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Biotech Earth Science

Looking Beyond Corn and Sugarcane For Cost-Effective Biofuels 242

Posted by samzenpus
from the get-it-growing dept.
carmendrahl writes "The abundance of shale gas in the U.S. is expected to lower the cost of petrochemicals for fuel and other applications, making it harder for plant-based, renewable feedstocks to compete in terms of price. In the search for cost-competitive crops, companies are testing plants other than traditional biofuel sources such as corn and sugarcane. In this video, you can see how a company is test-growing a relative of sugarcane, which is expected to yield 5 times the ethanol per acre compared to corn."
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Looking Beyond Corn and Sugarcane For Cost-Effective Biofuels

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  • Nature's solar panel (Score:4, Interesting)

    by schneidafunk (795759) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:31AM (#44542137)
    So when do solar panels become effective enough to replace growing a plant to harness the sun's energy?
    • It's less the effectiveness than the cost and regional limitations.

      • by noh8rz10 (2716597) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:42AM (#44542283)
        I hate video. Too real-time. Like TV news, I can read the majority of nyt.com in the space of the evening news. I assume the video is about switchgrass, can anybody confirm?
        • by mattack2 (1165421)

          Wow, you must read REALLY quickly. A newspaper article is usually MUCH longer/more detailed than what is contained in a TV news segment. (I say that, even though I 'consume' the nightly news every day. It's a good way to get a summary of the day's stories. Though I usually listen to the audio podcast at 2x or sometimes watch the video podcast at 2x.... and record the show as a backup since they frequently cut out any vaguely pop culture related segments from the podcast.)

    • by alen (225700)

      how does your solar panel work on cloudy days, rainy days, snow days and at night?

      • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:50AM (#44542405)

        how does your solar panel work on cloudy days, rainy days, snow days and at night?

        In sunny places, electricity demand is strongly correlated with hot, sunny days when the AC is running. Solar is not good for base load, but that really isn't an issue as it currently generates less than 0.2% of the electric power. This is something to worry about when it gets to about 10%. If that ever happens, we can deal with it by energy storage, long distance transmission, and/or load shifting.

        • by alen (225700)

          so how much of the energy is lost in the transmission and storage? how many toxic chemicals do you need for all these batteries?

          • by Nadaka (224565)

            Transmission losses on copper wire over a few thousand km is between 5% and 10%, AKA relatively insignificant.

            You need 0 toxic chemicals for the molten salt heat reservoirs used by large solar thermal installations. Such heat reservoirs can hold enough energy to spin turbines for days.

            You need 0 toxic chemicals for electricity to be used to crack water and store hydrogen. Which can then be used to heat the same water that the solar thermal boiler normally would, and run the same turbines. This isn't particu

            • by Dare nMc (468959)

              > Transmission losses on copper wire over a few thousand km is between 5% and 10%, AKA relatively insignificant.

              And the loss from transporting liquids is 0. but that is the insignificant part for both. 20% of the cost of my electricity is generation, IE 80% of the cost is getting it to my house. And we still haven't gotten it into and out of a battery for transportation. With Natural gas, to my house, it is more like 20% of the cost is transportation. For fuel picked up on the road (where I need it

      • by iotaborg (167569) <exa@softhome. n e t> on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:51AM (#44542421) Homepage

        Actually it isn't that terrible on cloudy/rainy days. We have a solar panel installed on our house in the pacific northwest of the US, which is 100% cloud/rain in the winter months. Energy generated is 100-300 kWh per month in the winter, 500-700 kWh per month in the sunny summers. Obviously nothing in the nights. Excess production in the summer pays for the shortfall in the winter (paid by utility company), so it works out.

    • by MightyYar (622222)

      It's not just energy conversion that needs to compete, it's storage and transport.

      For a solar panel to compete, you would need some efficient way to turn electricity into liquid hydrocarbons - or you would need tremendously improved battery/capacitor technology. You would also need to replace the existing infrastructure for moving around liquid fuels.

      • by evilviper (135110)

        For a solar panel to compete [...] you would need tremendously improved battery/capacitor technology. You would also need to replace the existing infrastructure for moving around liquid fuels.

        Current batteries are more than good enough. A car full of Li-Ion batteries can get better range than a conventional ICE car, and charging is getting very fast now, so charging might be faster than your current stops to eat.

        We have a replacement for the oil infrastructure, it's called the electrical grid, and it goes

    • by peter303 (12292) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:51AM (#44542427)
      The best plants are convert 1.5% [wikipedia.org] of incoming sunlight when factoring length of growing cycle and planting density. Cheap solar panels are five times more efficient. More expensive solar technologies and/or concentrators gets into double digits.

      However when you include the costs of the entire system- the startup capital, intermediate fuel type and distribution- the current cost-efficiency of both become more comparable.
    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:55AM (#44542473) Journal

      So when do solar panels become effective enough to replace growing a plant to harness the sun's energy?

      I suspect that the break-even point varies depending on what you want to do. If you want electricity, photovoltaics get a substantial boost (plants may still turn out to be cheaper, for sufficiently large installations, if you can grow a zillion acres of generic combustables with minimal human intervention and then shovel them into a slightly converted coal plant or something; but the poor efficiency of the conversion from thermal energy to electrical energy will hobble you, and it will cripple you in small-scale installs). If you want a hydrocarbon-fuel substitute, the ability of organisms to synthesize all kinds of neat organic compounds is going to be quite a trick to replicate, even if you have unlimited electricity.

      Also depends on location: given suitably robust solar cell packages(ideally with some fancy catalytic autocleaning coating), you could convert surface area on large structures into PV sites with just an occasional visit by the installers-with-climbing-gear. You wouldn't want to try crops under those conditions. A desert area, with plenty of sun but next to no water, would also be decent PV territory but bad planting ground. A large patch of arable land would have the opposite conditions(though it might also have competing food producers; but luckily, while it's illegal to use poor people for biofuel, it's legal to use food for biofuel and let poor people starve.)

    • by jellomizer (103300) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:58AM (#44542507)

      Fossil Fuels have some key advantages.
      1. Portability. You can take it, put it in container and ship it anywhere, or store it when you need it.
      2. High Energy. You can get a good bang for 1 kilo of Fuel. Vs. batteries, or other forms of portable energy
      3. Low tech maintenance. Fixing a problem in a fossil fuel engine is much easier then fixing a power turbine or a solar sell, we can use alternate parts if needed to.
      4. Out of Sight or of Mind. Large Windmills covering the landscape, acres of solar panels, large dams... A lot of big infrastructure projects

      It isn't that we couldn't go, however you need to know the tradeoffs and find ways of dealing with them.

      • Hydrogen Fuel Cells/Modern Batteries

        Portability - HFC's are Better than Petrol/Gas, Batteries are not
        High Energy - HFC's Better than Petrol/Gas, Batteries are gaining
        Low Tech - One moving part in an engine, as opposed to modern fossil fuel engines which are hugely complex
        Out of Sight - Depends where they are put, like fossil plants they can be put out of the way but often are not ....

        • But with two critical flaws:
          - Expensive. Making hydrogen from water costs a fortune, and making it from fossil fuels defeats the objective.
          - Difficult to store. Doing so safely (As in 'Can survive traffic accidents without cratering the road') requires exotic and even more expensive alloys.

          • by Belial6 (794905)
            I had high hopes that fuel cells would become viable, not for cars, but for homes. If photovoltaic got good enough, and fuel cells got cheap, we wouldn't need the electric company. A refrigerator sized device on the back of my house with panels on the roof would be awesome. Use the panels to run the house and fill the tanks during the day, and then use the hydrogen to last through the night. The is no reason you couldn't charge an electric car off of a system like this either.

            Unfortunately, it appear
            • by evilviper (135110)

              I had high hopes that fuel cells would become viable, not for cars, but for homes. If photovoltaic got good enough, and fuel cells got cheap, we wouldn't need the electric company.

              Why do you want fuel cells, when batteries are more efficient at the purpose you described? For stationary use, the weight of cheap batteries shouldn't be an issue, and neither is the slow charging time with 24-hour cycle times.

              Non-hydrogen fuel cells are interesting as a replacement for traditional conversion of fossil fuels to

              • by Belial6 (794905)
                The promise of fuel cells was that they would be much longer lasting than batteries as well as cleaner.
                • by mattack2 (1165421)

                  Well, solid oxide fuel cells don't have the "materials needed to build them" problem, but you're still using natural gas as the fuel.

          • by Nadaka (224565)

            Hydrogen fuel is much lighter than air. An exploding hydrogen storage unit won't crater the road. it will most likely produce a jet of flame that rises rapidly into the sky. Its unlikely to even cause significant burning to the vehicle.

            • You forget the energy released from the rapidly expanding gas like popping a balloon but at 5000psi or what ever those tanks run at. Yes I know that these fears are overstated and I personally don't buy them but it is the general population and regulators that need convincing. Also my understanding of fuel cells is that one of their major drawbacks is poisoning of the cell by impure hydrogen. If this is something that will be refillable or is to be maintained by the average person the cells will need to be
              • Worse than that. It's not just impure hydrogen that kills them - it's impure oxygen too. Nitrogen in the air is harmless, but carbon monoxide will trash a PEM cell. And if you are driving on a road next to old petrol-burners, there is going to be plenty of that around.

            • There are only two ways to store hydrogen: Pressurised, and using the exotic foamy method. I don't know how the exotic foamy method works, but I understand it involves very expensive alloys of very rare metals. And pressurised will explode, twice. First when the high-pressure tank ruptures, and again if the resulting cloud of hydrogen ignites in the confined space of the vehicle.

      • by msobkow (48369)

        That's kind of the whole point of biofuels as well. They have the portability and the high energy, acting as "batteries" for solar energy collected.

        But biodiesel is a far more efficient biofuel than ethanol is. The US and the rest of the world need to spend more investing in biodiesel.

        Oh yeah. Americans don't like diesel engines for some reason. Too bad the fascination with gasoline and ethanol override economics and good sense.

        Hell, even Henry Ford was a supporter and developer of biodiesel.

    • by chill (34294)

      You're confusing energy with fuel.

  • If we switch to grasses for our biofuel how are we going to artificially prop up the price of corn? ADM has not lobbied congress for years to suddenly have us switch to some other crop.
  • by Kohath (38547) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:36AM (#44542207)

    But corn ethanol is already the perfect way to enrich campaign donors in Iowa and the other farm states. Why should the guys getting rich off corn ethanol agree to share the government loot with other biofuel producers?

    • But corn ethanol is already the perfect way to enrich campaign donors in Iowa and the other farm states.

      Before we can reform farming, we need to move the first presidential caucuses out of Iowa.

      • by cayenne8 (626475)

        Before we can reform farming, we need to move the first presidential caucuses out of Iowa.

        That's something I don't understand either.

        In this day in age, to make things fair between the states, shouldn't we have either a random drawing or round robin type situation to have the initial polls and caucuses rotate between the different states as to the order they go?

        Seems it would keep the pols on their toes more, and we wouldn't have the same group of folks each go around, set the tone of the campaign. Is I

  • Small economics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EmperorOfCanada (1332175) on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:44AM (#44542311)
    People blah blah about the economics of this vs that and then write off the more expensive techology. But what interests me are the actual costs. Often the economics can be very interesting on a local scale. For instance, if you were a small organic farmer could you plant some of this stuff in the scrubby back 20 and then with a little bio-fuel setup in the barn make your own fuel? Often people like farmers have cash flow problems and taking fuel out of the equation could be a big help. This might be a case where the farmer would work at this in the winter producing a summer's worth of fuel and it is grown on worthless land. For the farmer it takes his winter time and makes it valuable and takes worthless land and makes it valuable. It is doubtful that the farmer cares that crude oil is cheaper in that he doesn't have that under the back 40.

    Then you go third world where access to cash is an even bigger problem so again removing fuel from the expenses would be a huge help.

    A good variation of this would be that many Texas farmers have abandoned oil wells on their land. The farmer stakes a claim to the wells and then using wind or solar pumps a few barrels a day. These wells are dead as far as the big companies are concerned but for the farmers can add up to a pretty good living. So according to macro economics as viewed by the oil company accountants these wells are worthless; when the farmers show that they clearly aren't.

    So I often read about technology X not being better than oil when you add up all the costs but often those costs don't apply.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      With an oil pump (*if* the farmer can cheaply get the mineral rights for it, which is a big if), this whole scenario makes sense. That's because, generally speaking, oil is always worth it. Oil is such a dense and easily-accessible energy source (accounting for untold thousands or millions of years of solar input) that if you can get it flowing odds are you're net positive. An old well that's not flowing *much* may not be worth it to a large oil company, but could be substantial for a small farmer. I ge

      • Ethanol from sugarcane has an 8:1 energy balance (8 units of energy out for every 1 unit of energy put in). Ethanol from corn was below or less than 1:1, but I think it now has a (barely) positive energy balance due to advances in technology and economies of scale. I think I read that biodiesel was between 2 and 3, but I am sure that depends on what plant you are getting the oil from.
    • The reason for this disconnect is that macroeconomics also factors in a strong premium for reliability and availability (and de-risking). A trucking company needs to guarantee its customers that it can consistently deliver the goods within a fixed window and hence requires its fuel supply to be likewise guaranteed. The same applies in IT -- business critical service require that the storage backend works 100% to deliver their promises, so even though a home-built storage server can do the same job as $10k (

    • by evilviper (135110)

      For instance, if you were a small organic farmer could you plant some of this stuff in the scrubby back 20 and then with a little bio-fuel setup in the barn make your own fuel?

      That seems highly unlikely.

      If this stuff (sugarcane) will grow, then some type of food crops will surely grow, too. You'll have a lot of money and effort invested in keeping it free of bugs, diseases and being overgrown by weeds.

      Modern farmers generally irrigate their crops, and pumping all that water won't be cheap, and sugarcane is

  • by mlts (1038732) * on Monday August 12, 2013 @11:44AM (#44542325)

    My question: Is ground for growing food crops affected by this? If farmers all grow switchgrass/hemp/$whatever and make more money selling that for fuel, then it will spike food prices, which can cause major problems down the line (people can put up with a lot of injustice, but if they are starving, all bets are off.)

    Ethically, I can't support a fuel that takes food out of people's mouths, even though ethanol has a number of decent advantages.

    • by dcw3 (649211)

      Glad I read this before I posted....I have the same concern.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by H0p313ss (811249)

      My question: Is ground for growing food crops affected by this? If farmers all grow switchgrass/hemp/$whatever and make more money selling that for fuel, then it will spike food prices, which can cause major problems down the line (people can put up with a lot of injustice, but if they are starving, all bets are off.)

      Ethically, I can't support a fuel that takes food out of people's mouths, even though ethanol has a number of decent advantages.

      Excellent question, this is already subject to debate [wikipedia.org].

      There are three major areas of concern here, food vs. fuel, CO2 emissions/footprint and the ecological cost of production.

      In my opinion CO2 emissions [wikipedia.org] is the elephant in the room for biofuels. Extensive production and consumption of biofuels may ween us off fossil fuels but it does nothing to address just how stupid it is for us to be modifying the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

      Note that the process of biofuel production does not exist in a vacuu

      • by Belial6 (794905) on Monday August 12, 2013 @01:48PM (#44543697)
        You don't have to worry about the CO2 emissions. One of the benefits of bio-fuel is that the carbon in the plants was taken out of the air. With bio-fuels you only add as much CO2 to the air as you take out.
        • by H0p313ss (811249)

          You don't have to worry about the CO2 emissions. One of the benefits of bio-fuel is that the carbon in the plants was taken out of the air. With bio-fuels you only add as much CO2 to the air as you take out.

          Only if the means of production is also carbon neutral. Fertilizer, machinery, transportion etc.

          • by Belial6 (794905)
            Granted. Although in theory, if the bio-fuel worked (which includes being cheaper than petrol, the machinery and transportation would be using the bio-fuel to grow the crops. I don't know about the fertilizer. Just that being able to make fuel out of crops wouldn't mean that petroleum would stop being used in fertilizer, so that may be a small concern.
            • by H0p313ss (811249)

              Just that being able to make fuel out of crops wouldn't mean that petroleum would stop being used in fertilizer, so that may be a small concern.

              In terms of efficiency, it's insane to turn petroleum into fertilizer to grow crops to great a biofuel, you might as well just burn the damn fuel in the first place.

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      And if it spikes food prices then the farmers will not be making more growing stuff to sell for fuel. So the problem fixes itself.

      Of course it sucks for the transition period especially for those who can't afford the spiked food prices and starve to death. Hopefully one of those huge corporations that run the farming industry will have an economist on staff to point the basics of supply and demand from high school economics to them so they can make more money by sticking with growing food.

    • by Rhacman (1528815)
      I see a lot of issues with biofuels, but I'm less concerned with this issue. If some biofuel crop presents a more economical use of a farmers land than his other options then it also makes it slightly more attractive for that farmer to cultivate the land rather than sell it to some developer. Should food become more scarce then the balance may tip to that same farmer choosing to grow a food crop on that same plot of land. Once you turn the land into the suburbs, chances are you won't be seeing it grow cr
  • And make the fuel grade ethanol / whatever using GM algae. That would just as "green" and "renewable" without sacrificing land where one could produce vegetables and fruits already so bloody expensive.

  • Can we measure two benefits?

    1) Create Biofuel

    2) Clean the environment

    Example 1: Cattails remove toxins & pollution from wetlands, stormwater. http://www.scer.rpi.edu/bwe/?p=369 [rpi.edu]

    Example 2: Sunflowers decontaminate radioactive soil. http://www.ecaa.ntu.edu.tw/weifang/cea/sunflowers.htm [ntu.edu.tw]

    Example 3: Algae blooms http://www.npr.org/2013/08/11/211130501/the-algae-is-coming-but-its-impact-is-felt-far-from-water [npr.org]

  • ... so 5x better than corn.... that means it's still 20x worse than oil, meaning that it's still an environmentally *hostile* source of fuel compared to oil. when will people understand and accept that the way to use less fuel is to build vehicles that use... less fuel??

    • by mspohr (589790)

      I think the goal here is to have something which recycles CO2 from the environment rather than releasing more CO2 into our already overheated climate. From this standpoint gas and oil are a complete fail and most anything else is better.

  • RuBisCO as a carbon capture catalyst is less efficient than current inorganic catalysts and fundamentally prevents the complete scale up of biofuels. There are economic reasons to start with biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuels (anyone can make the raw materials for biofuel), but at some point we're either going to have to be ok with drastically altering the genetics of plants or we'll have to move to a more traditional chemical manufacturing model.

  • Unless something has changed, palm oil still has the best net energy return compared to any other organic fuel source. If we're not going to eat the stuff, GM palm oil trees may be the way to go here.

    Regardless, plants are still just inefficient solar panels whose only advantage is that their energy output is chemical, not electrical, thereby minimizing transmission and storage energy loss.

    From a net energy/price standpoint, biofuels still can't compete with petroleum, though that will change as petroleum gets more expensive and yields less net energy over time, however, the ecological effects of trying to replace the 160 exajoules of energy provided by oil each year would be an unmitigated disaster.

    Nice idea, but we're still going to have to reduce our energy consumption worldwide, long before the end of this century.

    • Regardless, plants are still just inefficient solar panels whose only advantage is that their energy output is chemical, not electrical, thereby minimizing transmission and storage energy loss.

      I'd imagine the materials, installation and maintenance costs are a bit lower.

    • by evilviper (135110)

      plants are still just inefficient solar panels whose only advantage is that their energy output is chemical, not electrical, thereby minimizing transmission and storage energy loss.

      Batteries are rather efficient at storing electricity, as is pumped-hydro for grid-scale needs. Grid transmission losses are in the single-digit percentages, which is better than you'd ever hope to get from loading-up liquid fuel on a tanker trunk. And finally, electric motors are nearly 100% efficient at converting electricity

  • Years ago, people were talking about switchgrass. Or how about kudzu? What's wrong with WEEDS that will grow anywhere... oh, that's right, those nice folks in the petrochemical industry can't sell you fertilizers for that....

                      mark "or maybe hemp?"

  • The energy density of ethanol is just not high enough and the alcohol isn't particularly friendly to plastic material often used in auto parts.

    They are just trying too hard to push their endless uses for government (tax payer) subsidized corn. I'm surprised they haven't found a ridiculous and wasteful way to make paper out of corn yet.

    There are a whole lot better things they can do to improve matters. Among them are to focus as much on efficiency as they do on sources. I want DC wiring for my light fixtu

  • Sorghum (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MrWin2kMan (918702) on Monday August 12, 2013 @12:47PM (#44543041) Homepage
    Here in Maricopa, AZ we host the only ethanol plant in the state of Arizona, and one of the local crops used (grown by Ak-Chin Farms, one of the Indian Reservations that surrounds Maricopa) is sorghum, the same plant you can get molasses from. Much more bang for the buck than corn or sawgrass.
  • A local dealer sells ethanol-free gasoline, while others sell gas stated to have as much as 10% ethanol. When I run my truck on ethanol free gas, the milage jumps by 10%, when compared to gas with 10% ethanol. It doesn't sound to be as though the ethanol does much, other than generate more polution, because I'm burning more gas.

    P.S.. Because I'm burning more gas, it costs more.
    • Ethanol has less energy per unit volume than gasoline so yes, your mileage goes down.
      • It will go down but it shouldn't decrease that much. It sounds like someone has a poorly running vehicle that has problems maintaining proper fuel trim and the excess oxygen in the E10 fuel is really confusing they system. Time to clean or replace the MAP/MAF sensor, change the O2 sensor(s), and do a tune up with new plugs and wires, maybe check for vacuum leaks as well. There may be other things wrong but those things usually affect how a vehicle reacts to E10 vs Non-Oxy fuel the most. That is where I woul
  • by Anonymous Coward

    way better than ethonal. If has an air:fuel ratio close enough to petrol that you can mix it in any ratio and not need to mod the engine.
     
      Butanol fuel [wikipedia.org]

  • Why are we not pushing hard towards bacteria based production of biofuels instead of these huge complex pants? Seems to be that bacteria given the right conditions could convert a lot more CO2 into O2, eat a lot more waste, and produce a lot more complex fuels then corn, sugarcane, or other big plants...

    Heck I think a few are going this direction, but to me it is the only way it makes sense at all..
    Engineered Bacteria Make Fuel from Sunlight [sciencedaily.com]
    Electrofuels: Charged Microbes May "Poop Out" a Gasoline Alternati [nationalgeographic.com]

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