• Jun 14th 2010 at 7:02PM
  • 16
Back in the early days of mass-produced biofuels, corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel were all the rage. But criticism about food vs. fuel and scalability abounded and, by 2008, cellulosic ethanol became known as a so-called second-generation-biofuel and, maybe, the answer to our oil-addicted prayers. Blame Congress, blame the economy, heck, blame T. Boone Pickens if you want to, but the fact of the matter is that in the two years since cellulosic ethanol's big appearance, large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol has yet to reach levels that resemble anything close to significant. Still, first and second-gen biofuels account for 99% of today's global biofuel production.

So, while the Gulf of Mexico starts to resemble the bruised arm of a heroin addict, let's skip ahead to future biofuel technologies that, if they work, really could signal the beginning of the end of oil. Namely, 3rd and 4th generation biofuels.

What are 3rd and 4th generation biofuels? According to a new 150-page report available for the low-low price of $1,495 from GreenTech Media Research, 3rd-generation biofuel is basically advanced algae-based biodiesel while 4th-generation biofuels are created using petroleum-like hydroprocessing or advanced biochemistry. One such technology is the "solar-to-fuel" method (pictured above) developed by Joule Biotechnology which sounds pretty cool. In their model, sunlight, waste CO2 and engineered microorganisms combine in a "solar converter" to create fuel.

The summary of the report goes on to conclude that, by 2022, biofuels will account for almost eight percent of global oil volumes used for transportation. That may not sound like a lot, but it does represent a multi-hundred-billion-dollar market. Bring it on.

[Source: GreenTechMedia]

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      The problem with 3rd and 4th gen is, and always will be, scalability... sure, you can grow biofuels in a laboratory. You can also electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen... but there's no guarantee you can build a fueling infrastructure out of that.

      I like that Oil Drum article. The recommended solution to the algae issue echo my thoughts on the subject. If you can engineer the algae to secrete oil, then you've got a worthwhile product.

      And then the algae escape the lab, reproduce in the wild, and in a few decades, we'll have a worldwide ocean covered with the sheen of a millimeter-thin film of oil. The increased albedo causes global cooling, creating cooler weather, and reduces shipping costs to nearly zero, as cargo ships simply skim their fuel from the frothy wave tops.


      How about oil trees? Like rubber trees, extract the sap and use for production.

      They go next to the beercane, in the garden.


      On a more serious note, cellulosic shows some promise, but the numbers still don't work out (even compared to crop biofuels)... But I'm hopeful for this, as it's a much more palatable solution for all involved.
      • 5 Years Ago
      i have to agree with you carney. while i don't know many farmers personally, i do see field after field not being used that just last year was used for corn. i asked a random farmer about this once in a bar and he said it could be that the fields were not used for it to be fertilized for the next years crops.

      like i said, i don't know the facts on a lot of this, but it does seem that we can increase corn yield for the biofuel market if we are paying farmers to not produce. why not have them earn more money in selling their product than grabbing a smaller subsidy. plus, farmers are men whom like to earn a good living through hard work. it's their style. everyone wins with putting out more product.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "...i do see field after field not being used that just last year was used for corn."

        It's called "laying fallow", and is a necessary part of crop rotation - an agriculture fundamental.

        You simply cannot grow crops - especially identical crops - year after year on the same land, without doing serious damage to the soil.


        It's erroneous to assume that simply because a field isn't being actively used, that it's not being used at all.
      • 2 Years Ago
      This is scaring. 2022 is barely nine years away. It is sad that while the developed countries which currently supply fossil-fuel driven machines and cars to developing countries are seriously engaged in research on third and fourth generation biofuels while the developing countries (especially those whose economy relies solely on exportation of crude oil) are sleeping. What will be the fate of such developing countries when machines and cars will be designed to be driven by biofuels? Can they cope as importers of fuel, cars and machines?. For my country Nigeria, this is a looming disaster.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Notable cellulosic ethanol companies with demonstration plants either in operation or planned:
      "Verenium, Coskata, Range Fuels, POET, DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC, Mascoma, ZeaChem, SunEthanol, BlueFire Ethanol, Abengoa Bioenergy, Iogen, SunOpta, KL Process Design Group, Cleantech Biofuels, American Energy Enterprises (AEEE)"
      (source: http://earth2tech.com/2008/06/03/12-companies-racing-to-build-cellulosic-ethanol-plants-in-the-us/ )

      That's a lot of interest to have it dismissed so. The cellulosic ethanol industry is just starting to ramp up production, many of the companies I listed haven't even finished their full scale production plants.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Most of the results of these start up are deceptive, the biofuel chimera is certainly not the energy bonanza that some had expected, tedious and expensive process, poor efficiency, horrendous water consumption, barely positive EROI, I simply don't see farmers growing grass by the tons over millions of acres to carry it over miles to the processing station and making money on it, there is no magic solution to this. Ethanol has too little energy value, water and phosphorus are too precious to be used to grow biofuels. We will have to turn desperate for energy to rely on biofuels...
        • 5 Years Ago
        I hate to even respond to posts so fact-sparse as that.

        Google is your friend.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Q. What are 3rd and 4th generation biofuels ?

      Ans. A clever attempt to separate stupid investors from their money.

      Q. when are they coming?

      In the next 5 years (repeat every year).

      • 5 Years Ago
      Growing crops to put in anaerobic digesters, making biogas, cleaning and upgrading this for vehicle fuel is the perfect solution - much better than any messing about to try and create liquid fuels.

      It seems completely pointless to waste energy making liquid biofuels if you ca make biomethane and run vehicles on that, as in Lille.


      With dramatic growth in CNG vehicles in EU this has to be the way to go
      • 5 Years Ago
      Batteries will never have the energy density of fuel. So it's either keep pumping, or find alternatives. Cars are not the big consumers anyway...
        • 5 Years Ago
        The good news is that batteries today are on the verge of becoming economically competitive with fossil fuels, despite the energy density. The upcoming next generation batteries will make electric cars even more economical than cars based on fuel burning.

        If carbon were priced equal to the damage it does, battery electric would have been cost competitive long ago without all the recent advances.

        If oil subsidies had been stopped, if oil companies were required to pay a fair price for leasing each acre they have been given for free, if the cost of our military that has been used for decades to keep the oil lanes open, if the health problems caused by that product were charged back to its manufacturers, etc., etc., etc. The myth of "cheap" oil has to be ended. There is no such thing. And there hasn't been since 1965, the year that the US reached peak oil.

        Google the real true cost of oil to read why "cheap" oil is a lie.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The food vs. fuel myth that drives all this is FALSE.

      Even while ethanol corn production has gone up several fold in the last decade, food corn production has risen too. Given the enormous slack capacity we have, agriculture is not a zero-sum game; you can increase something without scaling back on something else.

      What slack capacity, you ask?

      Only half our arable land is farmland, and less than half of that is cultivated. So there's plenty of cropland.

      Productivity rises relentlessly - per acre corn yields are up over 17% since 2002 alone, and Iowa now makes more corn than the entire 1940s USA.

      Rising efficiency and limited demand means fewer farmers are needed. Rural areas are losing young adults, who leave en masse for jobs elsewhere, so there's plenty of spare manpower.

      The EU is in the same boat; both of us pay farmers not to farm because we already flood the world with such a cornucopia that any more would collapse prices and bankrupt family farms.

      Third World nations are locked out of our lucrative markets and have little incentive to adopt modern efficient techniques (it would just mean more unsold surplus), or often even to move beyond subsistence to cash crops.

      Thus we can MASSIVELY expand agricultural production of so-called "first generation" (that is, cheap, efficient, easy to make, convenient) sugar and starch based ethanol without harming food production at all.

      Furthermore, if you really want to make alcohol fuel from random inedible biomass, you can ALREADY do that without needed endless years of costly research (read: oil carte benefiting delaying tactics). But the fuel you would make would be methanol, not ethanol.

      Methanol can be made from ANY biomass WITHOUT exception, including:

      crop residues (stems, leaves, cobs, etc, multiplying the per-acre fuel yield of corn ethanol farms);

      weeds and other fast-growing plants such as kudzu, water hyacinths, and bamboo;

      detritus such as rice bran, sawdust, and the "black liquor" from lumber mills;

      urban trash, and even sewage.

      A fully flex-fueled car can run on any alcohol fuel, including ethanol and methanol. We need to focus on making the cars compatible with the fuel, stop fussing with esoteric, expensive, unnecessary "alternate" ethanol making techniques, and ignore the oil cartel spread "food vs. fuel" lie.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Your "facts" and their basis are about 20 years out of date - apparently not unlike the report being hyped in the article. All (95+%) global commercial scale production of food - and or biomass depend on petro chemicals (fertilizers and fuels). So, the primary limitation of our food and biofuel production is neither spatial or water limited at this point in time. The primary food/biofuel production limitation is the use of petro chemical fertilizers that are required for their production (above the basic natural organic carbon cycle) and the fact that we are essentially making our food and energy from oil - in any biofuel scenario of significant enough scale to solve our ever growing population's energy demands..

        While biofuels may extend our petro chemical fuel reserves by adding an additional photosynthetic solar energy component to them - they are still tied to the concept of a finite "Peak Oil" through their requirement of petro chemical fertilizers. Admittedly the calculated time lines of Peak Oil have been totally erroneous and are demonstrably so still. The absolute certainty is - that we will run out of accessible petro chemicals eventually - if we survive long enough.

        Our species really needs to understand that the planet only has one primary external source of energy and it comes from the sun. Any method of energy production that employs solar that is also dependent on significant quantities of other limited organic energy resources such as petroleum - are a stop gap solution at best. While nuclear energy sources may be a source of limited, but long term energy on the planet, we still are not technically capable of making it safe and threat free to us and the planet's environment. The decision to go ahead with nuclear at this technological point will not be logical, but rather based on either ignorance, greed or last chance survival needs.

        Bottom line - we have a very long way to go technologically/economically regarding our feasibly securing a practical long term, safe and sustainable energy technology/supply. Unless we can successfully violate the laws of thermodynamics, we have to accomplish three essential things:

        1. Reduce the human population to pre-fossil fuel sustainable levels (essentially an organic system with minimal environmental impacts.

        2. Develop a more economically efficient solar energy system (photovoltaic, passive, wind, tides, etc.) for all of our energy needs.

        3. Develop an economic system that functions without population growth.

        This doesn't mean we will live with archaic technologies of earlier times, it just means there will be fewer of us in a sustainable future. Currently, our species is following the classic pattern of all dominate species that respond to their "successful adaptations" and bloom beyond their sustainability and then catastrophically collapse when they exceed the environments ability to sustain them.

        I suppose it might be at least theoretically possible that we might continue to dominate and displace the other species (with more humans) on this planet until species diversity is reduced to humans, algae, bacteria and fungus and still have some kind of functionable carbon/nitrogen life cycle. Why we would want to continue on this nihilistic path. or why we would want to steal so much the planet (as we have known it) from future generations is beyond my understanding.

        Whether our species has collectively evolved far enough to comprehend what we are doing and can effectively balance and control its biological destiny - and our survival remains to be seen. I find it shameful to see my species population dynamics mirroring those of simple mindless organisms like algae and bacteria. Surely we are capable of more?
        • 5 Years Ago
        ddugger, Malthusianism is bunk. I'd rather live in densely populated Hong Kong or Holland than in the sparsely populated Congo. Living standards have experienced the same hockey stick upward curve right along with population. Admittedly, quality matters rather than just quantity - the crucial factor has been the increase of people with medium to high IQs in a bigger total pool. Otherwise you have an "Idiocracy" future.

        Seeing humans as a virus, like Agent Smith, is profoundly anti-human. I prefer an open future with unlimited possibilities for growth, and which celebrates our transforming environments to being more congenial to us (or using technology to adapt, starting with fur and fires). A key component of that is to move beyond oil. In the long run, fertilizers can be synthesized from other feedstocks, including methanol. And Mars beckons as a second homeworld for humanity, with all the elements required for agriculture and industry there in abundance, a 24 hour day, soil conducive to plant growth, and as much land as all Earth's continents combined. Beyond that, the infinity of the cosmos and its inexhaustible resources.
      • 2 Years Ago
      This is scaring. Now that the developed countries that supply fossil-fuel driven cars and machines are investing on research on 3rd and 4th generation biofuels, many developing countries are complacent. what will be the fate of these developing countries when cars and machine are designed to be driven by biofuels? Can they cope as importers of fuel, cars and machines?. For Nigeria whose economy relies solely on exportation of crude oil, this is a looming disaster.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Haven't been seeing any algae fuel buzz lately.. I wonder if it has actually been panning out like everyone has promised.
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