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Biofuels - May 15

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Tough bacteria may hold promise in making biofuel

David Perlman, SF Chronicle
Bacteria that thrive in the weirdest places on Earth hold new promise for fueling the world's cars and factories, and scientists in the Bay Area and Southern California have found some of the most promising ones inside a volcanic crater in Italy and the La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles.

Reports from the Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore and UC Riverside describe the possibility of using bacteria known as "extremophiles" to break down wood into sugars that could easily be converted into ethanol as a major biofuel to replace costly and diminishing petroleum resources.

Countless species of living bacteria have long been known to exist in the most extraordinary environments: in mines without air, light or water 5 miles underground; in the intense radioactivity of nuclear wastes; in the geysers and fumaroles of Yellowstone National Park; and far beneath Antarctica's ice.

The Sandia lab chemists are working with a class of extremely ancient microbes known as archaea and with one unique species named Sulfolobus solfataricus that was first isolated from a dormant volcano near Naples and carries enzymes that could be crucial to producing ethanol more quickly and cheaply than it is today.
(15 May 2007)


Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction?

Robert Rapier (ed) and John R. Benemann (author), R-Squared
Robert Rapier:

The following is a guest post by John Benemann. John has many years of expertise in biomass conversion, and previously co-wrote a guest piece on cellulosic ethanol. On the subject of biodiesel from algae, he literally wrote the book.

I originally wrote an article over a year ago in which I mentioned the potential of algal biodiesel. I still believe, as I did then, that biodiesel (or more broadly, renewable diesel) is a far superior fuel to ethanol for reasons I outlined in that essay. However, over the past year, the more I learned about the prospects of biodiesel from algae, the more it started to look to me like cellulosic ethanol: Technically feasible? Yes. Commercially feasible? Nowhere close, and the prospects don't look good any time soon. ...

John R. Benemann, Ph.D.

... 2. The claims for biodiesel production rates being made by GFT, among many others in this field, exceed anything based on biological or physical theory, as also pointed out in this posting. They are truly bizarre.

... 8. Microalgae biofuels generally, and algae biodiesel production specifically, is still a long-term R&D goal (likely about 10 years), that will require at least as much funding as the ASP, if not more, and success is, as for any R&D effort, rather uncertain.

... 12. Even if R&D proves successful and we can actually produce algae biofuels (maybe even biodiesel) economically (whatever the economics may be a decade or so from now), even then, I am sorry to say that due to resource (land, water, etc.) limitations, algae will not replace all our (or their) oil wells, cannot solve our entire global warming problem, or make me rich quick, at least not honestly. But maybe this technology could be developed in the next few years so that in the future it can make a contribution to our energy supplies, our environment and human welfare.

We will in the future need all such technologies and must in the present study and develop all those that appear at least on their face plausible. But we also must reject those, as in the present case, that are based on absurd claims (such as in this case of productivity) and bizarre contraptions (e.g. closed photobioreactors).

There are no silver bullets, no winner-take-all technologies, no technological fixes, the solution to our energy and environment crisis can only come from, in order, 'demand' management, efficiency improvements, and new energy supplies, to which, maybe, algae processes can contribute.
(14 May 2007)


Starving the poor

Noam Chomsky, Khaleej Times
THE chaos that derives from the so-called international order can be painful if you are on the receiving end of the power that determines that order's structure. Even tortillas come into play in the ungrand scheme of things. Recently, in many regions of Mexico, tortilla prices jumped by more than 50 per cent.

In January, in Mexico City, tens of thousands of workers and farmers rallied in the Zocalo, the city's central square, to protest the skyrocketing cost of tortillas.

In response, the government of President Felipe Calderon cut a deal with Mexican producers and retailers to limit the price of tortillas and corn flour, very likely a temporary expedient.

In part the price-hike threat to the food staple for Mexican workers and the poor is what we might call the ethanol effect - a consequence of the US stampede to corn-based ethanol as an energy substitute for oil, whose major wellsprings, of course, are in regions that even more grievously defy international order.

In the United States, too, the ethanol effect has raised food prices over a broad range, including other crops, livestock and poultry.

The connection between instability in the Middle East and the cost of feeding a family in the Americas isn't direct, of course. But as with all international trade, power tilts the balance. A leading goal of US foreign policy has long been to create a global order in which US corporations have free access to markets, resources and investment opportunities. The objective is commonly called "free trade," a posture that collapses quickly on examination.
(15 May 2007)

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