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Cellulosic Ethanol, Beautification and Employment … :)

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June 08, 2008 – Comments (16) | RELATED TICKERS: DD

Okay, don’t take the post very seriously, only mildly seriously. First things first, corn ethanol is stupid. It is a complete boondoggle. It solves no energy problem as it costs just as much energy to create compared to what you get in the end. It diverts crops which should be grown for food to fuel production. This is creating / contributing to the global food shortage. It is just dumb on so many levels.

So let’s talk about cellulosic ethanol. It’s real value is that non-food crops can be converted to fuel. That’s great, however one argument against this plan is that you still need land to grow these non-food crops which will take away land from food crops. True. The refinement to this idea is to use crop waste as the fuel. You grow corn and harvest the corn for food. Then instead of tilling the stalks underground to decompose, you harvest them too but for fuel. The same land does double duty. Excellent! However some have observed that there may not enough energy content in the stalks to fill the US ethanol demand. This may be the case, I don’t know. I have not looked into it in depth, but it makes sense on its face. Corn stalks are relatively flimsy, not particularly dense plant structures. Not like wood which has a very high energy density.

So let’s take this as a given. Hmmm… so we want a plant structure with a high energy density (woody branches or stems),  does not compete with food crops, and grows very easily (preferably without fertilizer)…. You know, there is are two crops that really fit the bill. The first is Hemp. camistocksStockSpreadsheet, and others have blogged about this before. They problem is all the idiotic red tape from the government and DEA (HELLO, Hemp is NOT CANNIBIS). … Sorry. But, there is another….

Kudzu !!!.

For those of you who are not familiar with the atrocious invasive vine, let me explain. Kudzu is basically a vine, kind of like a philodendron on steroids, testosterone, Human growth hormone, Uppers, Speed, Meth, etc. It is actually a huge problem in the Southeast United States. It grows over everything. It is so invasive and so hard to get rid of, that there are orchestrated burnings of it. And the kudzu doesn’t care, it just grows back stronger. If you have ever driven outside of Atlanta, you know exactly what I am talking about. This stuff just covers the ground and trees for miles, choking out all other plant life. It was originally brought to the US from Japan about 100 years ago as an ornamental plant and it got wickedly out of control. For more reading, please click here.

Okay, so the title of this blog was Cellulosic Ethanol, Beautification and Employment. Where do all of these topics fit in?

First the Cellulosic Ethanol. Obviously the kudzu can be used as a fuel. It is an extremely tough, fibrous vine (some craftsmen actually use it to make baskets). I am sure it has a very high energy density.

Also it doesn’t take any fertilizer to grow. It spreads literally like wildfire. And it is not taking away any crop land. It is by definition a nuisance.

As far as Beautification and Employment: First the employment. This is not a crop that can be harvested with a combine. But it also doesn’t take an fertilizer or arable (expensive) land. So instead of spending money on combine usage, fertilizer, land use, etc. spend money on crews to come in the machetes and industrial weed whackers and bush hoggers to harvest it. Next, Beautification. It really is an eye sore in most places. So the initial harvest of kudzu can be to remove it from all the places where it is not desired, beautifying the land and adding back value. Subsequent spreadings and harvests can be confined to land that is already unused (and currently unusable do to the presence of the kudzu in the first place).

…. ?. What do you think. Again, take this a brainstorming. Like I said at the beginning, this is not a serious proposition, but one that may be worth considering.

As far as cellulosic ethanol, madcowmonkey pointed me to an article regarding DuPont’s involvement: Dupont Invests In Cellulosic Ethanol

16 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On June 08, 2008 at 8:47 PM, bellard (99.30) wrote:

I have one word for you

 

ALGAE

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#2) On June 08, 2008 at 8:55 PM, Tastylunch (29.20) wrote:

I would think Kudzu could be extremely difficult to harvest mechanically, perhaps cost prohibitively so.

this page suggest it would cost as much 80 per barrel to make, that's pretty high

http://www.strategypage.com/militaryforums/89-54778.aspx

It would be really cool if we could get rid of  that (expletive) invasive species.  

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#3) On June 08, 2008 at 9:11 PM, binv271828 (< 20) wrote:

bellard,

No doubt about algae. I definitely agree with you, that is the way to go in the future. That has the best payoff in term of energy density and is just generally cool.

tasty,

Oh yeah, it really couldn't be harvested mechanically. It is such a pain in the *ss weed. I am thinking something like chopping it to rough shreds with a bush hogger and in some cases machetes, and then collecting the shreds. However, since there wasn't any cost to grow the Kudzu in the first place, you could afford to pay crews to do some of the harvesting.

And so like I said at the beginning, this isn't a very serious proposition. As bellard rightly points out, there are significantly more efficient alternatives coming in the future. It would just be nice to do double duty with essentially "free" biomass for ethanol and clean up the landscape in the process. The problem now is that states have to pay workers to clean it up and control it and the payment comes straight out of taxes. This way at least there could be reimbursement in the form of biomass sales to ethanol production companies.

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#4) On June 08, 2008 at 9:19 PM, russiangambit (29.12) wrote:

How about Christmas trees, we already grow them . Another one I heard, - poplar, it is a very fast grower. Another one could be eculyptus, another fast grower.

Where do I deposit my ideas, please . I usually have many of them, but no way to cash them in. -))

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#5) On June 08, 2008 at 9:25 PM, binv271828 (< 20) wrote:

russian, 

Yeah, I heard the poplar idea. But Christmas trees! Now that's a good idea!.
Hey, whenever you find out the place to cash in on crazy ideas, let me know too :)

 

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#6) On June 08, 2008 at 9:44 PM, kristm (99.75) wrote:

Kudzu IS a pain but there's not enough of it (compared to corn or something anyway) to use. Plus it likes to go vertical, up poles, up fences, sides of mountains... City of Chattanooga has a fleet of goats they use to keep it down along Interstate 24. It would be harder to harvest but teenage boys with machetes usually can get the job done pretty quickly.

Christmas trees - well, there definitely aren't enough of those to use for fuel, and we'd have spikes of supply right around January 1st. (Talk about a boom or bust market!) They'd have to be added to the stream of other materials going into ethanol production. Combine kudzu, christmas trees, the brush your city picks up off the side of the street, organic household garbage... Things that have no other uses and mostly fill up the landfills. That's where you'll get your future energy supplies.

"Hey my fuel line is stopped up with a piece of tinsel! Again!" 

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#7) On June 08, 2008 at 9:46 PM, madcowmonkey (< 20) wrote:

I think I rec'd this abot 20+ minutes ago, but I ended up reading and cruising around in the site that tasty supplied. Some seriously weird buffalo chip ideas going on in the strategypage site. I can tell that is not a frequent stop for you tasty:)

I always thought it was spelled Kutzu and that is the way I said/say it too. The Smokey Mountains are great for that shat and I can't even imagine walking around and chopping it down as a job. Humid, hot, and sweating my glutious off for sure. There is plenty of it and you can watch it grow in the summer months, I know you can, because we use to have races with it and bet:) If it can provide a positive net energy source, then I don't see why anybody wouldn't use it, but like you said it would be a real fother  mucker to harvest. 

I have been hearing a lot of statements about the situation with energy and jobs lately and in multiple states. I will be curious to see how all this turns out. I know MI is pushing it and they have started 4 ethanol plants pushing the jobs and revenue for the state.  

Now for the not so serious side. How about prisoners harvesting this thing for us. They would be giving something back to society in a way. We could chain them up like chain gangs with mashetties and just let them go to town. Sounds a little inhumane, but what the diyu, everybody can't live forever. Get to work!

I didn't know how to spell mashettie, so I googled it and found this. Our Accelerated 8th Grade Blog! » Blog Archive » *k*e*n*y*a*  

I still don't know if I spelled it right, but I found a weird link, so it is all good:) The page looks like it should be a blog for ethanol or green energy. 

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#8) On June 08, 2008 at 10:00 PM, Tastylunch (29.20) wrote:

Madcow

you never know about ppl on the interwebs, I could be craaaaaaazy!

Naw in all seriousness Binv got me curious about kudzu and this what came up  in google, didn't vet the rest of the site.

it's spelled "machete" as far as I know. :-) 

Binv

I hear you, would be very nice to solve two problems at once.

I'm glad we don't have kudzu yet in Ohio.

I like madcow's idea of using cons to do the harvesting. Three problems solved all at once. :-)

 

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#9) On June 08, 2008 at 11:14 PM, misenthrope (< 20) wrote:

Cellulosic ethanol is a continuance of the scurge and ignorance that is ethanol.  The facts are that ce is 3x more expensive than conventional gasoline, produces upwards of 3x more greenhouse gas emissions during liquefaction/fermentation/ distillation, and more importantly, requires upwards of 4 gal of pure water per gal of usable ethanol.  Know this that by 2025 water will be the single most important issue on our agenda because by then it will have metastasized from a problem to a crisis.  Folks, this is a strategic blunder put out by the same blithering idiots responsible for the 10% ethanol mandate which is reducing our fuel economy by 5% and paid for by a massive subsidy courtesy the us taxpayer.

Ce will always require a gov't subsidy due to the extraordinary costs of the complex enzymes req'd and to the transportation costs req'd since we cannot leverage our pipeline infrastructure because of ethanol's corrosive characteristics.  And you have to transport more of it because ethanol is 30% less efficient than gasoline.

The answer to our energy problems lies in solar thermal, wind power, and a conversion of our transportation infrastructure to pure electric.  With the right leadership in place, we could make this happen by 2025 and realize an 80% reduction in fossil fuel use.  Of course this would cost $2.5T...about 0.5B more than the Iraq war.  For those snickering at the cost, consider that about $1.23B per day is about what we pay OPEC.

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#10) On June 09, 2008 at 5:47 AM, binv271828 (< 20) wrote:

kristm,

Thanks! Yeah, it seems like it is a higher energy density plant than corn, but there may not be enough of it. This was really more one of binv's "crazy ideas". Yeah, I don't think this solves any real energy problems on its own merits, but maybe it can be used to provide some energy while at the same time providing income. The income to the state itsn't necessarily huge, but it offsets Land Management dollars they would have to spend anyways containing this stuff.

madcowmonkey

Definitely man, it would be a miserable job. I have spent a fair bit of time down in TN, GA, and AL, and right around August it is so hot and humid and the wind completely stops. I have a friend from New York who describes it as "breathing through cheesecake". But people are living there and working outside anyways, so why not get some crew together and put them to work?

Convict labor kudzu harvesting and beautification... hmmm. Now that is an interesting idea.

Tastylunch

Yeah man. Exactly. I know this crazy idea wasn't the way to solve all energy problems. Just a different way of looking at a problem (produce domestic energy) that also gives a side benefit (controls / cleans up invasive plant species).

misenthrope

You are abosolutely right regarding solar thermal, wind, and electric transportation. Also everybody who has repsonded to this blog has written post regarding that is the direction we eventually need to go, myself included. Here are 3 blogs that talk about these issues directly. Please check them out, I would like to get your feedback!
Case for Alternative Energy / State of USD / Peak Oil
Investing in Solar Thermal Energy Production
Chevy Volt approval by GM board - Is this the start of a new GM?

Regarding cellulosic ethanol: I did not think the process was that lossy, and I had not heard about the emissions aspect. That is very interesting. I will look it to that. Do you have any links you can provide?

Thanks for the repsonse, and as you can see from my above responses I am defintely acknowledging that this idea does not solve all the energy problems. Probably the greatest benefit is cleaning up the kudzu, not necessarily the ethanol. And as far as the fuel, bellard rightly points out that biodiesel is a better biofuel than ethanol for a number of reasons. And in the future when a lot of the algae startups get commercially viable processes going that will be the new breakthrough fuel. We can have electric cars for short range / commmuting. And we can have algae biodiesel for longer range / truck fleets. That would be an excellent development.

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#11) On June 09, 2008 at 10:42 AM, madcowmonkey (< 20) wrote:

binv- I don't feel like it has to be just one energy solution. I am not sure why the focus needs to be on one and then ditch the others. Some solutions will work in 1 state, but it might not be a benefit for the other. Developing a number of solutions would work best in my mind. If they could develop the kudzu ethanol that was a benefit for the southern states, then go to it. Like you pointed out, it would be a benefit for the tax payers in that region. Sounds good. The water issue is big, but we already have that issue with oil sands and I don't see anybody putting a halt to that. My benefit argument would be that taking out the kudzu would help the air quality in that region. The vines suffocate the trees which help create an oxygenated/healthy environment. If we could help the forests out, then maybe it is a viable solution. Personally, I don't know, because it is not my expertise, but you are bringing in some good points/issues for the southern states to take a look at. 

tasty- thanks, it is not an everyday word for me and I didn't have time to plug it into a word document to find out. That site had some weird issues they were giving opinions/comments on. Nice reply, you got me laughing. 

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#12) On June 09, 2008 at 3:01 PM, devoish (98.56) wrote:

Bin,

I like innovative ideas also, and they all start out as crazy. One thing to consider is that if you do not plow cornstalks back into the ground, the ground dies. This is one reason organics have been shown to have 40% better nutritional value than conventionally grown food.

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#13) On June 09, 2008 at 4:59 PM, binv271828 (< 20) wrote:

madcowmonkey

That is a really good point. I sort of danced around that topic in my first blog, but I like how you stated it. Something like solar thermal is ideal for the West and Southwest, where as wind is ideal of the Central and Midwest. And hey, everybody can put solar panels on their roofs. The southeast gets a lot of sunshine too, but they also have lots of kudzu :)

devoish

Thanks! Yeah, I have lots of crazy ideas. But most of them are pretty dumb :). However, I had not considered your point about the nutrients from the stalks going into the ground. But that makes perfect sense.

Hmmm.... based on that point and misenthropes point about some of the nasty side effects of cellulosic ethanol production, then I guess we just have to wait for algae biodiesel. That really excites me. There are about 15-20 startups that I researched last week. Several are promising but none are viable enough to go public.Which is too bad, because that really is the future right there. :)

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#14) On June 22, 2008 at 5:43 PM, GreenMycon (< 20) wrote:

The issue with "Cellulosic ethanol" is the dependence on bio-based organisms to decompose plant matter into viable fermentable starches.  So basically, you have the already existing infrastructure and you just add an additional bio-reactor step. 

To say that Kudzu probably has more energy density than corn is a fairly worthless measure of "crop" viability.  You need to look at lignan content -- crops that have lower lignan content, on a whole, are more suitable for "cellulosic ethanol" developments.  My VPN is currently not working or I could probably grab some data on the lignan content of Kudzu in comparison to corn and other options.

 However, even if Kudzu is a viable plant to harvest to be digested and then fermented, you still have the issues of adequately harvesting the biomass.  No company would seriously look into harvesting it around suburban neighborhoods using teenage gangs with machettis, it's just not viable as a crop (would just be more expensive than other options).  As such, you'd be looking into growing it in large spaces where it could be readily harvested.  There may be some studies out there on the viability of Kudzu growth in certain regions and the yield of biomass per acre of land and fertilizer usage etc.  again, my VPN is down so I can't readily research this.

With those issues aside, and assuming Kudzu is a perfectly amazing crop, a viable organism to digest the crop and yield fermentable starches needs to be developed.  It may be relatively simple to develop and might even be cheap (in comparison to other development options), but it will still cost significant capital to do this.

Where does that leave us with Kudzu as a crop?  It's no more viable than any other cellulosic ethanol "solutions."  However, there are some matters that it seems no one considers (at least I haven't read much discussion on it) in terms of ethanol production.

That would be syngas conversion followed by Fisher Tropsch synthesis.  Thermochemical-based ethanol solutions have a few great advanatges over "cellulosic ethanol" solutions.

1) Any form of biomass can be used

2) FT is around 7 decades old and works

Basically, the two steps involved in thermochemical ethanol solutions are gassification and synthesis.  The gassification step is where biomass is heated up and ideally turned into carbon monoxide and hydrogen.  The CO/H2 ratio can be played with using water gas-shift reactions which can then yield increased hydrogen.  The ratio is important to optimize yields in the next step.

The next step takes the CO/H2 and combines it over a catalyst to yield hydrocarbons, be they methanol, ethanol, butanol, diesel, gasoline, etc.  It doesn't really matter.  The catalyst configuration is key, and the overall profitability as determined by coporations and politics is what truly makes a difference.

Why isn't this being done then, if it works well?   It is.  Oil companies and chemical companies have been doing this, and will continue to do this for years to come.  They have no reason right now to optimize biomass based production when there is already so much cheap stuff available to use (coal, natural gas, heavy oil residues, etc.).  Perhaps you've heard of gas to liquids?  It's the same technology.  It's economical, viable, and there. 

There are many advantages to this process over bio-based conversions, but also considerable disadvantages.  Mainly are the metals used for the catalysts (lots of research is going into this directly), and the high pressure and temperature conditions of operation.  The reactions are not mild, but neither is the haber-bosh process (which provides you with fertilizer).

Anyway, with that aside, and assuming that oil companies finally do start changing their refineries over to use biomass to provide us with our consumer needs and transportation fuel, and every single drop of biomass is harvested (as the process is fairly non-descriminate if adequate control systems are in place), there will still not be enough to meet America's energy needs let alone the worlds.

NREL has some data available about the potential of biomass. You can hunt around on their site and find it, I believe.

 Some comments on Algae:

Algae is currently proving to be most useful in powerplant efficiency upgrade cycles, in which CO2 emissions from traditional powerplants are recaptured, converted into algea, then gassified to provide additional syngas and fuel a combined cycle process.  Algae being turned into fuel is not largely viable.  While it grows amazingly weel and fast and almost anywhere with water, it does not grow to large depths.  That means you need to optimize tanks in such a way that they are very shallow, and very large.  The necessary area to obtain significant algea for fuel-based production is ridiculous. 

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#15) On June 22, 2008 at 10:18 PM, binv271828 (< 20) wrote:

GreenMycon

Wow! Thanks for all the info! First let me say that I agree with all of your points. It was never a very serious propositon in terms of solving a lot of real energy problems. It's just that Kudzu is such a nuisance and it would be great to get rid of it while reaping some benefit. However your point is well taken regarding teenagers wielding machetes :) Yeah, that thought of that does give me some pause now that you put it that way :)

I really like your idea regarding the Fisher Tropsch synthesis process. I can't say that I know a great deal about it, other than the basics of what you outline above. Now that you are brining it up, I will have to reseach it some more. But you are absolutely right, ethanol and / or biodiesel is not the solution on its own. I think the shift has to come from: 1) more efficiency from our vehciles (60 mpg should be the norm, not some pie in the sky number), 2) fuel from renewable sources, 3) plug-in hybrids

Combining all of those together, we can make a serious dent in the US gasoline consumption / World supply dilemma.

That is also a very interesting observation regarding the algae. I have some crazy idea regarding algae farms in the ocean once the algae-to-biofuel process is more viable. But I am full of crazy (usually non-viable) ideas :) But I think any solution that has to be talked about really should be in the context of demanding more efficiency from our vehicles and getting biofuel from a variety of sources.

Excellent discussion! Thanks for the feedback!

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#16) On July 03, 2008 at 4:29 AM, TimoDOZ (< 20) wrote:

Cellulosic Ethanol is something the "DUMMYA" has been talking about for 5 years.  He can't pronounce it but he keeps promising we will get there.  The technology for accomplishing celluosic ethanol so far only exists in some laborartories and some small scale trial plants.  It is easy to describe the solution.  It is not so easy to accomplish it.  We will eventually as some other posters have suggested, evolve into a more intensive electricity consumming society.  Then Electricity will become like oil is today, something we will import 60% of  what we consume.  While the US fiddles with figuring out how to produce more road and aviation fuels the investors in the future will have already built the Nuclear power generators we will so desperately need in Tiajuana, Newfoundland, and Kamchatka.  NLR does it all for you!

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