'Peak Oil' believers just got PWNED!
August 2, 2007 3:36 AM   Subscribe

Genetically Modified Bacteria to make "Renewable Petroleum" (A biotech startup describes how it will coax petroleum-like fuels from engineered microbes within three to five years).
posted by ItsaMario (66 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is incredible, at least until the bacteria become sentient, figure out how to rearrange themselves into ubermen, and become our overlords. But until then, I am going back to gas-powered lawnmower, woo-hoo!
posted by poppo at 3:41 AM on August 2, 2007

Unfortunately, Technology Review is pretty sloppy when it comes to fact checking, so any claims it reports can't be taken at face value.
posted by Coventry at 3:53 AM on August 2, 2007

Unfortunately, Coventry is pretty sloppy when it comes to random, baseless accusations, so any claims he makes that calims can't be taken at face value can't be taken at face value.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 4:11 AM on August 2, 2007

Coventry you got any more info on your claim?

One would think a publication owned by Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be pretty reliable with its information.
posted by ItsaMario at 4:12 AM on August 2, 2007

Interesting article, although it did seem to be skirting the issue of how environmentally friendly these fuels would be when burnt. Cool if you've found a way to reduce oil consumption because we're running out of oil, but the real reason we should be reducing oil consumption is the impact it has on the environment when we burn it, so if these things produce the same crap, they're only solving the economic problem and completely ignoring the environmental one.
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 4:14 AM on August 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

If the fuels are grown in a vat rather than pumped out of the ground, then they're carbon-neutral - that is, they take out of the air as much CO2 as they'll let off when burned. They also won't have problems with sulfur and other chemical nasties endemic to "natural" petroleum products. Smog is still an issue, but that's what we have catalytic converters for.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:33 AM on August 2, 2007

Yes, I'm aware that it's owned by MIT. I was a student there, and I read it regularly until maybe 1998, because it initially had lots of serious, well-researched articles, but then it became more like New Scientist. As I recall, there was some kind of change to its funding requiring it to be more financially independent. It became more sensationalist and careless, probably in an attempt to broaden its audience and cut costs.

It's been a while since I last read it, and I'm having trouble finding some of the examples which caused me to get fed up with it. If you don't believe my assessment of their accuracy, it's not a big deal. It's also remotely possible that they've since lifted their standards.
posted by Coventry at 4:38 AM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your title is ridiculous. Peak oil "believers" are only saying that there is a finite amount of oil in the ground. Manufacturing oil doesn't change that. The very existence of a research program to try to figure out a way to create more oil itself proves that the researchers believe the same thing.
posted by DU at 4:39 AM on August 2, 2007 [12 favorites]

Olympian, the biggest problem with fossil fuels is their waste products. The energy is stored in hydrocarbon chains, and the carbon is dumped into the environment as the fuel is burned. Instead of being safely under the ground, it's floating around in the air, and it's a powerful warming agent. There are other waste elements too, but as far as I know, the big worry at the moment is the carbon.

The biofuel idea takes care of this problem, because it uses elements that are already in the environment. Your tailpipe would be just as polluting as it ever was, in the sense that it dumps just as much carbon into the air, but there would be factories sucking it back out and rebinding it into the next generation of biofuel.

What they don't cover is where the energy will come from to make the fuel. We get a huge amount of power from oil we pump out of the ground, far more than we spend getting it. In essence, human civilization is running on a gigantic chemical battery. To replace that battery with something sustainable, we need a very large new source of energy input.

Bacteria aren't a free pass. They're highly efficient, but they still need energy, huge amounts of it, to synthesize these hydrocarbons. Nothing is free. For every erg we use driving around, it'll take a couple of ergs input at the fuel factory. We'll likely provide the energy with sugars, rather than electric power at the wall, but we still have to make the sugar.

Ultimately, this means that biofuel will be a lot more expensive (10x or more) than current petroleum products. With fully renewable sources, gas will cost at least $20/gallon. That's just the hard truth. We've been running off free energy for a hundred years, but it won't last forever. Within the next twenty or thirty years, if we want energy, we will have to pay for it in full. There's a lot of energy in gasoline, so it will be expensive.

Once we get the infrastructure built, though, we can maintain it essentially forever. When we're using fully renewable sources, there's no danger that anything will run out; the inevitable doom we face when the oil's gone will be neatly avoided.

But it's going to be massively painful no matter what route we go. We're getting a monstrous amount of energy for free out of the ground, and weaning ourselves from that will be the most painful and difficult thing humanity has ever faced.
posted by Malor at 4:43 AM on August 2, 2007 [8 favorites]

I should amend: we can continue our chemical-battery dependency by switching to coal, which we have lots of, but that's even worse for the environment than oil.
posted by Malor at 4:47 AM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anything that reduces massive revenues going to the worst regimes in the world is welcome. The greenhouse horror can only be fairly solved by a global Carbon Tax in my opinion, BTW...
posted by The Salaryman at 4:51 AM on August 2, 2007

I, for one, welcome our new coliform overlords.
posted by scblackman at 4:56 AM on August 2, 2007

Peak oil "believers" are only saying that there is a finite amount of oil in the ground. posted by DU at 4:39 AM

Gee i dont suppose they are saying things like Civilization as we know it is coming to an end or to widespread famine or even perhaps making money from scaring people about impending doom, Quite Ridiculous.

No doubt peak oil is a valid scientific theory but the tin foil brigade has jumped on board and really made it look bad.
posted by ItsaMario at 5:13 AM on August 2, 2007

I'd be worried about what they need to feed to the bacteria. Much like corn based fuel sounded like a great idea until it started driving up the prices of tortillas before it was even really in widespread use.

The other interesting side effect of this is that bacteria are not geographically tied. Countries that opt out of the IP regime could just steal the tech and make their own fuel. Perhaps even individuals eventually.
posted by srboisvert at 5:20 AM on August 2, 2007

I'm with Coventry. The article should read "Biotech firm makes claims. Promises useful product someday." Of course some of these startups end up working, but plenty don't. To tell the difference you need an in-depth review of the technology, methods, and challenges. If you take the article on face value, feel free to divest your oil stocks and put money into areas that would benefit.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:21 AM on August 2, 2007

Actually - if you want to know what they plan to use to feed the bacteria, you only have to, you know, actually read the article.

"LS9's current work uses sugar derived from corn kernels as the food source for the bacteria--the same source used by ethanol-producing yeast. To produce greater volumes of fuel, and to not have energy competing with food, both approaches will need to use cellulosic biomass, such as switchgrass, as the feedstock. Del Cardayre estimates that cellulosic biomass could produce about 2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre."
posted by grahamwell at 5:24 AM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ultimately, this means that biofuel will be a lot more expensive (10x or more) than current petroleum products

I know it's real cute and everything to make these sorts of "I know about this subject so you can trust me when I say it will never ever work" type comments, but could you just not do it?

The underlying science here is not new. The whole point of the company is to refine the process technology and strains used such that the product becomes economically feasible. This would probably be at first a value-added product (for consumers who want to buy a "green" fuel) and eventually something to compete with petro-gasoline.

Bioethanol, for example, currently costs far less than the equivalent of $20/gallon. Advances such as sugar-based DMF (published recently) and new work on biobutanol are all moving in a rather convincing direction. Once the cellulose-to-sugar part of the equation is worked out, all of these new technologies will become incredibly fruitful.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:29 AM on August 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have just been ITCHING to ditch my hippied-out segway and jump back on teh Hummer bandwagon! Now, thanks do oil-pooping bacteria, I can!

Thanks, oil-pooping bacteria!
posted by Pecinpah at 5:34 AM on August 2, 2007

Promises, promises. Remember when thermal depolymerization was the cure to our oil ills? I rarely agree with Steven Den Beste, but he was right when he wrote this:
This article/announcement follows a typical pattern. I've seen it before. There are breathless claims of an astounding breakthrough, which can solve a major problem completely and easily if only the developing company is given some money to keep improving their technology.
While this is hardly an astounding breakthrough (as rxrfrx noted above, this idea has been around a while), we'll see in a few years if this pans out to be as impressive as claimed.
posted by moonbiter at 5:40 AM on August 2, 2007

Here is a readable introduction to the science and commercial issues around Hydrocarbons from Cellulose.

Steven Den Beste, in the comment above, was warning about hype-encrusted press releases to attract venture capital. That doesn't seem to be the issue here - there's plenty of capital from all-comers in this field. Everyone's doing it and real progress seems to be being made.

One real obstacle may be the subsidy pumped corn lobby for whom lack of progress would be just fine.
posted by grahamwell at 5:54 AM on August 2, 2007

but then it became more like New Scientist.

Agree with Coventry. So much crap science is being sold to the public, in the form of these popular science magazines. They rarely delve into the sticky details and are more interested in telling a compelling story.
posted by stbalbach at 6:19 AM on August 2, 2007

Regarding cellulose as a feedstock, such as straw or the non-edible parts of corn (stalk, cob, etc..), Iogen has a plant in Canada that claims it can make a barrel of ethanol for $20 with no net CO2 release. The problem is scale - straw and corn stalks are not free or a waste product. Usually it is plowed back into the fields for soil structure and water retention.

Iogen claims each ton of feedstock produces about 300 liters of ethanol, and there are about 17.8 million tons of crop residue available in Canada each year, or about 5.3 billion liters, less than 1/10th of Canada's annual consumption of fuel. Even Iogen admits that process is only useful in big cereal producing countries like the US and Canada.

Sugar is one of the best sources of ethanol. To replace all the worlds petroleum consumption with sugar would require 15x the amount of crop land available in the world.
posted by stbalbach at 6:34 AM on August 2, 2007

Ugh, more dissembling from ethanol-haters.

First of all, diversity and reduction are good. Even if ethanol can only reduce oil consumption by 10%, that is a good thing. 10% from each of 5 or 6 sources is a pretty big dent, no? And having energy coming from many sources prevents the kind of hostage situation we are in now.

Second of all, why are you limiting the cellulose to crop residue? Why not grow crops specifically for their cellulose?

And then, while remaining on the "we require a silver bullet that does 110% of the job or we aren't interested" kick, you also switch over to sugar to present the factoid about 15x the crop land in the world.
posted by DU at 6:46 AM on August 2, 2007

Corn sugar is a great source of energy, but, stbalbach, as say, there's not very much of it. Lee Lynd explains: Corn's role is to store nutrition above the ground during the growing season. Lignocellulose is made to hold up the plant, so its function is structural, not nutritional. That's why cellulose is so important here, it is the most abundant organic material on the planet and it grows pretty much everywhere.

It is so abundant in fact that, if this research comes good, it could indeed supply all of our hydrocarbon needs. From the numbers in the main article (and some fun with Excel) farmers could provide all of the world's current oil consumption using the combined land area of Texas, the Ukraine and Inner Mongolia. Everywhere else can get on with growing food. Alternatively, to generate 100 million barrels per day (slightly more than our current global oil consumption) would require one quarter of the land area of the United States.

At this point I'm firmly in the 'I'll believe it when I see it' camp, but the point is that the potential is there. This is not impossible. It's likely to be one among the several ways we muddle through into the future.
posted by grahamwell at 6:51 AM on August 2, 2007

When you're done personally attacking the skeptics, can you tell me how I can sink my hard-earned pennies into this under-valued but sure-to-succeed venture? Posts like this should come with a prospectus.
posted by grobstein at 7:10 AM on August 2, 2007

grahamwell, how did you arrive at the one-quarter of USA figure? It makes no sense that that amount cellulose could supply the worlds energy equivalent of 100mb a day. A study by the University of MN found that if 100% of the US corn production was put into ethanol it would supply only 12% of the USA's petroleum consumption.
posted by stbalbach at 7:27 AM on August 2, 2007

I'll check the blue for renewable petroleum posts in three to five years.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 7:32 AM on August 2, 2007

It all hinges on the "2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre." figure that I quoted above from the main article. (I have no idea whether this is true, but it is the point of the whole exercise, so let's pretend that it is for a moment.)

I'm also assuming this is per year. It doesn't say.

We need about 100 million barrels of oil per day
which is 3.65 x 10^10 barrels per year
which is 1.135 x 10^12 US gallons per year

We get 2000 US gallons per acre per year (from above)


We need 5.66 x 10^8 acres
which is 883,985 square miles

Total US land area in square miles = 3,537,441
We'd need just under 25%

Something wrong with that?

Here's more about LS9 and their promises.
posted by grahamwell at 7:43 AM on August 2, 2007

...if 100% of the US corn production was put into ethanol it would supply only 12% of the USA's petroleum consumption.

There's your problem.
posted by DU at 7:50 AM on August 2, 2007

I did my own calculations, slightly different approach but similar result.

Del Cardayre estimates that cellulosic biomass could produce about 2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre.

That's about 64 barrels per acre. Lets say each season can produce 2 crops so in the course of a year is 128 barrels. It's not 100% efficient so lets say 80% efficient (generous) is about 100 barrels per year per acre. By comparison, soybeans produce about 48 barrels per acre.

The world uses 80 million barrels per day or about 30 billion barrels per year. 30 billion divided by 100 = 30 million acres. The USA has 427 million arable acres.

So, based on Del Cardayre's estimate, it could be realistically possible.
posted by stbalbach at 7:51 AM on August 2, 2007

30 billion divided by 100 is 300 million.
posted by monocyte at 8:06 AM on August 2, 2007

So, did gravity "believers" get pwned when the Wright brothers flew?

What stupid fucking title on an otherwise interesting (but poorly supported) idea.
posted by teece at 8:11 AM on August 2, 2007 [5 favorites]

Its would indeed need just about all the arable land in the United States. However there are other countries too! Just for fun you can convert to square kilometers and go back to the CIA factbook to come out with a figure of 11.5% of the current global arable land area (on my rather pessimistic, single annual harvest figures) representing 1.5% of the total land area of the planet..

Which leads to further flights of fancy. With opportunity, new crops (woods and grasses) and a renewable fuel to aid with the harvesting, is it unreasonable to consider that an additional 1.5% of the planet's land could not come under cultivation?
posted by grahamwell at 8:18 AM on August 2, 2007

Bioethanol, for example, currently costs far less than the equivalent of $20/gallon.

That's because it's so heavily subsidized, both directly and indirectly. Without a giant oil input as fertilizer and energy to run the farm machines, it wouldn't happen. The net actual impact of bioethanol appears to be break-even or negative. From what I've read, it requires about 1 barrel of oil as input to get 1 barrel worth of energy in bioethanol output. Without heavy government subsidies, it wouldn't likely be viable.

Energy is not free. All of these various ideas are very interesting, but they're all fundamentally variations on a theme: biological solar power. The end product is just a method of energy storage. It'd be nice if it looked and functioned like gas, because we'd have to redo less of our other infrastructure, but no matter what the output chemical or method of production is, the very first question needs to be: where does the energy come from? That's the weakness of all the oil-replacement plans I've seen; there's simply no way to generate the power required to compete efficiently with the free power in oil.

The idea of using cellulose is good; we do have lots of the stuff, and it's likely to be one of the most efficient ways to turn solar power into chemical energy. But the supposition that we can maintain our present way of life while planting only 1/3 of the US seems a bit ... optimistic to me. Cellulose is heavy and hard to move around, and it's not very energy dense. That means it'll require a large energy input to get the energy output, moving the cellulose into digester tanks and then extracting and disposing of the waste. This means it's just not going to be as productive as we'd like. A good chunk of the land will be used up in overhead.

The free energy factor is why it's so very hard to replace oil. The only other technology I'm aware of that has that kind of energy output multiplier is nuclear.
posted by Malor at 8:36 AM on August 2, 2007 [4 favorites]

Slap*Happy: If the fuels are grown in a vat rather than pumped out of the ground, then they're carbon-neutral - that is, they take out of the air as much CO2 as they'll let off when burned.
Only if the entire chain -- fertilizing, growing, harvesting, and processing the feedstock, growing and harvesting the bacteria, refining the result into something useful -- is itself fueled by the process outputs or side products.

People have been saying we're just a few years away from fuel-from-corn, fuel-from-grass, fuel-from-algae, and fuel-from-bacteria for years and years. I hope it's true this time. I'm not betting any money on it.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:40 AM on August 2, 2007

I think Tech Review has taken a bit of a downhill turn since they hired Salon founder David Talbot as Senior Editor. Or at least a turn towards less well researched pop-science pieces.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 9:31 AM on August 2, 2007

Malor: the sources that claim bioethanol barely breaks even even when relying on oil are generally making two mistakes; the first is that they use US corn as the biofuel source, and they base it on equipment (in)efficiency figures from some time ago. Most times these mistakes are made deliberately, out of political and economic motivation. Biofuel output is now several times greater than the input.

The biggest downside of biofuels is deforestation, nutrient loss from over-farming, and fresh water use - all problems brazil is starting to suffer from their celebrated biofuel growth. Also, they are less energy dense than petrol, and as you say, pumping oil out of the ground is very very cheap.

However, we are slowly running out of oil. As the price goes up due to scarcity, it becomes economic to extract previously marginal fields, and thus our supply will continue for quite some time, getting more and more expensive. This means it also becomes economic to also go down other avenues.

Ultimately, the best power source is solar. Whether we tap that directly through efficient solar panels, through biomass growth and transformation, wind power, or all of the above, we will need to tap solar better in the long term. In the short term, we have nuclear.

What worries me most about ever more expensive oil is not petrol, but airline fuel and plastics. We have possible options for local transport replacements, even if they're not really economic yet, but kerosene and some plastics are much harder to replace. Better non-dino oil could go a long way to solve that problem.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:34 AM on August 2, 2007

It's a nice idea that is very far from practical implementation. Remember, this is basically a PR piece, not hard-hitting investigative reporting, nor a paper in Nature. Somebody, or somebodies will synthesize biocrude in the near future, I am sure, but it will be many years before it is a practical alternative to petrochemicals.

I do not think that this is going to be the answer to our energy problems, because I do not think that there is any single answer. That said, I think Biocrude may well play a role in alleviating the energy crisis we face.
posted by Mister_A at 10:34 AM on August 2, 2007

Good on 'em. Now can they make some bio-goop that sequesters CO2 as well?
posted by Artw at 10:40 AM on August 2, 2007

Coventry: but then it became more like New Scientist.

Technology Review always looked to me like a sort of Popular Science for CEOs: Very much looking for the "cool angle", but while wearing pinstripes and with a "Business 2.0" twist.
posted by lodurr at 11:08 AM on August 2, 2007

I'm all for refining human and animal feces into fuel. We can use carcass waste too instead of making hot dogs from them.
posted by davy at 11:10 AM on August 2, 2007

It's good to see some critical discussion of this news, here. I mean, it's a fantastic advance, and it could mean great things, but it seems at least as likely to me that some careless, short-sighted capitalists will just build a fantastically destructive biofuel infrastructure to replace our oil-drilling base.
posted by lodurr at 11:11 AM on August 2, 2007

I wonder if the oiligarchy is working on this idea too? They don't really seem to be very interested in R&D, but this seems too tempting...
posted by Mister_A at 11:21 AM on August 2, 2007

Bio-Oil is a "goop" that can sequester carbon if we pump it into the ground instead of burning it.
posted by Mitheral at 11:23 AM on August 2, 2007

"Bacteria aren't a free pass. They're highly efficient, but they still need energy, huge amounts of it, to synthesize these hydrocarbons. Nothing is free. For every erg we use driving around, it'll take a couple of ergs input at the fuel factory. We'll likely provide the energy with sugars, rather than electric power at the wall, but we still have to make the sugar."

There's plenty of good energy left in shit, as a litterbox-raiding dog knows.
posted by davy at 11:26 AM on August 2, 2007

Malor: you think I'm talking about bioethanol made from subsidized corn, but I'm not.

The ess-than-$20-per-gallon figure for bioethanol is for EtOH made from wood scraps (I'm pasting the reference at the end of this comment). You keep saying "energy is not free" but some energy is free, most notably the solar energy captured by already-existing plants. Someone pointed out upthread that there's the issue of scrap cellulosic matter (sawdust, furniture scraps, sewage, whatever) normally being used when planting crops, so there is some cost there, but a lot of the stuff just gets thrown away (tossed in a landfill, flushed out to sea, etc).

The "heavy and hard to move around" argument makes sense if you plan to move stuff around, but in the end, biofuel plants will be located as close to the source of feedstock as possible, just as how current corn-processing plants are located right in the middle of farm country.

You're throwing out a lot of hand-waving but I think there's no need to be so pessimistic.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, "Softwood biomass to ethanol feasibility study," NREL Report SR-580-27310 (2004).

Also check out the 9 February 2007 issue of Science

posted by rxrfrx at 3:03 PM on August 2, 2007

I made a post like this a few months back. Still no news of a breakthrough though.
posted by tehloki at 3:12 PM on August 2, 2007

Arkhanjg, check out this link on reports of a Boeing/Air New Zealand project to make airline fuel out of algae.

I hope the biofuels from algae research works out, especially if they can use salt or brackish water, or human and animal wastewater. No need to touch arable land and no need to flood the deserts and destroy their ecosystem.

“Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value.” - Buckminster Fuller
posted by Tacodog at 4:03 PM on August 2, 2007

Any handwaving aside, the fact is that since this process depends on external energy input, it's going to be a net energy loser. It's not even likely to be entirely carbon-neutral, because growing and harvesting cellulosic biomass is going to require energy use.

Second Law of Thermodynamics, people. TAANSTAFL.

Look, put it in this perspective. It took natural processes something like a few hundred million years to make all these fossil fuels. As Malor says, we're running on a big chemical battery - fossil fuel is stored solar energy that has been conveniently converted into extremely energy-dense substances that are pretty easily recoverable and burnable.

What you have to come to grips with is the sheer amount of energy that can be sequestered by natural processes over a few hundred million years. We're talking about a tiny fraction of the output of the sun that hits the earth, which is a tiny fraction of the total output of the sun... but we're talking about the energy output of the sun, here. That amount is essentially incomprehensible to human beings; it's only processable as a number with a large exponent after it no matter what unit of energy you care to use.

In about 150 years, we have burned up something like one-third to one-half of the total sequestered energy output of the sun over the last several hundred million years. Even if that's only 0.001% of the sun's output over that time, it's an absolutely staggering amount of energy.

It's going to take natural processes some few hundred million years to replace what we've burned.

Because of oil's ease of extraction and use, from our point of view it looks like a net energy WINNER. That is, we get much more energy out of it than we expend drilling for it and processing it. Our experience with oil is an apparent violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

It's only when you count up the actual energy that the oil represents that you see it is reality a net energy loser over its real lifetime, just like everything else in the universe. It's only a tiny bit of a tiny bit of the energy that was used to form the oil over several hundred million years. It is in fact a terribly inefficient conversion of solar energy to chemical energy.

The only thing that makes it seem like magic is the immense time scale involved in its formation; inconceivable amounts of energy processed over humanly inconceivable amounts of time results in a staggering amount of energy in a wonderfully usable form.

Hmm, another way of putting it comes to me. Anyone out there with a woodstove? A nice birch tree maybe 30 feet tall and 8" around is great for firewood; you can use about 2/3 of it to cut into 2-foot lengths and split for stove fuel. That gives you a small fraction of a cord of wood. Now, for part of my youth we lived with only wood heat in New England; our wood stove had to run pretty much 24 hours a day during the winter. We needed 8 cords of wood minimum (preferably 10 for a safety margin) to get through a heating season that ran from September through April (sometimes May). As I recall, we would have burned the amount of wood described above in about a day, maybe two.

Now, how long does it take to grow that 30 foot birch tree? According to some numbers in this Wikipedia article, I'd guess a minimum age of that tree at around 20 years. It could be as much as 80 or 90 years, depending on the tree and the growing conditions.

But still, in our stove, we burned at least 20 years of nature's work every day over a period of about 8 months. 240 days X 20 years = 4,800 natural-process years of energy transformation burned in 0.014% of that time (8 mo. = .667 years / 4,800 years = 0.00013896).

There's not as much burnable energy in wood as in oil; that's why there's several orders of magnitude difference in the percentages. However, you can see that burning 20 years' worth of energy in a day is an energy loser, even if the source is renewable. It's only really renewable when it's being used at a rate smaller than its replacement rate.

It is unlikely in the extreme that we can develop any sort of industrial or biological process that can so efficiently replicate those natural processes in the incredibly compressed timeframe we'd need - a few decades compared to a few hundred million years, how many orders of magnitude is that??

Energy is energy. It's not subject to wishful thinking or political processes or marketing campaigns.

However, all that said, oil is a very useful substance even if you leave out its uses as a burning fuel, so it's a good idea for us to come up with ways to keep forming such hydrocarbon.

This process is likely to be highly useful in the future, but it is not going to let us keep burning 50%+ of total US energy consumption in our car engines. It's not going to give us plentiful cheap fuel. Still, every little bit helps!

I'm pretty positive about our ability to adapt to changes in the future though. I'm no doomer. I think people are a lot more resilient and cooperative under duress than many of us might believe. Looking at the vast majority of people who get along just fine in relative energy poverty, I think we'll get through any difficulties that might arise.

"There's plenty of good energy left in shit, as a litterbox-raiding dog knows."

posted by zoogleplex at 6:42 PM on August 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

In about 150 years, we have burned up something like one-third to one-half of the total sequestered energy output of the sun over the last several hundred million years. Even if that's only 0.001% of the sun's output over that time, it's an absolutely staggering amount of energy.

This is extremely deceptive if not completely wrong. The "sequestered energy" created by natural and accidental processes cannot in any way be compared to the potential "sequestered energy" of a man-made process. They are apples and oranges. I could say "zero atoms of plutonium were formed over 4 billion years on Earth, how can you possibly believe we can make pounds of the stuff in mere months?!?!" and I'd clearly have proved exactly nothing.

I agree that we are clearly energy-capped by the amount of energy that hits the sun; but this is massively more energy than we actually consume, and capturing solar power in the fashion LS9 proposes is absolutely viable. The trick is, as you mention, in the agricultural stage - but given the potentially variable input (doesn't require a specific plant), along with the promise of bioengineering plants of maximized efficiency, this is not an impossible hurdle. Feedstock can easily require nothing more than water and sunlight, and simultaneously remove undesirable chemicals from soil.
posted by mek at 12:11 AM on August 3, 2007

... I think there's no need to be so pessimistic.

I think there's plenty of need to be very pessimistic. But there's also a desperate need for a certain species of optimism, so please do carry on.
posted by lodurr at 6:39 AM on August 3, 2007

Right, rxrfrx, we'll just collect all of the spare woodchips to replace the 85 million barrels of oil we use each day...
posted by drstrangelove at 7:36 AM on August 3, 2007

I agree that we are clearly energy-capped by the amount of solar energy that hits the sun earth

posted by mek at 8:03 AM on August 3, 2007

rxrfrx has a point, even if the specific scenario is a tad off.

This is a first proof of concept, as everyone and their brother has noted. Given this step, there's really nothing to stop the development of bacteria that can convert, say, switch grass, or even random cellulose input such as lawn trimmings or waste paper.

Indeed, cellulose is just a first step, too.

Use your imagination. There's plenty to be pessimistic about even if we can get lots of bio-crude from random materials, which it's clear we'll eventually be able to do. Current limitations are not likely to be future limitations, at least not w.r.t. bio-crude.

The big question is not, 'can it be done' or even 'can it be done cost-effectively'. I have abundant confidence that the answer to both is 'yes'. The big question is, what are the environmental consequences of a bio-crude regime? (Put another way: Who defines 'cost-effective'?) I think there's been some allusion to that above (by other than myself), but it's getting lost in the sniping over present-day economic factors. A bio-crude regime is liable to require enormous commitments of resources that would normally be devoted to feeding and watering people. What are the consequences of that?

One possible response, and not an invalid one, is "eggs get broken for omelettes": You don't change regimes without pain. We're headed for pain, anyway; how much additional pain does a bio-crude regime entail, when compared with doing nothing? I don't know the answer to that; it's worth talking about.
posted by lodurr at 8:29 AM on August 3, 2007

The big question is whether these neat-o ideas can work without cheap fossil fuel inputs. The next big question is why we're bothering to find ways to continue powering hundreds of millions of cars when there are vastly more efficient ways to get around (i.e. rail, bicycles, etc.) But I keep forgetting that in 'Merica easy-motoring is a basic right...
posted by drstrangelove at 9:21 AM on August 3, 2007

The big question is whether these neat-o ideas can work without cheap fossil fuel inputs.

In the short run, sure. In the long run, I don't think that's a very interesting question at all. Absence of cheap fossil fuel inputs will be a design constraint.

As for why we're bothering: In a sense, we're not: The system is. We've created a self-perpetuating ethosystem that is based on cheap energy.

It's trivially true that our actions aggregate to produce the outcome, and so if we all stopped acting like fuel-crazed gluttons, that would help. But there are "institutional persons" -- corporations, governments, probably other kinds I can't draw to mind at the moment -- that are not likely to make that choice because, for many of them, it means massive and painful change -- if not a cessation of existence.

Yes, I'm aware that people aggregate their actions to make those choices, too; but it would be kind of naive not to recognize that there's a difference in kind when looking at the decision-making processes of a corporate person versus those of a group of people.
posted by lodurr at 9:46 AM on August 3, 2007

Whether it's interesting or not, it's a problem that has no clear answer. It's questionable whether we'll have even a fraction of the current manufacturing capability once cheap fossil fuels (esp. petroleum) are out of the equation. Just as a feed-stock oil (and natural gas) are essential to the modern world, and just assuming that "something will come along" is naive.
posted by drstrangelove at 10:21 AM on August 3, 2007

But that's a different issue. You seem to be saying here that we can't match current capacity with biofuels; I don't disagree with that. (Actually, I don't agree, either, but let's stipulate for now that you're right, because I think you're more likely right than wrong on that.)

Earlier, you seemed to be saying that biofuel production couldn't function without fossil petroleum inputs. That seems to me to be clearly false. It can, it almost certainly will. As you say, the real question is quantity.

Which goes to my point about how you get quantity: The only ways to get it entail drastic environmental impacts. If biofuel is the primary route we end up taking (and I'm not saying it will be primary, but I do think it will be major), then we will strive for volume. We'll have to.

And that will have a major shaping influence on the environment. As Lenin used to say, "Quantity has a quality all its own."
posted by lodurr at 10:57 AM on August 3, 2007

Essentially, then, we're in agreement. I'm not saying biofuels cannot be made without fossil fuel inputs, but it's simply folly to think we'll be able to equal what we've been doing without the massive inputs of oil and natural gas. Conservation, therefore, will either become the new virtue or it will be forced upon us by external forces...
posted by drstrangelove at 11:14 AM on August 3, 2007

Right, we basically agree, but I probably get more pessimistic than you. I pick your latter option, but further predict that conservation will be practiced primarily by them what has to. It will make more and more sense to talk about an "energy divide" between wealthy and poor (when we're not talking about a "resource" or even just a "water divide"). The more I think this through, the more I see our future filled with resource conflict. Resource wars, to name check the Peak Oil afficianados' phrase? Maybe not in a conventional sense, but conflicts, with lives at stake, for sure.
posted by lodurr at 11:57 AM on August 3, 2007

"The trick is, as you mention, in the agricultural stage - but given the potentially variable input (doesn't require a specific plant), along with the promise of bioengineering plants of maximized efficiency, this is not an impossible hurdle. Feedstock can easily require nothing more than water and sunlight, and simultaneously remove undesirable chemicals from soil."

See mek, the real trick of the agriculture stage is making sure the soil is always fertile enough to grow the plants that you're using as feedstock.

You and I are used to living in a world where entire states of the union are covered with grain fields that produce record amounts of edible plants every year.

This process is entirely artificial.
What's more it is almost entirely fueled by fossil fuel inputs.

If you actually tried to grow a Kansas full of corn every year without massive external fossil fuel based fertilizer input, you'd completely exhaust the soil within 5 years, maybe even less. You'd only get that Kansas full o' corn the first year; after that, you'd get less and less corn each year, and pretty quickly you'd have yourself a completely barren Kansas with zero topsoil.

You're probably thinking, "well we'll use trees and wood chips and switchgrass." All of these things require the same kind of conditions that grain does - fertile soil loaded with nutrients.

Soil doesn't load itself up with nutrients like magic - at least, not when you harvest all the plants from it, leaving nothing left to decompose into the components of fertile topsoil.

I've heard lots of talk about how people want to take corn "stover," which is pretty much everything of the corn plant that isn't the seed-laden cobs, all the stalks and leaves that are left out in the field after the combines harvest it, and use that as biofuel feedstock. What a wonderful idea.

Do you know what corn stover is used for now? See, right now, it's all chopped up and plowed back under into the fields... because it's got plenty of useful nutrients and elements still in it that next year's crop is going to need in order to grow.

If you use all the stover as biofuel feedstock, you're going to need to use even more fossil fuel fertilizer (it's made from natural gas) plus a bunch of mineral additives to replenish the field for next year.

That's not really going to help, now is it.

This applies to any crop on any piece of land anywhere. That also includes bio-engineered algae, by the way. They need a place to grow that's fertile and full of nutrients.

Again, plants are a renewable resource. And they will certainly grow by themselves with no external input. However, they don't do it at a rate which will allow us to generate fuel from them in the same amounts that we produce fuel from oil, coal and gas deposits.

I think this process (and others) are very promising and that we'll certainly want and need them, and that we should invest in developing them. But the volume of energy that these processes will make available cannot even come close to equaling what we get from fossil fuels.

Things are going to change.

That doesn't mean civilization is going to end, or that doom is descending upon us all. It does mean that your present way of life, which is probably extremely energy-intensive, is going to be affected by a curtailment of available energy.

I'm not pessimistic about how our daily lives are going to change, I think we'll be okay and we'll have decent lives, but things are definitely not going to be the same, and the most energy-intensive (or energy-inefficient) parts of our lives will become remarkably more expensive.

I think that even if you don't believe there's an energy crisis coming on, it's a good idea for anyone to review your lifestyle, see where you can tighten up on energy use, and try to reduce your energy footprint. It's really not very hard. Just shutting off your lights anytime you're not in a room can make a huge difference. CF lightbulbs are good, as is not driving your car everywhere if you can help it.

But make no mistake; things are going to change. They're already changing. The effects are not being felt yet, for the most part, in the West, because at the moment we have tons of money. There are many poor countries around the world who are feeling severe energy deprivation, because they can't buy enough oil on the world market - they're being outbid by us wealthy nations. That will work its way up the ladder as time passes.

lodurr, drstrangelove: yes, the problem is going to be quantity. I'm sure we'll produce biofuels without fossil fuel inputs, there are certainly ways to do that (although I could throw in a jab that to make wood chips in large volume, you really kinda need a chainsaw! :) ). It's just not going to be enough to maintain current status quo, that's all.

One thing we really ought to look into is trying to make transport - our largest fossil fuel user in the US - as much powered by electricity as possible. That winds up being a much more efficient way to use the energy, we get far more of the energy out of the fuel via electrical generation and transmission than we do burning it in millions of internal combustion engines.
posted by zoogleplex at 3:58 PM on August 3, 2007

zoogleplex: biofuel (some kind of hydrocarbon) contains no nitrogen or phosphorus, except as a contaminant. Utilizing cellulosic "scrap" biomass as a fermentation feedstock does not consume these elements, and they can be returned to the field as fertilizer if need be.

Our way of life will, of course, change when abundant petroleum runs out. I just don't see the impossibilities you are describing in the systems that will replace petroleum.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:25 PM on August 3, 2007

rxrfrx, yes, the nitrogen can be returned to the soil. How, and will it be are the questions that interest me -- the latter, more than the former, because I'm pretty sure that a number of clever souls can suggest perfectly good methods to address the former.

I'm in a pessimistic mood about this kind of thing lately, because I've got Collapse on bathroom reading. How does the question go -- "What was going through the mind of the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree on the island?" Point being, he did it anyway. If we develop a biofuel economy that's sufficiently demanding, I think history teaches us that powerful interests will have no issue with ruinously exploiting the earth to get that biofuel: They'll drain the aquifers, insult the soil, and leave desolation in their wake because they've got the money and muscle to move on to the next bit of exploitable resource. And when they've done destroying all the arable land, they'll move on to develop more advanced biofuel production regimes that suck the very last bit of life directly out of the soil -- who needs those pesky plants, anyway, when you could just replace them all with a bio-engineered algae?

Clearly neither I nor anyone else here is going to change your mind about this, and that's probably a good thing. As zoogleplex points out, we will need this technology or technology like it to survive into the future, so we need people to support its development. But speaking frankly and for myself, I just don't hold out much hope that it won't be horribly, horribly abused -- unless people like me, zoogleplex, drstragelove, et al. keep talking about our own bogeyman scenarios.
posted by lodurr at 5:49 AM on August 4, 2007

I'm pretty sure that humanity as we know it is probably mostly finished with its time on Earth... though for some reason I tend to be more optimistic about these sorts of technologies. It's a good diversion, I guess.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:28 PM on August 4, 2007

I meant to point this out earlier but if you're going to use biomass for energy then it's much more effective in displacing climate change related emissions if you use it for space and water heating than if you use it for transport. Combustion can be 85-90% efficient while conversion to biofuels is around 50% efficient.
posted by biffa at 6:50 AM on August 7, 2007

biffa- can you give a cite for that figure? I'm curious as to your definition (is the inefficiency there stuff left over, or heat released?)
posted by rxrfrx at 7:50 AM on August 8, 2007

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