Miku Lenentine of Washington State University was kind enough to ask us to participate in a survey being used to gauge the general understanding of people regarding woody biomass and its potential impacts. The survey consisted of a series of statements that participants would rate on a scale that indicated a range from strongly agreeing to strongly disagreeing.
I enjoyed the exercise, although I sometimes found it difficult to either agree or disagree with some of the statements because of what I perceive as the inherent conflict between the large-scale government-funded approach favored by academia, and the small-scale, volunteer supported approach we're taking.
The survey rightly touched on many of the problems associated with large scale, regional systems, thereby providing an opportunity to explain why I believe that the small-scale, local approach is the better way to create sustainable energy from woody biomass.
Programs which rely on a combination of government grants and venture capital funding naturally tend towards mega-plant designs, but with large size comes a series of scale related problems that we believe can be more easily and cheaply addressed at a smaller scale. It's this focus on locally-sourced, village scale systems that enables B2M to create a structural solution for many of the problems highlighted in the survey.
Below I've listed the survey's list of assertions, and add some comments as to how they relate‒or don't‒to our efforts to use woody biomass to create energy sovereignty at the village scale.
The Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) recently completed a study that concluded that the Pacific Northwest had significant amounts of relevant resources in the form of closed lumber mills and pulp plants. Properly used, the study found, these stranded assets could cut infrastructure costs in half for the full scale plants they wanted to build to convert woody biomass into jet fuel.
That was the encouraging way to look at their findings. The daunting way to look at it was that they were projecting that by wisely using stranded assets, they could lower the capital cost for a woody biomass to jet fuel plant down from a billion dollars to something in the range of five hundred million dollars.
It's that sort of high finance approach that spurs B2M to come at this challenge from the opposite direction. By incorporating the work within the context of a research community focused on sustainably meeting its own needs, we escape the need to throw lots of government money at the challenge in the hope that we'll get it right the first time. By training ourselves to do the work, to work out the kinks, and by relying on the support of True Fans to fund the purchase of tools and materials, we're moving forward in an organic manner that explores the potentials and challenges of woody biomass without harming our forest or community.
Clearly, using food to make fuel puts the desires of wealthy people ahead of the needs of poor people. It's also non-sensical in that the more accurate way to describe what's going on is that fossil fuels are being used to grow food that's then converted into automotive fuel, a process which creates a net loss of energy and top soil. History shows that nature tends to severely penalize societies that squander their natural resources.
But more to the point, the statement's not relevant in that woody biomass isn't food. The mountains of slash left behind by loggers, or bagasse by sugar cane processors, or shells by almond and walnut processors, or husks from rice processors, are all examples of products that have no food value, but do have considerable energy value that can be recovered as fuel, electricity and domestic hot water.
In a world of finite resources, wasting the energy contained in woody biomass is "just plain immoral."
This is doubly true for those who are concerned with developing sustainable ecosystems. When thinking of biomass logistics, the focus is generally on getting the biomass to the processing facility. But there are other crucial elements that are often overlooked, but which have to be considered if the system is going to be sustainable.
The conversion of woody biomass into fuels involves extracting the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that makes up 97% of the biomass and transforming those macro elements into various types of fuels. That can be done indefinitely in that plants can sustainably extract those elements from the atmosphere. The long term problem lies with the availability of other elements that plants have to be extract from the soil, elements such as magnesium, calcium, sulphur, phosphorus, potassium, etc.
Every bit of woody biomass that's transported miles away from where it was grown contains these essential elements, and their removal undercuts the viability of that ecosystem. The depletion of any one of those elements will turn a vibrant forest into a barren desert.
Woody biomass generally has a mineral content of between two and three percent; when the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in wood are transformed into a gas, the mineral content is left behind in the form of ash. In order to be sustainable, a biofuel system has to return those elements to the land that produced the biomass so that it can fertilize the next cycle of biomass production. B2M is the only biofuel system that I'm aware of that factors in the logistics involved in returning those elements to the ecosystem they came from.
Because B2M involves the utilization of woody biomass grown within a mile of the processing plant, it's easier to return the ash to the forest and spread it around, than to load it into a truck and haul it to the landfill.
This is true‒in the same way that it's easier for an adolescent to ask his mother to pay off his credit cards than it is to get a job and pay his own way.
Since time immemorial, humanity has lived off the annual supply of solar energy. Then, in the late 1700s, humanity won the lottery by figuring out how to tap the energy stored in fossil fuels. Powered by coal, oil and natural gas, people grew used to being able to squander energy in a thousand ways. But the needle on the fossil fuel gauge is running on empty, and there's no credible reason to believe that humans will be able to continue the joy ride for much longer. As society's engine starts to sputter, expecting to win the lottery a second time is not a credible business plan.
Fossil fuel companies like to talk about how some well is producing a certain number of barrels of oil a day, but that's deceitful language since their well isn't actually producing anything; rather it's extracting a resource from a finite reservoir. So, yes, for now it is cheaper to extract fuel from the ground than it is to produce it from biomass, but that misses the point; fossil fuels can't be replaced, whereas we can replace fuels made from woody biomass. As the easily exploited resources run out, the Energy Return On Energy Invested ratio will continue to fall, and at some point, biofuels will become economically viable.
I completely agree with this statement, but I would point out that it misses the point in that the fossil fuel business is founded on the rapid depletion of non-renewable resources‒so, it's going to end regardless of whether anyone tries to compete with it. I believe that the development of wood-based biofuels is not about substituting a renewable energy system for one that makes as much sense as Wiley Coyote chasing the Roadrunner off the edge of Seneca's Cliff. Wood-based biofuels are important in that they create a way to ensure that our essential systems can continue to function as society‒ready or not‒ undergoes a profound reordering of its priorities.
Given the current patterns of energy consumption, I'd go even further and suggest that there's no way that all of the known renewable energy systems combined can compete with fossil fuels. Renewables currently provide less than three percent of US energy needs, so even if a Manhattan scale project was able to increase the production of renewable energy tenfold, we'd still be faced with trying to maintain society on an energy budget of a third of what we're currently consuming.
And since deploying sustainable systems involve large, up-front investments of time, energy, and money, they have to be made when society has the time, energy, and money to spare; if the shift to renewables is put off until we're in crisis mode, our best efforts will be too little too late. We can either push aggressively to develop renewables now while they're not yet competitive, or we can resign ourselves to telling our children that we chose to act too late to do them much good.
Buckminster Fuller observed that, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." That advice lies at the heart of B2M's approach.
That may be true for energy schemes that involve growing biomass on vast mono-culture plantations. It's definitely not true for systems focused on the conversion of forest-sourced woody biomass grown in the Pacific Northwest. Forest ecosystems do not require the diversion of water away from food crops.
My recollection is that NARA's study identified three Pacific Northwest hubs that each generate enough woody biomass to sustainably supply one of the billion dollar conversion plants they want to create, all of which would not require the diversion of water from other uses. I've not seen a study of woody biomass production in British Columbia, but I would guess that their supply of woody biomass is even greater.
At the NARA conference in Seattle, a representative of Oregon State University's forestry department estimated that the current rate of production of woody biomass by Pacific Northwest forests exceeds the rate of extraction by a factor of ten. Not only are large amounts of woody biomass not being utilised, the excess accumulation of fuel constitutes an existential hazard for the forest and the people who live there. Arguably, the greatest demand for water would involve efforts to put out the massive fires that will inevitably result if the ongoing accumulation of woody biomass isn't dealt with.
To the extent that this is true, I see it as a good thing. Woody biomass has a low energy density which serves as a natural limit to how far it can be transported before more energy is consumed in transport than is contained in the material. This is especially true in the case of green woody biomass which is usually around 45% water. Long haul trucks are limited in how much weight they can haul, and if half that weight is water, then hauling it is generally a losing proposition.
Generally, how it would work is (1) green woody biomass would be generated in the forest and hauled by tractor to a processing location where its density would be increased by converting it into wood chips. (2) The chips would then be hauled in a wagon to a paved loading area where equipment would transfer it into over-the-road trailers. (3) The chips would then be trucked tens of miles to a regional facility. Each of those steps adds to the cost, thereby reducing the net dollar value of the GWB being harvested.
Our Biomass to Methanol process eliminates steps 2 and 3.
I see the low energy density of woody biomass as a good thing because it limits the market incentive for clear cutting forest ecosystems in order to generate cash flow. Currently, there are corporations that are clear cutting entire forests, converting the woody biomass into fuel for pellet stoves and selling them to Europe by the ship load as an "environmentally friendly" home heating fuel. Which suggests that political pressures applied to the marketplace‒however well intended‒can create devastating results.
8. We don't have the capacity to make enough wood-based biofuels to have an impact on petroleum needs in the US.
On the face of it, the assertion is true since the US's long standing reliance on readily available fossil fuels has removed the incentive to create a parallel system focused on biofuels, but that will change as the supply of cheap non-renewable fuels runs out. In the meantime, the US is currently landfilling more than 150 million tons of woody biomass. Existing technology such as Union Carbide's PureOx process enables the conversion of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) into biofuels such as methanol and dimethyl ether. This would annually generate more than 75 million tons of biofuels‒arguably more than enough to "have an impact on petroleum needs in the US."
I can't speak for all wood-based biofuels, but in the case of methanol and dimethyl ether, this is simply not true. In the 1980's there was a major study done in California that found no problem with the use of methanol as a motor fuel. In a similar manner, the use of dimethyl ether (DME) is being proposed as a way to reduce the air quality problems associated with the use of diesel in trucks and heavy equipment.
This assertion seems based on the misunderstanding that there's a binary choice between using a specific bit of land to grow either food or woody biomass. While it is possible to grown trees on land that is suitable for growing food, the reverse is not true‒there's lots of land that's too hilly, too wet or too rocky to support food crops, but which will grow trees.
While the Pacific Northwest west of the Cascades has no shortage of rain fall, the land east of the Cascades lacks the thirty inches of annual rainfall that is considered the minimum necessary to sustain modern agriculture‒so they might as well grow dryland trees such as Ponderosa pines. Moreover, growing trees on rocky slopes is an important way to prevent soil erosion, and to provide habitat and food for the wild animals that are vital parts of the ecosystem.
I've not heard of a case in which any of the fuels made from woody biomass gummed up an engine designed to run on gasoline, and apparently neither has Google. There are lots of cases of people getting clogged fuel lines from running bootleg biodiesel, but the simple answer to that problem is "Don't do that!"
Petroleum-based diesel is fundamentally different from a fuel made from the esterification of edible oils, and trying to make transportation fuel out of edible oils brings us back to the issue of the ethical questions arising from using food as fuel. It's far better to convert woody biomass into dimethyl ether and run that instead of biodiesel‒especially biodiesel that's made from palm oil grown on plantations created by clear-cutting tropical rain forests.
This statement would seem to suggest that it's reasonable to stake one's national security on the continued availability of fossil fuels. While an argument can be made that so long as fossil fuels remain available, if your enemy is using them, you'd better be using them too, but that doesn't address the challenge of how to maintain national security in the post-fossil fuel era.I would suggest that any society that fails to prepare for the future, doesn't have one.
It's also unclear what's meant here by "successful". Would it be possible for the US to maintain hundreds of foreign military bases and conduct incursions into other countries using only fuel that's derived from the US's annual supply of renewable energy? Probably not. Would a shift away from petroleum require the US to scale back its military activity to solely the task of protecting its borders? Would a green military have to stop meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries? If so, then I look forward to that day.
This statement unfairly attempts to lump in forest grown fuels with the agricultural production of corn and genetically modified trees on commercial plantations. Of the two, hard corn production is probably the worst in that acreage dedicated to growing corn lies bare for most of the year, and that allows wind and rain to remove topsoil along with the nutrients and microbes that live in that topsoil. Forests do a great job of retaining not only nutrients and microbes, they also support the retention of moisture. When heavy rains fall, forests prevent floods and create watersheds.
A major component of soil fertility comes from the development of an underground mycellial network which enables fungii to find nutrients in the forest floor and trade them to the trees in exchange for sugar. Clear cutting a forest to plant crops destroys that network and limits a tree's access to only the minerals it can find within its drip line. The presence of a living fungal network increases a tree's access to minerals tenfold.
Transporting woody biomass away from an ecosystem diminishes the stock of available micro-nutrients that are crucial to the production of more biomass. That's why B2M is focused on processing woody biomass in small, mobile facilities that can be located wherever there's an accumulation of woody biomass. That allows the micro-nutrients contained in the ash to be readily returned to the forest floor where they can support the next cycle of growth.
This makes no sense to me since burning fossil fuels introduces additional carbon into the biosphere, while the use of wood-based fuels doesn't‒you're just using carbon already in the atmosphere as a sort of rechargable battery.
When oil is pumped out of the ground and burned, the carbon it contains is added to the total amount of carbon in circulation. When a tree grows, it temporarily reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and then when the wood rots or the next forest fire comes through, that carbon goes back into circulation.
Trees use atmospheric carbon to store solar energy in a solid form that can later be accessed to heat your home or power your car; there's no net increase of atmospheric carbon involved. If you have a dollar bill in your right pocket, and take it out and put it in your left pocket, you still only have a dollar. Shifting that dollar from one pocket to another doesn't increase your wealth, just as burning woody biomass as either firewood or biofuel doesn't increase the total amount of carbon in circulation.
In practice, though, I believe that switching over to a woody-biomass energy system would result in a substantial decrease in the overall production of greenhouse gases because of various downstream effects. For example, shipping fuel in from far away consumes large amounts of fossil fuels; producing biofuels locally wouldn't do that. Likewise, people who commute long distances to work consume large amounts of fossil fuel; a person who works close to home producing biofuel wouldn't do that. People who understand that their welfare depends on the health of the forest that surrounds their community would protect that forest, and by doing so, their future.
I don't look at the challenge of access to water rights as a problem; rather, I see that as a good thing because that helps ensure that potable water is reserved for growing food rather than diverted to subsidize corporate tree plantations. Forest-based woody biomass doesn't depend on obtaining water rights, just as converting the wood, paper, and lawn clippings in Municipal Solid Waste into fuel doesn't depend on obtaining water rights.
I'd suggest that the bigger problem involves a lack of working models that people can check out and observe in operation. Otherwise, rhetoric is all people have to go on.
The historical record shows that game changing technology doesn't come from the establishment; instead, it comes from small groups of people who believe in change passionately enough to commit themselves to being agents of change. The technologies of systemic change are never "plug and play;" they have to be developed in the service of a community of participatory users who work out the kinks and manifest the potentials. Otherwise, when things take longer, cost more and turn out differently, or when other people's money runs out, the system crashes and people lose heart.
Which is why work such as this needs to be developed on a small scale by people intimately familiar with local needs and conditions. I know that's not what folks looking to garner large grants want to hear, but the history of gasification shows that it's a "start small or don't start at all" sort of situation.
Given the volumes of forest waste being piled up and burned in slash piles, and the amount of biomass going into the nation's landfills, there's no need to grow feedstock for biomass-to-fuel systems. As a result, it's hard to see how processing that waste could put pressure on other industries.
All industries need access to capital to grow. Currently, large amounts of capital are drained out of the US economy to buy fossil fuels from other countries. Every dollar's worth of biofuel produced in the US is a dollar that stays in the US and remains available for "other industries" to use to grow.
Not true; rather, it's the current practice of burning logging waste and landfilling biomass that threatens public health. Loggers concentrate their waste in large piles, and then return in mid-winter to burn them. That practice has a very negative impact on regional air quality.
The spontaneous decomposition of the biomass being sent to landfills generates a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas that's many times more problematic than carbon dioxide. Most landfills now draw off the methane and use it to generate electricity.
The conversion of logging waste and landfill biomass into energy would provide rural jobs and improve the fiscal health of rural communities. One reason this is important is that poverty and joblessness have a major impact on the physical and mental health of rural communities.
Healthy rural communities are important to urban communities because the cities are totally dependent on rural communities for food and energy. The development of a thriving biofuel industry based on woody biomass would help ensure that cities get the resources they need to thrive.
This is another excuse that falls into the category of true-but-not-relevant.
The math is clear. Given the suite of technologies that are known and proven, current levels of energy consumption can not be maintained indefinitely. When society's inheritance of non-renewable fuels is exhausted, humans will have no choice but to constrict energy expenditures to a level that's commensurate with what can be sustainably produced using the annual solar income. Nature will then divide people into two groups: the quick‒those who got on with the task of working out viable options ahead of time‒and the dead.
To the extent this is true, it's probably an artefact of how the academic-industrial complex structures grant proposals and protects its turf. When a university gets a multimillion dollar grant, the first question is which department gets to spend the money? Which department should oversee a biofuel development grant: chemistry, chemical engineering, forestry, agriculture, etc.?
This can be a problem because a university's Chemistry Department often has little interaction with its Chemical Engineering Department, let alone Departments such as Business or Urban Development. Game changing technological innovations impact a wide spectrum of human endeavors and interests; they're difficult to shoehorn into a single discipline.
Throwing other people's money at an emerging technology is inherently wasteful. What has worked better is for deeply committed visionaries to invest their own money, heart and sweat into building a working model. Then, once there's something up and running, other people can look at the work and gain the confidence needed to build bigger and better versions.
What's completely unrealistic is thinking that lots of money can make up for a lack of understanding. It's natural for people to want to start at the end where all the questions are answered and all the problems have been worked out, but that's not in the order of things. You start small, make small mistakes, accomplish small successes, and then build on that experience‒or else you might as well not start at all.
This problem arises from the presumption that it was right to shovel funds to industry in the first place. Moral questions aside, history shows that government intervention disrupts the process of technological development by channelling funds and resources into politically expedient channels. Then, when the political winds change direction, the work becomes stranded. Work that is unable to justify itself on its own merits, falters when it runs out of subsidies. Then the momentum crashes and people lose faith in the concept.
One way around this problem involves the creation of prizes. For example, when England realized that the development of accurate ship's clocks was a matter of national security, the Crown didn't make large research grants to scientists or industry; instead they created the Longitude Prize. The first person to develop a clock that could keep accurate time on shipboard would receive a prize worth millions in today's dollars. It took a while, but the person who eventually solved the riddle wasn't a university researcher or some titan of industry‒it was an eccentric watch repairman who solved the riddle.
Oddly enough, fracking appears to be helping to develop a key part of the technology involved in producing wood-based biofuels. This sort of cross-pollination is common in the history of technology; for example, the development of coke fuels for drying brewing malt opened the door for a massive increase in the production of iron in England. And a testing technique developed to help improve telephones led to the development of the music recording industry.
The first step in converting woody biomass into a liquid fuel involves breaking the woody biomass down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The second step involves recombining those gases into biofuels such as methanol (MeOH) and dimethyl ether (DME).
Stranded natural gas (gas that lacks access to a natural gas pipe line) can undergo a similar conversion. The methane in fracked gas can be broken down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and then fed into the same type of recombination reactors that produce biofuels. During the 1970's Oil Embargo, New Zealand did this on a massive scale to fuel its cars and trucks.
There's currently a lot of work going into developing portable Gas to Liquid (GtL) systems capable of converting stranded gas into fuel. Products made from stranded gas aren't biofuels per se, but the commercial development of small GtL plants moves us closer to being able to convert local biomass into biofuels.
As long as supplies of fossil fuels remain reasonably available, it's unlikely that biofuels will be able to compete in the international fuel market. But, when the age of cheap fossil fuels draws to a close, and prices start to rise, biofuels will quickly become a money making proposition.
At that point, ready or not, society will find itself engaged in transformational change on the scale of the Industrial Revolution‒only in the other direction. At that point, greed won't be a problem; survival will.
To the extend that the world's dwindling supply of phosphorus is being used to grown woody biomass instead of food, that needs to stop. The quickest way to make that happen is for governments to stop subsidizing woody biomass plantations and the production of hard corn used to make ethanol.
This issue of perils of mineral depletion is one that helps distinguish B2M from other concepts. The in-forest conversion of woody biomass into energy products enables the immediate return of the wood ash‒and the minerals it contains‒to the forest. That allows the mycellium web to distribute those vital minerals to where they need to go. B2M recognizes that forest fungii play a vital role in enabling trees to convert sunlight, rain and carbon dioxide into more biomass.
Agro-business farmers might not feel an incentive to prioritize the health of their land, but land stewards certainly do.
Farmers who are in hock to the big agricultural corporations have to continue envenoming their soil with fertilizers and pesticides in order to squeeze out one more crop. But one goal of our work is to encourage them to start thinking about what comes next.
Some of the people caught up in the system are eager to be shown a viable alternative. That's one role of research projects such as B2M, and the reason that even a small project can have major impact. Those who show how to make change workable serve the future by moving things closer to the tipping point.
In the US, the consumer has great power over the "industries who own our government." People may only vote at the ballot box every few years, but every day they vote with every dollar they spend. Political power isn't blue or red, it's green, and every time someone votes with their money, they affect the future.
Those powerful industries depend on customers and workers. Those who are willing to buy their products and do their bidding enable those industries to continue doing business as usual. There may be some scant comfort to be found in blaming "them", but meaningful change for the better has to start with the individual.
In the case of non-renewable fuels, the status quo is temporary. Whether we support it or fight it, the fossil fuel industry will become progressively irrelevant as the cost of energy increases relative to the value of land and labor.
I believe that the wise course of action today involves changing one's personal energy consumption patterns in ways that increase one's options, in developing cooperative associations that enhance one's ability to meet core needs through mutual assistance, and to engage with nature instead of virtual reality.
Government is all about protecting the status quo. Any material change is only going to happen when individuals want change enough to take up the tools and build a better way themselves. Vested interests will use the press and polls to convince people that meaningful change isn't possible. Don't let them have their way. The future belongs to those who show up and do the hard work.
This statement presumes a biofuels industry that relies on subsidies. Given the long track record of incompetence and mismanagement by governmental agencies‒especially given how easily they're captured by the very corporations they're supposed to be regulating‒there's little reason to believe that the development of a biofuel bureaucracy would play out any differently.
The best that government can do is to lay out strategic goals, and then spur innovation by offering to reward those who demonstrate an ability to meet those goals.
The impulse to build large bureaucratic organizations to address grass root problems is counter-productive, and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of how paradigm change happens. Bureaucrats think it's perfectly reasonable to hire nine women to produce a baby in a month. That's not how nature based systems operate.
See the response to Assertion #30; the same point applies here.
The record regarding abuses of land access and usage in the US, the USSR and China indicate that stewardship by private owners is the best way to ensure that land is protected and utilized wisely. Private individuals have an incentive to not damage their own property; government bureaucrats lack an incentive to resist the exploitation of public land by extractive industries.
Shameful examples abound:
The Clinton State Department has approved the sale of control of one fifth of US uranium reserves to Russia after millions of dollars were donated to the Clinton Foundation, donations which the Clinton Foundation failed to disclose on its tax returns.
The USSR has dumped so much radioactive waste in the Barents Sea near its border with Norway that fisheries are threatened and it's dangerous to drill there for oil.
China has created toxic Lake Baotou‒the Black Lake‒where China is dumping the waste from refining the rare earth metals used to make solar panels and super magnets.
Much of the damage implied here is a matter of scale, and it's certainly possible that an industrial scale approach to wood-based biofuel could trigger problems similar to the impact of any other large industry on a marginalized community.
One way to avoid that is to not build mega-scale biofuel plants. A key way to avoid that is to not allow the use of tax-payer's money to subsidize them. If the people who will benefit from a system aren't willing to fund it through voluntary contributions, then forcing others to pay for it is not only wrong, it's also unlikely to work since people are rarely good custodians of other people's money.
B2M's goal is to enable the proliferation of small-scale, local plants that can produce the home-grown fuel and stable employment that rural communities need. The ability of a community to meet their needs through their own efforts is an effective way to ensure that they're not exploited by outsiders.
In the Pacific Northwest, biofuels are already empowering "marginalized communities" such as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation who are embracing woody biomass grown on tribal lands as a way to take control of the energy systems they rely on.
Which is why B2M is focused on building a working model that's fully integrated with the community it serves. The use of biofuels involves radical change, and there's nothing more radical than a working model of a better way.
The public doesn't care about its life support system; it just wants to turn on a tap and have water come out. It just wants to flip a light switch, and "poof", have the lights magically come on. Those who wait for the public to care about the source of the energy it relies on, wait in vain.
What's needed is for people of vision to comprehend the significance of the problem that awaits humanity as the fossil fuel inheritance runs out‒and then to commit themselves to action. It doesn't matter whether they act directly by working to create sustainable fuel systems, or indirectly by helping to fund those who are doing that work.
What matters is that they engage the problem before it becomes existential‒while there's still time to create the sustainable alternatives that people will need when today's unsustainable system starts to fail.
Biofuel can take the form of gasoline, but the technology offers a range of additional options such as methanol (MeOH) and dimethyl ether (DME). Both compounds are biogenic, whereas gasoline is exogenic. The difference is that biogenic compounds are part of the natural world and nature already has many ways to incorporate them into biological processes. For example, methanol can be directly absorbed by plants as a form of fertilizer, with the result that methanol solutions are often sprayed on greenhouse plants to encourage growth.
Like other petroleum based fuels, gasoline is exogenic. Because it's not produced by biological processes, nature is ill-equipped to deal with the spills and vapors that the use of exogenic fuels releases into the biosphere. Biofuels don't have that problem.
Another serious problem for petroleum based fuels involves their sulphur content, and a notable component of the current cost of gasoline and diesel fuels involves the steps involved in creating low-sulphur grades. That's another problem that biofuels don't have because they're not distilled from crude oil, but instead are manufactured from carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The catalysts involved in those reactions are poisoned by sulphur, with the result that sulphur is carefully removed from the synthesis gas before it goes into the reactor.
The technology behind the gasification of woody biomass is more than a century old. It went out of use when fossil fuels became available, not because it was no longer viable, but because it was less effort to consume non-renewable resources than it was to produce renewables. It's a bit like someone quitting their job because they won the lottery. When the "winnings" run out, society will have to go back to working for its energy. Gasification is how people will do that.
When the course of world affairs prevented twentieth century societies from being able to access fossil fuels, they quickly reverted to using biofuels. During World War II, there were more than a million cars, trucks and buses in Europe running on woody biomass. During the Oil Embargo, New Zealand produced fuel from natural gas. When the Republic of South Africa became the target of an international embargo, it operated a plant that turned coal into a hundred thousand barrels of synthetic oil a day.
Given how useful liquid fuels are, the production of biofuels is just a matter of time; when the fossil fuel inheritance runs out, people will revert to the tried-and-true option‒the utilization of woody biomass.
It is true that there has been a steady stream of developments in woody biomass conversion technology. Having additional options is a good thing, since each type of biomass has its own issues; for example, rice husks have a high silicon content that can cause bridging problems in the reactor.
As the access to oil and natural gas deposits diminishes, the cost of what remains will go up. As new techniques are developed for converting woody biomass to biofuels, the cost of biofuels will go down. At some point, those two trends will meet in the middle, and from that point on, woody biomass will rule the day.
This is certainly not true for forest-derived biomass or for biomass left over from processing rice, almonds, sugar cane, etc. It may be "truish" for plantation grown biomass, but subsidy-based agriculture is a menace to humanity in many ways, and needs to stop. There's no need to outlaw it, just stop feeding it with tax dollars and it will wither and die.
Creating viable alternatives was tough enough back when NIMBY folk demanded that sustainable infrastructure facilities not be built in their back yard. Nowadays, they've been replaced by BANANA folk who advocate for Building Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.
By way of example, back in the 1970s, Seattle had two problems: it was running out of landfill space, and the Oil Embargo was threatening the economy of a city that relied on the automobile to get its people to work. Union Carbide offered Seattle a solution in the form of its Purox process, a technology that converts Municipal Solid Waste into biofuel.
The plan faltered because the NIMBY folk didn't want to have to deal with the waste their lifestyle produced. Public opposition prevented the city from issuing the necessary construction permits. Since then, Seattle loads its waste into hundreds of shipping containers each day, and then hauls them three hundred miles by train to Klickitat County's landfill. For more information on the Trash Train, Click Here.
Seattle residents rejected the opportunity to convert their waste into income. As a result, by 2015 Klickitat County's share of the tipping fees amounted to ten million dollars a year, and 170 county residents were employed full time by the landfill. In addition, the methane gas generated by the decomposition of Seattle's trash generates enough electricity to power every home in the county twice over.
The Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) research found otherwise. Even in Klickitat County, timber harvesting annually produces some 20,000 tons of logging waste, and the forest west of the Cascade mountains yield vastly greater amounts. And then there's all that biomass going into the huge regional landfills in Roosevelt, WA and Arlington, OR. People are paying to dispose of vast amounts of biomass, and it's difficult to imagine a more cost effective feedstock than something people will pay you to take off their hands.
That can be said about any extractive industry. Forests can be clear cut and hauled away on Mr. Peabody's coal train, but if biomass is grown using sustainable practices that ensure the health of the forests and the communities that steward them, then those communities have every incentive to protect their economic base.
Someone who would suggest such a thing has probably not spent much time in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. These forests are at risk of catastrophic fire because they're producing vast amounts of woody biomass that's not being utilized.
If the Pacific Northwest was not having to import large amounts of petroleum products, it would be more competitive than other regions who weren't blessed with large quantities of woody biomass.
This will take some unpacking. First, the world is not at risk; humans are. Life will continue to evolve regardless of whether humans are part of the equation. Before people figured out how to access the fossil fuel inheritance, there were less than a billion people on Earth. Today there are more than seven billion, suggesting that the lives of at least six billion people depend on the continued access to fossil fuels. That's six billion people who are in desperate need of some sort of Plan B.
Secondly, different types of fuels contain different amounts of energy; for example, methanol contains about 60% less energy than gasoline. But so what? Energy density is important when burning fossil fuels, because they can't be replaced, whereas biofuels can be. It's like if you were going on a trip and only had room for ten bills in your wallet, then you'd probably want them to be hundreds. But if you could readily get more money out of ATMs along the way, then a mix of smaller bills might serve you better.
Energy density is less important when burning biofuels because they can function as a type of rechargeable battery. Solar energy is absorbed by plants and stored as biomass, which can then be converted into a transportable form of energy such as charcoal or methanol. If you need more energy to accomplish a given task, all you need to do is to convert more atmospheric carbon into fuel and use it. Plants will reabsorb the carbon dioxide that's released and use it to create more biomass.
That's the beauty of renewable fuels. When biomass is consumed, you can grow more, but when an oil well runs out, it's done and gone.
If you've made it all the way to the end of this article, I hope that you've come to the conclusion that there's a lot of thought and research behind Biomass2Methanol. The need for a viable alternative is dire, and there's a lot of work that needs to be done before the problem become obvious to the general public. The situation is similar to how if a doctor waits to act until the diagnosis is dead certain, they're likely to end up with a dead patient.
The work we're doing on village-scale biofuels is moving forward, but we're limited by the challenge of finding visionaries who are willing to contribute a few dollars a month to support the purchase of the tools and materials needed to do this work. My hope is that the arguments and insights listed above will persuade you that our work is worthy of your support, and that you'll become one of B2M's True Fans.