Interesting new material, Ann. Since the result is a material that is not more biodegradable than oil products, I would imagine the researchers are seeking other advantages from the material. Is it that branches are less expensive than oil?
This reminds me of those Mobil commercials where the research talks about the wonders of algae and how they're growing them in the lab so they can one day be used as a source of renewable fuel. The difference here, and in other recent materials you've written about, Ann, is that the "one day" is today.
Alex, I keep having the same experience, finding and writing about these new discoveries and/or possible technologies. That's especially true since I've been a sci-fi fan since age 11. The future is here.
Think it's a way forward, most landscaping companies and timber companies just dump branches (in Africa), but they did mention production of Methane in large amounts, it might be another way to go, as methane looks like a good alternative to oil. Oil being more capital intensive than this alternative I assume
Ann, I'm not knocking this way-cool technology. But what I am knocking is our current political climate. While "Oil from Branches" is considered cutting edge and a renewable resource, what if, millions of years ago, our ancestors had the foresight to take fallen branches and stockpile them underground until later generations had the technology to convert the branches into fuel. And what if millions of years ago, our ancestors had the foresight to collect all of the algae they could find and stockpile it underground until later generations had the technology to convert the algae into fuel.
The awesome thing is that nature did just that. We are the later generations and we have an abundance of old branches in the form of "coal" and an abundance of old algae in the form of "petroleum". If a politician could prove that their ancestors created the stockpiles, we would make them Monarch for Life. As it stands, Coal and Petroleum are somehow "alien" technologies that are only here to poison the earth. Until scientists and engineers fix that perception, we will remain in the dark.
@William K.: To say that the existence of fossil fuels justifies using them -- at rates which astronomically outpace their rates of natural replenishment -- without regard for the environmental consequences is kind of like saying that the existence of beer justifies being an alcoholic.
Nature has also blessed the Earth with an abundance of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals. I don't think that means that we ought to feed them to our kids.
I'd also say that being able to do in a matter of hours or minutes what nature takes millions of years to do (namely, converting biomass into hydrocarbons) is a pretty significant accomplishment.
Converting biomass into syngas, and converting syngas into hydrocarbons via a Fischer-Tropsch process, are not new things. What's new here is a more efficient catalyst, which might allow this to be done much more economically.
In a related development, the University of Minnesota has developed a new catalyst for the first step of the process (converting biomass into syngas). Bringing these two technologies together might make the production of hydrocarbons from biomass fairly simple and cheap -- eventually, maybe even cheaper than extracting them from geological sources.
@Dave Palmer, I find it difficult to take your comment seriously when your avatar is of an iron smelter. Transforming iron oxide into iron and steel using mixtures of toxic iron, aluminum, bismuth, boron, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, sulfur, titanium, tungsten, and vanadium and then shaping that steel into tanks, swords, missiles, and knives...
It's amazing how those evil scientists and engineers take what Nature has made and turn it into killing machines.
@williamlweaver: It's not anti-technology or anti-industry to support responsible use of natural resources. It's just common sense. I've seen what happens when companies don't consider their impact on the environment, and it's not pretty.
To extend the analogy, I don't see anything wrong with drinking few beers now and then, but somebody who get completely wasted every night has a problem, and somebody who gets wasted and then gets behind the wheel of a car is a danger to others.
If I thought there was anything wrong with taking the materials nature has provided us with and using them to improve our quality of life, I wouldn't be in the line of work I'm in. But we need to do so in a responsible way -- otherwise our quality of life will suffer in the end.
But, yeah, as a matter of fact, I do have moral qualms about doing certain military work. As a practicing Catholic, I take the fifth commandment and the Sermon on the Mount very seriously, so I don't agree with the enormous sums of money our society dedicates to warfare. (That's not to say I think we shouldn't have a military, just that our military spending is out of control). That's why I chose to work in civilian industry, while many of my former classmates are making much more money working for military contractors.
Good points, Dave. I particularly appreciate your moral comments regarding the military. I believe in a strong military, but its seems pretty clear ours has become much larger than it needs to be. Not so much in personnel, but in the number of bases and the contracts with military contractors. Eisenhower warned us about it, and he was right.
Rob, Eisenhower told us to beware the military-industrial complex. Perhaps he should have said the political-military-industrial complex. I'm used to writing about military apps and I happen to be a student of (ancient) military history. But I'm not at all thrilled with what our modern military does to its soldiers, or what it lets its contractors get away with. These days, though, I'm at least as unhappy with our politicians.
I agree about our treatment of soldiers and I agreee about politicians. Without politics, we could probably cut away half of our bases without losing any effectiveness. But base locations have become a form of pork.
@Dave Palmer: I'm one of those military contractors turned educator. My view on technology and warfare is summarized nicely in Star Trek Episode #77 "The Savage Curtain". From Wikipedia - With the fight over, the Excalbian reappears and announces that while evil retreats when confronted with force, there is no great difference otherwise between the two philosophies [good and evil]. At which point Kirk states that the representatives of evil were motivated by a desire for power, while the good side was offered the lives of the Enterprise crew, implying that it is not the methods but the ends that distinguish good and evil.
What if more abundant oil lowers the price of gasoline, which frees up more money for basic research, which leads to the discovery of efficient solar power, safe cold fusion from hydrogen, and revolutions in genetic research that cures all genetic disease in children? Or we can continue to in-fight over the redistribution of limited resources as we continue to intentionally reduce the amount of resources we have to redistribute.
Show me how the Clean Air Act of 1970 has increased the amount of pollution from industry in the United States. Nobody wants to work at a factory that poisons the environment in which their family and children live. To say we do not have the innovation necessary to utilize natural resources responsibly is to suggest that we do not have the innovation necessary to go to the moon or build a self-driving automobile. Regulations that Define Problems are good. Regulations that Control How People Must Solve Problems are evil -- as we innovate new solutions, Regulations that Control can never keep up.
@williamlweaver: I don't think anyone is saying that the Clean Air Act increased the amount of pollution in the United States, and I'm not quite sure where you're coming from with that comment. I also don't think anyone is saying that we don't have the innovation necessary to use our natural resources responsibly -- in fact, this article shows that we do.
I also think that increased drilling for oil is far more likely to lead to increased profits for oil companies than to the discovery of cold fusion or an end to all disease. (And if it doesn't lead to increased profits for oil companies, you can be sure they won't do it).
By the way, I like Star Trek, too, although my views on warfare are closer to Episode 26, "Errand of Mercy." I suspect there are probably very few places other than engineering forums where people can express their views on important issues by reference to Star Trek episodes and expect to be understood.
@Dave Palmer: I raised the Clear Air Act because we remain under its enforcement. I don't expect the increased use of oil and gas to cause energy producers to ignore it and begin to pollute. On the contrary, I think it would be better for folks who do observe the goals of the Clean Air Act to obtain and use resources responsibly, rather than leaving it to nations and others who do not.
In my world, Profit is a fantastic thing. It is the life's blood of innovation. Without Profit, there is only break-even status quo or decline. More Profit means increased Capital available for increased investment in more innovation. Profit is a measure of added value, not a measure of nefarious action.
And I agree wholeheartedly. It would be a much more efficient world if we all could point to a concept in Star Trek and rapidly advance the conversation... =]
This is old style FT with a new catalyst. I follow this closely as I want to make fuel from waste biomass that here in Fla you have to beat back continously or get over run.
As they said most any HC like celulose, coal etc can be reduced to H2 and CO then normal processes can be used to make whatever HC you want. Problems are catalysts that don't last, CO2 produced which is lost energy and heat losses. Both these losses can be used to make electricity to up system eff.
Biomass has a great advantage as it's far cleaner than coal which impurities posion the catalysts and cost a lot to remove before the syngas can be used in FT that biomass doesn't need, making biomass more eff.
Problem with most FT is the number of times you put the gas through before it converts. On biomass you need higher temps to keep junk alocohols, etc from forming instead of fuel, chemicals wanted.
All really needed for most anyone to do this is getting hold of good catalysts and their specs. I'd settle for the GTL cats Shell, others are using to make diesel from NG by way of syngas.
Too many cry we have an energy shortage when in fact there are huge ones all around. The only reason we are having problems is we only use oil, coal and now NG. If the full cost of oil, coal wa actually in them instead of in our taxes, healthcare costs, etc, their prices would double.
I don't like subsidies especially to big oil, coal which is the only reason we are not doing far more RE and even a more important resource, the energy not used by eff, insulation, great design, smart standards and realizing that one doesn't really need a 4000 lb car to move a 200lb person around or 2000sq' homes for 2 people, etc. Now a 2000sq' workshop I could see ;^P
No matter what there are now 4 B more people wanting oil, coal copper, iron, alum, plastics, etc and their share of the pie. The only way it will happen is if we get smart before it hits the fan which is already started with the Iraq war, the first of many until we get off oil. Iran seems next. Or fight over a dwindling supply. Far cheaper, better economy just switching and a lot less people die.
Plus once off of oil recessions will be a lot less often as 5 of the last 6 were oil recessions from oil proce shocks. Ever though about how much that costs? Oil companies get the gold mine and we get stuck with the costs.
It looks like plastics are fairly easy to turn back into diesel, gasoline. Most any biofat/oil , new or used can be made into biodiesel, Methane/NG easy by many methods means as prices rise on fossil fuels these will come out of the woodwork.
Wind, PV can now be had at competitive prices of $2-3/wt as could a home size CSP supplying both electric and heating/ hot water which is just an AC in reverse with a solar collector and about the same size, cost.
@williamlweaver: There's nothing wrong with someone making a profit, but there's nothing particularly noble about it, either. Markets are essentially amoral. Staying with the Star Trek theme, Exhibit A is Harry Mudd, Exhibit B is Cyrano Jones.
Dave, thanks for a good laugh--the beer and the alcoholic. Just because a substance exists on our planet--thereby making it not alien (we think--although that's a relative term over the really long haul, like the universe's age of 14 billion years)--anyway, just because a "local" substance is local, doesn't make it not poison in certain forms and for certain uses. And that's just considering the health issues, not the economic issues.
Thanks for the U of MN info. Writing this article made me wonder what anyone is doing to improve the first step, and there's an answer.
Rob, this is a discovery with two major "wow"s: 1) basically a "it's not made from food crops and doesn't compete with them for agricultural land" alternative, which we've already seen in some bioplastics. But at least as important, it's also different because instead of multiple steps to go from plants to oil, there's only 1 (or 2, depending on how you count). So it's more efficient, therefore less expensive and faster.
Thanks, Ann. Those two wow's make sense. I would imagine the wood, branches, etc. would be waste, thus this technology would recycle them. I would also guess this waste would be less expensive simply because it's waste and doesn't cost $108 a barrel before processing.
Overall, seems like a step into a science fiction movie.If I follow the chemistry correctly, the big deal is the creation of engineered resins from a renewable natural resource.But on the down side, it seems like science has morphed an entity that was once biodegradable, and stabilized it such that it will never decompose. I guess like everything, it's a knife that cuts both ways.
becksint, thanks for the feedback from another part of the world. It's certainly an alternative to biodegrading without managed composting, which is what would happen eventually to waste plant material that gets dumped. JIm, the point of using renewable resources like plant material for manufacturing plastics or fuels is to replace the ones we're either running out of and/or that are toxic, such as coal and petroleum. Of course, if we decided we didn't need so much fuel, or could somehow make it out of solar and wind sources, then we could just leave all that plant material to biodegrade. I do wonder what happens if we start diverting huge amounts of plant material from ecosystems that depend on them to produce things like food and water.
New versions of BASF's Ecovio line are both compostable and designed for either injection molding or thermoforming. These combinations are becoming more common for the single-use bioplastics used in food service and food packaging applications, but are still not widely available.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This radio show will show what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.