Daily Archives: November 11, 2011

Some interesting research on the best ways to displace petroleum with biomass

For past couple of decades, most of the efforts to use renewable biomass to replace oil, natural gas and coal have revolved around liquid fuels, particularly ethanol and biodiesel. New research indicates that may not be the best approach to take.

Because most people in America today are sadly lacking in useful science education, they are unaware how much petroleum and gas is used in the production of chemical products like plastics and synthetic fabrics among many other things. The connection between petroleum and transportation is much more visible and obvious to the under-educated masses so when the time came to reduce petroleum use, biofuels seemed the obvious first and easy choice.

While organic chemicals like plastics and synthetic fibers are based on base carbon-hydrogen molecules just like fossil fuels, they are actually significantly different. The chemicals are based on long chains of thousands of the base molecules.

Initially most biofuels were derived from corn kernels and soy beans by fermenting the relatively simple sugar molecules to produce alcohols that were closer in structure to the petroleum fuels. Unfortunately the yields of fuel from these feed stocks was far too low to make the kind of difference needed in petroleum consumption.

In recent years, the emphasis for fuel production has shifted to converting cellulosic biomass to ethanol. A corn plant contains far more biomass in its stalk and husks than it does in the kernels but it exists in the form of cellulose which is essentially a natural polymer with long carbon-hydrogen chains. Before this material can be used to produce a liquid fuel, it has to be broken down into base sugars which requires either some more energy input or the use of enzymes which remain expensive. The liquid fuel production process also consumes vast quantities of fresh water.

Since natural biomass is already much closer in structure to some of the materials produced from oil, it seems probable that the conversion process should be much easier than producing fuels. In some cases, the natural fibers can even be useful without chemical conversion such as using hemp fibers for a wide variety of applications.

Another prime example of using biomass for chemical processes is the use of soy-based polyols to produce foams. Ford has been a leader in this area and it began rolling out soy-foam seats in its vehicles in 2007. Hyundai is now starting to use soy-foam as well.

Perhaps the combination of battery, fuel cell and advanced internal combustion engines running on gas and diesel can be blended with biomass derived plastics, foams and fabrics to make a bigger overall impact on energy use than biofuels.

#cars #biomass #biofuels #energy #green

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Green Car Congress: Researchers argue that the optimal use of biomass as a renewable resource is for production of select chemicals, not power, heat or fuels
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