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Could biodiesel power future rockets?

Rachel Courtland, New Scientist
Could future trips to space be powered by vegetable oil? In a test firing earlier this month, the California-based engineering firm Flometrics announced that commercially available biodiesel produced almost the same amount of thrust as conventional rocket fuel.

The find may not come as much of a surprise. After all, biodiesel is already being tested by the airline industry, which gobbles up billions of gallons of jet fuel each year.

But despite fluctuating petroleum prices, interest in alternative fuels among rocket builders has been slow to grow. Flometrics leader Steve Harrington hopes the test will stoke interest in biodiesel-powered rocketry. “Most rocket scientists are knee-jerk anti-environmentalists,” Harrington says. “But we’re going to run out of rocket fuel at some point, so what are we going to run our rockets on after that?”

Could biodiesel be the answer? New Scientist takes a closer look at its potential for fuelling the space age.
(23 January 2009)

Industry worries as California takes lead in setting bio-fuel rules

Philip Brasher, Gannett News Service
Californians may have a lot to say about the way the rest of America drives.

That’s not just because the Obama administration may allow California to set auto mileage standards higher than the federal government’s. California also is developing its own rules for the fuels motorists use.

The new rules, known as a low-carbon fuel standard, are intended to reduce carbon emissions by 10 percent in California. The state needs federal approval to regulate auto mileage but doesn’t need it to impose carbon standards on fuel.

… The problem for the biofuel industry is that California officials are factoring in the impact of biofuels on land use, based on the assumption that using cropland to produce biofuels requires planting crops somewhere else to maintain food supplies.

The theory is that for every additional acre of cropland devoted to biofuels in this country, land must be cleared in Brazil or somewhere else to grow corn or soybeans.
(5 February 2009)

Biofuels more harmful to humans than petrol and diesel, warn scientists

Alok Jha, Guardian
Corn-based bioethanol has higher burden on environment and human health, says US study

Some biofuels cause more health problems than petrol and diesel, according to scientists who have calculated the health costs associated with different types of fuel.

The study shows that corn-based bioethanol, which is produced extensively in the US, has a higher combined environmental and health burden than conventional fuels. However, there are high hopes for the next generation of biofuels, which can be made from organic waste or plants grown on marginal land that is not used to grow foods. They have less than half the combined health and environmental costs of standard gasoline and a third of current biofuels.

The work adds to an increasing body of research raising concerns about the impact of modern corn-based biofuels.
(2 February 2009)
The study cited in the article is “Climate change and health costs of air emissions from biofuels and gasoline” (Abstract, Full text (PDF)

New biomass charcoal heater: A ‘new era’ of efficiency and sustainability

American Chemical Society, press release
Millions of homes in rural areas of Far Eastern countries are heated by charcoal burned on small, hibachi-style portable grills. Scientists in Japan are now reporting development of an improved “biomass charcoal combustion heater” that they say could open a new era in sustainable and ultra-high efficiency home heating.

Their study was published in ACS’ Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, a bi-weekly journal.

In the study, Amit Suri, Masayuki Horio and colleagues note that about 67 percent of Japan is covered with forests, with that biomass the nation’s most abundant renewable energy source. Wider use of biomass could tap that sustainable source of fuel and by their calculations cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by 4.46 million tons.

Using waste biomass charcoal, their heater recorded a thermal efficiency of 60-81 percent, compared to an efficiency of 46-54 percent of current biomass stoves in Turkey and the U.S.

“The charcoal combustion heater developed in the present work, with its fast startup, high efficiency, and possible automated control, would open a new era of massive but small-scale biomass utilization for a sustainable society,” the authors say.

American Chemical Society – the world’s largest scientific society – is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences.
(5 February 2009)
Original paper is online: Development of Biomass Charcoal Combustion Heater for Household Utilization.

Heating With Wood

Frank Gifford, EntropyPawsed
For Bonnie and me, heating with wood was the catalyst that reconnected us with nature and put on us a path of a low energy lifestyle. How can something seemingly as simple as wood heat be such an important factor in our lives? The question is possibly answered by the process of heating with wood itself.

Our wood heat adventure started in 1994 when we moved into a small cabin in Hocking County, Ohio, about one hour southeast of Columbus. It had previously been a weekend retreat, and had a fireplace insert-type wood stove, along with baseboard electric heat. During plans for the remodeling, we decided to remove the electric baseboards and heat just with wood.

We purchased a Husquavarna chain saw, and I proceeded to read the owner’s manual. When making my very first cut on a downed tree, I pinched the saw in the kerf. It was to be the first of many such pinches. That first winter, we bought most of our wood. But in all subsequent years in Hocking County, we cut, hauled, and split 100% of our wood ourselves. Some we scavenged by the roadsides in the area, some we cut from our own woods, the rest we cut for neighbors, keeping the wood in exchange for removing undesirable trees.

Ten years of cutting, hauling, and splitting wood for burning has the potential to provide a lot of education about trees and wood. Oak has a distinctive smell. Its grain is straight, making it easy to split. Hickory grain is not straight, making it difficult to split. Standing dead elm quickly dulls the chainsaw, and tends to be hard to split, but it holds fire even when dampened back 100%, black gum is almost impossible to split….

On a small rural holding, heating with wood can be sustainable.
(3 February 2009)
EB contributor Frank Gifford writes: This is the fifth installment in a series of educational modules developed by EntropyPawsed to help further the conversation about designing for sustainable human culture.