A Third Act For Biofuels

Posted: February 14, 2015 at 1:47 am

Editors note:Ryan Clarke is a biochemistry PhD candidate with an interest in genetic engineering. He is a published scientist with a background in synthetic biology and social analytics.James Hyun is aPhD student in the life sciences with a background in molecular biology. He haspublished numerous scientific paperswheregenetically engineered microorganisms were used to produce high value therapeutic proteins.

In the midst of the lowest oil prices our nation has seen in six years, its easy to forget that the primary energy source in the world is in finite supply. Fracking and extraction from shale have enhanced the potential amount of obtainable oil (and Americas total reserves have the potential to be the highest in the world), but these means are still limited by the Earths reserves.

In fact, British Petroleum projects that we will deplete the Earths oil reservoirs in roughly 50 years. With this sobering reality looming over our heads, we can look to recent advances in the biotechnology of biofuel production as a potential solution. Moving beyond bioethanol, the unsuspecting platform of algae may be the most promising.

Our vision for a carbon neutral world is one in which the ultimate goal is replacing petroleum-based energy consumption systems with clean energy production/consumption. However, replacing fossil fuel-derived energy with renewable sources such as wind, solar or hydro is a daunting task. These electricity-producing energy sources have a lower energy density, which is measured in joules per liter or kilogram, or BTUs (British Thermal Unit):

Furthermore, solar, wind and hydro cannot be controlled with an on and off switch. Rather, the electricity generated must be used immediately or stored in batteries and is considerably more expensive than fossil fuels. On a large scale, a coal mine or oil field, for instance, yields five to 50 times more power per square meter than a solar facility, 10 to 100 times more than a wind farm, and 100 to 1,000 times more than a biomass plant like corn.

If we want to avoid hitting the brick wall of a global energy drought when we tap our final oil reserves, we must do what humans do best: solve the problems we have created ourselves. Big oil and other major players in the market are highly cognizant that current petroleum supplies are finite, so they have been heavily investing (i.e. BP has invested $4 billion since 2005) in alternative energy sources to alleviate our dependency on classic fossil fuels. A significant portion of this funding is focused on biofuels, which might be the most realistic answer to the fossil fuel issue.

Biomasses to Bioethanol.The conversion of cellulose (a prolific sugar produced in plants), such as corns and sugar cane, to ethanol through chemically catalytic procedures has been a major prospect for ridding petroleum dependency for 20 years in the U.S.

Unfortunately, it turns out our existing combustion engines can only handle 10 percent ethanol mixtures with our gasoline (denoted as E10 fuels) on average, unless the engine has been modified or produced (flex-fuel engines) to handle 85 percent ethanol (E85 fuels), which is much less common. In America, there are roughly 10 million flex-fuel vehicles out of the total 250 million, so an infrastructure turnover is required for ethanol to be a plausible alternative.

The utmost defeating point for the ethanol argument is that oil yields 50 times more energy than ethanol from corn and 10 times more than ethanol from sugar cane, according to ecological economist Cutler Cleveland.

If we were to commit to ethanol as a petroleum replacement and ethanol werethe sole source used to achieve the 2020 federal mandates for renewable fuel, then 100 percent of the corn currently available in the U.S. would be required. To meet these mandates and maintain todays 30 percent corn crop utilization would require an increase in corn harvest by 423 percent.

Excerpt from:
A Third Act For Biofuels

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