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Biotech Transportation Technology

Researchers Develop Biofuel Alternative To Ethanol 320

coondoggie writes "Researchers say they have developed a method of using bacteria to convert decaying grass directly into isobutanol, which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol but similar to gasoline. The research could mean great savings in processing costs and time, plus isobutanol is a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol, according to the Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory"
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Researchers Develop Biofuel Alternative To Ethanol

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  • Finally! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by damn_registrars ( 1103043 ) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @10:48PM (#35438660) Homepage Journal
    Some grassoline that most of us can use. I've been intrigued by the biodiesel movement for some time now, but there are so few Diesel cars available for purchase in this country that it hasn't even been worth considering for me. If this will burn in a regular gas engine, though...
    • Re:Finally! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by samkass ( 174571 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @10:59PM (#35438732) Homepage Journal

      The VW TDI cars are excellent cars, but Diesel is now so expensive that despite their phenomenal mileage they're still not economical. I now pay at least $0.20 more per gallon than premium unleaded around here.

      • You can make your own biodiesel with vegetable oil, sodium hydroxide and methanol. It costs about $500 to get started(that includes filters, fuel line heaters and enough sodium hydroxide and methanol to produce 200+ gallons of fuel) but once you've got everything together you produce fuel at around $1/gallon.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Running B100 in new, non-PD (Pumpe Duse) VW TDIs is highly inadvisable. They have a whole new high pressure fuel pump and aren't designed to work with it. Warranty voidance is almost guaranteed.

        • Where do you get vegetable oil at $1 per gallon?

      • The VW TDI cars are excellent cars

        I agree. I would love to be able to afford a 2 door Golf TDI with a manual transmission, but it is way beyond my price range and they pretty well never show up on the used market. The only diesel car I can afford right now would be a 1980's Benz sedan with 20 trillion miles on it and 30 tubs of bondo holding the doors on.

        What I would really like is a Smart fortwo Diesel, but of course those will almost certainly never be brought to the US.

        • Anything capable of making the doors come off an '80's Mercedes will have destroyed the rest of the car.
        • by jemmyw ( 624065 )

          Except that newer european diesels are notoriously unreliable (more so than european cars) after they've racked up the miles. This is mainly because shrinking diesel technology down and making it more powerful requires stronger engine parts than older, larger diesels or petrol engines. This results in a higher failure rate.

          Probably fine for new vehicles, and great for fleet cars. But woe betide the second hand buyer.

          • Love to see the citation on this one. It'd be news to me.
          • Erm, I don't know exactly what you mean by 'newer' or 'racking up the miles', but most of the taxis round here (Decayingnorthernwasteland, UK) are powered by the 1.9 TDI VW/Audi/Skoda engine ( I think it has been replaced by a 2.0 now and I have no data for the 2.0 ) and they get about 175,000 miles out of them before they need any major parts. And these are vehicles that spend almost all their time in 30 and 40mph zones with stop lights every few hundred yards.

          • by jo_ham ( 604554 )

            Love to see the cites on this.

            I own a "newer" european diesel and it is doing just fine as a gracefully ageing lady.

            Diesels are pretty bombproof as long as they are maintained - I know several that are well on their way to 200k without being clapped out.

            This "notorious" unreliability must be in a different Europe than the one I live in. I can't say I've ever heard anyone say that, and I'm friends with people who service cars for a living.

      • Re:Finally! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by mirix ( 1649853 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @11:24PM (#35438896)

        Unless the price of diesel is damn near double that of gas, you're still coming out ahead...

      • by afidel ( 530433 )
        Except you can't run even B10 in the TDI! VW ran tests and they fouled the injectors so they won't warranty the engine to run even 10% biodiesel.
        • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Informative)

          by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @01:46AM (#35439642)
          That's a bunch of fucking bullshit. With the TDI's, the only problem you'll encounter running biodiesel is maybe a dead injection pump due to seal cracking, which is caused by the lack of sulfates in the fuel... Since low-sulfur diesel was introduced about five years ago, all new vehicles have pump seals that work perfectly well with biodiesel -- my injection pump from 2002 went pretty quickly, and I had it rebuilt with modern seals that work properly with biodiesel and I've had no problems in over five years. Biodiesel will not hurt your TDI, it's a load of crap.
          • Re:Finally! (Score:4, Informative)

            by kevinNCSU ( 1531307 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @09:20AM (#35441852)

            I thought the new low-sulfur fuel came due to the new particulate emissions level mandates which are part of the problem. They added a particulate filter to the exhaust that has to periodically burn up the matter collected there. Most new diesel engines (post 2007) do this by injecting fuel into the cylinder right after the cylinder fires and exhaust valve opens so that it vaporizes and travels to the exhaust where it can heat up the particulate filter and burn off the collected matter. Since bio-diesel is denser and doesn't vaporize as easily it ends up getting stuck to the piston walls and getting into the engine oil where it dilutes it and then damages the engine.

            Not all new diesels have this problem, some companies decided to put an injector in the exhaust itself in order to deal with this, but most went the other route because it's cheaper so you shouldn't just assume post-2007 cars will run on even small mixtures of biodiesel anymore.

            Here's a guy who had a 2009 TDI that didn't end up running so well on B100: 09 TDI [biodieselsmarter.com]

      • by afidel ( 530433 )
        Considering diesel contains 11% more energy I'd say that's a bargain, not to mention that modern diesel's are more efficient than even direct injected variable valved gasoline engines and you will pay less per year on diesel. For 20k miles per year and assuming gas at $4 and diesel at $4.20 the $5k upgrade on the VW Jetta sportswagon pays off over 10 years and the TDI comes with quite a few more features which you basically get for free if you plan to own it that long.
      • I just use vegetable oil from any discounter for my Smart diesel car.
        You can buy bulk at any oil mill.
        https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Vegetable_oil_fuel [wikimedia.org]

      • by tivoKlr ( 659818 )
        Come on, at 40-50 MPG, that extra 2% in fuel cost has to be offset and exceeded by the mileage you're getting. Think as if you were driving a 2000 Dodge Ram getting 12MPG. That $0.20 seems like a drop in the bucket when you're blowing through fuel.
      • The VW TDI cars are excellent cars

        Ehhhhh... Sort of. I've had a VW TDI Golf for about five years and I love the mileage I get out of it, but the electrical system is completely fucking weird. Lights come on and go off on the dash constantly, tail lights burn out repeatedly, the buzzer warning you that you've left your headlights on works about 5% of the time (leading to multiple dead batteries per year)... Despite all this I still love the car and I'll drive it until it falls apart, but I'd hardly call it

    • So far they only have lab experiments. Nothing is in production yet. It is quite possible that they will have a similar issue as with hydrocarbons produced by algae. When they tried to scale up to production level contaminants cause the good algae to die. Promising; yes. Production; not yet and maybe never.

  • We need a remake of "Gasoline Alley Bred":

    Isobutanol Alley Bred.

    It'll be another hit. I can see it now.

    "Step on the iso and let's get out of here!"

  • Just'a good ol' boys, never meanin' no harm.

  • by dimethylxanthine ( 946092 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `tiurf.rm'> on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @10:53PM (#35438684) Homepage
    Yes, isobutanol provides many benefits over ethanol and petrol, but there's bound to be an IP issue pretty much any time these days, as Gevo [gevo.com] is currently finding out. Of course at a time when solutions are needed fast.

    Perhaps (un)surprisingly BP is the plaintiff here...

    http://corporate.lexisnexis.com/news/corporate-counsel,intellectual-property/cat200003_doc1373404955.html [lexisnexis.com]
    • There is not a lot of IP possible with a organism that occurs naturally, the "magic sauce" only comes into play when they try to engineer the little buggers to eat cellulose rather than starch. In the Clostridium family there are organisms the digest cellulose and organisms that metabolize starch into isobutanol, grow them together and sooner or later the little buggers are going to do the sex thing and exchange DNA amongst themselves; if your lucky you'll get a critter that does both and you've then made a

      • Gevo's organism is not natural, it is recombinant. At least according to the patent suit report linked by GP.

        • Sorry, recombination happens all the time in bacteria. It's hardly news. At least, they were teaching us about it in introductory cell biology at Cambridge in 1969, and the textbook was already years old.
    • plus isobutanol is a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol

      Is it wrong, if that makes me wonder if it's drinkable?

  • Its a start, I suppose, but all energy is expensive, messy, and finite when implemented by civilization at large. Perhaps a calorie saved is a calorie earned and we should focus on the social engineering required to organize human lives in a way that does not require so much expenditure of resources, Biological, Green, or Toxic. We require very little as individual biological entities, and yet we consume a million times that much resource in order to drive and fly in circles all day long. Bacterial fuels
  • I don't want the octane level in my alcohol to be closer to gasoline. I want high octane numbers so I can either run a higher compression ratio or jack the boost.
  • How many lobbyists (Score:5, Insightful)

    by overshoot ( 39700 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @11:16PM (#35438830)
    are backing this process? Because they're going to be up against some huge opposition from the big agribusiness firms plus Big Oil.
    • by pitchpipe ( 708843 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @01:21AM (#35439538)
      Why do you hate job creating agri-business/Big Oil? Why do you hate jobs? Why do you hate America? Why do you hate Jesus and the children?
    • Have you not been paying attention to the news lately? Gaddafi is actively blowing up his own oil industry out of spite. There has been an attack on an Iraqi pipeline that's halting oil exportation. Saudi Arabia may face its revolution. All this while Iran threw down the gauntlet with a statement of capturing control of exportation to be used as a weapon of control. Oh, and China has a nice little armed frigate near Tripoli.

      I'm convinced. World War has been set into motion out of the fear the spice will sto

      • by ATestR ( 1060586 )

        When the day of rage comes, they will tell Big Agro and Big Oil to screw off. You can bet on that!

        And they won't tell the environmental folks the same thing by letting Oil start drilling in the US again?

        I agree that this may be a better solution than ethonol (What does it do to a car's engine?), but as with anything else, ONE SIZE FITS ALL doesn't work.

  • by Sitnalta ( 1051230 ) on Wednesday March 09, 2011 @11:20PM (#35438860)

    The real breakthrough we need isn't growing bacterial to produce fuel. We already know how to do that quite well. The trick is scaling it up to practical volumes. Generally speaking bacterial who waste energy on producing fuel for us humans tend to be pretty fragile and finicky.

    • Generally speaking bacterial who waste energy on producing fuel for us humans tend to be pretty fragile and finicky.

      Damn, I guess all thouse brewer's yeasts throughout the millenia never got the memo!

      • Yeast are not bacteria, they're fungi and are more closely related to you than to any bacteria (or, for that matter, any plant.)

        My understanding is that so long as there is sugar around, yeasts will metabolize it to alcohol so as to poison competitors for the food source, and later metabolize the alcohol once the sugar runs out. However, I'm not sure I got this from a reliable source, and I couldn't find confirmation in a quick web search. In any case, I think it is one of those rare evolutionary innovation

  • Maybe i could use it to power my lawn mower.

  • Can I drink it?

  • Another fossil fuel? (Score:4, Informative)

    by readin ( 838620 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @12:23AM (#35439244)
    If I understand correctly, one of the major problem with ethanol from corn is that corn requires fertilizer, and fertilizer these days comes from natural gas. Or to put it another way, ethanol is a fossil fuel! One of the other problems with ethanol is that it takes land that could be used for growing food and converts it to land used for growing fuel.

    How is this grass-based fuel any different? To make it in large quantities won't we still need fossil fuel based fertilizers and large tracts of land?
    • land use (Score:4, Insightful)

      by j1m+5n0w ( 749199 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @01:05AM (#35439450) Homepage Journal
      If I remember correctly, a couple of the proposed crops for making cellulosic ethanol are switchgrass and miscathus, and they both grow fine without human intervention. Switchgrass is native to North America. My understanding is that either crop could be used on land that isn't actively being farmed for food crops or that is "resting" for a few years as part of a normal crop rotation cycle.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @12:55AM (#35439418) Homepage

    This is a Government-funded paper, but it's behind a paywall. [asm.org] The price is $20.

    There are lots of biotech schemes for digesting cellulose into something more useful, but so far, none of them are cheap enough.

  • Biofuel Dangers (Score:4, Interesting)

    by localman ( 111171 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @02:42AM (#35439854) Homepage

    If this grass or process can benefit from using arable land and irrigation, then please no.

    The biofuel thing has always mystified me. If there are two things in the world that are more scarce and fundamental to life than oil, they've got to be arable land and irrigation water. The corn ethanol thing caused all sorts of havoc in farming and food pricing, particularly with international farmers destroying staple food crops to grow fuel plants and selling corn to oil producers instead of families. This is not the way of the future.

    If this grass can grow in otherwise unusable land, and it can grow without diverting otherwise useful drinking or irrigation water, then fine. I'm very skeptical that even if that is technically possible that it will play out as such once the prices come in and farmers have to choose between taking money from poor hungry people or rich gas guzzlers.

    Can we just abstract the whole fuel source thing and skip to all-electrics like the Tesla and power them with... nuclear? solar? hydroelectric? wind? geothermal? hamsters?


    • Re:Biofuel Dangers (Score:5, Interesting)

      by dthx1138 ( 833363 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @03:54AM (#35440200)
      The benefit of cellulosic biofuels like the ones mentioned in this study is that the entire plant can be converted to fuel (rather than just the fruit), resulting in higher yields; less land is needed to produce the same amount of energy.

      Additionally, most grasses that would be used as feedstocks, such as switchgrass, are perennial plants. According to Wikipedia:

      "The main agronomic advantages of switchgrass as a bioenergy crop are its stand longevity, drought and flooding tolerance, relatively low herbicide and fertilizer input requirements, ease of management, hardiness in poor soil and climate conditions, and widespread adaptability in temperate climates." In other words, switchgrass will be a viable crop in many areas that aren't suitable for food anyway."
  • Distillation? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by prograde ( 1425683 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @03:42AM (#35440134)

    Isobutanol is not very soluble in water (87 g/L) - I wonder if this process also avoids the need for distillation? Distillation is the most energy-intensive part of bio-ethanol production.

    If it doesn't separate, distillation will really suck, since it's boiling point (107.89 C) is higher than water.

  • Biodiesel is essentially harvested solar energy, packaged in chemical form, with an efficiency that is probably comparable to solar panels. Worse, sunlight and resources devoted to growing grass is sunlight and resources not growing food. We can, and will, grow some of our fuel, but at nowhere near the scale, nor at the same energy return, as oil.

    Biofuel is one answer, but it's a small one-word, vaguely apologetic answer lost in the din. You want to generate energy? Think "nuclear."

  • by drwho ( 4190 ) on Thursday March 10, 2011 @03:17PM (#35445904) Homepage Journal

    The A.B.E. process has been around for a while, producing acetone, butanol and ethanol via bacteria. I seem to recall some improvements on the process which create an end product which is entirely butanol. Why is isobutanol better than butanol?

No problem is so large it can't be fit in somewhere.