Week of 21 Sept 2009Follow Nip Impressions on Twitter
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Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a couple of fresh presentations on the "Biorefinery" concept. The more I listen to such concepts, the less persuaded I become that there is anything real here. Let's take this apart and see if I can express what concerns me.
First, there is the name, "Biorefinery." This is not so far from just plain old "refinery" and a distant cousin to a coal gasification plant. All three take carbon (either recently grown or long buried) and convert it into usable forms for modern humankind's energy needs. Refinery and Coal Gasification (akin to "Clean Coal") are already bad words. We all know (write and object if you must) that the environmental advocate community is long on names and short on science. It would not take much to turn the "Biorefinery" name into a bad word, an event that will doom such projects henceforth.
Second there is the idea that if we must have ethanol, cellulosic ethanol is vastly superior to agricultural ethanols such as those derived from corn. There is the constant wringing of hand over the idea of food vs. energy. Well, according to "The Ohio Farmer", September 2009, p. 10, the US farmer today feeds 144 people (and only fed 25.8 in 1960). If that doesn't convince you there is room for more growth in the corn ethanol business, go to http://farm.ewg.org/index.php?key=nosign (or click on "More" below) and put in the county you live in, if you live in the United States, and see how much the federal government is paying farmers to not grow crops. There is plenty of room in this system for more corn.
But probably the most disingenuous aspects of every "biorefinery" presentation I have ever witnessed are what is not said. Those are these: there is an unspoken aura of these presentations implying the "biorefinery" is going to save existing integrated pulp and paper mills. I ask you, why on earth would anyone want to hang this technology, if it works and if there is a viable market for its products, on an old rusting hulk with environmental liabilities, inefficient layouts, poor work habits and on and on and on? It makes far more sense, if the concept is viable, to start fresh on a greenfield site. I can not imagine enough savings in infrastructure on any existing site to make up for the continuing liabilities it will carry forward.
And let me say something about CO2 while we are on the subject. First, it is a marked change in the last year that presentations like the ones I speak of here have generally gone from an opening justification comment related to "global warming" to one called "climate change." It looks like the general public is being prepared for the death of the global warming concept while the preservation of the "Chicken Little" syndrome soldiers on.
It is a marked change from the past solution to humankind's problems to think that we must change systems, in this case energy systems, midstream and without much thought. On the supply side, the world is not running short of fossil age carbon based fuels. Two thirds of the world has not even been explored (the deep oceans). We really don't know how much there is, and frankly I don't understand the paranoia of pulling it from the ground wherever we find it. The other push on fossil fuels is the pollution, the CO2. Yet, CO2 is pretty good stuff. We need the C and we need the O2. We even need the CO2. Perhaps we ought to look at pulling the surplus from the air. Back in the December 08 Point Counterpoint column over at PaperMoney (titled "The Precautionary Principle" if you want to look it up), I calculated that the coal and gas fired electrical generation stations worldwide turned over the entire atmosphere through their combustion chambers roughly every 12 days. Why don't we grab all that CO2 while we pull the atmosphere through the boilers? How? Stick a large greenhouse in front of each boiler (sized so the wind draft through it is something less than hurricane strength) and directly photosynthesize all that extra CO2 then and there. Who knows, maybe we can grow corn, or soybeans or something else in thirty days or less with this CO2 rich atmosphere.
I recognize we are exploring for the correct answers at the moment. I just wish we could get responsible scientists to give us full disclosure presentations and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. Their credibility is being damaged by the feeling of hidden agenda the current crop of presentations engenders.
I hope you have no hidden agendas when it comes to safety. 100% safe, all the time. Nothing else is acceptable.
Be safe and we will talk next week.