Enough waste biomass is being generated by farming, by lumbering, and as urban waste to meet 10 percent of current U.S. transportation needs.
Green Car Congress seem enamored with systems that will facilitate the conversion of biomass polysaccharides to liquid alkanes and oxyalkanes for fuel applications. Mineral fuels have been soaring in cost, so biofuels may seem to be a good alternative. Is cheaper also cleaner?
Should, and more importantly, can transportation policies change? Especially, when it would seem that “the oilies” are deciding the policy for the policy makers to make.
Yet, even in the best of times, such policy analysis remains complex. As the GCC and Wired articles suggest, while such biotechnology can yield biofuel, the conversion of biomass also can yield co-products that 1) generate more income, making a bio-refinery more profitable, and 2) utilize lignocellulose resources more fully, which also has an impact on the bottom line by reducing waste and waste handling. Lignin, for instance, has many industrial uses, not the least of which are lightweight, carbon-fiber composites, that, when utilized in the production of vehicles, can reduce fuel consumption.
Certainly, a biomass model is complex because of production factors. The resultant policy analysis is complex for another reason. Biomass conversion practices can extend and become established across various sectors, i.e., agricultural waste, lumber waste, and municipal solid waste. (And, if you insist on referring to the last one as MSW, I may have to chastise you since, as everyone knows, the acronym stands for Master of Saving the World.) There are environmental consequences to each pathway to sleek, biofuel-powered plastic cars.
In other words, we need to give greater consideration to the Patzek paradigm — using less rather than just using different — and to “the birkie chant” — reduce, reuse, recycle. It is not enough that, as World Changing puts it: Professor James Dumesic and his team have broken new ground in terms of creating a process that can compete economically with the more conventional models.
Certainly, different could be a good thing, too. The transportation sector now accounts for two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption and is 98 percent dependent on petroleum. Our oil addiction requires intervention, at the very least from a security viewpoint.
Yet, while changing suppliers rather than trying to control a dwindling supply is better foreign policy, it nevertheless is an insufficient energy policy. According to a new report from the Environmental Defense Fund, the US has 30% of the world’s cars, but because our cars are less efficient and we drive them more, they account for nearly half (45%) of the world’s automotive CO2 emissions. As an elementary school classmate of a Woody Allen character relates, “I used to be a heroin addict, now I’m a methadone addict.”
The famous Entropy Production – After Gutenberg debate (“What do you mean it wasn’t on the evening news”) made clear that we need to maintain perspective even as we consider incremental improvements in processes. Switching to a biodiesel blend may not be all to the good, yet, on the other hand, it could make things a bit better, whether economically, i.e., three-quarters of a billion dollars leaves the U.S. each day in exchange for imported oil, or otherwise, e.g., in terms of energy production, environmental impact and “cradle to grave” manufacturing.
In other words, while current biodiesel applications do less well with some emissions, could changes be made, other than after treatment, that would reduce emissions due to greater efficiency? Unfortunately, automotive engineers seem more focused upon incremental changes in combustion rather than forgoing the dominance of internal combustion. Direct injection, dual turbochargers, and inter cooling may be insufficient to make biodiesel a suitable, alternative fuel. And, no matter the engine chosen to drive the generator — combustion ignition, spark ignition, homogeneous charge catalytic compression ignition, or some other, non-combustible hybridization — studies seem to indicate that on board and life cycle energy consumption is reduced by the addition of electric drive.
Yet, electric drives may be unsuitable for some applications. Medium to heavy-duty vehicles have a very important part to play when it comes to transportation, energy and environmental policy.
How best to lower emissions and energy consumption, plus improve our health and global climate is a matter of intense debate, which may get hotter still as more of the movie going public learns that
they were taken for a ride they can’t buy an electric car conversion of biomass to electric power is the most efficient, cost-effective and environmentally sound option for most forms of ground transportation going forward to a 2020 horizon.