Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Renewable Combustibles PT 2

Renewable Combustibles

Part Two: Bacteria & Biofuel


 Author: Kawlin Rolfe 2015


Rising costs in fuel production is a common concern for the global economy.  The world has begun to move away from these complex carbon structures as a main source of energy.  This is mainly due to increases in transporting, mining and refinery costs for fossil fuels.  We could almost be thankful for this turn in economy, as it has led to many advances in alternative energy/renewable systems.

Aside from the environmental impacts- there are still a few valid reasons for the production of fossil fuels to continue.  The main reason being that the majority of our world still operates on some sort of combustible device (cars, boilers, power plants, etc.) and as a species, we don’t like change.  Creating efficient fossil fuel consuming systems means increasing the refining process of drilled oil and identifying alternative fuel sources.

This on-going research and development has seen a shift in recent years.  Refining and cost cutting for fossil fuels is almost at its top-end for efficiency upgrades.  This means the fuel we use to heat our homes and businesses, has reached its lowest cost point.

These businesses generally burn oil or natural gas (many have simply switched to electric heat altogether as there are less losses in the efficiency of these systems) which we know as fossil fuels.  However there is a large push to develop alternative methods of harvesting complex carbon fuels. 
So what is available for alternative fuels?  Wood biomass (pellets, stove length, wood chips) tends to be the common ground in Nova Scotia, but this isn’t the case for many large facilities.  Large buildings require a lot of space heating, which feasibly can’t be met with a wood fired system.

One such method is utilizing organic matter, like algae, tallows, other waste oils to produce a combustible fuel source.  These organic compounds can be refined (based on their organic-chemical composition) and as a result reduce the environmental impact of combustibles. The creation of these organic based fuels is done through a process called hydrothermal liquefaction.

Hydrothermal Liquefaction -not really a term that gets tossed around dinner parties- is a process where biomass is exposed to an extremely high pressure while undergoing a significant change in temperature.  This creates a chemical reaction in the algae, allowing for oxygen molecules to separate from complex sugar molecules, and in the end fuels are produced.  The benefit of this process is that it only requires a heat addition process (thanks to advances in solar technology this is becoming easier.) 

The impressive nature of this type of fuel production is that it primarily relies on the chemical structure of biomass and inducing a bacteria based chemical reaction.  We see these processes happen every day, from sour milk to alcohol.  The best part is that the product of these processes yield high quality fuel for a multitude of applications.  Imagine flying a plane on perennial grass!

(Stay tuned for more energy bits & bites!)

References:
http://algae.illinois.edu/projects/Hydrothermal.html
Biofuels were approved for commercial use in July 2011
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-01/airlines-win-approval-to-use-plant-based-biofuels-on-commercial-flights.html
Future of aviation fuel source
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140326160929.htm