Alternative Fuel Paradigms, Part II

My previous article on this topic, published a few days prior, stated that alternative fuels generally could be considered as replacement technologies, and that replacement technologies generally fall into two subcategories, straight replacement technologies that fulfill the same basic functions as their predecessors and no more than that, and radical replacement technologies characterized by superior flexibility and supporting a range of new applications—and more apt to win out ultimately on that account. The latter normally emerge first in less publicized niche markets, often involving other, larger innovative technologies incorporating the radical replacement technology, and then migrate into multitude of major markets. Clayton Christiansen’s famous book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” describes such replacements as “disruptive technologies” and states the position that they are of key importance in defining new markets. I believe that he is generally correct in this supposition though I would not accord him priority in discerning this pattern within the history of technology. Joseph Schumpeter, the great Austrian-American economist, articulated the idea in his epochal “Business Cycles” back in 1948.

To reprise my previous assertions in regard to alternative fuels as replacement technologies, hydrogen is the alternative fuel most representative of the disruptive technology designation while coal-to-liquids synfuel is the least representative, in other words, the one that is most nearly a straight replacement technology. But, as I have observed many times in this journal, the disruptive technology of hydrogen and the hydrogen economy do not appear to be poised to enjoy market success any time soon even within niche markets. The problems in commercializing the cluster of technologies involving hydrogen generation, storage, transmission, and fuel cells simply appear too great.

And it must be remembered that not all disruptive technologies succeed. Bubble memory which was going to revolutionize computing circa 1980 was highly disruptive and a clear departure from existing magnetic disc storage techniques, but it failed entirely in the marketplace. Similarly, in the automotive realm, truly innovative engine designs have generally failed. Automotive turbines have only been used in heavy trucks and are no longer available in that market sector, while Wankel engines are currently confined to a single manufacturer. Stirling cycle engines, trialed by a number of manufacturers in the seventies, were decisively rejected by the auto industry.

I would also note that previous disruptive replacement fuels such as coal, gasoline, and diesel were all associated with fundamentally new types of transport and/or power machinery. Alternative fuels generally do not represent the vanguard of a transportation or industrial revolution unless one believes that the spread of distributed power to off grid communities in developing nations is just such a revolution.

Green Gasoline - The Unexamined Straight Replacement Technology

Almost everyone involved in producing biofuels today is making either ethanol or some variation of biodiesel. Nevertheless, several technologies exist for converting certain types of biomass to petroleum analogs, namely synthetic fuels closely resembling refined petroleum products. These would fit the straight replacement model and would allow the manufacturer to sell into the existing pervasive petroleum distribution system and not worry about building a rival industry from the ground up as is the case with biodiesel.

Unfortunately, the economics of bio-based synfuels have not looked very favorable in the past. Most studies have focused on the production of synfuels from syngas via Fischer Tropsch methods, but the cost of the feedstocks combined with the energy hit from the gasifier itself would appear to rule out such an approach until such time that all fossil resources, conventional as well as unconventional, become so constrained that bio-based feedstocks assume a cost advantage.

I believe, however, that the possibility exists that bio-methane produced by advanced anaerobic digesters could provide the basis for economically feasible gas-to-liquids conversions today. Biomethane is already becoming cost competitive in some places with natural gas and so the possibility of using it as synfuel feedstock begins to become attractive. To my knowledge no one has done so to date though.

The municipal and industrial wastes and fuel crops that would support an enlarged biomethane industry are not in infinite supply, however, and, while cheap now, would surely ascend in price if drawn upon heavily for liquid fuel production. Ironically, biomethane-based liquid fuels can probably be manufactured more cheaply on a relatively small scale than on a larger scale due to just such issues of feedstock availability.

My own thought on this yet undeveloped business is that anyone contemplating bio-based synfuels might want to concentrate on small niche markets such as general aviation fuel and racing fuel, markets characterized by specialized products, truck distribution, and high prices.

Paradigms Lost?

So, for the time being, a clear replacement technology paradigm is not in evidence in the alt fuels industry. But we may in fact be looking in the wrong places. My guess is that the ultimate role of alternative fuels may be in mechanizing the developing world in a post petroleum age, a process which could involve distinctive vehicles as yet imperfectly realized and which could constitute a true transportation revolution.