Tuesday, October 02, 2007

More Reasons Why the Middle East, and by Extension Muslim Aggression, Will be Kaput by Mid-century

Oh, and of course: "'Peak Oil' - so what."
Ethanol, schmethanol
From The Economist print edition

[All emphasis added.]
SOMETIMES you do things simply because you know how to. People have known how to make ethanol since the dawn of civilisation, if not before. [...] Yet such things do not stop ethanol from being a lousy fuel. To solve that, the biotechnologists argue, you need to make a better fuel. [...]

The first step on the road has been butanol. This is also a type of alcohol that can be made by fermenting sugar (though the fermentation is done by a species of bacterium rather than by yeast), and it has some advantages over ethanol. It has more carbon atoms in its molecules (four, instead of two), which means more energy per litre—though it is still only 85% as rich as petrol. It also has a lower tendency to absorb water from the atmosphere.

A joint venture between DuPont, a large American chemical company, and BP, a British energy firm, has worked out how to industrialise the process of making biobutanol, as the chemical is commonly known when it is the product of fermentation. Although BP plans to start selling the stuff in the next few weeks (mixed with petrol, to start with), the truth is that butanol is not all that much better than ethanol. The interesting activity is elsewhere.

One route might be to go for yet-larger (and thus energy-richer) alcohol molecules. Any simple alcohol is composed of a number of carbon and hydrogen atoms (like a hydrocarbon such as petrol) together with a single oxygen atom. In practice, this game of topping up the carbon content to make a better fuel stops with octanol (eight carbon atoms) as anything bigger tends to freeze at temperatures that might be encountered in winter. But living things are familiar with alcohols. Their enzymes are geared up to cope with them. This makes the biotechnologists' task that much easier.

The idea of engineering enzymes to make octanol was what first brought Codexis, a small biotechnology firm based in Redwood City, California, into the field. [...] Codexis controls most of the important patents for what is known as molecular evolution. [...] It creates lots of variations on a theme, throws away the ones it does not want, and shuffles the rest in a process akin to sex. It then repeats the process on the survivors until something useful emerges. [...] The result, according to Codexis's boss, Alan Shaw, is enzymes that can perform chemical transformations unknown in nature. [...]

Codexis's attention [is now focused] on molecules even more chemically similar to petrol. The twist that Codexis brings is that unlike petrol, of which each batch from the refinery is chemically different from the others (because the crude oil from which it is derived is an arbitrary mixture of hydrocarbon molecules), biopetrol could be turned out exactly the same, again and again, and thus designed to have the optimal mixture of properties required of a motor fuel.

Exactly which molecules Codexis is most interested in these days, Dr Shaw is not yet willing to say. But Amyris Biotechnologies, which is also based in California, [...] has been working on a type of isoprenoid (a class of chemicals that include rubber).

Unlike Codexis, which deals in purified enzymes, Amyris employs a technique called synthetic biology, which turns living organisms into chemical reactors by assembling novel biochemical pathways within them. [Amyris founder] Dr Keasling and his colleagues scour the world for suitable enzymes, tweak them to make them work better, then sew the genes for the tweaked enzymes into a bacterium that thus turns out the desired product. [...]

Isoprenoids have the advantage that, like alcohols, they are part of the natural biochemistry of many organisms. Enzymes to handle them are thus easy to come by. They have the additional advantage that some are pure hydrocarbons, like petrol. With a little judicious searching, Amyris thinks it has come up with isoprenoids that have the right characteristics to substitute for petrol.

The third Californian firm in the business, LS9 of San Carlos, [...] also uses synthetic biology, but it has concentrated on controlling the pathways that make fatty acids. Like alcohols, fatty acids are molecules that have lots of hydrogen and carbon atoms, and a small amount of oxygen (in their case two oxygen atoms, rather than one). Plant oils consist of fatty acids combined with glycerol—and these fatty acids (for example, those from palm oil) are the main raw material for the biodiesel already sold today.

LS9 has used its technology to turn microbes into factories for fatty acids containing between eight and 20 carbon atoms—the optimal number for biodiesel. But it also plans to make what it calls “biocrude”. In this case the fatty acids would have 18-30 carbon atoms, and the final stage of the synthetic pathway would clip off the oxygen atoms to create pure hydrocarbons. This biocrude could be fed directly into existing oil refineries, without any need to modify them...

Yay us.


Blogger David said...

Sounds good, but it's probably not as good as they make it sound. These processes can't create energy, so this probably still leaves us with with problem that plants are not particularly energy dense. In other words, we'd still have to turn every square inch of the planet over to growing fuel plants (hyperbole)to make much of a dent in petroleum usage.

October 02, 2007 5:06 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Well, to begin with the U.S. have about 80MM fewer acres under ag production than they did at the turn of the 19th century. So we could put many of those back to industrial use.

Further, there are many, many hundreds of millions of acres of land that're unsuitable now for any ag use except grazing, that could support fuel crops like switchgrass.

Finally, some of these processes use bacteria as (extremely) mini-factories. Ten trillion gallons of fuel-producing microbe soup won't take up that much room, relative to the vast empty spaces that are the norm in America.

October 02, 2007 6:22 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Don't bet on these processes scaling up. If it was that easy, you'd be filling your tank with peanut hull oil already.

October 02, 2007 9:32 AM  
Blogger erp said...

This is just the beginning. Never under-estimate American ingenuity. Yah us indeed.

October 02, 2007 9:42 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

While I agree that significant hurdles need to be overcome, perhaps the hardest one is conditioning the American public to accept $ 5 auto fuel.

That's near-complete.

Then we throw a few more tens of billions at the problem, and voila.

It helps that this isn't an optional change. In the long run, we either replace naturally-occuring liquid petroleum, or we go back to horses. Concentrates the mind wonderfully.

October 02, 2007 12:21 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Oro ... must I quote the admonition to Horatio again? We don't know what's around the corner. Oil or back to the horse??? No way.

October 02, 2007 3:15 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I don't mean that we have to replace naturally-occuring petroleum with synthetic oil, although that's the way to bet at first.

I just mean that sticking pipes in the ground and sucking up the goo isn't going to be a viable option for more than a few more decades.

October 02, 2007 10:43 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Really, there are (at least) three leviathanic trends that will shape the future, and it's a race to see in which order they finish:

* The world is running out of conventionally-obtained, naturally-occuring liquid petroleum, (henceforth written as "oil"), which is a big problem 'cause that's the energy source which made the modern age possible, and global demand for oil and electricity is growing like gangbusters and is unlikely to moderate for decades to come.

* There are literally a hundred alternative sources of energy with which to replace oil and natural gas use - but none are as good as oil & nat. gas.
The people who come up with a decent-enough scheme will be 21st century Rockefellers, a man who was by some measures the richest private citizen ever.

However, we don't have to worry about having no fuel or power - for example, we could replace DOUBLE the current total global energy usage for a thousand years by processing seawater for uranium, which might only cost four times as much as it now does to mine the beastly stuff, and certainly no more than ten times. And that's just one source.

* But both of those trends might eventually be moot. As soon as Bret's robots get good enough to replace all non-creative labor, there will be much less need to travel daily for work, and once virtual reality - the "holodeck" experience - gets good enough, few people will need or want to travel for business or pleasure, even those short to-and-fro runs about the metro area that cause most of America's gasoline usage now.

So: Do we have to drive smaller cars and heat our homes less for awhile, until alt-energy-genius comes through, or will alt-energy-genius save the day and make a dynastic fortune in the few decades between introduction of alt-fuel and abating demand ?

And how much will a dynastic fortune really matter in a future in which everyone can be Lord and Creator of their own pocket-reality ?

October 03, 2007 2:34 AM  
Blogger erp said...

As all you self-starters know, you work hard because you must. It's the thrill of the chase that matters, not making money. Our lives are already so comfortable that lots more money will only fill in small gaps.

We geezers are counting on you to make it possible for us to live longer and enjoy it more.

So get to it.

October 03, 2007 7:06 AM  

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