Posts

New Tool Advances Genetic Engineering of Fuel Crops

A powerful new tool that can help advance the genetic engineering of “fuel” crops for clean, green and renewable bioenergy, has been developed by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a multi-institutional partnership led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

 

Rin Tin Tin, RINs and the price of ethanol

Is the son or daughter of Rin Tin Tin alive and well? For a while I thought he or she was, while catching up on my reading over the weekend. I kept reading articles about RINs (Renewable Identification Numbers), their possible impact on the ethanol market and relatively high ethanol prices, despite the apparent weakening of the ethanol market. There seemed to be RINs and more RINs on every page I turned! Because I hadn’t slept for two nights, I couldn’t really focus on the contents of the articles, but only on the dog Rin Tin Tin and his offspring. How many of you have done that? Come on, be honest. Don’t make me feel bad!

I felt guilty after it became obvious that my focus on Rin Tin Tin resulted from a tired brain and eyes. I am back to the complex world of RINs today. (I had a bit of sleep).

Okay, you ask, “What the hell are RINs?” They are sort of a pass at reflecting company fulfillment of government mandates concerning biofuels. For this article, think ethanol! They are issued at the point of ethanol production or the purchase of the fuel by companies. They are approved by the EPA. They reflect a credit that verifies that the required amount of ethanol has actually been blended into gasoline. Succinctly, the Renewable Fuel Legislation, now the law of the land, mandates that a Renewable Identification Number (RIN) must be attached to every produced or imported gallon of renewable fuel in the U.S. One more thing, RINs are separated from the batch of renewable fuel when it is blended with gasoline. This fact indicates compliance with the law and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs). Credits, at this juncture, can be used for trading purposes.

In 2012, before the EPA’s Nov. 2013 proposal to change RIN quotas and lower requirements for ethanol, the price of RINs was very volatile. Initially, they ranged around 1 to 10 cents a gallon. By spring of 2013, however, they were around $1.

Why the price increase and what does it bode for the price of ethanol in the future? Initially, the RINs were thought of as a way to encourage refiners to produce renewable fuels, like ethanol, and to “pay” for credits if they don’t “play” by  meeting fuel targets.

Part of the volatility and increase in costs of RINs, probably, has to do with speculation by banks and other financial institutions. Thomas D. O’Malley, chairman of PBF Energy, indicated in a recent New York Times article that financial institutions “helped transform an environmental program into a profit machine…These things were designed to monitor the inclusion of ethanol in the gasoline pool…They weren’t designed to become a speculative item. For the life of me, I can’t see the justification for it.” Interviews with members of the financial community, conducted by the New York Times, seem to suggest agreement with O’Malley.

According to the Times, speculation in RINs “could have consequences for consumers. In the end, energy analysts say, the outcome will be felt at the gas pumps — as the higher cost of the ethanol credits get tacked onto the price of a gallon of gasoline.” The Times reports that the “credits, which cost 7 cents each in January [2013], peaked at $1.43 in July, and [were] trading for 60 cents” in September. Jordan Godwin in the Barrel Blog indicated that like RINs in 2013, ethanol prices in 2014 are downright wacky. “In a matter of less than two months, ethanol prices went from six-month lows to eight-year highs.” Godwin and others blame delayed returning train cars during the winter and constraints on supply and production. I would add speculation by Wall Street and uncertainty as to the impact and longevity of EPA’s new regulations concerning the reduced mandates for ethanol and other biofuels. It’s a dilemma for proponents of alternative fuels. Less speculation regarding trading, sustained predictable production and refinement of the distribution system, (along with avoidance by some retailers and blenders to price ethanol well over costs) would facilitate more competition with gasoline at the pump. More predictable competition and larger sales at the pump of E15 and E85 would generate more private-sector fixes to the ethanol supply chain as well as likely stabilize prices and, over time, lower them. In light of ethanol’s benefits to the nation, wise folks might be asked to find policies and stimulate market behavior that permit the American people to have it both ways.

Is butanol the next big thing in biofuels?

Fuel Freedom recently learned about a man named David Ramey who drove his 1992 Buick Park Avenue from Blacklick, Ohio to San Diego using 100 percent butanol, without making any adjustments to his engine.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be big news. But with the EPA now considering cutbacks in the 2014 biofuels mandate, some producers of ethanol are starting to turn to butanol as a way of getting around the limitations of the 10 percent “blend wall” that is threatening to limit ethanol consumption. This could be another breakthrough in our efforts to limit foreign oil.

Butanol is the alcohol form of butane gas, which has four carbons. Because it has a longer hydrocarbon chain, butane is fairly non-polar and more similar to gasoline than either methanol or ethanol. The fuel has been demonstrated to work in gasoline engines without any modification to the fuel chain or software.

Since the 1950s, most butanol in the United States has been manufactured from fossil fuels. But butanol can also be produced by fermentation, and that’s where another opportunity for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels exists.

The key is a bacterial strain called Clostridium acetobutylicum, also named the Weizmann organism for pioneering biological researcher Chaim Weizmann, who first used it to produce acetone from starch in 1916. The main use for the acetone was producing Cordite for gunpowder, but the butanol, a byproduct, eventually became more important.

Once set loose on almost any substratum, Clostridium acetobutylicum will produce significant amounts of butanol. Anything used to produce ethanol — sugar beets, sugar cane, corn grain, wheat and cassava, plus non-food crops such as switchgrass and guayule and even agricultural byproducts such as bagasse, straw and corn stalks — can all be turned into butanol. (Of course, not all of these are economical yet.)

Given the modern-day techniques of genetic engineering, researchers are now hard at work trying to improve the biological process. In 2011, scientists at Tulane University announced they had discovered a new strain of Clostridium that can convert almost any form of cellulose into butanol and is the only known bacterium that can do it in the presence of oxygen. They discovered this new bacterium in, of all places, the fecal matter of the plains zebra in the New Orleans Zoo.

DuPont and BP are planning to make butanol the first product of their joint effort to develop next-generation biofuels. In Europe, the Swiss company Butalco is developing genetically modified yeasts from the production of biobutanol from cellulosic material. Gourmet Butanol, a U.S. company, is developing a process that utilizes fungi for the same purpose. Almost every month, plans for a new butanol production plant are announced somewhere in the world. Many refineries that formerly produced bioethanol are now being retrofitted to produce biobutanol instead. DuPont says the conversion is very easy.

What are the possible drawbacks? Well, to match the combustion characteristics of gasoline, butanol will require slight fuel-flow increases, although not as great as those required for ethanol and methanol. Butanol also may not be compatible with some fuel system components. It can also create slight gas-gauge misreadings.

While ethanol and methanol have lower energy density than butanol, both have a higher octane rating. This means butanol would not be able to function as an octane-boosting additive, as ethanol and methanol are now doing. There have been proposals; however, the proposals are for a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent butanol (E85B), which eliminate the fossil fuels from ethanol mixes altogether.

The only other objection that has been raised is that consumers may object to butanol’s banana-like smell. Other than that, the only problem is cost. Production of butanol from a given substratum of organic material is slightly lower than ethanol, although the increased energy content more than makes up for the difference.

Ironically, the EPA’s decision to cut back on the biofuels mandate for 2014 is now driving some refiners to convert to butanol, since its greater energy density will help it overcome the 10 percent “blend wall.”

“Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, an industry group, said butanol was a ‘drop-in’ fuel, able to be used with existing gasoline pipelines and other equipment because it does not have a tendency to take up water, as ethanol does,” The New York Times reported last October. “‘It’s more fungible in the existing infrastructure,’ he said. ‘You could blend it with gasoline and put it in a pipeline — no problem.’

“Butanol would also help producers get around the so-called blend wall, Mr. McAdams said…With the 10 percent limitation, ‘you don’t have enough gasoline to put the ethanol in,’ he said. ‘You don’t have that problem with butanol.’”

So here’s to butanol. It will be yet another big step in reducing our dependence in foreign fuels.

The Battle Over Ethanol Takes Shape

The decision isn’t scheduled until June but already opposing sides are converging on Washington, trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency over the 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard for ethanol.

Last week almost 100 members of the American Coalition for Ethanol descended on the nation’s capital for its annual “Biofuels Beltway March,” buttonholing 170 lawmakers and staffers from 45 states.  The object was to send a message to EPA Administrators Gina McCarthy to up the ante on how many billions of gallons the oil refining industry will be required to purchase this year.

The ethanol program is currently in turmoil.  The latest problem is rail bottlenecks that have slowed shipments and created supply shortages over the winter months.  Record-breaking cold and four-foot snow pack have been partly responsible but the rail lines are also becoming overcrowded.  With all that oil gushing down from the Bakken and Canadian crude now finding its way into tank cars as the Obama Administration postpones its decision over the Keystone Pipeline, ethanol is getting tangled in traffic.  .

“Ethanol for April delivery sold for about $3.02 a gallon on the Chico Board of Trade, an 81 percent increase over the low price during the past 12 months of $1.67 a gallon reached in November,” reported the Omaha World-Herald last Friday  “This weeks settlement price of $2.98 a gallon was the highest since July 2011.”  With only so much storage capacity, some ethanol refineries have been forced to shut down until the next train arrives to carry off the inventory.  As ethanol becomes mainstream, it is becoming more and more subject to market events beyond its control.

But the big decision will be EPA’s ruling in June.  In accord with the 2008 Renewable Fuel Act, Administrator McCarthy must set a “floor” for amount of ethanol refiners will have to incorporate into their blends during 2014.  The program ran into trouble last year when the 13.8 billion gallon requirement pushed ethanol beyond the 10 percent “blend wall” where the auto companies will not honor warrantees in older cars.  Refiners were forced to purchase compensating Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), which exploded in value from pennies to $1.30 per gallon, forcing up the price of gasoline.  Contrary to expectations, gasoline consumption has actually declined over the last six years, from 142 billion gallons in 2008 to 134 billion in 2013 as a result of mileage improvements plus the lingering effects of the recession.  Last November McCarthy proposed reducing the 2014 from 14.4 billion gallons to 13 billion.  The industry has been crying “foul” ever since.

But there are other ways to fight back.  Last week in Crookson, gas stations were offering Minnesota drivers 85 cents off a gallon for filling up with E-85, the blend of 85 percent ethanol that many see as the real solution to the blend-wall problem.  “We want the public to understand there are different ratios of gasoline and ethanol and how they can save you money,” Greg LeBlac, of the Polk County Corn Growers, told the Fargo Valley News. 

At the annual meeting of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers (APFM) in Orlando last week, Anna Temple, product manager at WoodMac, made the case that the industry should forego efforts to raise the blend wall from 10 to 15 percent and instead shoot for the moon, leapfrogging all the way to E-85, where ethanol essentially replaces gasoline completely.  (The 15 percent only ensures starts in cold weather.)

“E-15 is a non-starter in terms of market share,” Temple told her audience, as reported by John Kingston’s in Platts.  http://blogs.platts.com/2014/03/25/eight-fillups/  She argued the incremental battle would absorb vast amounts of political capital yet still not be enough to absorb the 15-billion-gallon target for 2021.  Instead, Temple pointed to the growing fleet of flex-fuel vehicles that now numbers around 15 million, headed for 25 million in 2021 or 10 percent of the nation’s 250-million-car fleet.

“If U.S. drivers poured about 200,000 barrels-per-day of E-85 into their flex fuel cars in 2021, that would take care of about 17 percent of the scheduled ethanol mandate,” Temple said.  “It would only require that flex-fuel owners fill a 15-gallon tank eight times a year.”   The remainder would be absorbed in the 10 percent blend and ethanol producers would not have to cut output.

Platts’ Kingston checked the math and found that even this goal would leave ethanol consumption slightly above the blend wall at 10.5 percent.  “Still, the very modest number of eight fill-ups per flex fuel vehicles per year makes the whole blend wall issue seems a lot less daunting,” he confessed.

Of the 15 million people who own flex-fuel vehicles, of course, many don’t even realize it.  (The yellow gas cap or a rear-end decal are the giveaway.)  But the number of gas stations offering E-85 pumps is rising.  The Energy Information Administration now estimates the number at 2,500 with most of the growth taking place outside the Midwestern homeland.  California and New York each have more than 80 stations apiece.

The problem of rail bottlenecks can probably be solved by increasing the number of E-85 outlets and flex-fuel vehicles to bring supplies closer to the place of consumption.  Still, the industry would probably be happy to have a bigger renewable fuel mandate as well.

Hawks Are Out Again: Mistakenly Casting Doubt on Ethanol

The Hawks are out again.  One of my favorite service organizations, the American Automobile Association (AAA), in conjunction with media outlets, has again attacked the use of ethanol in cars.  It’s quite sad.

I will still keep my membership card. The AAA is the Walmart, Costco or Nordstrom of the automobile industry when it comes to service at relatively low costs to its members.  If you get a flat tire on a sparsely traveled road when it’s raining or snowing, the AAA, following the Postal Service norm, “come rain or snow,” will get there reasonably quickly to help you.  Get stuck in your four story garage with a dead battery! Don’t fret or fear, your neighborhood AAA repair truck will be at your side within a relatively short time. It,generally, will “get you to your work on time.” Do I sound like Julie Andrews or the cast in “My Fair Lady?”

 

While I don’t lose sleep over the question (I only get two hours of sleep even without thinking about the AAA), I often wonder why the AAA appears to join with those, particularly in the oil industry, who seem to want to confuse flex fuel vehicle owners and owners of older cars able to convert their engines easily and cheaply, about the wisdom of using ethanol.

Conversion of older cars and extended use of already approved flex fuel cars as well as increased use of ethanol by both sets of vehicles  will result in many benefits, particularly when compared to gasoline.  For example, ethanol according to many, many independent studies by qualified researchers is a safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly fuel than gasoline.  While what is and what is not a fact often becomes a metaphysical question and 100% certainty becomes a question often for philosophers more than scientists, trust me — ethanol is a good but is not a perfect alternative fuel. It is better than gasoline.  Right now a perfect fuel does not exist! Remember that the enemy of the present good is often the distant perfect.

Despite AAA’s press releases, EPA studies involving more rigorous methodology, including strategic sampling of a range of cars, indicate that engine damage is almost a nonoccurrence when using E15.  E10 has been around for a long time with no discernable engine impact and E85, after extensive testing, has been approved for flex fuel cars.

Understandably, ethanol, given improvements in new car engines and tighter fuel standards, reflects fewer benefits than   shown in relatively recent studies concerning ghg emissions, and pollutants like SOx and NOx.  But ethanol still provides significantly more environmental benefits and less costs to the consumer now than gasoline.

The differences between ethanol and gasoline will become even more apparent if you assume that Americans use their God-given noggin and opt to convert their older cars to accept alternative fuels.  It’s cheap and safe and can be done with a kit, or with quick software or tuning fix for some cars.  Similarly, there are nearly 15,000,000 flex fuel cars in the U.S. Most owners do not know they have such a car. Look at the sticker in the back of the car or fuel cap.  You probably are the proud owner of a flex fuel vehicle and, once you recognize this fact, you can use ethanol without risk.  Using ethanol, both for flex fuel cars and converted older vehicles will likely lower your gasoline costs and will contribute to a healthier environment.  Tell your neighbors!  Tell your friends! Tell your significant other!  Tell your spouse!

Clearly, you will see the environmental benefits to your community, state and nation, if you abandon the conventional way of measuring emissions and pollutant reductions and use tons. The new graphic will portray a visible and important increase in the actual emissions and pollutants eliminated from the atmosphere.  It also will emphasize the importance of extending the number of vehicles that can use ethanol through conversion of older cars to flex fuel vehicles and the production of increased numbers of flex fuel vehicles.  If the owners of both sets of cars increasingly fuel their vehicles with mostly ethanol (an objective of a number of demonstrations and pilot programs in several states), the President’s desire to wean the nation off of gasoline will come closer to fruition.  The scale up will provide a transition approach to open fuel markets until competitive renewable fuels become ready for prime market time.

 

Outnumbered 100-to-1, Methanol Is Upbeat

“Why is it that we hear every day some new story about Elon Musk’s electric car, about Clean Energy Fuel’s efforts to build a CNG highway, or about some laboratory breakthrough that is at last going to bring us cellulosic ethanol, yet with methanol now cheaper than gasoline, you still never hear anything about it?”

That’s the question I posed to the three-member panel while serving as moderator for the wrap-up session at the 2014 Methanol Policy Forum in Washington last week.  The sponsors were the Methanol Institute, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) and the Energy Security Council.

Anne Korin, co-director of IAGS, who earlier had moderated an even bigger panel that included former U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and former Ambassador to the European Union Boyden Gray, had a very unusual answer.  “If I may be permitted to be a bit cynical here,” she said, “I think the reason may be because methanol doesn’t require any subsidies.”  The implication, of course, is that those who come to Washington begging for money receive a lot more attention from Senators and Congressmen than those who don’t.

The question of politics versus economics had been raised at the outset of the daylong conference by Korin’s co-director at IAGS, Gal Luft, in his opening remarks.  “We’ve all heard this business about the circular firing squad and how the various alternatives to foreign oil shouldn’t be fighting each other,” he told the audience of about 400.  “But you have to acknowledge the importance of what goes on in Washington.  You can’t just talk about production you need money.  If you’re not at the table, that means you’re probably on the menu.

Luft showed a chart illustrating that while corn ethanol production exceeds methanol production by a factor of only 5-to-1 (14 billion gallons/year as compared with 2 bg/yr), the amount of money spent lobbying for ethanol is 50-to-1 (less than $100,000 vs. $5 million).  “When you add in the politics of the farm belt, it’s probably closer to 100-to-1,” he added.

So was anyone discouraged?  Not at all.  The news from industry executives is that methanol production is ramping up everywhere due to the bonanza of the fracking revolution.  It seems like only a matter of time before the idea of replacing large portions of our fuel imports with domestically produced methanol begins to command attention.

“In the past decade we closed down five methanol plants in the U.S. and moved them all to China,” John Floren, CEO of Methenex told the gathering of 400 at the Capital Hilton.  “The price of gas had become just too high.  Now we’ve moved two plants back from Chile and are looking at a third relocation.  We’ve got 1000 people working on our Louisiana site.  The chemical industry is starting to build as well.”

Tim Vail, the CEO of G2X, another methanol producer, had a similar take.  “The U.S. is a great place to invest right now,” he told the audience.  “The argument was always that you had to go to the ends of the earth to build methanol plants because that gas wasn’t available here.  Now all that has changed.  Our big worry is labor shortages but the construction industry is responding to our needs.  It takes away a lot of anxiety about having your assets appropriated by other countries.  China may seem like a good place to invest, but can you really trust the rule of law?”

Philip Lewis, chief technology officer of Zero Emission Energy Plants (ZEEP) was equally upbeat.  “I think the whole shale thing is being underestimated,” he said at the close of the morning session.  “It’s another industrial revolution.  And it won’t happen anywhere else because we have the thing that makes it work – private ownership of the resource.  In France, the government owns all the mineral rights and no one wants drilling on their land.”

But governments do have control over other things in this country and there was some questioning of whether federal agencies will be receptive to methanol as a fuel substitute or additive.  Matt Brusstar, deputy director of the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, claimed that his agency had been in the lead of methanol development for 30 years.  “Charlie Grady, who was in our department, was a big supporter of methanol,” said Brusstar.  “He even wrote a book about it.”  (Unfortunately, a Google search for Charlie Grady and methanol turns up no mention of Grady or his book.)  Patrick Davis, the director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the Department of Energy, was even less encouraging.  “The Office of Science does not currently have any projects to create methanol as an end fuel,” he said.  “It could take a decade to sell enough methanol-compatible vehicles before a widespread distribution network would be feasible.”

When I queried Brusstar about Robert Zubrin’s documentation of the multi-thousand-dollar fines that the EPA is imposing for unauthorized conversions of engines to methanol, [See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol,” Feb. 11] several government officials, plus Fuel Freedom Foundation director of research Mike Jackson, argued that faulty conversions can increase air pollution.

Despite the notable lack of enthusiasm from government agencies, however, there was a strong sense among the rank-and-file that methanol may be about to find a place in the sun.  “This is a much bigger crowd than we’ve ever had,” said one veteran of previous conferences.  “It’s a very exciting time for methanol.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can New Catalysts Turn the Corner for Methanol?

The concept of converting our abundant natural gas supplies into liquid methanol in order to replace oil in our gas tanks has had trouble gaining traction for several reasons, all of which are about to face change.

The first reason is that most of the attention towards additives has been focused on ethanol made from corn. Driven by highly specific government mandates, corn ethanol — which now consumes 45 percent of the country’s corn crop — has taken up whatever role industrial methanol might have been chosen to play as a gasoline additive.

Secondly, there’s the problem of the Environmental Protection Agency. Not only has the EPA not approved methanol for gas tanks, the organization actually imposes huge fines on anyone who converts a gasoline engine to methanol without its permission.

The third, and less distinguishable explanation for methanol’s difficult implementation, is that the whole idea has never been very sexy. Methanol has little to do with the “Cutting Edge” or the “New Age Economy.” The manufacturing of methanol is a 60-year-old process practiced doggedly by dozens of industrial facilities around the world. They produce 33 billion gallons a year at the reasonable price of $1.50 per gallon; the energy equivalent of $2.35 gas. Meanwhile, Elon Musk seems to announce a new milestone for the Tesla, or some “breakthrough” in battery technology or cellulosic ethanol emerging from the university laboratories each week, making methanol appear rather plain-Jane and old fashioned. In effect, the solution to our gas tank woes has been hiding before us in plain sight.

Now an announcement from the Scripps Howard Research Institute and Brigham Young University may change everything. In a paper published last week in Science, a team led by Roy Periana of the Scripps Florida Center and Professor Daniel Ess of Brigham Young University say they have found catalysts made from the common elements of lead and thallium that facilitate the conversion of gaseous methane to liquid methanol, potentially making the process even cheaper and more accessible.

The hydrogen bonds in the alkanes (methane, ethane, propane, etc) are among the strongest in nature. To break them involves a heat-driven process invented in the 1940s that is conducted at 900 degrees Celsius. For more than two decades, the Scripps team has been looking for catalysts that would shorten this heat requirement. In the 1990s they came up with a series of catalysts employing platinum, palladium, rhodium and gold, but quickly realized that these elements were too rare and expensive for commercial application. So it was back to the drawing boards in search of something more useful.

Last week in Science they reported success:

The electrophilic main-group cations thallium and lead stoichiometrically oxidize methane, ethane, and propane, separately or as a one-pot mixture, to corresponding alcohol esters in trifluoroacetic acid solvent.
The process reduces the heat requirement to only 200 degrees Celsius, which introduces enormous potential for energy savings. That “one-pot” notation is also crucial. Methane, ethane and propane all come out of the Earth together in natural gas. Currently, they must be separated before the heat-driven process can begin, With the new catalysts, no separation will be necessary. This means that methanol could become significantly cheaper to harvest than it already is. More importantly, these findings signify that methanol conversion will be able to weather the inevitable price increases that will result as demand for natural gas supplies multiplies.

Periana says the process is three years from commercialization. Reports Chemical & Engineering News:
The team is in discussion with several companies and entrepreneurs and would ideally like to jointly develop the technology with a petrochemical company or spin off a startup.

Periana also claims that “Initial targets would be higher-value, lower-volume commodity chemicals such as propylene glycol or isopropyl alcohol directly from propane.” He told reporter Stephen Ritter:

The next target could be to develop lower-temperature processes for higher-volume chemicals, such as converting methane to methanol and ethane to ethanol or ethylene as inexpensive sources for fuels and plastics.

An enormous portion of the world’s energy consumption is still tethered to oil, particularly the transportation sector, where oil constitutes 80 percent of consumption. As oil becomes more and more difficult to find, natural gas use is escalating. In addition, 25 percent of the world’s gas is still flared off because it has been uneconomical to capture. All this could change rapidly if a low-cost conversion to methanol becomes a reality. Reuters grasped the implications of this development when it reported that the new catalytic processes “could lead to natural gas products displacing oil products in the future.”

Progress on Fuel Efficiency: More is needed

Every now and then I will read a White House Blog.  They’re sort of a fun read when you’re depressed about the state of the world and the country.  The content always somehow reminds me of  Gene Kelly dancing in the street in the middle of the rain, or that old (possibly New Yorker) cartoon where the patient tells the psychiatrist that he is not doing well and the good doctor says ‘no you’re just fine, you’re happy and healthy.’  Probably neither is the proper analog to the politically necessary positive nature of the White House blurbs.  I marvel at times at the President’s ability to seek a better America, especially given the politics of the present.  While his optimism and tenacity don’t always come through as “Morning in America,” I believe that his attitude is based on a reasonable outlook about what the nation can do, if it can engage in an honest dialogue about key environmental and alternative fuel issues.

Last week’s blog focused on the White House’s effort to increase fuel efficiency standards.  It notes correctly that the President’s legislative approach to the environment has resulted in the toughest fuel economy standards in history:

“Under the first ever national program, average fuel efficiency for cars and trucks will nearly  double, reaching an average performance equivalent to about 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025….In 2011, the President also established the first-ever fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for medium and heavy duty vehicles, covering model years 2014 through 2018.”

More is to come! Increased fuel efficiency standards are currently being addressed by the Administration, and the EPA is hard at work developing Tier 3 rules.

The Administration’s record is a decent one and has benefited the environment, lessened ghg emissions, and strengthened the economy. Regrettably though, fuel efficiency regulations primarily apply to new cars.  They should be matched by a cost efficient and comprehensive federal effort to encourage the conversion of older non flex fuel vehicles; they also should encourage Detroit to continue producing larger numbers of flex fuel cars.

In this context, EPA and Detroit automakers need to reach a consensus concerning effective engine recalibration alternatives, as well as an extension of consumer warranties and related financial coverage of recalibrated vehicles.  Without permitting older cars to achieve the fuel efficiency and environmental advantages of flex fuel vehicles, we will not be able to respond to Pogo’s admonition and Commodore Oliver Perry’s initial statement (paraphrased): that we, as a nation, have met the enemy, and he is us!

To grant primacy to new or relatively new flex fuel cars would increase the nation’s ability to reduce ghg emissions and other environmental pollutants (e.g. NOx and SOx). There are well over 200,000,000 non flex fuel cars in the U.S. that cannot readily use available fuel blends higher than E-15 and will not be able to use natural gas based ethanol that hopefully relatively soon will come on the market.

Lowering the certification costs of conversion kits by the EPA and increasing the number of manufacturers of those kits would bring down their price from around 1,000 dollars to the near 300 dollar level that is common in the “underground” market.  Simplifying legal conversion could  —and indeed would —-make an important environmental difference.  Such action would also open up the fuel market to competition, and likely lower the price of gas at the pump for consumers. Finally, such actions would also support the President’s objective to wean the nation off of oil and gasoline.  Oh Happy Day!  Go for it Gene Kelly and the American Association of Psychiatrists!  It might be time to show some real love for environmentally and efficiency neglected and needy older vehicles.

Bio-processing of Gas-to-Liquids: A Report Card

If finding microbes that can convert cellulose plant material into ethanol is of the holy grails of biofuels, an equally elusive goal is using microbes to make liquid fuels out of natural gas.

Almost everyone agrees that the best way to apply our now-abundant natural gas resources to transportation would be to convert it into a “drop-in” liquid fuel that would fit easily into our current gas-station infrastructure. T. Boone Pickens’ CleanFuels Corp. and others are trying to supply compressed natural gas to diesel trucks, but the effort has obvious impediments and will require a whole new infrastructure.

Much easier would be the direct conversion of natural gas to methanol, the simplest alcohol, which is now produced at a rate of 33 billion gallons per year for industrial purposes. But methanol still suffers from its Prohibition-Era reputation as poisonous “wood alcohol” (although gasoline is equally poisonous) and has run into stiff EPA regulations on converting contemporary engines to burn alternative fuels. (See “Making the Case for Mars and Methanol”) And so the vision has arisen that a golden gas-to-liquids pathway can be carved by the nation’s laboratories working with nature’s existing microbial stock.

A year ago, ARPA-E, the fast-track research funding agency modeled on the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, announced a new initiative: REMOTE – the Reduced Emissions Using Methanotrophic Organisms for Transportation Energy.  Methanotrophic organisms are microbes that feast on methane, the simplest carbohydrate, and can convert it into more complex molecules such as butane or formaldehyde, which can in turn be synthesized by other microbes into butanol, methanol or other liquids that can be cleanly burned as fuels.  As the agency wrote in its Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA):

The benefits of converting natural gas to liquid fuels for use in transportation have long been recognized. First, the existing transportation infrastructure is based on liquids, and such fuels can be conveniently “dropped in” without substantial changes in vehicles. Second, liquid fuels from methane have lower emissions than petroleum-based fuels. Liquid fuel produced from methane decreases emissions by up to 50%, compared to unconventional petroleum, and decreases particulate matter by up to 40%, compared to combustion of conventional diesel. Further, methane is responsible for 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (on a CO2 equivalent basis), in part because its global-warming potential is 20 times greater than that of CO2 over a 100-year period. Technologies capable of capture and conversion of methane will help mitigate the global-warming potential of these emissions.

There are several interesting things going on here. First, ARPA-E has chosen the goal of reducing emissions rather than reducing dependence on foreign oil as the motivating force of the project. Alcohols do burn cleaner than gasoline. In fact, the whole California effort that put 15,000 methanol cars on the road in the 1990s was aimed at reducing air pollution, not replacing oil imports. This may satisfy environmentalists, who tend to see natural gas as just another fossil fuel and would prefer to pursue cellulosic ethanol in order to remain “carbon neutral.”

Second, although the chemical synthesis of methanol, butanol and other potential fuels is already economical, employing biotechnology gives the whole plan a “green” tinge. Chemical processes are regarded as “old economy” and unlikely to attract investment from Silicon Valley and other centers of venture capital, whereas biotechnology has a New Age sheen to it. Already ARPA-E has handed out $20 million to small startups and others have been forthcoming.

Finally, by latching onto natural gas flaring, ARPA-E is addressing a problem that is gaining more and more attention, particularly the publication of a paper in Science last week claiming that will be no climate benefits in switching from diesel and other crude-oil-based fuels to natural gas derivatives. Indeed, flaring is now said to consume the equivalent of one-third of America’s consumption of crude oil. Obviously, anything that addresses this will get attention.

So how are thing going?  Last week Robert J. Conrado and Ramon Gonzalez, two researchers in the Department of Energy, issued a progress report in Science. Basically, the news is that while there’s still lots of optimism about the idea, nothing much has been accomplished yet.

Conrado and Gonzalez note that the process of biological conversion involves three steps:   1) the “activation” of the stable methane molecule so it becomes chemically receptive; 2) the conversion of methane to formaldehyde and other intermediates; and 3) the synthesis of these intermediates into alcohols and other fuels through bioreactors. All three steps need improvement. “To access small-scale and time-varying resources [i.e., flared gas at remote wells], process intensification leading to an order-of-magnitude increase in volumetric productivities is needed and will require technological breakthroughs in [all] three areas.”

One institution that is working on the problem is the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Blake Simmons, manager of the lab’s biofuels and biomaterial science group, says the challenges are daunting but he remains optimistic. “There have been plenty of investigations into this in the past since there are plenty of organisms in nature that thrive and multiply off natural gas,” he said in an interview with Phys.org. “The problem, though, is that they exist in unique, tailored environments and are typically very slow at what they do. People have been trying to express this class of enzymes for a couple of decades, so this won’t be a slam dunk. But we have the collective experience and capabilities at Sandia to figure it out.”

And so the search for a clean, green conversion of methane to a liquid fuel goes on. In the meantime, however, it might be worth opening the door to methanol and other chemically synthesized products just as a placeholder.