Pyrolysis: the third way to biofuels

Imagine a giant pile of biomass – lets say wood chips for simplicity sake. And next to the wood chips is a big pile of money (likely from investors, whose patience for payback may vary). In a third pile is a group of job candidates: engineers, chemists & microbiologists. To get useful energy from the first pile of feedstocks requires careful consideration of all your piles. The wood chips can be burned, fermented, or – bear with me now – squeezed. Each approach requires different amounts of feedstock, cash up front, and expertise to get a particular type and amount of fuel or energy. C&EN’s own Craig Bettenhausen has taken a look at the benefits – and potential downsides – of squeezing the wood chips to make liquid fuels, specifically hydrocarbons that can be made into drop-in biofuels (the best kind!). Of course he doesn’t say “squeezing” – experts call it pyrolysis. Bettenhausen explains that the biomass is subjected to high temperature and pressure in an oxygen-free environment (imagining this is making me feel a little breathless and claustrophobic). Check out the free story to learn what happens next. Meanwhile a press release from our friends at Battelle in Columbus, Ohio, nicely illustrates one way pyrolysis might pull ahead of other technologies (i.e., fermentation into ethanol or gasification into syngas). A group of Battelle engineers and scientists have built a mobile factory that can travel to the site of your big pile of wood chips and convert it into up to 130 gal of oily hydrocarbons per ton of chips per day. The little factory is installed on the flatbed trailer of an 18 wheeler. “This feature makes it ideal to access the woody biomass that is often left stranded in agricultural regions, far away from industrial facilities,” the press release notes. “It’s potentially a significant cost advantage over competing processes represented by large facilities that require shipment of the biomass from its home site.” Still, as Bettenhausen explains, pyrolysis – as it is being scaled up today – has not yet proven itself at scale or made profits for anyone. Stay...

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Harnessing Entropy
Aug22

Harnessing Entropy

In Solar, a novel by acclaimed author Ian McEwan, the protagonist, a physicist named Michael Beard, has been tasked to evaluate submissions from the public sent to a UK panel looking for new ideas for clean energy. He divides them into piles: those that violate the first law of thermodynamics, those that violate the second law, and those that violate both. This cleantech reporter could relate. That’s why ideas that start with the laws of thermodynamics – rather than those that have to account for them later – are so attractive. Take entropy, for example. In our daily life we struggle against entropy – the iPod headphone wires that get totally knotted up in my handbag, the fact that the neatest person you know still has a junk drawer, and so on. This week’s issue of C&EN explores research that tries to harness the universe’s arrow-like movement to disorder. When CO2 laden emissions from power plants are released into the atmosphere, the CO2 mixes into the ambient air mass. As Naomi Lubick explains, an electrochemical cell could harvest the energy that is released when these two gases mix. Researcher Bert Hamelers of the Dutch water treatment tech center Wetsus, has developed a lab scale device to do just that. But Lubick points out that to implement such a solution would require overcoming at least two hurdles – one, the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides may foul the system’s membranes. And two, it is no easy task to dissolve huge amounts of CO2 in liquid. In fact, dissolving the gas uses quite a bit of energy. Which reminds me of another literary reference: the witches of Shakespeare’s MacBeth chant “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – indeed, there is some toil and trouble involved. I know that many other researchers and technology companies are working on these two problems. For example, there are programs working on carbon capture and storage that are using liquids, catalysts and membranes to grab components of power plant emission gases. And firms such as Calysta Energy and Lanzatech have plans to use microbes to make useful products out of gases such as methane and flue gas. For that, they need to dissolve the gas in water. It is not a trivial problem....

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Ineos Bio – First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in U.S.
Aug01

Ineos Bio – First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in U.S.

The prize for the first company to get a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant up and running in the U.S. goes to Ineos Bio. Ineos Bio is a Swiss firm, a subsidiary of the chemical company Ineos. The facility is located in Vero Beach, Fla. and has a capacity of 8 million gal of ethanol per year. It also produces 6 MW of renewable biomass power. Vero Beach is on the Eastern coast of the state (a bit more than halfway down), near Port St. Lucie. Folks following cellulosic ethanol might have thought the U.S. would be the first in the world to get a cellulosic ethanol plant, but that distinction goes to Italy, where Beta Renewables owns a 20 million gal per year facility running on wheat straw and giant reed (Arundo donax). The feedstock for the Vero Beach facility is “vegetative and wood waste.”  I’m hoping to learn a bit more about what’s going in there. Because Ineos Bio’s front end process involves gasification, it is likely not terribly picky about the biomass – apparently it has converted vegetative and yard waste, and citrus, oak, pine, and pallet wood waste. Projecting when the cellulosic ethanol industry will really take off has historically been a fools’ errand. But clearly, having two facilities in existence is infinitely more than zero, which is what we had in 2012. You can review my feeble attempt to forecast the 2013 crop of ethanol makers and check out the list of other facilities set to come online...

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Solar Impulse: Moving solar energy from poetry to practicality
Jun21

Solar Impulse: Moving solar energy from poetry to practicality

Solar Impulse is spending the week in Washington, DC, and the C&EN headquarters is slightly abuzz with geeky giddiness. So, living a mere 15 minutes from the solar plane’s temporary home in a hangar at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center next to Dulles International Airport, I couldn’t resist the invitation to a Solvay-sponsored event with the pilots and crew on Tuesday evening. Melody twisted my arm kindly invited me to write about my visit for the Cleantech crowd. I had to walk past the ginormous Discovery space shuttle, which is spending retirement at the Udvar-Hazy Center, then dodge raindrops to get to the the temporary hangar housing Solar Impulse just outside of the museum. The rainy weather and mugginess of the hangar didn’t exactly create the setting you’d expect for admiring a plane that runs on energy from the sun. But I digress. Compared to the robust space shuttle, the solar plane looks like an oversized toy glider. As Alex Scott pointed out in his article on the chemistry behind Solar Impulse, the plane has a wingspan about the same as a 747’s but weighs about the same as a small sedan. There is no other way to describe the cockpit than as tiny. It’s basically a chair with a bubble over it. And, of course, there are lots and lots of solar panels. Before the pilots’ presentation, I was in a group chatting with a member of Solar Impulse’s communications team. When asked about the plane’s assembly at Moffett Airfield near San Francisco, she explained that it took the team basically three days to put the plane together and equated the process to assembling furniture from IKEA. No nails, just glue. Hopefully, no leftover parts. It is, apparently, that amazingly simple. Bertrand Piccard was the first of the two pilots to speak. His psychiatry background came through as he talked about changing your altitude in order to fight against the winds while in a balloon. My mind was starting to drift away a bit when he brought me back with this line: “This is all very poetic, but useless. Let’s make it practical.” He then showed a picture taken at the end of his around-the-world-in-a-balloon mission in 1999. “Many people think this is the last picture of a balloon trip,” he said. “In fact, it is the first picture of Solar Impulse.” Piccard then shared that it was the amount of fuel spent on the trip and that there was only 40 kilos left at the end that ignited the Solar Impulse project. André Borschberg spoke more about how the plane actually works. While listening to him, I came to realize...

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IEA Looks To Fossil Fuel Industry to Control Climate Change

Today, the International Energy Agency put out a report saying that CO2 emissions in 2012 grew by 1.4%, or 31.6 gigatonnes. This increase means that the chances of constraining emissions to cap global warming at 2 degrees C are narrowing. When I first started covering the cleantech/renewables space for C&EN back in 2008, there was a common belief among technologists and some policy makers that within a few short years, a price would be put on carbon with policies (such as cap and trade or a carbon tax) that would act like jet fuel, powering demand for renewable fuels and related industries. But as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven points out, ““Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities.” The good news in the report is that the growth in renewable energy production in the U.S. and Europe has helped those regions decrease carbon emissions. However, it was the switch to shale gas from coal that had the biggest impact on U.S. emissions. In contrast, growing energy demand from China and other developing nations has more than made up for those changes. (You can read C&EN’s recent coverage of the EU Carbon Trading scheme here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i7/EU-Carbon-Emissions-Trading-Scheme.html) IEA is pushing four policies that are all outside of the renewables space. The organization’s plan would shave 8% off the carbon emissions compared to no further constraints by: 1. Making buildings, industry, and transportation more energy efficient, to get 50% of the cut. 2. Limiting construction of the least efficient types of coal-fired power plants, for 20% or more of the cut. 3. Halving methane emissions from upstream oil and gas operations (18% savings) 4. A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies...

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Never Mind All That: Solar on the upswing
May22

Never Mind All That: Solar on the upswing

I’m going to have to start posting more frequently. My last post was about solar firms going bankrupt in China and now my cleantech news is about how solar is set to rebound. Seems like something should have happened in between that post and this one. Actually, a few biobased chemical deals were announced. Thanks BASF and Evonik! Anyway – back to solar. Earlier this week, Lux Research (a rather skeptical gang generally) put out a summary of a new research report titled “Solar’s Great Recovery: Photovoltaics Reach $155 Billion Market in 2018.” Actually, solar had a great 2012 – at last in the U.S. – but that was mainly due to installations of several large utility projects. The business of producing those solar modules had hit some major potholes. Around five years ago, solar demand was hindered by high prices – held up by shortages of key polysilicon raw material, but balanced by huge subsidies in Europe, especially in Spain and Germany. Then – in the nature of boom and bust cycles – the high prices prompted huge polysilicon capacity increases. Then prices fell, Europe cut subsides, the recession hit… and all that new capacity made solar prices tank and inventories piled up. Whew – what a tale. In a fun new twist, according to Lux analyst Ed Cahill, the solar crisis will become a boon as record low prices boost demand. (And after that what will happen? Stay tuned). The rise will take place as those cheaper installations (especially utility and commercial rooftop) become routine and spread into new markets. U.S., China, Japan, and India are expected to speed up installations. That will help to power (no pun intended) a compound annual growth rate in the industry of 10.5% over the next three years. A few other things might help – according to this New York Times article, the U.S. and Europe are both working to smooth over trade disputes with China. Regional pricing schemes may take the place of tariffs. China had been accused of exporting solar modules at prices less than the cost of production (a practice called “dumping”). China, in turn, accused polysilicon makers in the U.S. and Europe of doing the same thing. All of this fun news is not likely to help revive solar module manufacturing in the U.S. or in Germany. But new technology might. My colleague Alex Scott flagged a news item from the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Photovoltaics. Researchers there have tested a crystalline silicon solar cell with a 22% sunlight conversion efficiency. It is difficult to say how much a module made of these cells would convert, but a traditional module is...

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