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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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  • Anyone hungry? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by astro (20275) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:45AM (#42613729) Homepage

    With a planet full of starving people I continue to fail to understand how using food crops for fuel makes any kind of rational sense at all.

  • by egcagrac0 (1410377) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:48AM (#42614097)

    If biodiesel was 30% less expensive than gasoline, I would expect to see a market shift within 5 years.

    The technology is available now, but diesel cars don't seem to be popular in the US - probably because diesel is 20% more expensive than gasoline in the US. In Europe, where gasoline and diesel fuel prices are much closer to even, diesel cars are far more common.

  • by Grayhand (2610049) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:51AM (#42614109)
    Just wondering how corrosive it is to the seals in an engine? That's the downside of regular alcohol it rots the seals on most cars. The description makes it sound even more corrosive than straight alcohol or ethanol. Sounds great but if it kills the engines after a few thousand miles it's hardly a replacement. I love bio fuels but most engines aren't designed to run them. They need to work more with car makers to bring this stuff to market. My guess is that's part of the ten year plan.
  • Re:hmm (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:53AM (#42614119)

    You understand that we can never produce enough fuel from biomass to even scratch the surface of our energy needs, but then go and start talking about increasing efficiency on the consumption end as if that would do anything to fix this problem. Do you think their is any possibility of any combustion technology being refined to the point that it is able to lower our fuel consumption by 70% or more? Obviously not. Combustion is not the answer there is not sustainable approach to energy production that relies on the release of chemical energy through combustion. All combustion related energy production technologies must end. The answer to this conundrum is simple. Their are 3 options. 1, is to come up with an energy production technology that does not exist such as fusion power. 2, is to cull 80% of the population from the earth. Or 3, the only reasonable answer, full scale 100% adoption of clean safe Nuclear energy using modern reactor design and proper fuel life cycle management and reclamation.

  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:53AM (#42614125) Journal

    I know the Volkswagen group specifically allows only a certain percentage for EU warranty coverage and excludes any biodiesel for US spec vehicles

    They actually allow B5 - presumably because quite a few states require the stations to serve it.

    The majority consensus on VW community forums seems to be that B20 works great in practice, but anything above that is potentially risky. B100 will definitely make a mess (some people have posted pictures of what it makes out of the engine eventually).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:33AM (#42614281)

    Are you serious? Are you trying to make us believe for a moment that US millionaire politicians have nothing to do with the oil industry? Like, the Bushes? And that the oil lobby has not thoroughly permeated and the senate?

    Not saying that Gazprom has not corrupted the Russian government, but your government is quite corrupt.

  • Re:hmm (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Neil Boekend (1854906) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:35AM (#42614287)
    By that time we may have found out how to mix the sun. A star dies because it burned all the hydrogen in the core. The outer layers, where fusion does not occur, are still mostly hydrogen (guess: 90%). If we bring that hydrogen to the core the life of the sun may be extendable by a factor 10.
  • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:58AM (#42614361) Journal

    ... 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.

    (Ignoring for the moment whether the claim is accurate ...)

    The idea is not to replace the whole energy needs of the country with biomass fuels. Smelting steel or refining aluminum with it, for instance, would be downright silly. Ditto running power plants: (Even if you wanted to use biomass there'd be no reason to waste part of its energy liquifying it - just burn it directly. But there are lots of cheaper alternatives.)

    But there's a small-but-substantial fraction of the load for which liquid fuels is ideal: Vehicles. Liquid fuels provide enormous power-to-weight ratios, which is what you want there. Keeping a vehicle light pays dividends in fuel savings, as does providing energy using easy-to-handle liquid with high energy content.

    The base process ferments cellulose into butanol, acetone, and ethanol. Even without this new post-processing hack, butanol is a drop-in replacement for gasoline, ethanol works in otto-cycle engines with a little tweaking and acetone with more tweaking. This new post-process turns the mix into something akin to fuel oil, which is a similar drop-in for diesel cycle engines. So it covers both major types of portable engines.

    Even if you can't come up with enough fuel to run the whole economy, or even the whole transportation industry, from locally-grown biomass, there's a LOT of low-value byproducts grown in the process of growing crops. Turning it into high-value portable liquid fuel could make a substantial dent in oil requirements while improving the financial picture both for vehicle users and farmers.

    Solar and wind aren't well suited for the enormous energy and energy-density needs of land vehicles (though we're getting closer with modern electric vehicles for limited ranges). But they can make a similar dent in the energy needs of stationary loads.

  • Re:hmm (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kell Bengal (711123) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @03:04AM (#42614387)
    Ok, I'm skeptical too. Let's check it out! I apologise in advance for large numbers.

    From this website [tradingeconomics.com] I've got a figure of just over 4 million sq. kilometers of arable land in the United States. This website [uoregon.edu] gives daily cross-year average sunlight falling on a square meter of ground as about 160 W. That's 640 x 10^12 W-days of power falling on the land, per day. Wikipedia cites that plants have a metabolic conversion efficiency of six per cent [wikipedia.org]. This website [uoregon.edu] cites a biomass-to-energy conversion efficiency of 20 per cent. So, if we assume that only 1 per cent of arable land was actually covered with plant, and then turned into electricity, total daily production would be 77 x10^9 W-days of power. This sounds like a lot; obviously there will be some more production and transport inefficiencies in there.

    For comparison, the US consumes 1.39 x10^9 [eia.gov] litres of fuel per day. According to Wikipedia, the energy density of petrol is 49.2 x 10^6 J/L [wikipedia.org], so that's 684 x10^12 J of energy per day... or, expressed in Watt-days (86400 seconds in a day), that's 7.91 x10^9 W-days of energy.

    There are a lot of real world factors not being included in these estimates, but the 10-to-1 ratio here indicates to me that the energies involved are of a comparable scale; if we devoted 10 per cent of arable land to agriculture, we could (with highly efficient processes), conceivably put a sizable dent in our energy usage.
  • Re:Anyone hungry? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Neil Boekend (1854906) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @03:24AM (#42614447)
    In Europe we already allow 5% ethanol in gasoline. People are lobbying to allow 10%. This does not damage engines, but assuming it is done (and with bio-ethanol) it does put a 5 or 10% dent in the CO2 production.
    Now with high percentages (90% for example) of ethanol some trouble does arise. Ethanol is soluble in water. Engines do not like water, so high ethanol percentages could carry to much dissolved water. That can damage an engine.

    Now if some chemist could find a way to remove that pesky oxigen, polimerise the resulting ethane (or ethylene) to a bit longer chains with some branching and some double C connections (to get the flammability right) then we'd simply have bio-gasoline and we'd just have the problem that we can't create enough bioethanol to fuel the world.
  • Re:hmm (Score:4, Interesting)

    by whydavid (2593831) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @07:08AM (#42615243)
    Actually, while 14% may or may not be the right figure, it is well-accepted that ethanol cannot scale to meet all of our needs, even in the ridiculous scenario where we stopped producing food and only produced ethanol. This article (http://www.todaysengineer.org/2010/Jan/Biofuels-pt3.asp) talks about several of the studies which have shown this. I was looking for a journal article I read a few years back that explicitly considered "next-generation" ethanol crops at their theoretical maximum yields planted on the all of the arable land on Earth, but couldn't locate it quickly. And am I the only one who finds it a bit disingenuous to suggest that any research that doesn't support biofuels as "the answer" must have come from Exxon? Do you also believe that the gas companies send agents around the world to assassinate researchers every time they get close to discovering "free energy" or carburetors that will make any car in the world get 100 mpg?
  • by jellomizer (103300) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @09:09AM (#42615921)

    You mean an alternate solution has trade offs!!! My GOD MAN, lets start a global panic, and preemptive make this illegal, because there is a different set of trade offs for a different solution!

    Nearly Every solution to a problem has some sort of trade off. In terms of Energy that is normally the case (Stupid Thermal Dynamics).
    This helps (Not solves) the problem of carbon in the atmosphere because in order to grow these plants to create energy the growth process these plants pulls carbon out of the air to grow, then we burn it and put it back in the air. But agriculture isn't easy, it takes a lot of resources to keep it running smoothly, if we are producing more agriculture, then we are going to use a lot of land that we can use for something else, there will be more need for constant water.
    But the real question is, is Global Warming and using fossil fuels trade offs worse then the trade offs from "agri-power" Or perhaps a balance is needed 50% "Agri-Power" and 50% fossil Fuel, where we could cut our carbon in half, and not overwhelm our other resources.

Lo! Men have become the tool of their tools. -- Henry David Thoreau

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