors will ever become viable. Research into the next step, which is the specific process to create a desired output, is useless until this fundamental roadblock is dealt with. It is a bit like designing a robot powered by a fusion engine before the fusion engine has been invented.

    • Yeah, but to continue your analogy, if we develop said robot so well, and to a point where it becomes so cheap to have one, people would push towards investing in getting the other side (fusion engine) working in the knowledge that its the missing link.

      In fact knowing the potential of the robot if you could only get the engine working could well motivate more people into investigating solutions, be it for profit, changing the world, fame, or whatever other reason people have.

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        I would agree with this if not for the billions that have already gone into R&D in fusion engines in the last 20 years and still no solution has been found.

        The other issue is that hoping someone else will pick up the stumbling block is wishful thinking. Basically it is saying the we will do the easy work and let the hard work be done by someone else. It is either s complete solution or it is not a solution.

        The premise is based on two assumptions; one that a solution is possible and 2 that someone else w

    • I don't know how large scale you want, but large scale bioreactors are currently producing at all major breweries. Also, very likely at pharmaceutical companies. The problem of contamination is a problem for continuous reactors, but batch reactors with brewmasters to monitor and adjust conditions work great. Contamination generally will only affect one batch and you can isolate it and decon without compromising your entire production run.
      Still expensive though. Multiply the cost of your favorite beer (

      • by jklovanc (1603149)

        That is exactly my point. The cost of Everclear is closer to $200/gallon than $4/lgallon which prices the process far out of reach. The other issue is that they are talking about a continuous process and not a batch process.

        • by QQBoss (2527196)

          Don't confuse cost of production with price to the consumer, please! First off, you can buy Everclear for about US$14/750ml [budgetbottle.com] (~$70/gallon) today, but that isn't the cost of manufacture and we don't fill our cars from 750ml glass bottles. Want to find out a more meaningful price of 95% grain alcohol in bulk? Buy it by the 55 gallon drum for food purity/proof (think maraschino cherries, as one example) verification. It is very, very cheap to buy that way (at least relative to the profit that can be made s

          • by jklovanc (1603149)

            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

  • by cryfreedomlove (929828) on Friday March 30, 2012 @12:23PM (#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.
    • 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.

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

  • 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)!

    • 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?)

  • by crow (16139) on Friday March 30, 2012 @01:00PM (#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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