Thursday, August 04, 2005

Bio Oil

According to this story from the Yahoo headlines today, a University of Idaho grad student is working on technology to convert wood into "Bio Oil". "Juan Andres Soria says he has developed a process that turns wood into bio-oil, a substance similar to crude oil."

"The process — in which sawdust and methanol are heated to 900 degrees Fahrenheit to create the bio-oil — is already drawing some interest from energy and wood product companies, Soria said.

So far, Soria's research has focused on sawdust from Ponderosa pine trees, although he said any variety of tree could be used, including fast-growing varieties like those being cultivated for wood pulp. "

I have questions that aren't answered by this story, such as:
  • What is the environmental impact of the manufacturing process? Is it a "clean" process?
  • How efficient is the manufacturing process, with regard to energy consumed vs. usable energy produced?
  • How efficient is the final product, in comparison to other fuel sources?
  • Can trees be grown fast enough to sustain production? (After all, we don't want this to result in clear cut forests and, therefore, another "non-renewable" source).

I'm not being skeptical by asking these questions, mind you, just curious. Any renewable source of fuel that reduces or replaces or reduces our current utilization of the Earth's finite petroleum reserves is a good thing. I would like to know how good a thing this is.

Another question is, why is this news? According to the Natural Resources Canada web site, Bio Oil is currently in production. (This web site is fantastic, by the way. It's easy to navigate and has lots of information about alternative energy sources that are currently being used or studied). The Yahoo story (from AP, I believe) makes no mention of this, which seems to be slipshod reporting. A couple quick Google searches came up with many references to existing technology, including this paper from Ensyn that appears to answer some of my technical questions, at least as they relate to Ensyn's own Bio Oil production process. Sadly, but not surprisingly, most of the hits reference Bio Oil produced and consumed outside the US.

I don't know if the technology or the process or the resultant products in the Universtity of Idaho research are significantly different or improved from existing technology. If so, it is definitely an angle worth pursuing.

I hope that people continue to find new renewable ways to create energy to fulfill our ever-growing needs. (I also hope that we can somehow curb that need, but that's another post.) As an added benefit, if Bio Oil can be produced while sustaining the forests and Bio Diesel can be produced from soybeans, then it may remain economically beneficial for owners of forests and farms to continue to use their lands for forestry and agricultural purposes, rather than housing or retail development. This will help contain urban sprawl and maintain the natural beauty of our land. And maintaining the natural beauty of the land is my number one goal for the environment.


Blogger Jim said...

There is no replacement for fossil fuel. In varying degrees, all non-fossil fuel (i.e. alternative energy sources) energy sources depend on our underlying fossil fuel (read, cheap oil) economy.

You can't manufacture metal wind turbines w/out an oil based economy.

This idea that our "market economy" will find a solution to the depletion of fossil fuel is magical thinking at best.

Our oil endowment was a one-time endowment based upon geological forces. Once it's gone, it's gone for ever.

Keep in mind, also, any alternative energy sources are going to have a substantial cost factor.

I'm not trying to be pessimistic, I'm just waking up to the reality (albeit, too late) that when oil's gone, we are pretty much f*cked!

7:53 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Well, yeah, I'm not trying to suggest it's going to be easy, by any stretch of the imagination. I think that it's very likely that the coming oil crisis will result in population decreases and an extreme loss of wealth for those societies dependent upon oil. (Perhaps that would be a good topic for a future Blog entry). But I also believe that our society should be taking steps to delay the process, and make it less unpleasant, if we possibly can. Why would we not?

So if we can expend 100 BTUs of oil energy and create 1,000 BTUs of renewable generating capacity (just pulling numbers out of the air here), isn't it a good idea to do just that? I believe that we need to be as efficient as possible with what oil resources we do have, to use them to make as much energy as possible. Which probably means, using oil to create alternative energy capacity for the future.

I'm not sure that I agree that a Market solution is "magical thinking". Can the market prevent all of our woes? Not likely. But people can be quite creative when there are bucks to be made. And an efficient post-oil energy source will make somebody some bucks. Let's hope that the solution is something benign, and not nuclear energy or it's future equivalent.

Perhaps I'm being naive, but even if we are f---ed, I think we need to go down fighting. Alternative energy sources aren't going to be a panacea for the oil crisis, but they need to be part of the fight. And the fight needs to start today, rather than having the government screwing around and centering it's energy policy around finding more oil.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Great counter-argument. That's what I love about blogging. I think the best blogging (writing) often takes place in the comments section (I'm thinking of Wisdom Weasel and his UK compatriots).

Hopefully after baseball winds down, you'll do more here and at the Air Blog.

I do agree that market solutions are possible, but I'm not terribly optimistic.

Hubbert's theory about Peak Oil was developed in the late-1950's (the time of When Towns Had Teams, btw)and we've done little to alleviate our need for cheap oil.

Modern-day Americans are oblivious to conservation. Talk to some of the old-timers (those who went through the depression), now they know how to conserve.

Anyways, not trying to be contrary; just wanted to say that I'll continue to think and consider what you've written.

11:01 AM  

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