Trends, Hurdles, and Potentials of Biofuel

Algae based biodiesel might be the futu
Trends, Hurdles, and Potentials of Biofuel - Recent development in the biofuel market. Few people interested in green technology have missed the large fuss regarding algae biodiesel production from microalgae considered by many the only alternative with potential of replacing the entire world consumption of fossil fuels by its own. It is still quite expensive but bioengineering and more efficient production swiftly reduces the gap. A researcher and friend of mine calculated that 76x76 km area of algae production would cover the entire fuel consumption needed for Sweden.

Early 2008 Solazyme, which uses algae fermentation to make oil from sugar crops, got Chevron as investor and recently they was contracted by the Us Navy for producing 1500 Gallons of Jet Fuel and another 150000 Gallons of biodiesel for the navy ships. Us is considering the dependence of foreign fuel deliveries as a national security and set the navy target to 50% biofuels in 2020.

The Energy company St1 recently made an interesting move in Sweden when buying up gas stations, now roughly 200 stations, providing self made bioethanol produced from rest products of the food production industry.

Algae based biodiesel might be the future

The biodiesel industry are also foreseeing a brighter future now when the amount of biodiesel now blended into normal diesel is now up at 5%. US ethanol blending limit is also considered to be raised from 10% to up to 15% in the near future that will boost the US Corn based bio ethanol and in Brazil they had to lower their ethanol-gas blend to 20% from 25% for some time because they could not produce enough of their sugar cane based bioethanol.

Early 2010 Solena Group that uses a 5000 degree plasma torch to produce synthetic biogas from algae biomass teamed up with Brittish airways to fuel aircrafts by 2014 and also Russia is moving forward by starting up a cellulose based biobuthanol plant. Read here

Last prognosis from Lux Research says that that the biofuel production will increase from todays 3% of total production by 7.8% yearly until 2015 and that the most rapid areas will be in Jet-Fuels, biodiesel and algae oil.

Biofuel hurdles

Biofuels have a big hurdle which is the infrastructure and compatibility in the machines that use them. Changing this is something that takes a long time, requires lots of politics and requires large daring investments in machines powered by fuels that not certainly will be the preferred ones. Once a standard has been established the competitive technology needs to be much better in order to break through. This might be ok with electric cars since you can charge them at home but for fuel cells for example it might be difficult unless we have our own hydrogen producing electrolyzers at home.

As many other, BP saw this hurdle earlier and their tactics together with DuPont is to make biobutanol and blend normal gasoline with up to 15% of it to be used in all the cars and fuel stations that already exist.

In Sweden we saw a big boost for biogas earlier and many car makers raced to launch their flexifuel gas-diesel and gas-gasoline hybrids to match the anticipated improvement of biogas infrastructure. This however halted somewhat and the preferred choice became ethanol leaving many frustrated new biogas car owners.

First generation biofuel

Sugar cane field in brazil for
bioethanol production
First generation is a composition of all the fuels produced by feedstock from the normal food chain. Fermentation of sugar rich biomass like sugar cane in Brasil to Corn in US to produce bioethanol or vegetable oil from sunflowers to produce biodiesel in Europe. The processes are standard and the crops are easy to grow but the downsides are many including increased food prices, deforestation and sometimes a questionable life cycle green house gas savings compared too fossil fuels.

This generation has a huge advantage though because it it is first. It is already established with rapidly increasing volumes and reduced cost and it is easy to set up production of in many countries that needs an extra economy boost. Despite the downsides I believe that the following generations will have a steep uphill run compared to this because of the mentioned advantages unless there are political incentives leveling the rules. Green business will never fly just because it is green because it has to give the consumer an advantage of lower price or enabling some other applications as any other product.

Below is a trend chart of the larger movements in the biodiesel and bioethanol industry. Its obvious that Brasil is quite aggressive in this area.

Global biofuel production distribution
Biogas is also part of first generation fuels and is normally defined as a gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Biogas production has a big benefit that it can use many types of waste and create a use for all our landfills. It can also be produced very locally and since the anaerobic process is very simple it can also be used in very small production sites like farms enabling local energy and fuel production which is very nice.

Biogas can also be created from algae biomass which sometimes is referred to green gas and has the additional advantage of the rapid growth of algae biomass that is typically 20-100 times faster than other land based crops. Seen from a greenhouse gas life cycle perspective biogas is first in class.

Biogas production video

Second generation biofuel

Poplar for lignocellulosic
biofuel production
Second generation biofuel is the common name for biofuel production using lignocellulosic crops like wood as an example where you split the biomass typically by enzymes into cellulose (42%), hemicellulose (21%) and lignin and assuming full conversion to sugar of the both cellulose variants to sugar it can be used to create 30% ethanol by common fermentation as in making beer. The rest product lignin is now used mostly burned up to provide heat but here there are many interesting areas being evolved like creating lignin based plastics.

The second generation has large advantages over Sugar & Starch crops based production since it it is much more Green house gas efficient (90% saving compared to fossil fuels) and used the leftovers in food production and not the food itself.

Lignocellolosic ethanol production video

Third generation biofuel

During the oil crisis in the 1970s there was huge fundings of research in the field of algae based biofuels sponsored by the Carter administration, however when Clinton entered the scene the oil price was lower and funding stopped. There was however a very large knowledge base built up that was the start of many of the companies that we see today, many with investment from the large oil companies.

Those algae based biofuels now goes under the term third generation biofuel. It has the benefits of producing biomass very fast, 20-100 times faster than land based crops and there is lots of space to grow them. The production either uses algae with high concentration of oil to be converted to biodiesel, or using the upside of the fastest growing algae variants to create large biomass for gas production.

Third generation algae based biofuel
The downsides are mostly connected to its immaturity. For example producing the oil based diesel is still 3 times higher than biodiesel based on palm oil but in time this will probably be solved. The cost of producing biodiesel from algae is currently 52.3 Euro per gigajoule of energy, compared with 36 Euro for rapeseed and only 15.8 Euro for Oil. Also algae for gas production has challenges with predators and harvesting difficulties, however this seem to be an easier challenge and may quickly be solved with increased production.

The algae growth can be done in the open sea, closed ponds or in dedicated bioreactors like very long transparent tubes.

Video showing an algae bioreactor:

Fourth generation?

Well there are many speculations what the fourth generation may be but one of the challenges of the current solutions is that all of them requires many steps to reach the final fuel and maybe this is what will be solved in the future, likely by more advanced genetics and bioengineering.

In September the Cambridge based startup Joule said that they had engineered a blue-green algae that could convert Carbon dioxides in glass bioreactors with only sunlight as source. Well if this is sci-fi or not is yet to be seen but the thought is pleasant. For anyone that has some time left you can read the patent here and here is an article from cnet that discusses this in more detail.

Retrieved from: The Green Technology

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