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Biomass Chemistry

"Peak Oil" continues its march to memetic dominance, and a greater number of pundits and politicians not previously known for talking about the environment have started to ask what happens when oil runs out. For many who embrace the "Peak Oil Is Here" idea, the answer is simple: chaos, because petroleum is at the heart of much of industrial and agricultural production, not just transportation.

But that's not the only scenario. There has been quite a bit of research into alternative means of producing the materials we now make using oil. Biomass is the top candidate for oil equivalents, and indeed biodiesel has been getting more attention of late as a renewable and low-net-carbon method of fueling vehicles, both by renewable energy advocates trying to move away from fossil fuels and by researchers trying to improve the efficiency of biodiesel production. Biomass is also being used as an experimental feedstock for chemicals now requiring petroleum. And by stretching the definition of biomass a bit, even fertilizer -- a favorite of the apocyphiles -- can be made without fossil fuels.

Converting biomass to biodiesel is not terribly efficient -- depending upon the base plant, it can sometimes only produce marginally more energy than is used by the conversion process. But researchers at the University of Wisconsin have come up with a new method of biofuel production that is significantly more efficient than previous technologies (and is double the efficiency of current ethanol production). This development is able to convert the carbohydrates in plants -- about 75% of the dry weight -- into fuel. In an interesting bit of biomimicry, the process is similar to the way in which carbohydrates are used in the body to produce energy:

"It's a very efficient process," says Huber. "The fuel produced contains 90 percent of the energy found in the carbohydrate and hydrogen feed. If you look at a carbohydrate source such as corn, our new process has the potential to creates twice the energy as is created in using corn to make ethanol."

About 67 percent of the energy required to make ethanol is consumed in fermenting and distilling corn. As a result, ethanol production creates 1.1 units of energy for every unit of energy consumed. In the UW-Madison process, the desired alkanes spontaneously separate from water. No additional heating or distillation is required. The result is the creation of 2.2 units of energy for every unit of energy consumed in energy production.

Although the UW process takes many steps, the researchers are confident that it can be improved quickly. The bigger roadblock to implementation is the need for biofuel refineries:

The key is building biorefineries that balance the energy. A refinery balances energy requirements of each process with those of other processes and the chemical intermediaries of each process are either separated as final products or used elsewhere in the refinery, said Dumesic.

As noted, biomass can be used to replace more than fuel. Green Car Congress notes that chemical company Codexis and Cargill has announced a new process that converts corn sugars to a "chemical intermediate" called 3HP.

The new process will utilize very low-cost, clean agricultural feedstocks instead of petroleum to produce 3HP. 3HP is a key intermediate for several commercially important chemicals. The chemicals that can be produced from 3HP include acrylic acid, acrylamide and 1,3 propanediol. Acrylic acid and its derivatives are used to create a wide range of polymer-based consumer and industrial products, such as adhesives, paints, polishes, protective coatings, and sealants. This new process is cheaper and more environmental friendly than the old process that uses petroleum as a feedstock.

[...] Sugars and lipids from agricultural crops can be used in many products, replacing increasingly expensive oil and natural gas, which are currently the main feedstocks of the chemical industry [...]

Undoubtedly, more work needs to be done to make the resulting chemical products more environmentally friendly, but the point here is the ability to find alternatives to petroleum feedstocks.

But the loss of chemical production ability isn't the chief fear of those who say that oil production has nowhere to go but down. Rather, the inability to create nitrogen fertilizer for industrial farming is what they worry about most.

First, a quick note: as we've explored at length, industrial farms are not the only way or the best way to provide food for the world's citizens. There are healthier, more environmentally-friendly ways of growing food not requiring masses of petroleum fertilizer or pesticides. That said, absent a global revolution in thinking, industrial food production will likely continue for quite a few more years, and industrial agriculture techniques may turn out to be necessary to maintain food production during serious climate disruption.

So what's the biomass-based alternative to using petroleum for fertilizer?


Engineer-Poet at the Ergosphere breaks it down. Algae can be used to produce hydrogen, and hydrogen can be used to "fix" nitrogen. With the hydrogen production operating a mere 1% efficiency, a hectare of hydrogen-generating algae could produce the nitrate to fertilize around 20 hectares of agricultural production. That same hectare could fertilize 200 hectares if H2 generation efficiency is brought up to the 10% thought possible.


If 10% efficiency can be achieved, the hydrogen production goes up to 38 tons/ha/year (1.55 MWh/ha/yr) and it can become the basis of a general energy business. If crop wastes such as corn stover and wheat/rice straw are used as carbon inputs and have a general chemical formula of (CH2O)n, addition of H2 is all that is necessary to produce methanol (CH3OH). If the process can use the inputs with 100% conversion efficiency, 2 grams of hydrogen plus 30 grams of carbohydrate yields 32 grams methanol; 38 tons of hydrogen becomes 608 tons of methanol (about 203,000 gallons, holding the energy equivalent of 122,000 gallons of gasoline). At this level of production, inputs of crop waste are probably the limiting factor; long before this level was reached, the fuel production would satisfy all needs for cultivation.

Conclusion: it is not only possible to generate all required nitrogen fertilizer from solar energy using known processes or slight improvements, at the limit they could lead to large-scale production of biofuels from crop wastes. All it requires is hydrogen.

Algae farms may not be quite a sexy as fields of corn or soy, but may well be far more important.

The use of biomass to replicate the services provided by petroleum walks a fine line. As noted, these replacement processes allow the continued use and/or production of aspects of modern life that could by no means be considered sustainable. It's possible that a Peak Oil crisis could drive the adoption of far more sustainable methods and materials; unfortunately, it's also possible that a peak oil crisis could drive the onset of greater global conflicts, starvation and chaos.

I don't look at these developments as being permanent substitutes for sustainability, I see them as transition technologies. Work on improving the efficiency and utility of the more sustainable practices will continue, and -- as I fully expect -- when they are recognized as being demonstrably better, large-scale adoption will follow. A world of Peak Oil crisis and conflict is far less likely to let us get to that point.

Comments (13)

Before anyone gets complacent, I should say that biofuels cannot replace the sheer volume of petroleum the world (esp. the USA) uses today.  There will not be day when people pump bio-petrol from corn stalks or forest thinnings into their H2 Hummers with today's abandon; there simply isn't enough biological productivity in higher plants to allow that.  The energy routes have to be much more efficient, and thus more direct.

We can keep the lights on, but there are going to be big changes in the way things are done.  How smooth or wrenching they'll be... that's TBD, and we still have time to turn our free-fall into a glide path.  The sooner we do, the sooner we can start soaring.

E-P and Jamais both point out the key issue with peak oil:

It would be easy for things to go south; for things to turn out badly - the path of inaction.


However, there will be plenty of fossil fuel, though in decline, to transition to something else.

Bio-mass will play a part. We obviously don't want to end up like easter island, and convert all our carbon packed trees into fuel for an easy-motoring lifestyle.

Ultimately, it is a human problem.

Can we share in the face of shrinking resources?

It is really a zero sum energy game UNTIL we have a sustainable alternative.

It's unlikely that we'd convert all of our biomass to fuel, but E-P makes an excellent point, worth reiterating: these are not replacements, they're temporary adaptations.

They may not be temporary either.  They may wind up being long-term fixtures of the energy landscape.  What they are not going to be is our primary source of transportation energy; that role is going to be filled by something else, and I am 95% sure that "something else" is going to be electric.

These are all excellent points, and several problems remain with biofuels as a complete replacement for fossil fuels. However, it is at least possible that biofuels offer a transitional strategy. They also offer a more equitable means for producing energy (land owners all of the world can produce fuel, and not need deal with large petro and oil from other regions).

Another advantage to consider: biofuels can be developed to be fairly close to carbon neutral. (Unless you use lots of chemical fertilizers to grow the crops -- there's a big catch there!)

Anyway, this is definitely something to watch. We're going to have to get *very good* at utilizing biological power sources. And soon.

I am 95% sure that "something else" is going to be electric.

But how many Kilowatts per hour will it require? ;-)

"how many Kilowatts per hour will it require?"

Non-serious answer:  that depends how many cubic kilograms of CO2 are involved.  (You can't make this stuff up.)

Serious answer:  About 180 GW average.


I still remember my english teach saying thats not the proper way to speak to witch I said I moved my lips and sounds came out they understood the sounds exactly how did it not work properly?

Anyhoo biostuff and hydrogen and this and that will give us enough energy to power everyone in the world.. or we will make it do so by killing off everyone else. Fitting round pegs into square holes thats mans way.

Sorry to pick on you Jon, but you are probably used to it by now

However, there will be plenty of fossil fuel, though in decline, to transition to something else.

How can you be sure? At one point will there not be enough? We don't even know what that something else is. If we buy into the peak oil model (which accurately predicted North American peak oil production), the remaining oil after peak production becomes more expensive and the rate of production per day descreases steadily. It is not as if there is some metaphorical world barrel that we can draw steadily from at the same rate that we are now. Peak oil is more about this declining production capacity, there will oil in the ground, long after we stop relying on it, it will simply not be economical to extract. In other words if it takes 1.5 units of energy to extract 1 unit energy of oil, oil ceases to become energy source.

Can we share in the face of shrinking resources?

It is my hope that this is possible. However, history and the present do not support this possibility. The United States diverts a tremendous amount of its productive capacity, not in the direction of building this future cooperative world, rather this capacity is used to rain mechanized death upon populations in order to keep them subordinate, that is the world we live in.

Aaron, using the ASPO numbers, generally regarded as the most pessimistic, in 2030 we'll be producing 20 GB a year, down from 30 GB now, of petroleum.

I consider 20 GB or more over the next 25 years to be PLENTY of oil to transition to something else, even if that something else is simply more localized agriculture and different living arrangments.

You are right that are many unknowns.

But the U.S. could save and conserve 33 percent of liquid fuels relatively easily: we waste so freaking much of the stuff.

People are already thinking differently about oil usage, and that trend will continue as oil goes up and over 60$ a barrel.

As for "sharing"....

There are going to be nations which will go to war rather than accept (or to divert public attention from) higher prices accompanying scarcity.  The way we can handle this is two-fold:

  1. Shift our own demand so that we have a certain amount of freedom from the commodity in question.
  2. Be prepared to use economic embargoes or outright force to punish leaders and nations which get violent.
Otherwise, we're going to see things like the wars over gold and diamonds in Africa coming to energy supplies as well.


Personaly me and some fair other conservative thinkers think iraq is realy just about getting the armed forces and its systems in shape for the comming resource wars.


Of course Iraq is about the oil. Liberal as I am I know that "No Blood for Oil" leads to "Much Blood in the absense of Oil"

It is no coincidence that we've opened a police station in the Middle East. We're trying to buy time. I'm with Kunstler in believing that World War III has already started and will escalate into a three-sided conflict between the US, China and Islam over oil. The nightmare scenario is that we will thrash about until our industrial capacities wear down to the point were nations lose the ability to project their power. And we all retreat to lick our wounds and try to feed our masses ... each in our own corner of a much larger world.

Everyone should read Kunstler's book "The Long Emergency", but this is a reasonable synopsis:

The simple fact is that if we want to keep the project of civilization on the rails we need a Manhattan Project around alternative energy ASAP.


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