Monday, March 27, 2006

Ethanol, Hydrogen and Carbon Disxide



Wild Grasses - Feedstock of the next industrial revolution?

Over the last week I have been thinking about everything ethanol. (No, this wasn't a lost weekend). The New York Times had an article on ethanol 3/26/06.

Background Ethanol is alcohol made from fermenting biological matter. Ethanol along with Bio-Diesel are two promising types of bio-fuels fuels derived from biological resources. Biofuels are renewable and if the chain of development from planting, through cultivation, harvesting and processing into useable fuel is carefully managed, biofuels can reduce the use of fossil energy, reduce pollution and increase our national security.

Ethanol has been in the news for a variety of reasons. First there have been some studies that show the net energy gain from the manufacture of ethanol is very little or worse yet, negative. Much of this negative chatter has come from conservative talk show hosts bemoaning farm subsidies for the production of ethanol from corn. However there are some new technologies on the horizon.

In their fall 2005 newsletter the Rocky Mountain Institute has a great article on Ethanol and best practices for development of an Ethanol infrastructure. As usual the RMI was ahead of the curve on this development. In their newsletter from the fall of 2005:

Switchgrass Biofuels, and specifically ethanol, have been the subject of a great deal of criticism in recent months by detractors claiming that more energy is required to produce ethanol than is available in the final product, that it is too expensive, and that it produces negligible carbon reductions. These critiques are simply not accurate. State-of-the-art technologies have been competently forecasted €even proven in the market to produce ethanol that is far more cost-effective and less energy-intensive than gasoline. We'€™ll explore why, and why the critics have gotten it wrong.

When we say biofuels, we mean liquid fuels made from biomass €chiefly biodiesel and ethanol, which can be substituted for diesel fuel or for gasoline, respectively. The technology used to produce biodiesel is well understood, although its biomass feedstocks are limited and production today is fairly expensive. We will instead focus on ethanol, which we believe has significantly greater potential.

But conventional processes and feedstocks used to make ethanol are not feasible in the United States on a large scale for three reasons: they're not cost-competitive with long-run gasoline prices without subsidies, they compete with food crops for land, and they have only marginally positive energy balances.

Happily, in addition to starch-based feedstocks, ethanol can be produced from cellulosic feedstocks, including biomass wastes, fast-growing hays like switchgrass, and short-rotation woody crops like poplar. While not cost-competitive today, already observed advances in technology lead us to believe that in the next few years, ethanol made from these crops will become cost-competitive, won'€™t compete with food for cropland, and will have a sizeable positive energy balance. Indeed, because these crops are expected to have big biomass yields (~10 15 dry tons/acre, up from the current ~5 dry tons/acre), much less land will be required than conventionally thought. Further, cellulosic ethanol will typically have twice the ethanol yield of corn-based ethanol, at lower capital cost, with far better net energy yield.

We can't remember how many times we'€™ve been asked the question: But doesn't ethanol require more energy to produce than it contains?€ The simple answer is no, €most scientific studies, especially those in recent years reflecting modern techniques, do not support this concern. These studies have shown that ethanol has a higher energy content than the fossil energy used in its production. Some studies that contend that ethanol is a net energy loser include (incorrectly) the energy of the sun used to grow a feedstock in ethanol™s energy balance, which misses the fundamental point that the sun’s energy is free. Furthermore, because crops like switchgrass are perennials, they are not replanted and cultivated every year, avoiding farm-equipment energy. Indeed, if polycultured to imitate the prairies where they grow naturally, they should require no fertilizer, irrigation, or pesticides either.

So, Cellulosic Ethanol could be a great way to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf Oil.

A second technology that in my mind is linked to the potential of Cellulosic Ethanol is in development at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Lanny Schmidt has been developing a method of reforming alcohol into hydrogen using a very clever and simple technique. The core idea in his invention is to use a fuel injector to spray a fine spray of ethanol onto a catalyst. Water that naturally occurs in the ethanol turns to steam and this keeps the invention from exploding. (Apparently Dr. Schmidt had many a test rig explode in the lab!) With a carefully crafted catalyst the process runs clean and is very efficient.

Now, on one hand we have a new technology for the conversion of grasses and other agricultural waste into ethanol, and on the other hand we have a new technology for converting ethanol into hydrogen. This makes the possibility of using ethanol as a medium for storing hydrogen, and locally converting ethanol into hydrogen, say at the pump, a possibility. There are a lot of design decisions to make, like how to handle the CO2 that is generated as part of the conversion process. The overall process is close to carbon neutral but if we make high quality CO2 under controlled circumstances, then it seems like a good idea to sequester the CO2.

This leads to the third of the two technologies I wanted to write about today€œ Supercritical Carbon Dioxide. In the supercritical phase, that is when the pressure is really high, carbon dioxide can be in a phase right on the edge between gas and liquid. It can flow through a lot of materials and it is a highly polar solvent. SCCO2 can be used in some industrial processes as a solvent, or in certain processes it can react with some simple industrial waste products to make a form of carbonate mineral. This process makes a high quality form of pre-cast concrete. It can be used to make concrete block, concrete bricks, pre-cast stone or structural members. The process could sequester a couple of pounds of CO2 in every concrete block made with the process.

So, if you have Cellulosic Ethanol on one hand, a new highly efficient technology for the conversion of Ethanol to Hydrogen which leaves CO2 behind on your other hand, then on your third hand you have the SCCO2 conversion of industrial waste to carbonate minerals, you may have the makings of an entirely environmentally benign manufacturing/ industrial park.

I do plan on covering the SCCO2 process in an upcoming post. It is a lot like pre-cast concrete, only good for the environment.

Check out Cellulosic Ethanol at the Rocky Mountain Institute here.

Check out Dr. Schmidt at the Ethanol to Hydrogen technology here.


Friday, March 24, 2006

New Global Warming Ads


Girl and Train

It is a rare event when the announcement of a new commercial makes my day seem brighter, but the Ad Council and the Environmental Defense Fund have put together a compelling new TV advertisement campaign similar to the litterbug and crying Indian campaigns of years ago. I have viewed the ads on You Tube, and I think they are the right message at the right time.

From the press release files at

(Washington, D.C.) Environmental Defense and the Advertising Council are launching a series of television and radio public service announcements urging Americans to fight global warming in their everyday lives. The ad launch follows the release today of a nationwide survey that reveals that most Americans recognize the problem of global warming and are willing to help solve it by changing their daily habits to save energy and cut pollution.

The new global warming campaign marks a watershed moment in the effort to stir the public consciousness about global warming. The Ad Council has created some of the most iconic media campaigns of the past century, including Smokey Bear, Vince and Larry the Crash Test Dummies, Iron Eyes Cody (the Crying Indian), Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk, and campaigns on polio, AIDS, and drug use. These and other Ad Council campaigns have been instrumental in elevating public awareness of serious issues and in bringing about social change.

Some of the world leading climate scientists endorsed the campaign, echoing the sentiments expressed by the University of Washington Dr. John Wallace: the risk of serious irreversible consequences within the next 30 years is too great to warrant complacency. All of us should be making personal choice to reduce unnecessary consumption of fossil fuels.€ In addition to Wallace, endorsers included Dr. John Holdren, Harvard University; Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University; Nobelist Dr. Sherwood Rowland, University of California, Irvine; Dr. William Schlesinger, Duke University; Dr. Gavin Schmidt, NASA; and Dr. Steven Wofsy, Harvard University.

The new campaign's compelling advertisements, designed pro bono by New York ad firm Ogilvy and Mather, will be accompanied by a major public education effort including information about simple actions people can take to fight global warming. The campaign will offer a new guide targeted to consumers, The Low Carbon Diet. The campaign website,, also features interactive tools where people can calculate how much carbon pollution they produce in their everyday lives, and a series of simple energy-saving tips.

Links to â€Å"Tick” Video Ad (Streaming) , â€Å"Train” Video Ad (Streaming) |


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Signs for Climate Change


A recent article in Kathimerini, an English language Greek newspaper stated that 84% of the land of Greece is in danger of becomming a desert. This is due to salinization of the soil from over use of irrigation and other non-sustainable farming practices combined with changes in the climate.

An overwhelming 84 percent of Greeces land is at risk of desertification and another 8 percent is already arid but is being cultivated by farmers reluctant to lose their subsidies, according to scholars at a conference in Thessaloniki yesterday.

The threat of desertification is significant for over a third (35 percent) of Greek land and somewhat less so for another section accounting for half (49 percent) of the country, according to Constantinos Kosmas of Athens Agriculture University. The hardest-hit areas are believed to cover a large section of mainland Greece, most of the Peloponnese, mountainous parts of the Ionian islands, the islands of the Aegean, Evia, eastern and central Crete as well as parts of Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace.

Kosmas stressed that the zones currently subject to only a moderate threat would face an immediate risk of desertification in the event of excessive agricultural exploitation or intense climate change.

Soil erosion constitutes the greatest danger for hilly land as it brings about a drastic reduction in the depth, fertility and productivity of earth and foliage, Kosmas said, stressing that agricultural machinery was also a prime culprit. Hilly sections of the Thessaly plain are currently at high risk of desertification because agricultural machines have displaced a layer of about 40 centimeters of earth, he said.

Kosmas also highlighted salination€ chiefly caused by irrigation using poor-quality water as a contributing factor to desertification.

A link to Kathimerini


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Scientists to Develop Bacteria-Powered Fuel Cells


A diverse team of microbiologists, engineers and geochemists from the University of Southern California and Rice University are joining forces to create bacteria-powered fuel cells that could power spy drones that fit in the palm of a hand.

The Air Force has long been interested in micro-scale air vehicles – some as small as insects – but it has been stymied by the lack of a suitable, compact power source. With $4.4 million from the Department of Defense's Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, or MURI, the USC and Rice research team hopes to prove its concept valid within five years by producing a self-propelled prototype.

At Rice, geochemist Andreas Lüttge will spearhead the team's efforts to understand how the bacteria Shewanella oneidensis attach to and interact with anode surfaces inside the fuel cell. Anodes are the parts of fuel cells and batteries that gather excess electrons for harvesting. To optimize its design, the team must understand how bacteria transfer electrons to anode surfaces under a variety of conditions.

"There are three primary components in the system: the bacteria, the surface and the solution that the bacteria are digesting," said Lüttge, associate professor of earth science and chemistry. "Any change in one variable will affect the other two, and what we want to do is find out how to tweak each one to optimize the performance of the whole system."

Lüttge's participation in the program grew out of a decade-long collaboration with principal investigator Kenneth Nealson, USC's Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences. Nealson helped pioneer the field of modern geobiology and the investigation of the genetic pathways that some microbes rely upon to maintain their respiratory metabolism in oxygen-poor environments. Shewanella oneidensis, one such bacterium, uses metals instead of oxygen to fully metabolize its food.

"Since this organism is capable of passing electrons directly to solid metal oxides, it is not particularly surprising that it can do the same to the anode of the fuel cell, and since we are already in the business of understanding and optimizing the metal reduction capacity, it seemed a reasonable step to apply the same approaches to understanding current production. What is new here is the incorporation of colleagues in chemistry, geology, engineering, and evolutionary biology to optimize the entire system, not just the bacteria."

In the fuel cell study, Lüttge will use computer models to estimate how the bacteria will behave under different circumstances. Running tests on the computer will save time and money by allowing laboratory experiments to focus on best candidate approaches.

"One of the hallmarks of our approach is the vigorous feedback between our computer models and our laboratory work," said Lüttge. "The computer simulations help us perform better experiments, and the laboratory tests help us design better simulation, and the overall combination saves time and money."

In addition to the computational modeling, Lüttge will contribute his experimental skills in an imaging technique called Vertical Scanning Interferometry. The technique, which he helped create in the 1990s, combines information from multiple beams of light to resolve sample features as small as one-billionth of a meter. In previous studies with Nealson, Lüttge used the technique to examine how the cigar-shaped Shewanella attach themselves to crystalline surfaces. The researchers found that Shewanella would lay flat and orient themselves relative to minute defects in the crystal's surface.

"We still have a lot to learn about the chemical cues that the Shewanella use - both individually and in colonies - but they are incredibly efficient at converting organic inputs to electricity, so we are confident that they'll be a great candidate for our fuel cells," Lüttge said.

Source: Rice University


Friday, March 3, 2006

Antarctic ice sheet melting fast: scientists


Scientists say Antarctica's mammoth ice sheet is in "significant decline", probably due to climate change.

United States researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder say online in the journal Science that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing up to 152 cubic kilometres of ice a year.

Dr Isabella Velicogna from the University's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences says it is the first study to indicate the total mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet is in significant decline.

The team calculated the ice sheet lost 152 cubic kilometres a year from April 2002 to August 2005, give or take 80 cubic kilometres.

That is equivalent to global seas rising 0.4 millimetres a year, with a margin of error of 0.2 millimetres, the researchers say.

The bulk of the loss is occurring in the West Antarctic ice sheet, Dr Velicogna says, whose team used two satellites orbiting Earth in tandem to gather data.

The satellites estimate Earth's global gravity field and variations in the gravity field over time were used to determine changes in Earth's mass distribution, necessary for estimating changes in mass of the Antarctic ice sheet.

"The changes we are seeing are probably a good indicator of the changing climatic conditions there," Dr Velicogna said.

The study seems to contradict the 2001 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which forecast the Antarctic ice shelf would actually gain mass in the 21st Century due to higher precipitation in a warming climate.

The US researchers say the IPCC estimate was based on sparse coverage of coastal areas, which would have affected the results.

As Earth's fifth-largest continent, Antarctica is twice the size of Australia and contains 70 per cent of Earth's fresh water resources.

The ice sheet is an average 1,981 metres thick.

Research from the British Antarctic Survey suggests melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone would raise global sea levels by more than six metres.

--ABC Science Online/AFP