January 14, 2008
One of the Brickmuppet's crack team of science babes points us to two stories regards breakthroughs in biofuel practicality.
First via Instapundit, General Motors has entered into a partnership with Coskata on a celulosic ethanol process ( more here ,here and here). Given the involvement of a major auto company, and the the particulars of the process, this seems like big news. The process in question uses "patented microorganisms" and reportedly produces ethanol at approximately a buck a gallon. Not only does this process NOT displace food crops, the company claims it can actually "eat" a fair amount of municipal waste in the process. This is a swell win-win if true.
Note that the one dollar a gallon is misleading, not just because of profit and overhead but also because ethanol has less energy density than gasoline so one would need to burn more to go the same distance** (assuming the valves in ones car are even ethanol rated). However, the process it is still very promising as the price at the pump would still, theoretically, be comparable to current gas prices.
In related news, scientists have been looking at the highly promising cash crop switchgrass as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock. Interestingly, it is not an exotic crop, but one of the primary native plants of the North American tall-grass prairie! IT GROWS IN THE MIDWEST NATURALLY! Thus its environmental impact is likely to be rather limited.
According to this article (via The Energy Blog), the scientists are claiming a 540% energy return from switchgrass. Woah!
No that is not a typo. That is over 5 times as much energy (in ethanol) being produced than was used to grow, harvest and process the crop. The study seems to assume using switchgrass derived fuel to power the process so if one were to apply external electricity...oh say...nookuler..then yields would be rather higher. This is still problematic compared to the energy needed to get Saudi Oil, but that gap is closing.
Switchgrass is particularly interesting because it grows quite well on marginal land (it is a weed after all) thus it need not displace food crops. Being a native prairie plant it could actually be good for the environment in central North America, though this would depend on details of how it is harvested. It certainly should not have much of a negative impact.
I still think algael oil is the best biofuel bet for many things, but both of these ethanol breakthroughs are very promising. If we were using more of the ultimate flex fuel vehicles...we would not need to choose and could buy whatever was cheapest seasonally!
**In this regard ethanol is actually far better than methanol.
"Science babe" is Myuki from Lucky Star and thus is an imaginary cartoon character...fan mail and marriage proposals will, therefore, not be forwarded.
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