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Transportation Science

Scientists Create New Gasoline Substitute Out of Plants 419

Posted by samzenpus
from the miles-per-leaf dept.
destinyland writes "California scientists have just created a new biofuel using plants that burns just as well as a petroleum-based fuel. 'The discovery, published in the journal Nature, means corn, sugar cane, grasses and other fast-growing plants or trees, like eucalyptus, could be used to make the propellant, replacing oil,' writes the San Francisco Chronicle, and the researchers predict mass marketing of their product within 5 to 10 years. They created their fuel using a fermentation process that was first discovered in 1914, but which was then discontinued in 1965 when petroleum became the dominant source of fuel. The new fuel actually contains more energy per gallon than is currently contained in ethanol, and its potency can even be adjusted for summer or winter driving."
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Scientists Create New Gasoline Substitute Out of Plants

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  • hmm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by buddyglass (925859) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:34AM (#42613651)
    How much energy does it take to create given a requirement of infinite sustainability? i.e. you have to replenish the soil in which the trees grow with fertilizer, etc.
  • by msobkow (48369) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:36AM (#42613665) Homepage Journal

    I know bio-diesel requires oil-producing crops vs. sugar producing crops, but other than that I'm curious how this fuel might be "better" than bio-diesel. Given that bio-diesel can be produced using hemp seed oil (a plant that literally grows like a weed in the worst of conditions), I'd think the hemp alternative would be better.

    The milled hemp kernels left behind by the oil extraction provide a high-protein animal feed, and the stalks produce fiber that can replace a wide number of products.

    I'd guess the remaining hemp stalk material after the fiber has been extracted could still be put through this fermentation process.

    So enlighten me.

    Why aren't we pursuing hemp-based bio-diesel instead?

  • by A bsd fool (2667567) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:37AM (#42613677)

    What is with these people that think we can meet any reasonable amount of our energy needs, nationally or globally, with alcohol? It takes literally seconds to look up the maximum arable land in a country, determine how much fuel you could make if you used all of it at 100% efficiency, and then see that this is nowhere near enough fuel to replace gasoline. During this exercise you're allowed to ignore the impact this would have when that land is no longer available for current purposes.

    Until there are major advances in where this stuff can be grown, to get the energy produced per acre much higher than it actually is, and prevent "simple" natural disasters from ruining entire crops for the season, this stuff is never going to take off no matter the hype.

  • Re:hmm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FridayBob (619244) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:39AM (#42613685) Homepage
    To put it another way, How many gallons of this fuel will it take to produce one gallon of this fuel?
  • by tepples (727027) <tepples@nOSpAM.gmail.com> on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:43AM (#42613715) Homepage Journal

    Why aren't we pursuing hemp-based bio-diesel instead?

    Because aerial surveillance can't tell the low-THC strains of C. sativa grown for hemp from the higher-THC strains grown for a psychoactive substance. Perhaps one of the U.S. states that has legalized pot on a state level (with President Obama's announced lack of enforcement priority) can experiment with a hemp industry.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:49AM (#42613767) Journal
    Not to shatter your conspiratorial fantasy, but this research was actually funded by BP. A lot of big oil companies are investing in alternate energy these days as a hedge for when oil is no longer needed. They say, "We're not in the oil business, we're in the energy business."
  • by Jiro (131519) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:50AM (#42613779)

    Because hemp is being vastly oversold by people who want to get high on pot and figure that promoting hemp growing is a way to legalization.

    Growing hemp is legal pretty much everywhere in Europe. If hemp was as much a wonder material as its promoters claimed it was, Europe would be using it for bio-diesel anyway.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:52AM (#42613807) Journal

    but can you use it as an excuse to invade?

    You've got it backwards man, oil is the reason to invade. Evil dictators and terrorists are the excuse.

  • by tepples (727027) <tepples@nOSpAM.gmail.com> on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:54AM (#42613821) Homepage Journal
    Hunger in poor countries is not a production problem quite as much as a distribution problem.
  • by phantomfive (622387) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:14AM (#42613935) Journal
    NIMBY.

    There is a major difficulty between the US and countries like Brazil for extracting oil: in the US, all the oil countries are private, so politicians have no problem restricting them for environmental reasons. Politicians in California complain when a new oil reserve is found.

    When the politicians have a major stake in the oil company, like Petrobras or Gazprom, they are more than happy to ignore environmental concerns to fund their projects. Politicians there celebrate when a new oil reserve is found.
  • by VortexCortex (1117377) <VortexCortexNO@S ... t-retrograde.com> on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:18AM (#42613949) Homepage

    Not to shatter your conspiratorial fantasy, but this research was actually funded by BP. A lot of big oil companies are investing in alternate energy these days as a hedge for when oil is no longer needed. They say, "We're not in the oil business, we're in the energy business."

    Correction: A lot of big oil companies are interested in patenting alternate energy sources these days, because patents can stifle innovation...

  • Re:hmm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by afidel (530433) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:26AM (#42613997)

    I was listening to NPR on the way home today and the article mentioned that if we took all the biomass from all of the farmland both producing and fallow and were able to convert it all directly to ethanol that it would STILL only account for 14% of the US energy budget. So if we all stopped eating, and stopped exporting food, we'd still only scratch the surface of the energy we use. Converting crops/crop waste is a dead end track, it's simply not in the right order of magnitude to solve our problem, we need to focus on increased efficiency on the consumption end of thing if we want to get a handle on the problem and then we can start looking at non-plant solutions like solar, wind, and possibly large scale algae farming (much higher production per acre and it doesn't have to compete with food production)

  • by A bsd fool (2667567) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:32AM (#42614019)

    1. Switchgrass average production: 14.6 tons / hectare

    2. Ethanol 100 gallons/ton

    3. Total land area (not arable, total for CONUS, period) 766 million hectares

    Total fuel production per year: 1.1 trillion gallons

    Gasoline and diesel consumption in 2011: 200 billion gallons.

    So you tell me. Do you think it's realistic to convert 20% of the total land area of the country to switchgrass production? It would certainly make sense to use it to replace corn, once the technology matures, but it's never going to replace petroleum unless they figure out a way go grow it much more densely without raising the cost of production too much. There are better alternatives to solve the oil crunch than plants-as-fuel. CNG is one. LPG is another.

  • Re:hmm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by proca (2678743) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:49AM (#42614101)
    Solar and wind and every other new-wave energy source is just a way to supplement base load. If you know anything about electricity generation, you should know that the world depends on base load energy: energy generated from reliable sources that accounts for like 70% of all energy usage, i.e. coal, gas and nuclear. Until we find a solution for base load energy like fusion or invent god-like batteries or power lines made of superconductors that cost $100 per mile, everything else is a pipe dream.
  • CO2? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spongman (182339) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @03:13AM (#42614199)

    great, but when you burn it does it still spew CO2 into the atmosphere?

    when are we going wake up and start using cars powered by hydrogen separated from water in LFTRs?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 17, 2013 @03:54AM (#42614351)

    Don't you think it would be easier to get it in your backyard, considering that the US has tons of it?

    Growing fuel crops on US soil just creates a new problem when agricultural production is boosted and aquifers become massively overused. They already are overused but making fuel from plants would aggrivate the problem enormously. Then the free market bullshotters would crawl from under every rock preaching how that is nothing to worry about bcause the invisible hand will fix that problem sooner or later and Fox News goes into overdrive with discussion panels full of useful idiots explaining to an eager public how aquifers are an inexhaustible resource and that god will provide. Meanwhile lobbying groups in congress will get busy ensuring that efforts to fix the aquifer exhaustion problem will only get underway when it is way too late to fix the problem anyway.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 17, 2013 @03:59AM (#42614365)

    Yeah, I see the US government really making things difficult for Exxon all the time. They are always so worried about the environment! Thankfully, because the US government never, ever gives in to big corporations, and always has them in check, the environment is preserved.

    Of course, if American oil fields were a property of the State, THEN there would be trouble, because all those environmentalist politicians would have no way to control them, and would have no other choice but to open the taps and let the oil spill onto the tundras and the seas.

    Your truth is blinding! Can't see how wasn't I aware of that before. Anyway, you should learn the difference between politicians and the Government. Politicians, as individuals, may have stakes in private companies where the Government might not participate (or might do). Though either way, you make no sense.

  • Re:CO2? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by azalin (67640) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @05:17AM (#42614625)
    You seem to have missed the production part (aka photosynthesis) were CO2 is consumed. Plants use CO2 from the air to grow, so even if you burn the plant afterwards, you'll end up with no extra CO2 in the atmosphere. At most you'll end up with the same amount you had before. Fossil fuel (oil, coal, natural gas) is different even because the carbon in it, was stored millions of years ago and has been absent from the atmosphere for this time.
    Hydrogen while producing "cleaner" emissions at the combustion location, does not have any net advantage in CO2 over biofuel. There may be some difference in the production process, but I have no idea which fuel source comes up better in that category (once optimized).
  • by kraut (2788) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @05:26AM (#42614657)

    Actually, in this case the free marketers are probably right.

    If there was a free market, no one (outside of Brazil) would grow plants for fuel-ethanol. It's just too expensive at the moment.

    Also, in a proper free market, producers would have to pay for the externalities. Use of common resources - e.g. aquifers - must be paid for properly.

  • by jklovanc (1603149) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @05:52AM (#42614777)

    I am usually very concerned with EROEI but there is one instance where and EROEI of less than 1 is not a problem. The is in converting the energy into something much more transportable. For example geothermal heat does not travel well or store well. We currently are very good at converting it into electricity. That travels better but still has limits and storage is very expensive. We can convert the energy into hydrocarbons that store very well and transport very well. It does not matter if we only get half the energy out that we put in if the energy we put in is not usable where it is now.;

  • by Dragonslicer (991472) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @09:28AM (#42615635)
    Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to recall that all of the oil fields in Alaska are owned by the state, and that the reason taxes are so low is that the state government makes more than enough money from the oil. That was always one of the amusing ironies of Sarah Palin, that for all her neo-conservative talking points, she was governor of what was a pretty communist state.
  • Re:hmm (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SunTzuWarmaster (930093) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @09:44AM (#42615719) Homepage

    Pretend for a moment that our current energy needs are met 100% through non-renewable sources:
    gas, coal, oil, fission

    What would make you think that there is one solution which replaces these? What makes you think it is biomass?

    In reality, we will probably meet these needs through another combination of 'renewable' energy sources:
    wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass sources (algae, sugar beets), space-based sources (collection/transmission)

    Additionally, our energy issues, like financial issues, are related to spending as well as creating. A more complete solution involves:
    more (or less) efficient electronics, 'offer' off states, more efficient heating/cooling/lighting, better reuse of 'waste' heating/cooling, increased storage and storage time for batteries, more conductive transmission of power, quicker start up and cool down of generation facilities, repurposing (or double-purposing) existing land/roof space for generation/storage, and many more incremental improvements.

    We have quite a bit of biomass, and we would like to use it for power in addition to all our other supply. This is part of a larger solution, and should not be criticized with the point of "This can only be PART of the solution". Take joy in the advancements when they come.

  • by rve (4436) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @10:38AM (#42616171)

    You're comparing burning old growth forests that take decades or centuries to grow to burning grasses that can grow 10 ft tall in a single season?

    I'm saying you are either underestimating how much energy we use today, or overestimating how much net energy you can grow per area unit of land. Switchgrass may be a way of making areas productive that are now too dry for agriculture other than low intensity cattle farming. This means turning land that is now essentially wilderness into mono culture farmland, which is just another form of the same ecological disaster I described earlier.

    Bio fuels should not be mistaken for the green, organic, nature lover's wet dream. It will require an awful lot of land to cover the energy needs of our current standard of living. As we will still want to eat food as well, this extra land will have to come from wilderness or forests, rather than from existing farm land. This is not a happy solution for bears, deer and buffalo. The only ones cheering will be people who bought prairie land wilderness for a dollar per acre.

  • Re:hmm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BVis (267028) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @11:03AM (#42616381)

    Can we worry about replacing coal first? Well-run nuclear is arguably better than coal.

    Fixed that for you. The problem with nuclear is that it's expensive to run safely (in this case, 'run safely' being defined as 'using newer, safer technology' or 'not cutting corners in the name of profits'). And in the USA nothing happens if someone can't make a buck.

  • Re:formatting (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kozz (7764) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @11:16AM (#42616517)

    It's offtopic, and all that, but... a friendly note to say that if you took some time to format your posts into paragraphs, it's much more likely that someone would read it.

    A quick glance shows that you've put some time time and thought into your post, which everyone can appreciate. But at the present time, its composition looks a lot like the emails I get from my mother: one long stream of consciousness with no breaks or separation of thoughts/ideas.

    Don't be hating, mods. Just trying to help a fellow out.

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