cellulosic biomass as alternative to fossil fuel

"Ethanol is the fastest-growing energy source in the world, yet it provides only about three percent of America’s transportation fuels. In the United States, corn is the feedstock for almost all of the ethanol produced today, but its growth potential is limited. The big hope to increase ethanol production rests on tapping cellulose, which makes up the vast bulk of all plant materials, and finding better ways to transform it into liquid fuels.

Cellulosic biomass – cellulose and hemicellulose – comprises upward of 75 percent of all plant material. This material can be used as a low-grade fuel that can be burned, but currently it is difficult and costly to turn it into a liquid fuel like ethanol. The potential, however, is tantalizingly near. Cellulose and hemicellulose are polymers of sugar, but they are complex compounds not easily broken down into their simpler component sugars. Several processes are being used with some success now, but researchers are seeking faster, cheaper, more efficient ways to break down cellulosic biomass into sugars. Yeast can then ferment these sugars into ethanol.

What would be the source of cellulosic biomass? Candidates include agricultural plant wastes, plant wastes from industrial processes (sawdust, paper pulp), and crops grown specifically for fuel production, such as switchgrass and poplar trees.

Says Steve Chu, Nobel laureate and director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, ‘We should develop rapidly growing, self-fertilizing plants that convert carbon dioxide, sunlight, water and modest amounts of nutrients into biomass, such as cellulose, and more efficient means to convert the biomass and biowaste into usable forms of energy. Nature has found ways to convert cellulose within the stomach of a termite and at the bottom of a swamp. A promising avenue of research is to improve these microorganism communities or develop biology-inspired enzymes that can replace existing, less efficient processes.’"

– Jeffery Kahn

While ethanol may be a good fuel source . . . it is worth noting that it takes a good amount of oil to produce ethanol right now. It helps fix the problem a little, but not too much. Especially since an ethanol-only car isn’t too realistic, ethanol is too combustable for convential engines, but not explosive enough for hydrogen engines. Eventually we may solve that problem, but right now I am not sure that ethanol is the right way to go.

My money is on Venter and his idea of streamlining a microbe to make hydrogen and (then) natural gas. Venter the person =Douchebag, Venter the scientist = best thing since Einstein (Or, more applicably, Fischer).

If Cellulosic biomass fuel becomes practical it will be much better than ethanol. Widespread ethanol use could actually cause famines since it would be more profitable to use corn for fuel than to sell it at low prices as a foodstuff in poor areas. There’s only so much arable land and so much capability to grow crops; as the worlds population expands agriculture will be taxed. Cellulosic biomass fuel can be created from grass that grows on land that can’t sustain the usual food crops.

Biomass is also a great thing because look at a stalk of corn. The ear is what we eat and the rest is just waste-stuff.

I attended a seminar a few years ago where they talked about a GMO corn that would allow the rest of the stalk to be used. The big thing about ‘white’ industries (industries driven by biotechnology that blur the line between farm and factory) is to take advantage of existing farm infrastructure but to tweak it so that it can be better.

Not new crops, but better crops.