Week of December 14

Stable pyrolysis oil...a new enzymatic hydrolysis technique...an advanced battery association...a new kind of steam engine....

Pall Corporation, a manufacturer of filtration systems for industry, and UOP, a petroleum process engineering company, have formed a joint venture for stabilizing pyrolysis oil. UOP has undertaken other projects involving pyrolysis oil in the recent past, most significantly one for producing liquid hydrocarbons or synfuels from the stuff.

Pyrolysis oil is the perennial dark horse of the alternative fuels industry. While the economics for producing it have generally been shown to be pretty good, the stuff itself is pretty unsavory—brown, malodorous, ropy, and highly caustic. Its lack of stability has also detracted from its prospects in the marketplace, but it seems to me that reformulated refined products produced from it such as UOP's own pyrolysis-based fuels and somewhat similar products from Kior are more likely to succeed than pyrolysis oil in anything like its raw form, which happens to be fairly low in energy content and well as undesirable in so many other ways.

Still, even raw, unrefined pyrolysis oil is about equivalent in energy per unit of mass to biodiesel, and it can easily be produced from low cost feedstocks such as wood waste, or indeed almost any form of woody biomass, so it's not entirely without advantages. No purveyor of pyrolysis oil oil or pyrolysis oil technology seems to have shown much marketing acumen to date, however, which may have as much to do with the failure of this alternative fuel as anything else.

Enzymatic Hydrolysis at Last?

A Nevada based firm calling itself For Fuel Freedom claims to have developed a means of producing ethanol from organic solid waste by means of enzymatic hydrolysis. We've heard such claims before, but what make this company unique are statements to the effect that they can separate lignin from cellulose by enzymatic means as well as performing fermentation. Such single stage processing has long been held to be the Holy Grail of ethanol production but no one to my knowledge has previously claimed to have accomplished it.

Most of ethanol technology startups over the course of the last few years have been promoting some variant or other in the enzymatic hydrolysis family of techniques, so the For Fuel Freedom folks are joining a crowded field. Let's just hope they're more successful than their predecessors. In general, cellulosic ethanol production methods, while garnering a lot of great press in environmental journals have gone nowhere in the marketplace. Nobody has demonstrated cost effective commercial production, and that's after ninety years of trying off and on.

Meanwhile, an Austrian firm named Vogelbusch which is one of the largest manufacturers of processing equipment for grain-based ethanol facilities, has demonstrated a new technology for processing traditional starchy feedstocks where steam produced in distillation is reused within a multi-column distillery with each subsequent column operating with lower pressure steam. The details provided in the description of the process are confusing, but the claim of increased efficiency is straightforward enough. Grain based distillation, as performed in modern dry mill facilities, is highly efficient nowadays, and one wonders to what extent the state of the art has been improved upon.

The U.S. Advanced Battery Deficit

A group calling itself the National Alliance for Advanced Transportation Battery Cell Manufacture has recently formed to promote the production of advanced batteries here in the U.S. rather than in China where most of the activity is taking place. The U.S. is the home to many developers of innovative batteries, many of whom are aiming at the electric car market, but few of these firms have announced production within our borders.

Energy storage, or course, is not our primary focus, but inasmuch as it has considerable bearing upon the use of alternative fuels in transportation, it definitely bears watching.

Some of the more prominent advanced battery players have signed tentative deals with American auto makers, but I'm pretty skeptical. I've seen nothing from American startups that struck me as a radical improvement over existing products, which is ominous in terms of their long term survival. Lithium batteries, representing the favored chemistry today, are far too expensive even when they're sourced from the Asian manufacturers. I don't see how the considerably higher priced American art is going to make it, especially when auto makers are already having a hell of time bringing in plug-in hybrids at any reasonable price point.

I remember interviewing a battery consultant several years ago when I was writing for another publication, and he expressed the view that the best a startup could hope for was being purchased by a major Asian firm or selling its intellectual property to the same. I would mention that there are a lot of industry analysts who believe the same about automobiles and think that plucky electric car startups like Fisker and Tesla are similarly doomed.

Of course, this opens up a whole other issue having to do with the ability of entrenched incumbents to stifle new technology and appropriate what they can't stifle. It's a commonly held believe that incumbents regularly suppress new technology to ensure their stranglehold on markets, but I find the evidence to support such conclusions to be rather scanty.

IBM certainly wasn't able to stifle the personal computer upstarts of the eighties even though it ended up losing its entire mini computer market to such upstarts. The big vacuum tube companies like RCA and GE weren't able to keep semiconductor companies like Texas Instruments and Intel from rising to prominence. And companies like Kodak weren't able to keep out digital cameras and video recorders. Indeed, I'd be hard put to come up with an example of where incumbents did suppress a new technology. True, leading manufacturers of incandescent light bulbs were able to restrict fluorescent lights to commercial markets for a period of time, but they couldn't suppress the technology altogether.

I happen to believe that truly transformational new technologies can succeed regardless of the wealth and power of incumbents, but only when they are truly transformational. Incrementally better isn't enough.

Steam Assisted Vehicles

From time to time, we have revisited the subject of steam motive power in these pages. There are a few interesting companies such as NearFutures and Cyclone Power that have recently developed novel forms of steam engines, though no one has yet enjoyed much success in the marketplace. Steam engines continue to reign supreme in coal fired electrical power plants where the age of steam has never ended, while steam locomotives, some incorporating sophisticated new designs, continue to be used in China, but generally steam has fallen on evil days.

A Canadian company calling itself Clean Power Technologies has announced the commercialization of a steam power plant for heavy vehicles which works in tandem with the conventional internal combustion engine and uses the waste heat from the latter to heat the steam.

BMW, as I recall, had a similar notion several years ago, but did not introduce a system into the marketplace, while a Utah based company called Eneco devised a thermo-electric system that would convert internal combustion waste heat directly into electricity.

Clean Power Technologies has released few details concerning their design except to say that it utilizes a reciprocating steam engine, as incidentally do the NearFutures and Cyclone Power designs. They've also indicated that the engine operates with low temperature saturated steam which does not conduce to high efficiency, and that it is a compound engine—that is, the steam expands through a succession of cylinders, losing pressure at each stage until most of its energy has been extracted. Such compound engines were in fact the norm during the late nineteenth century.

The problem I see is that low pressure steam engines are so inefficient that I'm not sure what this technique would buy you. You'd undoubtedly gain some increase in overall efficiency, but probably not more than 15%, and then steam engines, even small ones, tend to be very massive for a given power output which will rob you of some of that 15%.

We'll have to see how this develops.