March 14, 2007 will likley go down in history as the day several exciting scientific & technical breakthroughs were announced..here is one of them.
While the mainstream press focused in on the MIT announcement: MIT Panel provides Policy Blueprint for the Future of Use of Coal, I don't think that was the significant environmental story of the day.
"Coal is still plentiful in the US, and despite being faced with environmental disaster, coal usage in the US is predicted to increase significantly by mid-century. This is according to a report on coal’s future, released this week by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, which recommends with a matter of urgency a massive scaling up in the technologies that can capture the carbon released by coal burning and sequester it underground."
( I still can't figure out why the main stream press can't seem to pick up of significant breakthoughs when they are announced...??? a case or mass mediocracy ?)
This news item is more exciting ---U.S. chemical engineers today unveiled a new environmentally friendly process for producing liquid fuels from plant matter - or biomass - potentially available from agricultural and forest waste, providing all of the fuel needed for "the entire U.S. transportation sector"
The conventional method for turning biomass or coal into liquid fuels involves first breaking down the raw material with a chemical process that "gasifies" it into unwanted carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Then those constituents are turned into a liquid fuel with other processes. Very energy intensive and produces greenhouse gases.
This smart new approach called a "hybrid hydrogen-carbon process," or H2CAR, modifies conventional methods for producing liquid fuels from biomass by adding hydrogen from a "carbon-free" energy source, such as solar, wind or nuclear power, during a step called gasification. Adding hydrogen during this step suppresses the formation of carbon dioxide and increases the efficiency of the process, making it possible to produce three times the volume of biofuels from the same quantity of biomass.
Why is the Important? Significant?
- When conventional methods are used to convert biomass or coal to liquid fuels, 60 percent to 70 percent of the carbon atoms in the starting materials are lost in the process as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, whereas no carbon atoms would be lost using H2CAR. This waste is due to the fact that you are using energy contained in the biomass to drive the entire process." "Researchers suggest: treat biomass predominantly as a supplier of carbon atoms, not as an energy source.
- Power for the electrolysis would be provided by carbon-free energy sources, such as solar, wind or nuclear power. And, unlike conventional methods of producing liquid fuels from plant matter and coal, H2CAR would not emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
- The goal is to accomplish the complete transformation of every carbon atom in the feedstock to liquid fuel by supplementing the conversion process with hydrogen from a carbon-free energy source and the process would eliminate the need for proposed carbon dioxide "sequestering." ie pumping carbon dioxide emissions into saltwater aquifers and hollow underground pockets that used to contain oil, natural gas and coal deposits. Sequestering in itself poses several potential technical pitfalls.
- Other researchers have estimated that the United States has a sustainable supply of about 1.4 billion tons of biomass each year that could be used specifically for the production of liquid fuels. With conventional methods, that quantity of biomass would provide only 30 percent of the fuel required for America's annual transportation needs. But the same quantity of biomass would provide enough fuel to meet all transportation needs using the new H2CAR method.
- To grow enough biomass for the USA's transportation needs using the conventional method for producing biofuels would require a land area 25 percent to 55 percent the size of the United States, compared with about 6 percent to 10 percent for the H2CAR process.
"This large reduction of land area needed for H2CAR provides an opportunity for sustainable production of hydrocarbon fuel for the foreseeable future," say excited researchers.
Using coal exclusively to produce liquid fuels for the nation's transportation sector could deplete all coal deposits in the United States in about 90 years, whereas H2CAR would enable the known coal reserves to last 140 years.
This shorter and potentially less energy process could rival the "CO2 feedstock to methanol" research that is also being done. As readers of the Smart Economy know, alcohol + vegtable oil can be converted to biodiesel with small credit-card sized microreactors.
ETA: Proof-of-Concept now, Researchers have filed a patent for the concept.
2015-2020 before we see this on our roads; if no regulatory roadblocks; or possibly sooner if there is a conventional fuel shortage (peak oil hits home)
Next Steps toward commercialization:
The approach is in the conceptual stages, and a plan for experimental research is in progress. The researchers have suggested the chemical processing steps needed to make the new approach practical.
But making the concept economically competitive with gasoline and diesel fuel would require new research in two areas: finding ways to produce cheap hydrogen from carbon-free sources (the Smart Economy Blog has suggested several methods ) and developing a new type of gasifier needed for the process.
My take on this announcement?... all the tech hype aside, this sounds like an exciting breakthrough and should be on all of your radar screens. The transporation sector (vs home heating and energy) is the most vulnerable to fuel price spikes and geopolitcal and accident-caused fuel shortages, like we saw in Europe and Ukraine last winter and in Ontario Canada this past month. Creating the infrastructure for H2CAR could go a long way to mitigating that risk and provide a secure source of transportation fuel......and Richard Branson will be happy :-)
Not everyone may agree with me, but here's another option to our alternate energy portfolio mix.
I'll be interested in how the conventional oil companies will react to this breaktrhough? ( ...Like Kodak to digital film?)
...and for more breakthroughs ( scientists discover new form of matter ) from March 14, 2007, stay tuned to the Smart Economy blog !!!
Walter Derzko --"Changing the world, one idea at a time" ©
Expert, Consultant and Keynote Speaker on Emerging Smart Technologies, Innovation, Strategic Foresight, Business Development, Lateral Creative Thinking and author of an upcoming book on the Smart Economy "
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