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US Offers $30M For High-Risk Biofuel Research 183

Posted by samzenpus
from the dream-fuel dept.
coondoggie writes "This one sounds a bit like really wishful thinking. The US Department of Energy today announced $30 million for research projects that would develop advanced biofuels that could replace gasoline or diesel without requiring special upgrades or changes to the vehicle or fueling infrastructure. The $30 million would be spent over the next four years to support as many as five 'traditionally high-risk biofuels projects,' such as converting biomass into biofuels and bioproducts to be eventually used for hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals."
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US Offers $30M For High-Risk Biofuel Research

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  • by appleguru (1030562) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:02PM (#34566934) Homepage Journal

    That's not much of a development budget....

    • err.. 4 years.. still $7.5/year isn't exactly a ton of money. That being said, I think the powers that be recognize that fossil fuels and similar power sources are inherintly a dead end. Creating new fuels is an energy intensive process, effectivly making the new fuel a one-time use battery. And depending on the process used to create it, generally not a very efficient one.

      A bunch better way to spend money is developing new battery tech and at looking at utilizing solar energy to power them. That, or get ov

      • A bunch better way to spend money is developing new battery tech and at looking at utilizing solar energy to power them. That, or get over the stigma against nuclear tech and utilize small personal reactors for energy...

        Thing is, billions are already being spent on developing battery and solar tech. $30M is a drop in the bucket, but could possibly point to a way to make things like lubricating oil, aviation fuel, etc... from biological sources economically.

        Unfortuantly, hydrochemicals still beat batteries like a red headed stepchild when it comes to energy density, and will for the forseeable future. So in applications where you NEED that density, demand isn't going away. Examples I can think of - airplanes, long haul

      • by vlm (69642)

        That being said, I think the powers that be recognize

        I think you're giving them way too much credit here. The clowns don't even know that a diesel compatible oil is shockingly easy, its just that American growing technology requires about 2 gallons of diesel equivalent to grow 1 gallon of biodiesel equivalent. On the other hand, "growing your own gasoline" is a huge problem. Purified toluene and benzene are not really biocompatible, you're not going to grow that stuff and refine it at any reasonable efficiency.

        From a chemistry / energy perspective I wonder

    • Right. In other news: The DoD is currently bitching that they might be losing something like $10 billion in funding next year. Of course, even that is a just a small fraction of DoD's full money allocations.
  • High Risk? (Score:4, Funny)

    by Thelasko (1196535) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:05PM (#34566968) Journal
    As in, high risk of genetically modified bacteria escaping the lab and turning every carbohydrate it finds into fuel oil?
    • by Stregano (1285764)
      Possibly high risk because you car explodes, or high risk because if it comes within skin contact, you become a mutant, but not a cool X-Men type of mutant. Like the Mutant whose special power is that one of their arms is on their back
    • Re:High Risk? (Score:5, Informative)

      by ducomputergeek (595742) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:11PM (#34567074)

      High risk or what used to be called "basic research". These are project that may work or provide useful insight for down the road. Chances are they may not lead to some kind of "success" in the commercial world. When companies fund research and development it usually evaluates projects based on the likely hood they'll be able to produce something that is commercially viable and they can break even or profit from the work. We really haven't seen a lot of basic research labs where companies throw money into R&D and see what happens. That's the way it used to work back in the day with places like Bell Labs and even Xerox. Today this is usually done at research universities.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by khallow (566160)

        We really haven't seen a lot of basic research labs where companies throw money into R&D and see what happens. That's the way it used to work back in the day with places like Bell Labs and even Xerox. Today this is usually done at research universities.

        Why do your own research when you can get government to throw a bunch of money at it? The US, for example, throws billions of dollars every year at basic research. Where's the incentive for me to do basic research on my own dime?

        I see this as one of the big social drivers for destroying scientific progress in the world (not just in the US). Currently, in a lot of fields the only gain from genuine scientific inquiry is status. And that can be gamed too. I see in many decades the possibility of a huge publ

        • Where's the incentive for me to do basic research on my own dime?

          There never was one. That's the nature of basic research -- there's no monetary incentive to do it.

          This is precisely *why* we have public funding for basic research. So that it gets done, absent a natural monetary incentive to do it.

      • Today this is usually done at research universities.

        And even at research universities, the proportion of basic research is being actively reduced.

        This is partly because of reduced government funding for projects that do not produce tangible viable results, and partly because of the increasing partnership between public research universities and private for-profit enterprises.

      • Re:High Risk? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by DerekLyons (302214) <`fairwater' `at' `gmail.com'> on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @08:18PM (#34568622) Homepage

        We really haven't seen a lot of basic research labs where companies throw money into R&D and see what happens. That's the way it used to work back in the day with places like Bell Labs and even Xerox.

        That's the "back in the good old days" version. The reality is that Bell Labs worked almost exclusively on research eventually intended to have commercial yield, any basic research was done in support of that goal.

    • by Nadaka (224565)

      High risk as in no chance of being profitable within the next quarter, or even the next year, may not even be profitable before you cache in your golden parachute and move on to the next corp to gut and sell.

    • by vlm (69642)

      As in, high risk of genetically modified bacteria escaping the lab and turning every carbohydrate it finds into fuel oil?

      Hilariously, "fuel oil" already is a moderately short chain length carbohydrate. We're not exactly talking about turning lead into gold here.

      The stuff that comes out of the ground has both longer and shorter chain contaminants, and usually some icky stuff like sulfur compounds.

      The stuff that comes from sunflower seed plantations generally has too high of a melting point.

      The refinery polishes up the major specs, filters out the icky stuff, adds some detergents and hi-pressure lube so the fuel pumps in the c

  • by rwa2 (4391) * on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:08PM (#34567014) Homepage Journal

    Biofuels like Ethanol have a very high octane rating, so you can increase power output with really high compression ratios with superchargers and turbochargers. Supposedly these turbo gasohol vehicles are popular in Brazil, where they can actually grow and produce their cane sugar ethanol with a net positive energy output (whereas corn-based ethanol in the US costs more energy to make than you get from it in return... so it's really just an agricultural subsidy as well as a way to water down imported petroleum-based fuels and decreasing your gas mileage - FTW!)

    Meh, some interesting reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_fuel [wikipedia.org]

    • Ethanol from corn was always a goofy idea. What holds promise is biodeisel from algae.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodeisel#Yield [wikipedia.org]

      The yields tropical regions can get from palm are pretty amazing to but what is ideal is using useless land (NV) for algae farms.

      • by rwa2 (4391) *

        Yep, to copy-pasta one of the interesting charts from Wikipedia:

        Energy balance
        Country : Type : Energy balance
        United States : Corn ethanol : 1.3
        Brazil : Sugarcane ethanol : 8
        Germany : Biodiesel : 2.5
        United States : Cellulosic ethanol* : 2–36**

        * experimental, not in commercial production
        ** depending on production method

        Obviously, the "Cellulosic ethanol" is the likely target of this biofuels research. But of course, if all they have

    • Engine mods and upgrades are NOT fun. The reason is that it often costs upwards of $100,000 [gonaturalcng.com] to certify any conversion kit for a vehicle with the EPA. What this means is that all alternative fuel mods on post 1975 vehicles are a no-go. Unless the fuel can go in without conversion (like with biodiesel), then the costs are going to be too high to make it viable. This is why CNG is not our primary transportation fuel right now.
      • by RMH101 (636144)
        Don't you just need to certify the kit once, and then ammortise the cost over multiple vehicle conversions? Or does it need to be done each and every time?
    • by mlts (1038732) *

      If one takes ethanol (or E85), this is a good solution -- less MPG, but better HP. Its downside is that oil needs to be changed more often because water dissolves in it, creating an acid. This is also why the service guide tells you to run a tank of pure unleaded every 3000-7000 miles.

      However, here in the US, we don't have sugar cane whose by-product can be turned into booze for the car, and the effect of using corn means that food prices go higher since it is an either or unlike sugar cane -- corn goes t

      • by Pharmboy (216950)

        Sugar beets have plenty of sugar, around 20% of the beet is sugar. And it grows perfectly in the north central USA, such as the Dakotas, Minnesota and Michigan, or farther south. The problem is that corn gets tons of subsidies from the government (corporate welfare for the Monsanto asshats) and beets do not. Beets will get you around 20% more fuel per acre than corn but costs more because of the subsidies on corn. Without the subsidies, it would likely be comparable or cheaper to use sugar beets. You a

        • by rwa2 (4391) *

          Yeah, good points.

          With regards to the hypocrisy, the point is that if you had a smaller high-compression ratio engine turbocharged to 150hp, it would be more efficient than a bigger normal engine that was 150hp in the first place.

          But since the goal of the research is to develop biofuels for normal engines, you'll just get decreased mileage without really being able to take advantage of any of the, well, advantages to using ethanol.

          So far, just throwing extra fuel into engines has been (artificially) cheaper

          • by Pharmboy (216950)

            To correct my earlier statement, while engines make more HP at high compressions, they do so by producing more NO2, so they pollute more. And I agree with the turbo comment. Actually, straight 6 engines are more balanced by design, no need to externally balanced. I'm shocked I haven't seen more implementation of them. A well designed I6 with a turbo can be made small enough to still be used in front wheel drive and have extra power on tap when needed, but that isn't what is "sexy".

            • by rwa2 (4391) *

              heh, yeah... I remember looking for some I6-powered cars after reading about them... seems like BMWs and some Volvos are the most commonly available. Unfortunately, that seems to fit into the "nice car, but you'll pay more for maintenance" sort of thing :P

              I like how I6 configuration is pretty typical for use as ginormous internal combustion engines, like in factories and large ships. But beyond that, the most efficient combustion engines seem to be the gas turbines... which are even more delicate and heav

              • by Pharmboy (216950)

                Most of your serious diesel engines are also I6, from Ram (Dodge) trucks to rigs. Even the bigger V12's diesels are basically twin banked I6s. The old 240z engines, old land rovers (before they were pretty, back when they were tough), as well as many other more serious engines.

                Part of the problem is how long they are, which is more of a problem in front wheel drive. By design, the engine should be lower maintenance, it is just the cars they put them in that are high maintenance. Having all your intake o

      • On a long term scale, what would be interesting is a way to pull CO2 directly from the air, mix it with water (best bet is desalinated so it does not interfere with water needs) and start making crude oil this way ready for refining and reuse. Nuclear power has enough density per square foot, so one could combine a nuke plant, a desalination plant, and a CO2 remover in one area, and get crude in quantities that are usable for fuel or for plastics. To boot, it would be a crude oil free of mercury, sulphur, o

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        So where can I get this pure unleaded?
        All our gas here in NY state is contaminated with 10% ethanol.

        • by mlts (1038732) *

          Even worse, it may be going to 15% soon in a lot places. For older engines that don't have the ability to change timing for dealing with this, this will suck, not to mention the voided warranties of engines which are warranties to work with no more than 10% alcohol.

          • by adolf (21054)

            Even worse, it may be going to 15% soon in a lot places. For older engines that don't have the ability to change timing for dealing with this, this will suck, not to mention the voided warranties of engines which are warranties to work with no more than 10% alcohol.

            Which older engines would those be?

            Unless I'm missing something (which is very likely -- I'm by no means an expert in the field), the ignition systems common gas-powered cars can be split into two different categories: Those which use a distribu

    • Supposedly these turbo gasohol vehicles are popular in Brazil, where they can actually grow and produce their cane sugar ethanol with a net positive energy output (whereas corn-based ethanol in the US costs more energy to make than you get from it in return...

      That's because Brazil can slash-and-burn rainforest and raise cane on the fertile soil. It's a great business plan so long as you can slash-and-burn more rainforest after the old fields become exhausted after a year or two. Massive government subsidi

  • by cosm (1072588)
    This sense of urgency makes me think that the US Govt is paying attention to the problem of Peak Oil. [wikipedia.org] This country will experience some serious pain when we hit the downside of that slope, and probably the world for that matter.
    • Re:Urgency (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jfengel (409917) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:21PM (#34567216) Homepage Journal

      Well, I wouldn't call $30 million over 5 years "urgent". That's doughnut money to the Department of Defense, whose budget is 100,000 times more than that.

      US domestic oil production peaked 40 years ago. We've been subject to nasty oil shocks ever since, as well as the unpleasant fact that many key oil exporters are avowed or tacit opponents of the US. We'd much rather be self-sufficient in oil, regardless of whether the rest of the world experiences Peak Oil or not.

      • The DoD has actually been somewhat more active than the government generally in alt-energy research.

        Partially, I'd assume that this stems from the simple fact that, when your oil products have to be shipped to you through hostile territory, you are already experiencing the sorts of prices that peak oilers have in mind(never mind something really dramatic, like enemy infiltrators blowing a few gulf coast refineries just before starting a hot war...)

        Partially, I'd assume that it stems from the fact that
      • by corbettw (214229)

        many key oil exporters are avowed or tacit opponents of the US.

        Considering we get about 50% of our oil from Canada, I'd say you were absolutely correct!

        • by jfengel (409917)

          I know you're joking, but also recall that oil is fungible. If the Saudis were to cut off the US, we'd need to buy more from Canada, raising the price. If they cut off any US allies, it would raise the price further.

          That happened during the 1970s oil shocks, and the US produced more of its own oil at the time.

      • That's doughnut money to the Department of Defense, whose budget is 100,000 times more than that.

        Let's not exaggerate here. The department of defense only gets about 15,000 times that much. ;)

        • by jfengel (409917)

          I know there's a wink at the end there, but seriously: the DoD budget yearly is $663 billion. This project is $7.5 million per year.

          It's closer to 88,000; I originally miscalculated it as 5 years rather than 4.

          • Seriously!?

            I have no idea what to say about that. I thought it was way less than that. That's fucked up!

  • Aren't we spending untold billions of dollars every year chasing Iraqi oil? $30M is a droplet of piss in the sewer. Fund it for real or get the fuck out.

  • In the lab they have gotten microbes to produce crude oil – oil that could go into a standard refinery for gasoline, jet fuel. Etc. Of course scaling from the bench top to a industrial process.

    Ethanol fails because it is hydrophilic and can not be transported with our current pipelines.

  • by Xonstantine (947614) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:16PM (#34567136)

    Pros:
    1) Burns in gasoline engines without modification
    2) Can be transported in existing gas pipelines (does not emulsify water like ethanol does)
    3) Higher energy content per gallon than ethanol, only a little less than gasoline
    4) Can be produced in the same manner that ethanol is (ie, fermentation)

    Cons:
    1) Does not have a farm lobby attached to it

    • by russotto (537200)

      Cons: 1) Does not have a farm lobby attached to it

      Also low motor octane/high sensitivity. Put it in many gasoline engines without modification and they'll either knock heavily under load, or retard the timing severely reducing power and efficiency.

      • tert-butanol has an octane of 89, which should satisfy most engines.

        • by russotto (537200)
          Too bad tert-butanol's freezing point is 77F. So it'll only work on hot days.
          • Easy to drop that freezing point with additives and/or keep the fuel warm. Worst case you go dual fuel where you start up on gas then switch to butanol that has thawed out on the engine heat.

    • by jfengel (409917)

      "Cons" should also include that it's toxic (more so than gasoline).

      As well as the fact that it's currently expensive to manufacture and distill, with low yields.

      Neither of this is necessarily impossible to overcome, but it's dishonest to claim that the only thing wrong with it is that it doesn't have a lobby. In fact, it DOES have a lobby: BP and Dupont have both been working on it.

      Dealing with these issues might be a great use of some of that $30 million. But it's not a miracle cure.

    • by jpedlow (1154099) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:42PM (#34567520)
      Was lucky enough to do some work with butanol while in school (O-chem, with some manufacturing chemistry)
      Apparently nowdays there's several fancy nickel catalysts that do the trick, but with relatively low yields
      BUT, fiberous bed bioreactors are the trick for half decent yields...
      I'm out of chem now, I stuck with my computer nerd roots and am in a server room right now, but it was readily apparent (back in the day) that butanol was the clear choice for ease of transition, octane rating, transportability, and it's emissions are 'supposed to be' cleaner than current gas offerings.
      ANYWAY, go butanol go! Not quite the same octane ratings as ethanol, but it'll run on almost any vehicle with very little-if any- tuning
    • 1) Does not have a farm lobby attached to it

      Since butanol can be produced (an on an industrial scale certainly would be) from farm raised biomass... One suspects it's just a wee bit more complex than that.
       
      But, knee jerk blaming the corporations and lobbyists is easier than actually trying to understand the issues.

      • Since butanol can be produced (an on an industrial scale certainly would be) from farm raised biomass... One suspects it's just a wee bit more complex than that.

        But, knee jerk blaming the corporations and lobbyists is easier than actually trying to understand the issues.

        Yes, butanol can be produced from farm raised biomass, same as ethanol. But as far as air time and subsidies go, it's ethanol, all the time. Therefore the logical conclusion is that the butanol lobby, such as it is, isn't nearly as effective as the ethanol lobby. To the point of not existing.

    • by ShakaUVM (157947)

      Pros:
      1) Burns in gasoline engines without modification
      2) Can be transported in existing gas pipelines (does not emulsify water like ethanol does)
      3) Higher energy content per gallon than ethanol, only a little less than gasoline
      4) Can be produced in the same manner that ethanol is (ie, fermentation)

      Cons:
      1) Does not have a farm lobby attached to it

      Yeah, so it's probably not going to happen as long as Iowa's caucuses vote first for our presidents.

  • It makes sense to me that we should be developing technology to exploit the vast natural gas reserves we have here in the U.S. We're already familiar with CNG tech for automobiles plus its cleaner burning. Perhaps the government could subsidize CNG conversions for older automobiles and for gas stations.
    • by homer_ca (144738)

      Try running 200 million cars on natural gas and those reserves won't be so vast any more. We use it for 20% of our electricity, and it's already one of the most expensive sources of power, useful more for peak load than base load.

      CNG vehicles are already subsidized in some cities for air quality reasons. It's ok for buses and local delivery vehicles, but it's a long way from being practical for long haul trucking and personal use.

  • by countSudoku() (1047544) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @06:26PM (#34567296) Homepage

    Back in the 60s he invented the Gasoline Pill, which converts water into gasoline right in your tank! Unfortunately he lost the formula, so that's why there's a prize now.

    There's nothing that Grandpa Munster, The Professor from Gilligan's Island, or Scotty can't solve with their engineering geniusness!

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @07:04PM (#34567802)

    Just to put this into perspective - $30M is about 12 hours worth of profit (not revenue, profit) for Exxon. Even with the oil spill costs, it's about a day of profit for BP.

  • by CompMD (522020) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @07:46PM (#34568298)

    100 year old Diesel technology is more helpful in our current situation than wasting money trying to conjure up new fuels from nothing. Here's a couple vehicles I have that provide a better solution:

    1984 Mercedes 300SD Turbo (OM617): It will run on just about anything. All kinds of oils, both vegetable and petroleum, jet fuel, heck, you can even dump ATF in the tank (though I don't recommend it) and it will burn that.

    1983 Chevrolet Suburban (Detroit Diesel/Allison 6.2): This will also run on just about anything. It has the engine that AM General picked to power the HMMWV. There are probably still lots of these 6.2s running around all corners of the earth powered by who knows what.

    These vehicles are likely going to still be puttering around for a very, very long time. Rust will get them before the engines go. We need to be focusing on developing better engines so that we don't end up backed into a corner on fuel. If we truly have options on what we can power our vehicles with, we'll be in a much better position.

    • heck, you can even dump ATF in the tank (though I don't recommend it) and it will burn that.

      ATF? Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms? I recommend burning two of those three, and for the third -- combustion is part of how they work.

    • by mattack2 (1165421)

      But your old diesel technology also puts out a lot more pollution, doesn't it?

      (Though I don't see why they don't make more diesel hybrids, instead of gas hybrids.)

      • by adolf (21054)

        (Though I don't see why they don't make more diesel hybrids, instead of gas hybrids.)

        Actual cost: Hybrids are already expensive. A diesel-powered hybrid would cost even more.

        Perceived cost: Around here, at least, diesel typically costs 10-15% more per gallon than gasoline. (Yes, I know that it's still cheaper per unit of usable energy, but the folks buying hybrids realize this.)

        Noise: A Prius is very quiet in all modes. A chattering diesel is not. (I personally don't find the modern TDI diesels to be

      • by RingDev (879105)

        Nope. Atleast, not per mile driven. If you just light a gallon of gas and a gallon of diesel on fire, yeah, the diesel would probably be worse. But Diesels get on average ~30% better gas mileage then gas engines. So to get the same use out of the two fuels, you'd have to burn one gallon of gas and 2/3rds a gallon of Diesel.

        As far as CO2 goes, Diesels are way better. But the trade off is that they generate more NOX. So you trade green house gases for smog.

        Most of what you see coming out of Diesel exhaust is

  • Yay... $1.5 million per year for 4 years per project. I sure hope they're really promising because that's much time or money to do anything major like find a means to turn biomass into a gasoline substitute that would utilize all the current fuel line infrastructure. Good luck, guys!
  • High Risk of not being profitable. Not, you know, of destroying civilization as we know it and rendering the planet inhabitable for human life.

    • > Not, you know, of destroying civilization as we know it and rendering the planet inhabitable for human life.

      You say that like its a bad thing... ;-)

  • by Ozlanthos (1172125) on Wednesday December 15, 2010 @09:18PM (#34569084)
    It was this nation's #1 cash crop for over 100 years. As such, 90% of the components for the first automobiles were made of it (and previous to prohibition of alcohol, most cars were fueled by it). Henry Ford grew acres of it, and envisioned that we'd literally be "GROWING CARS"... But unfortunately William Randolph Heart made his money from newspapers printed on paper made from wood pulp (one of the three textiles it would have displaced had it remained legal after the invention of the decordicator...the other two being oil, and cotton). A medium he used to demonize it, and stigmatize our nation to the point where to this day (80 years later) all most of us do is make stupid snarky comments at the mere suggestion of it's use as an alternative to oil. Due to this nation's ignorance of it, and our resulting dependence on it's competitors, most of civilization will most likely perish before it becomes legal again....I am of course talking about Industrial Hemp.

    Think I'm lying? Rather than make stupid remarks about smoking it, try looking it up on Google or Youtube and enlighten yourself!!!

    -Oz
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Its funny that Hearst and the US gubmint have been able to suppress this magical plant - yet no other country have discovered how wonderful the plant is. So you are saying that every other country on the plant is just stupid and the US is just oppressed?

      Tell me, why isn't Russia, Korea, Japan, China, etc using magical hemp to solve all their problems? They didn't have Hearst "influencing" them. Let me know, I'd like to see a Youtube video explaining it.

  • They should have been doing this every year since a long time ago! Just imagine, funding research that might actually lead to something useful and solve a real problem!

  • Biofuels research you!
  • biological photosynthesis efficiency ~1%

    inorganic photosynthesis efficiency ~10%

    It's nice to grow fuel (or algae food), but there are other good solar fuel options. Inorganic catalysts (iron oxide is this year's sexy "new" catalyst) could use some funding too.

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