Hydrogen and Bio-Fuels

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.

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One Response to “Hydrogen and Bio-Fuels”

  1. Electricity in a Box: Bloom Energy Servers « The Alternative Energy Page Says:

    […] cells provide the dream-world answer, but until we have a huge, economically viable of source of Hydrogen that doesn’t depend on a carbon-based source, the hydrogen economy will remain just that – a pleasant day […]

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