Yesterday I profiled a solar power company that is furthering progress in alternative energy as solar still looks to be one of the better options for cleaner energy production in the near future. What about biofuel? Has anything changed in the new year?
There are no doubt some great advances in chemistry and biology that are making the production of liquid hydrocarbons (like ethanol or biodiesel) more efficient and viable. Joule Unlimited has created a new process that uses genetically engineered bacteria to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into fuel. Their process is potentially much better than current cellulosic ethanol schemes if they can scale it up. Another company, Virent, based in Madison Wisconsin, is supplementing their biofuel process with natural gas in order to more easily make the liquid hydrocarbon fuels that we use in present day transportation.
Both of these companies are trail-blazers with truly impressive science and engineering feats under their belt, but the question remains, is biofuel the best way forward to reduce pollution and theoretical future climate warming. I still say no. In the case of Joule Unlimited, why use sunlight, bacteria, and CO2 to create a liquid fuel when you could just use solar panels to convert light into electricity. It would seem to be a simpler choice and solar-electric “fueled” EVs are tremendously cleaner than biofuel vehicles. A recent study has shown that electric fleet vehicles already are at a point where they make financial sense for companies operating in big cities. It might be more efficient/cheaper to make the biofuel for the time being but solar prices continue to decline every year.
In the case of Virent, you know how much I love to promote Wisconsin-based companies, but I have to wonder, why not just use natural gas as a fuel instead of using nat gas and biomass to create liquid hydrocarbons. Biofuel’s most likely purpose will be as a bridge fuel from now through the next few years when electric cars are not yet mainstream, practical for the masses, and affordable all the while fossil fuel (mainly oil) supplies become more scarce. Another possible bridge fuel is natural gas. It would be much simpler and cheaper. There is already a small nat gas infrastructure in the U.S. and in many other countries as well. The risks of exploiting natural gas reserves are quite low. The danger of frakquakes has mostly been overblown. Natural gas has been gaining political traction the U.S. but I would rather see the free market decide whether it makes greater sense for transportation. As we have seen lately, government “support” has not turned out so well.
Of course we will still need a lot of hydrocarbons for materials/plastic production and this is where many new biofuel processes will likely find their home. Virent is already making product for Coca Cola to use in their plastic bottles.
An update on the Vostok drilling operation by the Russians in Antarctica: At least one news agency in Russia reported on February 5th (and another article) that the scientists had indeed reached the surface of the lake. It is only one report, and I have not heard anything more official since. In any case, they will probably not be able to explore the lake or return samples to the surface until next Summer in Antarctica (our late Fall and Winter of 2012).
Have a good Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.