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Biofuels - Dec 20

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


Supercritical Method of Converting Chicken Fat Into Biodiesel

Scientific Blogging
Chemical engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas have investigated supercritical methanol as a method of converting chicken fat into biodiesel fuel. The new study also successfully converted tall oil fatty acid, a major by-product of the wood-pulping process, into biodiesel at a yield of greater than 90 percent, significantly advancing efforts to develop commercially viable fuel out of plentiful, accessible and low-cost feedstocks and other agricultural by-products.

“Major oil companies are already examining biodiesel as an alternative to petroleum,” said R.E. “Buddy” Babcock, professor of chemical engineering. “With the current price of petroleum diesel and the results of this project and others, I think energy producers will think even more seriously about combining petroleum-based diesel with a biodiesel product made out of crude and inexpensive feedstocks.”

Under Babcock’s guidance, Brent Schulte, a chemical-engineering graduate student in the university’s College of Engineering, subjected low-grade chicken fat, donated by Tyson Foods, and tall oil fatty acids, provided by Georgia Pacific, to a chemical process known as supercritical methanol treatment.
(19 December 2007)
For almost all of human history, turning edible fat into fuel would be seen as complete madness. Fat was a luxury food - satisfying, tasty, difficult to get. Chicken fat plays a central part in traditional Middle European cooking (for example, as "schmaltz" in Yiddish). -BA


Trouble brewing

The Economist
... The humble hop, the plant that gives beer its distinctive flavour, is the main problem. Many farmers in the Pacific north-west, where America's hop production is concentrated, have turned to more profitable lines-especially corn, which can be made into ethanol. The decrease in hop production, put at some 50% over the past decade, has sent prices through the roof.

... The hops shortage is only part of the problem. Things are no better for barley, used to make the malt that yeast turns into alcohol. It too has been ploughed under in favour of corn. Crop failures in Australia and Europe, combined with the weak dollar, have made it harder to replace the shortage with imports. Other price increases, of fuel, glass and metal, add to the pressure.
(19 December 2007)


Plant cover in Haiti at two percent: UN official

AFP
Deforestation in Haiti, where trees and bushes are routinely felled for cooking fuel, is at crisis level, with just two-percent plant cover now, the UN warned Thursday.

...Most people in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, live on less than two dollars a day, and they use wood for fires to cook. The result has been widespread deforestation and erosion
(20 December 2007)


Part III: The Price of Biofuels

David Rotman, Technology Review (MIT)
...While chemical engineers, microbiologists, agronomists, and others struggle to find ways of making cellulosic ethanol commercially competitive, a few synthetic biologists and metabolic engineers are focusing on an entirely different strategy. More than fifteen hundred miles away from the Midwest's corn belt, several California-based, venture-backed startups founded by pioneers in the fledging field of synthetic biology are creating new microörganisms designed to make biofuels other than ethanol.

Ethanol, after all, is hardly an ideal fuel. A two-carbon molecule, it has only two-thirds the energy content of gasoline, which is a mix of long-chain hydrocarbons. Put another way, it would take about a gallon and a half of ethanol to yield the same mileage as a gallon of gasoline. And because ethanol mixes with water, a costly distillation step is required at the end of the fermentation process. What's more, because ethanol is more easily contaminated with water than hydrocarbons are, it can't be shipped in the petroleum pipelines used to cheaply distribute gasoline throughout the United States. Ethanol must be shipped in specialized rail cars (trucks, with their relatively small payloads, are usually far too expensive), adding to the cost of the fuel.

So instead of ethanol, the California startups are planning to produce novel hydrocarbons.
(January/February 2008)
Parts I and II of the series are also available online; see original.

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