Archive for April, 2009

A Practical CO2 – to – Methanol Scheme?

April 23, 2009

ScienceDaily reports that researchers at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have discovered a “simple” way to convert CO2 to useful C1 chemicals, like methanol. Methanol, one of the world’s largest volume industrial chemicals, is a convenient starting point for many petroleum derived chemicals and plastics, and a useful fuel component in its own right.

The the CO2 to methanol reaction, which uses a N-heterocyclic carbene catalyst and a hydro-silane reducing agent, yields a process “… by which CO2 can be efficiently converted into methanol under very mild conditions…” according to the researchers.

If – and that’s a huge word in this context – if this new science can be engineered to a practical, economic scale, then we may have a powerful new tool (complementing and perhaps displacing absorption-sequestration schemes) to begin making headway toward controlling CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: “Carbon Dioxide Snatched From The Air”, ScienceDaily. Wiley-Blackwell (2009, April 21).


Here, There and Everwhere 2: Life on …?

April 17, 2009

This story doens’t really fit with the theme of this blog, but – holy moley! – this story in Science Daily was just too cool to pass up. This doesn’t really say anything about life on other worlds, but it sure does expand the range of conditions under which life can thrive. Moons of Saturn, anyone?

According to the Science Daily article, “A reservoir of briny liquid buried deep beneath an Antarctic glacier supports hardy microbes that have lived in isolation for millions of years, researchers report April 17 in the journal Science. The discovery of life in a place where cold, darkness, and lack of oxygen would previously have led scientists to believe nothing could survive….”

Ethanol Energy News

April 17, 2009

Some interesting tidbits of news and opinion about fuel alcohol …

U.S. Corn Ethanol Industry on the Ropes April 17th, 2009 – By Sam Hopkins

Hopkins asserts the US corn-based ethanol business may be in trouble, in large measure due to huge water consumption in the growing and processing, despite healthy growth of the industry.”From 6.5 billion gallons in 2007, the U.S. ethanol industry churned out 9 billion gallons of the biofuel in 2008. That’s 52% of the world’s ethanol production…” according to Hopkins.

The Hopkins article goes on to praise the Brazilian sugar cane to ethanol model, a motor fuels approach I’ve advocated (no news to those of you who’ve followed my earlier posts) since doing business there more than 20 years ago.

If you’re a sugar-to-fuel fanatic, and you’re on Linked-In, you might want to look at new Linked-in groups “Brazilian Sugar and Ethanol” and “Investing in Renewable Energy (Solar, Wind…)”.

Denying the Climate Change Deniers

April 10, 2009

The April 9, New York Times runs a profile of a leading opponent of climate change legislation and a vocal denier of global warming. Marc Morano formerly worked as spokesman for Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, and earlier, as a reporter for Rush Limbaugh, according the NYT article, so you have a fair idea where Mr Morano is coming from. Now, he’s introducing a new site to further his particular view of the climate change debate. 

Whether you agree with the anti climate change crowd or not – and the vast majority of scientific work emphatically does not – the global warming / climate change question is one worth thinking long and hard about. Potential disruptions of our economy, our heath and national safety, and indeed, the stable patterns of life on earth itself demand a serious and open-minded discussion.

The question of climate change / global warming is so complex that breaking it down into smaller, logical steps is vital.  There are, it seems to me, five key subsidiary questions that any honest analysis of climate change has to tackle.  None of them, despite the heated, partisan rhetoric, have quick or clear-cut answers. (more…)

Hydrogen and Bio-Fuels

April 8, 2009

Across the world, experiments in bio-fuels are popping up – including the decades-long experience of Brazil, where large parts of the economy run on ethyl alcohol, fermented and distilled from sugar cane waste. A European company, BioMCN is commercializing a nifty process to make bio-methanol (methyl alcohol, MeOH for short) from the by-products of factories which make EU-mandated bio-diesel. As explained on the BioMCN website, MeOH is a very versatile material – great on its own as a fuel or in fuel blends, and an excellent starting material for more complex liquid fuels and chemical products.

It’s difficult, however, to see MeOH – even if it’s bio-derived – as the answer to hydrogen powered automobile fleets and the hydrogen economy. From the standpoint of science, all it takes is a lot of heat to squeeze H2 out of almost any organic substance – natural gas, bio-MeOH, coal, agricultural waste. Indeed, the industrial world makes huge amounts of H2 just this way today. Beyond the science, however, there are several problems:

1. Any carbon-based source of H2 (bio-methanol, natural gas, coal gasification, ag waste, etc) will ultimately poop out CO2, the greenhouse gas the Hydrogen Economy is trying to avoid.
2. Methanol today is dirt cheap. Huge but out-of-the-way oil fields, principly in the Middle East, convert nuisance natural gas to MeOH and ship it by the mega-boat-load to North America and Europe. It will be extremely difficult for any bio process to compete economically with MeOH derived from waste natural gas.
3. The BioMCN venture appears to prosper under the regulatory umbrella (ie subsidy) of the EU bio-diesel mandate. No criticism here – their scheme is a great way to get the most from those bio-diesl factories in an enviro-friendly way.

Ultimately, it’s not a question of science, but of public policy and vision. Most large scale bio-ventures (think Brazil’s ethanol economy, ethanol fuels in the US, the early days of plastic soft drink bottle recycling, for example) will require a substantial dose of government encouragement, protection and support to survive and flourish.

So while the science and technology components of alternative energy are fun, exciting and necessary, those who value an alternative energy future must never lose focus on the long term political component that must underlay their success.

Tidbits of Energy News

April 8, 2009

Thanks to readers for the “heads-up” on a couple of interesting energy news items …

“Obama Administration Offers $535 Million Loan Guarantee to Solyndra, Inc: Investment Could Lead to Thousands of New Jobs”

Washington, DC – “Energy Secretary Steven Chu today offered a $535 million loan guarantee for Solyndra, Inc. to support the company’s construction of a commercial-scale manufacturing plant for its proprietary cylindrical solar photovoltaic panels. The company expects to create thousands of new jobs in the U.S. while deploying its solar panels across the U.S. and around the world.”

And the newletter Green Chip Review sees great promise for renewable energy investment coming out of the G-20 summit in London last week …

“The Clean Energy Upside from G20”
By Sam Hopkins | Friday, April 3rd, 2009

To the G-20 communique “We have today therefore pledged to do whatever is necessary to build an inclusive, green, and sustainable recovery”, GreenChip responds “By taking a holistic approach to the reform of global financial institutions and the way money moves, the G20 will ensure the flow of funds into clean energy ventures and national projects.”

Green Chip Review is an on-line investment newsletter, so expect a lot of stock-picking advice. It does offer a useful overview of alternative energy news and opinion.

Energy Development – Here, There, Everywhere

April 8, 2009

An April 7 article at provides an interesting counterpoint to the Tom Friedman NYTimes editorial I highlighted in my previous post. Friedman contends that the US needs to become the world leader in developing new (job creating) energy industries. The SolarPlaza article – descrbing the pace of alternative energy development outside the US – underscores the urgency of setting an aggressive American policy in motion.

Cap-and-Trade on Carbon Dioxide?

April 8, 2009

Tom Friedman has a must-read editorial in this morning’s NEW YORK TIMES, whether you’re on the right or the left of the federal energy policy discussion. It’s a lucid discussion of “cap and trade” and the concept of a carbon dioxide emissions tax. As usual, Friedman clearly explains not only the nuts and bolts of the cap and trade argument, but the political ins and outs of making it happen.

Friedman’s bottom line – Drop the confusing, WallStreet-ish cap and trade proposal and use, instead a straight-forward CO2 tax to drive the growth of job-creating new energy technologies in the US.

Whether you’re on the right or left of the energy and environment arguments, it’s hard to justify a position that blocks American leadership in developing a new energy industry.

“Show Us the Ball”
Published: April 7, 2009

Robert Redford on Alternative Energy

April 7, 2009

Robert Redford has an interesting piece in this morning’s Huffington Post “Balancing Renewable Energy Projects; Public Lands Stewardship”. Redford’s editorial focuses on large acrage solar and wind projects.

The comments to Redford’s post are instructive, too. Lots of enthusiasm (well-place, in my opinion) for using the tremendous idle square-footage of rooftop space for solar collectors.

Here Comes the Sun … Again

April 6, 2009

A few days ago – April 3 – I wrote here about the history of energy prices. In that post, I mentioned that many of the alternative energy plans we hear about today actually have their roots in our previous experience with escalating oil prices (ca 1975-1980).

Solar, in particular, had made a great commercial start before plummeting oil prices in the early 1980s pulled the economic rug from beneath the blossoming alternative energy marketplace. If you look closely, for example, it’s still possible to see 1979 vintage solar panels on rooftops in sunnier parts of the country. On a larger scale, solar-to-steam-to-electricity plans were on drawing boards around the world – utilizing acres of mirrors focusing sunlight on a central receiver / generator tower – and a demonstration unit was actually built in California.

Today, the solar emphasis seems to be on photovoltaics, converting sunlight directly to electricity. And indeed, the science and economics of photovoltaics have improved greatly in the past few years. However, solar-thermal technologies – despite being decidedly less sexy than photovoltaics – deserve to remain high on the list of solar priorities. Advantages include …
– For the homeowner, solar-thermal systems are relatively simpler and considerably less expensive than solar-to-electricity systems
– Storing heat (in a hot water tank, for example) is a lot simpler and less expensive than storing an equivalent amount of energy as electricity
– Photovoltaic schemes require complex and expensive control systems to interface with the public grid or your home appliances

And, lest I appear one-sided, solar-thermal schemes suffer a significant shortcoming too …
– Upper temperatures are limited (without substantial additional investment in complex and expensive concentrator and control apparatus). Space heating is OK, along with some modest industrial processes, but more ambitious energy processes require higher temperatures than conventional (flat plate) solar collectors can achieve.

Regardless of the approach – solar thermal or photovoltaic – I have this nagging worry that solar energy history may be about to repeat itself, with plunging oil prices removing all the economic incentive for alternative energy development.