The Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, Day 3: What would you say you do here?

The final part of a 3 part series on advanced biofuels. In the first part, I explained why I was attending a biofuels conference and summarized discussions about interactions between the government and the biofuels industry. In the second part, I explored the issues of funding. Now it’s time to talk about the state of the science and what this all means for the future.

The final day of the conference was all about being “feedstock agnostic” in terms of what you give to your genetically engineered, “proprietary organisms.” This was the really cool day where they all talked about what their companies actually did. Some companies were turning biomass into sugars (which I think then gets turned into oils, either by chemical rearrangement or possibly by feeding them to something else). Some companies were growing algae, which can then be turned into biofuel. And still other companies were going straight to oils, using special bacteria that would take a feedstock and secrete oil in response to it. It seemed like they all had bench-top proven technology. The devil was going to be how to make millions of gallons of their product on vastly larger scales. They all had plans and they all had pilot facilities in the making. It was very exciting and the anticipation for what the future will hold was high.

Although there is still significant future distance to travel, the technology had come a long way. The leader of the conference made some joking remarks about how the common technological aspects are glossed over as being something simple. “And as you see her on slide 6, we just took the bacteria and rearranged its genes so it would do what we want.” He wasn’t really exaggerating either, as it did seem like all the presentations had some words about genetic modification, but at the same time it was presented as if it was no big deal. Five years ago you wouldn’t have been able to just swap some genes here and there and have it work. The advances in cell-level and genetic modifications have flung open the gate for some enormous opportunity. My favorite presentation was by the group who have moved even further beyond genetic engineering. They had taken to selectively evolving their microbes by applying environmental pressures and then breeding generation upon generations. This blows my mind, and at the same time give me so much hope. Drilling for oil seems so antiquated in terms of what it takes. More difficult oil just takes more risk, more brute force, and more strength in terms of technology to combat the forces of physics. At what point do stop making things stronger and more complex, leading to greater dangers for rig workers? At what point do all the negatives outweigh the positives? After the Gulf oil spill, it seems like there is no limit to peril and damage, but then there was no other option. Now there I another choice, and making the oil ourselves is the new elegant solution, that will lead us into the future.

To wrap everything up, here is what I learned:

  1. Many advanced biofuels technologies have been proven on a small-scale. Some have been proven on a pilot scale. Full scale production is the next step.
  2. To get to full scale, further support in legislative policy (ex: RFS, EISA) need to be administered.
  3. Policy will help support monetary decisions, which require equally monumental financial creativity to get to the current cost-competitive point of oil.
  4. The policy, supported financial instruments, and technological development timeline need to be decoupled from oil volatility to achieve progress. Otherwise we will continue to pogo stick in place.
Will Dalen Rice

About Will Dalen Rice

Will Dalen Rice has a MS in Earth Science from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He currently works in the wastewater treatment industry.
Categories: Energy

Comments (6)

  1. GM says:

    More difficult oil just takes more risk, more brute force, and more strength in terms of technology to combat the forces of physics

    Speaking of forces of physics, why is there absolutely no discussion in your three-part post of things like EROEI, phosphorus supply, etc.?

    In the first part, you discuss the “interactions between the government and the biofuels industry”. In the second part, you talk about funding. Here you talk about “the state of the science”. But there isn’t a word about things like the basic question of “Are we net energy positive from the whole exercise and if yes, are we net energy positive enough to justify it”, and the other basic question “Are we closing the nutrient cycle and if not, where are we getting the nutrients other than H2O and CO2 from?”

    • Will says:

      From my understanding, these biofuels technologies were net energy positive. I didn’t talk as much about the backbone of biofuels science since they didn’t discuss as much of this at the conference. My hopes were to learn more basic things about the different ways they are making in drop-in fuels, manipulating feedstocks, and creating oil from photosynthetic processes, but alas this was a leadership conference and not a science one. Most of this conference was about policy and money.

      • GM says:

        Well, yes, the algae biofuels are net energy positive (corn ethanol and others often aren’t). The question is how much positive. You can’t run a society on EROEI of 3:1. If it’s 10:1 and above, then that we’re talking about something. However, since this is almost never discussed by their proponents, the inevitable conclusion is that either:

        1) It isn’t as positive as it has to be and the issue is swept under the rug
        2) they haven’t even thought about it much, in which case they are totally incompetent and shouldn’t ever be allowed to do that kind of stuff

        Anyway, biofuels are and always will be a very inefficient way of capturing solar energy due to the inherent limitations to the efficiency of photosynthesis. Which means that for them to make any difference, vast areas will have to be covered with biofuel crops. Is that possible in terms of scalability and sustainability. Certainly not on land, and almost certainly not on water.

        The rough calculations is that you need something between half and a million square kilometers of solar panels to supply the current electricity needs of the planet. Factor in the relative efficiency of harvesting solar energy with biofuels compared to solar panels, and you get significantly more than that. Then you realize that in 50 years the energy demand will be 6 times greater than now due to projected economic and population growth.

        Then you may realize that those algae you plan on growing don’t require just water, sun and air, they require a laundry list of critical nutrients which are often in short supply in the ocean so you will have to either continuously add them or find a way to completely close the nutrient cycle (not an easy thing to do), the most crucial one of which is phosphorus. But phosphorus will already be in short supply onshore for agriculture (it is an non-renewable and alarmingly quickly depleting resource) so maybe it is not such a wise idea to dump it in the ocean…

        That the conference “was about policy and money” is not an excuse, it is the the problem. Until people’s thinking about these things is dominated by policy and money outrageously stupid things that make no thermodynamical, physical or ecological sense will continue to be done. It is easy to forget in our society, but reality is not governed by policy and money, it is governed by the laws of physics

  2. GM, don’t rag on Will for the content of this one conference. He didn’t set it up. He just attended. Believe me, the subjects you have brought up are so integrated into the development of advanced biofuels that there are conferences now that don’t include them. They focus, as this one did, on bringing the most sustainable to market.

    We have an entire web site ( dedicated to exploring the issues you mentioned, as well as getting the best options discovered, developed and deployed. We also have more up-to-date information on energy return on energy invested for corn as well as other feedstocks and processes. As Will implied, that is so crucial an essential element of defining winners and losers–of who gets the funding and who doesn’t, that it wasn’t even discussed.

    I hope Will goes to more conferences and learns more and shares his perspectives with us. I recommend that you all attend Biomass 2011 put on by the US Department of Energy. It is near DC in July, free and always has a full track of sessions on sustainability issues. As well as a financing track, technology track, feedstock track, etc., with policy debates integral to every track.

    Certainly there are limitations. But our society will fall apart without transportation fuels. We have to develop the best we can or stop having babies and stop wanting to be somewhere that we aren’t right now. Neither of those will happen, so we work on biofuels; we work on growing, storing and distributing food more efficiently; we work on peace so that we don’t waste and destroy so much in conflicts and wars; and whatever else you think helps reach goals of feeding, clothing, fueling and entertaining the world’s populations.

  3. Don says:

    Will: Was palm oil discussed? Topics knocking on from palm oil are the effects of a global biofuel industry upon accelerated cutting of the remaining tropical forests to plant palm oil, corruption of third world governments by this process, displacement and impoverishment of the people who have lived in these forests for thousands of years, and extinction threats to tropical species? A good place to see these issues in play is Indonesia.

    • Will says:

      most of the feedstock discussion surrounded algae, microbial, or non-palm biomass cultivated crops. Again though…the majority of the talks were about policy, financing, and in the final day tech session, manipulating genes to get microscopic organisms to excrete oils or sugars.

    Links (1)
  1. Pingback: New at Erratics – Biofuels: What would you say you do here? | Highly Allochthonous