There are a variety of ways to answer the question depending on one's perspective:
A Historical Perspective
In addition to oil, the first commercial oil wells also produced large quantities of methane gas (CH4), and in 1891 the first lengthy pipeline (120 miles or 200 kilometers) was built to deliver this novel form of fuel gas to Chicago. Since this form of fuel gas didn't have to be made from coal, it was marketed as "natural gas".
Today, natural gas accounts for 23% of the world's energy supply. Gas manufactured from biomass gas? Not so much.
Over the last hundred years, there's been a notable series of developments in the industrial chemist's ability to transform producer gas into synthetic oils, but generally speaking, those developments were only put to large-scale use when countries found themselves cut off from being able to purchase petroleum.
But in each case, as soon as the conflict was resolved, folks went back to depending on non-renewable and often imported petroleum to meet their energy needs. That's a "solution" that works fairly well right up until it doesn't, which is what the people living in Cuba found out when the breakup of the USSR shut off their supply of cheap oil in 1991, collapsing 85% of Cuba's international trade economy.
Today, rural communities are profoundly dependent on the global fossil-fuel-driven energy system. In order to survive the end of the era of cheap non-renewables, rural communities need to have local options; the intent behind this project is to create a working model of such an option, and to dissemmenate that information using an open-source format so that small communities in deeply rural areas can thrive by meeting their energy needs themselves.
From a Technological PerspectiveThe basic brute-force technology of gasification has enabled people to convert cheap biomass into fuel for more than a century, but the world is rapidly running out of "cheap" non-renewable resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas. This change is in turn triggering changes in which processes are economically attractive.
Modern corporate finance strategies call for the construction of ever larger facilities, undertakings which concentrate the economic and environmental impacts of technologies based on cheap energy. And all too often, large megasystems quickly become surrounded by a ecological dead-zone. On the other hand, small systems that produce energy at point-of-use have the potential to function within environmental constraints and encourage ecological diversity.
Over the past thirty years there has been a series of technological developments that, when combined in novel ways, indicate that it's now possible to reduce the minimum size of a biomass-to-methanol facility. These developments have the potential to make smaller plants feasible given the right context. Much of the work of the B2M project involves verifying that a combination of these new technologies will work together successfully in village-scale facilities.
There's a profound difference between the approaches that scientists and engineers take. The former work to push back the boundaries of what we know, while the latter work to create systems that perform well within those boundaries. The scientist wants to know how much stress a material can take before it breaks, while the engineer wants to know how to build a bridge that won't break.
In the field of chemistry there's a profound difference between the disciplines of chemical research and chemical engineering, and the B2M project sits squarely in the gap between the two; in some ways, B2M is too small to be of interest to professional engineers, and too long-standing to be of interest to research chemists.
For practical purposes, building a plant that's ten times bigger, or in our case a thousand times smaller, necessitates reexamining every part of the process to see how it actually performs at the new scale. This is especially true in the case of reactions that involve the heating and compression of gases.
There's a delightful quote that's variously attributed which observes that, "In theory there's no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is." The conversion of woody biomass into liquid fuels is a prime example of the truth of this observation.
When trying to scale up a process, there's a general rule that an order of magnitude change requires a fundamental revisiting of the principles involved. However nicely some process may work at one scale, it's rarely possible to build a plant that produces ten times as much by just increasing the size of each component by a factor of ten.
In the case of B2M, we're looking to build conversion plants that are a thousand times smaller than current industrial-sized facilities; given that we're working on a change that's three orders of magnitude away from current practice, the engineering is necessarily different.
Over the past four decades there have been a number of technological developments that offer "stepping stones" on the way to local conversion of biomass into fuel. Some key examples of those developments warrant their own pages. You can find them listed under:
From a Sociological PerspectiveThe focus of the B2M Project is to create a system which supports a village, instead of creating a village which supports a system. As a result, it's somewhat ironic that perhaps the most challenging part of B2M is reported the least on this website.
The reason for that inversion is because in order to create a sustainable village-scale energy system, one has to first be able to create a sustainable village. It's common for people to think that if they just had better technology and more money, the social challenges facing humanity would solve themselves. Sadly, that's not how the Age of Abundance has worked out as the Dalai Lama noted with exceptional clarity in The Paradox of our Age.
The B2M Project is an offshoot of the Windward Center's more than thirty years of applied research into the creation of resilient, self-reliant community, and information about that work can be found on the Windward website and in our online Blog.
You've probably heard people say, "It takes a village to raise a child." But, you've probably not heard people talk much about what it takes to raise a village. The Windward Blog talks in detail about the sociological work we're doing to build a sustainable social foundation for the B2M Project.
In order to be sustainable, B2M technology needs to be embedded at the center of a village designed from the ground up to be self-reliant. There are lots of things that people can do to tweak their neighborhood to be more sustainable, but after-the-fact work can only go so far, and it's rare that it goes any where near far enough.
Social systems built during the age of cheap resources will not serve us well when energy-intensive resources range from expensive to simply-not-available. Many communities are already caught up in a cycle of catabolic decay as the infrastructure built up in the 50's, 60's and 70's is under-maintained and failing.
It's simple math that a society that doesn't have the resources needed today to maintain vital life-support systems will not have the resources needed to replace those vital life-support systems tomorrow. With each passing year, energy-based resources such as concrete, steel, and asphalt become more expensive; if society can't afford to fix public infrastructure now, then the need to figure out some viable alternatives is pressing.
As the cost of non-renewable resources rises, some people are going to make the decision to scrap what they have and start over by reconfiguring their concept of what constitutes a neighborhood in ways that conserve community resources.
For example, one of the concepts that can be incorporated into a resilient village is that of co-generation. When someone burns fuel in an electrical generator, about two-thirds of the energy going in is given off in the form of waste heat. Currently, non-renewable fossible fuels (usually coal and natural gas) are burned in huge electrical generation plants, with the waste heat being vented to the atmosphere.
After leaving the power plant, energy is distributed through the electrical grid to homes, a process which consumes an additional energy in the form of transmission losses. Eventually only about a quarter of the energy going into the generating plant reaches the consumer. While the current system is convenient, it wastes a lot of energy that could be utilized if electricity was generated close to where it was being used.
If a B2M unit was embedded at the heart of a resilent village, it could simultaneously supply homes in the village with heat and electricity, and the village's cars, trucks and tractors with fuel. In addition, the residents would have the power needed to do sustainable work at home, work that enabled its residents to focus on creating value for themselves instead of having to leave the village to work making money for others.
The physical technology involved in making B2M work is relatively straight forward, but the social dimension is anything but. The historical record is pretty clear that building an intentional community of any sort is a very challenging undertaking in the best of times. In times that are not the best, the problem is compounded by a lack of the necessary capital. All too often, the folks with the greatest need will be those who have the fewest resources to work with.
From A Safety Perspective
One way that the B2M project can be described is that it involves taking a dilute form of energy (sunshine) and concentrating it into an energy-dense, portable form. Caution is in order any time one deals with energy-dense materials. This is especially true around products that people have been using for years without mishap. Taking routine precautions is good, but they can lull one into thinking that a practice is completely safe, something which is true right up until it isn't.
Methanol has properties which argue in favor of its use as a transportation fuel; for example, it is the traditional fuel-of-choice for drag racing, but the production, storage and utilization of any energy-dense fuel can at best be only reasonably safe. Anyone who fails to show the appropriate level of respect for energy-dense materials is in danger of become a warning for others of just how high a penalty nature can charge the disrespectful.
At the heart of the B2M project is the process known as gasification, i.e. the conversion of a solid material into gases. This is the same process that happens in a camp fire as solid wood is transformed into combustible gases. What makes the process of gasification different from simple combustion is that the generation of the gas and the burning of the gas happen in separate places.
The three primary gases involved in the B2M Project are carbon monoxide, hydrogen and oxygen, each of which has its own set of non-intuitive characteristics. Any reasonably safe effort to convert woody biomass into fuel needs to be designed around the characteristics and limitations of these three gases.
There have been a series of technological developments over the past few decades that now enable the serious student to convert woody biomass into fuels in ways that are reasonably safe. On the other hand, no one that we're aware of has brought those several developments together to create a process which can be maintained and operated at the village level. The understanding that it is now possible to do things that were not possible before is a key part of the impetus behind B2M.
Prior to the technological developments of the past four decades, the size that a biomass to methanol plant needed to be in order to function effectively was huge; now it's not. But large or small, the careless application of this technology can still result in injury or death. A core question that the B2M Project has to answer is whether the potential value of going forward with this work at this time outweighs the risk; this project is grounded in the belief that it is a reasonable risk to take, and the understanding that at best the work will be only reasonably safe.