May Day Week - the Week's Events

There's always something happening in the world of alternative fuels—at least of late there is—and last week did not disappoint.

GM Buys into a Cellulosic Ethanol Firm

General Motors announced that it has taken an ownership stake in Mascoma, a New England based startup developing an enzymatic hydrolysis procedure for making fuel ethanol out of cellulose. GM earlier purchased an interest in Coskata, another celluosic ethanol company, albeit one with a decidedly different approach, apparently involving gasification of biomass and the subsequent catalytic derivation of ethanol from the resulting syngas. Both firms, coincidentally, have received funding from the redoubtable Vinod Khosla, the biofuels mogul who was one of the founders of the Kleiner Perkins, the premier Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

So what it's all mean? Possibly that GM is quietly abandoning its hydrogen initiative, something I've anticipated for a long time. Both cellulosic ethanol and hydrogen are currently long shots, but hydrogen is the longer shot, and that's becoming obvious to the public at large. Cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, still has a certain allure.

I interviewed Mascoma principals some eighteen months ago, and, at the time, the research staff wasn't announcing any breakthroughs. From what I understand they still aren't, but the world has changed in the interim. Lots of cellulosic ethanol pilots are getting funded today, and a few commercial facilities have been announced in various places in the world. The cellulosic camp is getting a serious shot at establishing themselves and serious money to go forward. We'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, the European Union is beginning to back away from biofuels in the face of all the adverse publicity that the first generation fuels, i.e. ethanol and biodiesel, have gotten of late. Europe has already been through a hydrogen hype cycle which appears to be pretty much over at present, so if they're not going to be doing biofuels, what will their choice of transportation fuel be? The activities of TREC may provide an answer.

European Solar and the Scramble for Africa

Business Week recently ran an article which is essentially old news to those of us who have been following the European renewable energy markets, but which likely to spark a good deal of discussion here in the United States. That article concerns the activities of TREC, short for Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation.

TREC is a loose organization of policy makers and scientists who have come to the belated realization that building a lot more windmills is not going ensure Europe's energy security. You simply can't run an electrical grid on wind alone (see our primer entitled "Toward the Renewable Sources Power Grid"), and Europe is facing a future where coal, uranium, petroleum, and natural gas will probably be in short supply. Europe, unlike the United States, is not sitting atop a mountain of still untapped hydrocarbons. Unless the European fusion energy projects somehow bear fruit, which they probably won't, there's no where to go but to renewables.

Apart from wind, which as we have seen, has its limits, and hydroelectric which hasn't much room for growth in Europe, solar energy is the only renewable that is arguably good to go. The TREC folks are looking at concentrating solar, not photovoltaic, and are proposing to use solar troughs and dishes to focus sunlight on heat engines such as Rankine turbines and Stirling cycle engines. Their notion is that such installations could be strung across the Sahara which gets plenty of sun and where there isn't likely to be much environmental opposition from people concerned about desert tortoises and the like.

One may object that the Europeans will merely be replacing one sort of Middle Eastern energy dependence with another, but evidently no one is thinking of a solar embargo at this time, nor of a solar cartel either. Of course, the Europeans could re-colonize North Africa or get the Americans to do it for them under the guise of fighting terrorism. I can almost see the tee shirts, "no blood for sunshine".

Not mentioned in this article is the scheme that these people have cooked up for transmitting all that electrical power across the Straits of Gibralter. The idea is to use an all high voltage DC system, which in truth would be a good deal cheaper than conventional AC high tension lines. High voltage DC networks are in very limited use at present, but they're definitely feasible. A system using superconducting cables might be even better, though that hasn't many champions across the pond at present.

The TREC folks propose to deal with the intermittency problem, the fact that North Africa is not the land of the midnight sun, by spreading the power generation network from Morocco to Egypt and possibly beyond so that it spans several time zones. The way I figure, that still leaves you with at least five hours when you're not generating anything (molten salt solar turbines can operate 16 hours a day and not only during the hours of daylight), but I suppose fossil fuel and nuclear plants back in the home countries could take up the slack, at least for several decades.

So what about transportation needs? The electrical energy generated by this means could be used either to charge all-electric cards, to power rail systems, both light and heavy, or to split water to create hydrogen fuel. Expanding electric rail systems would be the least expensive and most feasible strategy.

So how does one induce the Arab states of North Africa to agree to this scheme? The TREC champions believe that Europe can trade water for electricity.

Incidentally, the group believes that Europe's energy needs can be met by this means for a sum of 600 billion Euros or a bit over a trillion dollars. I did some computations on the cost of all renewable power grid for the U.S., which occupies a similar geographical footprint, and came up with an estimate of several tens of trillions of dollars, though I was basing my estimate on wind power where the intermittency problem is much greater, as is the need for redundant infrastructure.

I will conclude by saying that I don't think TREC is a pipedream. Europe has to develop new infrastructure for electrical generation that does not depend upon fossil or nuclear fuel. Solar seems like a reasonably good bet. Another route could involve the use of ocean energy, but there the technology is so immature that I don't see much support developing.

Green Ships and Airplanes – Altfuels at Sea and in the Air

The Electric Aircraft Symposium met in San Francisco last week and during the proceedings a Slovenian manufacturer named Pipistrel announced the introduction of what is purported to be the world's first electric airplane, the Taurus Electro. The aircraft is a powered sailplane, and would normally use the engine only for launch.

I say purportedly the first because there is in fact prior art. AeroVironment, a research company based in Pasadena, California, established an altitude record with an unmanned electric aircraft called the Pathfinder utilizing regenerative fuel cells and solar panels. A German company known as Lang Flugzeugbau introduced a powered sailplane called the Antares which appears rather similar to the Pipistrel design. And at least one company called Solar Impulse has designed an aircraft using photovoltaic cells on the wings to provide electricity for motive power. In short, contrary to the reportage on the Electric Aircraft Symposium, the Taurus Electro has a number of predecessors.

So what is the likelihood of electric aircraft establishing even a niche market? Not very good with current technology, I'm afraid. The weight of the power plant is a crucial issue with aircraft, and battery powered and even fuel cell powered propulsion systems are much heavier than optimized internal combustion engines. True, Boeing has a well funded program for developing a fuel cell airplane, but no one is saying that such an aircraft would be remotely cost effective with today's technology.

On a somewhat different note, I would mention that a lot of interesting development work is taking place within an aviation market that has yet to define itself—aerial mass personal transportation. As long ago as the nineteen thirties certain aircraft manufacturers envisioned a true mass market for airplanes, one that would rival that for the automobile, and indeed there were serious efforts to build such a market during the Depression and in the early post World War II period. Of course, all such efforts came to naught, although per capita ownership of airplanes was higher then than now and prices were lower in constant dollar terms. The real problem was that the difficulty in mastering aircraft operation was such that mass market was almost unimaginable with traditional designs.

The idea among today's personal aircraft visionaries is that the operation of these vehicles could be automated to such an extent that the masses could fly them with confidence, and that modern manufacturing techniques could permit pricing only slightly higher than that for automobiles. Both propositions, incidentally, are arguably true; drone airplanes are current examples of completely automated computer controlled aircraft that are demonstrably effective, and low mass production techniques were successfully demonstrated in Britain and the United States in World War II when both nations turned out tens of thousands of airplanes (very few aircraft are truly mass produced today). The problem I see is in the power plant. Aircraft engines are made to exacting standards, and most private owners adhere to rigorous and costly maintenance schedules. Would these conditions obtain in a mass market?

Most of the prototypes I've seen utilize various STOL (short takeoff and landing) schemes that would eliminate or reduce the need for runways. The fairly widely publicized Moller Skycar is a fairly representative example of the type. Another example is the Swiss Smartfish airplane which is designed to achieve better fuel economy than an automobile, a remarkable and unprecedented achievement if it's true.

At any rate, few established aircraft companies subscribe to the vision, Cirrus Design being the notable exception, but NASA's Website has many papers devoted to the topic. In other words, it is being taken seriously by some transportation authorities.
Right now, however, there is no commercial art in this particular transportation category—in other words, it's about where the automobile industry was in 1885.

Finally, a word on alternative energy in the shipping industry. Last week Richard Sadler, CEO of Lloyd's Register, stated that the shipping industry must act quickly to prepare for a conversion to biofuels. Considering the fact that the use of biofuels at sea is utterly negligible today, this is a startling pronouncement. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has experimented with palm oil based biodiesel in its cruise ships but that's about it with respect to commercial shippers. Granted, a scattering of yachtsmen use biodiesel as a matter of personal choice, but the volumes consumed are insignificant today. It's simply not happening.

Most small vessels outside of the United States use diesel fuel, while large ships run on heavy low cost bunker oil, essentially the same product as the heating oil used in the northeastern United States. Practically all vessels excepting small U.S. made speedboats and the handful of craft using aero-derivative gas turbines are now equipped with compression ignition engines, four stroke in the case of pleasure craft and small ships and two stroke in the case of big ships. The big two stroke engines inevitably run on bunker oil.

Commercial shipping is a cost sensitive industry. It's utilized so extensively because it is the cheapest way to transport goods, but rising petroleum prices will make shipping much more expensive and increase the cost of imported goods. For companies dependent upon imported food such increases could prove critical.

Could biofuels ever be as cheap as petroleum based bunker oil today? Certainly not palm based biodiesel. Pyrolysis oil from vaporized wood waste, which more nearly resembles bunker oil in its combustion properties, is only a bit more expensive today, but it is corrosive and unstable in its native state, and, if demand were increased, the supply of wood waste might become constrained.

The other option is coal which is much cheaper than petroleum per BTU. I wouldn't expect the old coal heated steam turbines to return but more likely some sort of syngas turbine running on coal derived syngas or else a blown coal Brayton turbines, perhaps utilizing some form of oxy-fuel combustion to eliminate CO2 effluents.