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back to article Boeing backs biofuel boffinry

Boeing and the CSIRO have signed an agreement to look at whether Australia’s far north is a good place to grow biofuel feedstocks. While biofuels have been certified for aviation use, Boeing explains, scaling up production is a challenge (for example, biofuel critics blame ethanol subisidies for driving up food prices in …

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Pint

In The Long...

...run, biofuels reduce to a subset of solar collection.

It's good to see serious investment in boffinry put to the task.

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Algae

Genetically engineered algae are more efficient at using sunlight than trees or grass, and either store oil in their cells, or emit hydrocarbons directly (the way yeast emit alcohol). It depends how you engineer their biology which they do.

If you grow them on land, they don't require good land, just containers to grow in. Alternately you can grow them just off the coast in pens. Australia has plenty of coastline.

@Disco - yes, biofuel is a form of solar energy. They are limited to about 6% efficiency maximum in theory, and a lot lower in unmodified plants, but are cheaper to make since they are self-reproducing.

As an aside, cheap carbon storage would be to grow plants like trees, and then just store the wood in the form of buildings, or put it in deserts or icy locations where it won't decay. Per ton of carbon, that is way less expensive than pumping CO2 down used oil wells or other such methods.

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Bronze badge

... just store the wood ...

Pyrolysis of wood and waste to produce biofuels plus biochar which can be buried and which can improve soil quality and yields seems to be a good way to go. http://www.aston-berg.co.uk/Resources/user/Biomass%20pyrolysis%20-%20a%20guide%20to%20UK%20capabilities%20May%202011v2.pdf
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Pint

Biodiesel / Jet Fuel

Essentially they're discussing making biodiesel, which is much more environmentally friendly (read less processing) and doesn't use up potential food crops like the "standard" biofuel ethanol which requires more energy intensive refinement. Definitely a toast to them. The other big research that I keep hearing about is using Algae to produce biodiesel which looks quite promising.

Part of the reason my current car is diesel is to have greater flexibility of fuel later, whether running on "DinoDiesel" or "BioDiesel". Gasoline engines are more finicky about that sort of thing.

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Boffin
Bio Diesel != Jet Fuel More like opposite ends of the spectrum. This is much more high-level than that, as the end of the article makes clear - there is an opportunity in Oz to grow and harvest bio-mass in large quantities without affecting existing food production, but clearly no known process yet to feed those lumps of wood into an aero-engine...
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Boffin

Umm, Jet Fuel and Diesel are very very closely related, and Boeing's announce was quite clear that Jet Fuel was the aim of this project.

The opposite end of the spectrum would be Avgas/gasoline.

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Silver badge

Terrible idea

The most efficient plants convert 1.5% of solar energy into biomass. The fuel required to transport biomass to a processing plant, covert it to fuel and transport the fuel to an airport is about equal to the fuel created from biomass. The fuel required to create and transport fertiliser and pesticides makes the entire process use more energy than it supplies. Abolish the subsidies and let this eco-disaster bankrupt itself.

Battery powered aircraft are technically challenging. They are possible, but do not have anything like to capacity and range of a fossil fuel powered aircraft. Investment in battery technology will close the gap a bit, but I suspect the real place to invest is in converting CO2 + water into fuel using chemical reactions and nuclear power.

By all means put solar panels in the deserts where they can be cost effective and do not compete with agriculture, but do not expect them to make a significant contribution to the energy budget. Wind and solar power proposals always include a statement like: this project will power X thousand homes. What they mean is X thousand homes with gas central heating, gas hot water, fossil fuel transport and fossil fuel agriculture. For real numbers, divide the claim by something between 5 and 10.

There is a reason why the world is powered by fossil fuels and nuclear power - those are the only two that can scale to meet demand.

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Hang on

" The fuel required to transport biomass to a processing plant, covert it to fuel and transport the fuel to an airport is about equal to the fuel created from biomass."

I see this claim again and again. Yet we manage to transport crude oil half-way around the globe for a net energy profit. Is the energy density of biofuels so much less or is this an economic argument in disguise?

Now I can't find precise figures but according to the Wikipedia "oil tanker" article "the average cost of oil transport by tanker amounts to only two or three United States cents per 1 US gallon". (Yes there's a citation for that.) With crude oil at 1$100 per barrel (42 gallons) three US cents buys something like one hundredth of a gallon. That's a ratio of 100 to one even assuming no other costs.

OK, if you transport the raw biomass rather than processing it on site the ratio would decrease significantly but why would you do that? You harvest the material, process (or refine) it and ship it out in a concentrated form.

Sorry, but these efficiency arguments are just a red herring. There is no theoretical constraint. At the moment oil is cheaper because it's cheaper (an economic constraint). But it's not getting cheaper and never will while biofuels certainly will.

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Silver badge

Compromise

Biofuels are made by collecting a little solar energy using plants, then adding lots of energy to convert plants into fuel. There are some numbers here: http://www.grist.org/article/biofuel-some-numbers Unfortunately that site does not go into detail about what energy costs are included in the calculations. I was using figures for corn, which I have just found out is abysmal compared to practical and profitable feed crops. That site has corn producing 1.5 litres of fuel for each litre used in production. If they have missed anything out, that could easily drop below one litre of fuel out for each litre in. Local processing reduces transport costs of the plants, but increases transport costs for the other raw materials and removes economies of scale. There are theoretical constraints. The sun is not getting massively more bright. Thermodynamics gives limits to the amount of energy you get extract from feed stock. While biofuels remain an insignificant source of energy, they can get cheaper. Go back to that site and look at yields per area and the amount of fuel that is used. Even using the most efficient plants, scaling up biofuel to replace fossil fuel will massively increase the price of farm land.
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Bronze badge

I agree about the corn

I don't advocate the use of food crops for biofuel. But that's for economic/politcal reasons.(Sugarcane is exception - it's high yield and if you're living on sugar you're doing it wrong.) A ratio of 1.5 for energy in to energy out may look bad (and is bad compared to 8 for sugarcane) but apart from pollution/land use concerns it really doesn't matter since you're producing energy. You might as well complain that you're "only" getting 50% return on you're investments!

But again, I'm not advocating the use of food crops for biofuels. I am advocating serious research into non-food sources such as switchgrass and algae. If they can be made to give the yield of sugarcane without it's environmental impact (cane farming tends to be fertiliser intensive and produce nasty runoff) we will have a viable alternative to oil.

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Childcatcher

How will they measure fuel consumption?

Number of miles to the acre?

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Mushroom

C'Mon

What about a nuclear plane :-)

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Stop

Time flies but aeroplanes crash.

I remember watching a documentary recently about attempts to build nuclear planes by both the US and former USSR. Technical issues aside this was given up as a bad idea. The shielding required to protect the crew from radiation made the engines too heavy to be practical. Both sides also eventually reached the conclusion that putting a nuclear reactor in an aircraft was a bad idea as they occasionally crash. A plane crash is bad enough without also being a nuclear accident.

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Go

It nearly happened.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convair_X-6

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MJI
Silver badge

Nuclear

Bit of a pain when the shielding fails and there is a bomb in the undercarriage. But yes good idea - look up Fireflash
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Meh

Nuclear reactors...

...tend to be encased in EXTREMELY heavy containment vessels with lots of dense shielding. Not idel for flight - though I'm sure a nuclear powered airship could be attempted...
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Mushroom

What the others said - Plus:

When you've used up your available lift for ehavy reactor components, even if you *do* skimp on shielding, you're STILL left with no useful payload.

Plus, who would let you land that thing in *their* backyard..?

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Pint

For a good insight...

into biofuels, I would suggest having a read of 'Gusher of Lies' by Robert Bryce (ISBN 978-1-58648-690-7). I listened to the mainstream gumph about ethanol fuels, & was curious to learn more. A family member gave me the aforementioned book. After reading about the politics the ignorance, the lobbying, the inefficiency & cost of production, my view has been forever changed about the stuff. Well researched, lots of fact, well worth reading if you're interested in a level headed dissection of the biofuel phenomenon.

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Bronze badge

On the other hand

Oil has never been polluted by something as dirty as politics.

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Headmaster

Never base your opinions on a single book ...

@spud2go, whether Bryce opinions are correct or not at this point in time is not a problem for me, it is the fact that so many people are happy to draw conclusions from the biased (almost always, and not always deliberately) writings of one author. If it is peer reviewed hard science, backed theoretically (and if possible experimentally), then possibly, but when it is an attempt by a lay person to predict the possible evolution of a technology over 5 decades - be very wary!

The mortarboard icon, because one good thing a PhD taught me is how easy it is to make a convincing argument when you need to, and how easy it is to find sources that seem to back it up!

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Pint

@ joe K 1

The beer icon because one good thing the school of life has taught me is never trust a politically backed populist agenda. You're also assuming that book is the only material I have read on the subject - it is, as per my post, a reading suggestion. While I don't have a higher education qualification such as yourself, I do keep eyes & ears on as much as I can, & while I'm all for the discovery & development of other energy sources, biofuels at their current level take more resources and energy to produce, are more expensive to produce, don't pack the same energy density as oil (or coal) and (of corn based ethanol) have driven up a segment of food prices on the global market. I'm interested in the science, but I'm much more interested in the entire picture, of which science is but a part. Factor in political & environmental spin, significant governmental subsidies/tax & financial incentives and vested interest group lobbying on the global level and I'm afraid I remain sceptical.

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Unhappy

Crops in North Queensland again?

Great, most likely yet another water intensive project to join the rice and cotton industries.

Pity about the other 2/3 of the eastern part of the country who are getting water issues because not enough is left in the river systems by the time it reaches them.

Why don't they try doing this out in the northwest where it won't bother anyone, after all its not like biofuel is a particularly time sensitive commodity.

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Desailination...

If you can get your fuel production sufficiently efficient maybe you could drive desalination plants... Of course that sends the effective efficiency even lower, but isn't Australia going to need very large scale desalination for agriculture in the future? There is only so much fossil water...
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Coat

Feedstocks

I wonder if cane toads and rabbits could be made into biofueld feedstocks? I seem to recall that large parts of Aus have a surplus of both...
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If sheep shit...

... works as feed stock for biofuel, the Kiwis will be quids in.
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