Monday, November 30, 2009

Botryococcus Braunii: The Perfect Source of Biofuel?

As the most promising research du jour as a source for biofuel, is Botryococcus braunii really lives up to the hype as the perfect source of biofuel / biodiesel?

By: Ringo Bones

As we race against time to find the best replacement of the fossil fuels we now currently use before their greenhouse gas byproducts cause global warming to become irreversible, an unassuming component of green slime / pond scum might have potential. Botryococcus braunii, a green slime micro-algae is now a subject of an on-going research to coax it to produce more lipoproteins / fatty acids to be processed into biodiesel similar to that of recycled french-fry oil. But will it live up to the hype as the perfect source of biofuel / biodiesel?

On the bright side of things, Botryococcus braunii is not only a perfect source of biofuel / biodiesel because unlike corn or coconuts, it is not currently being used as food by us. Second, it absorbs the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by our present use of fossil fuels that if it manages to replace them. If use becomes widespread, it will be a carbon neutral energy source as it just recycles the waste carbon dioxide back into fuel – reversing the worse effects of global warming.

Sadly, there is just one problem of the large-scale farming of Botryococcus braunii green slime micro-algae / pond scum biofuel is that it can only flourish up to a certain depth of water because it requires a lot of sunlight. Thus large-scale production of Botryococcus braunii will have to be truly large scale indeed in order for it to replace a significant portion –never mind totally replacing – all of the crude oil sourced transportation fuels that we currently use.

The ability of Botryococcus braunii to turn back excess atmospheric carbon dioxide back into an energy source is the most attractive aspect of this kind of biofuel production that current researchers are not even the least bit daunted by the scale of production problem. Genetic modification experiments to make Botryococcus braunii still more efficient in producing biofuels / biodiesel might solve the scale of production obstacles. But of all the biofuel / biodiesel sources out there, this unseemly component of pond scum could start an energy production revolution that’s ecologically sustainable in the not so distant future.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Can Nuclear Power Plants Help End Nuclear Weapons Proliferation?

Safety concerns aside, can nuclear fission power plants play the part in ending the problem of nuclear weapons proliferation?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since staff of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began to concern themselves about the problem of global warming and climate change, the long-term future of nuclear fission power plants had inexplicably gained a new lease on life. Add to that the latest “fat-chance-but-good-nonetheless” rhetoric of US President Barack Obama on a nuclear weapons-free world and suddenly the long-term future of our fascination and disdain of everyone over 40 on nuclear fission power plants have put it yet again in the political center stage.

Even though the long-term future of nuclear fission power plants have always been driven by scientific, environmental, and political factors. It was the political factors that largely played the role on how the American people and the rest of the world view nuclear power. For example, ever since the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident on Wednesday, March 23, 1979, no new nuclear fission power plants have ever been constructed on US territory. But ever since the American public had shown concern over the threat of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming, there are now calls to lift the ban on construction of new nuclear power plants in the US.

Also, if President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons free – or a largely reduced number of nuclear weapons – world, nuclear fission power plants can play their part too. By converting those plutonium 239 – the active component in most nuclear weapons systems - into something that only a nuclear fission power plant can use. It will be easier to police the “disposal” of nuclear weapons grade material if they are stored in a few well-documented and secure places around the world. In other words the International Atomic Energy Agency will have an easier time watching over these weapons grade material as they are turned into something else.

Even though there is that eternal issue of safety given the high-profile nuclear power plant accidents of the past like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Though the much worse April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident has been an eternal sticking point when it comes to the issue of safety in nuclear power. We can always follow the French example. France gets 80% of their energy needs from nuclear fission and they never had a major nuclear accident, so an accident free nuclear fission power plant doesn’t just exist in science fiction. Though the issue of safe long-term storage of highly radioactive by-products that remain lethal for almost a million years – especially spent fuel rods – is still the major drawback of nuclear fission power plants.

Another factor plaguing nuclear fission power plants is that unlike coal-fired power plants, their power output cannot be varied as easily. This is a very common in northern countries that are dependent on nuclear power were they can have too much electrical energy in the summer when their peak energy needs are factored according to their winter heating energy needs. And also the economic viability of nuclear fission power plants cannot yet fully be assessed because they are for all intents and purposes a government-subsidized business entity especially in the United States.

These problems aside, the nuclear fission power plants unique selling point is that it emits not a gram of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during its electricity generating operation. And this will probably make nuclear power plants viable again, unless of course we can make wind and solar efficient enough to compete with nuclear fission sourced electricity within the next five years.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cleaner Crude Oil Sourced Fuels?

Given that bioethanol-based gasoline produces up to 90% less carbon dioxide than their crude oil-sourced counterparts, is it possible to refine a cleaner gasoline from crude oil?

By: Ringo Bones

Part of the automotive biofuel “mystique” that some environmentalist admire is the way they produce less carbon dioxide during their combustion process – up to 90% in fact. Unfortunately from an economic standpoint, our current biofuel production methods intended for automotive use still can’t compete price-wise with crude oil sourced automotive fuels. And for one good reason, countless billions has been spent on the global crude oil industry since Edwin L. Drake with the financial backing of New York-based investors of Seneca Oil began drilling for crude oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania back in August 27, 1859.

Even as relatively recently during the height of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 – 74. Tenured chemists of leading crude oil companies through their technical know how and financial backing managed to extract more gasoline from crude oil than before. Like Rowland Hansford – a tenured chemist of Union Oil – whose patented Unicracking method manages to extract five barrels of high-octane gasoline from four barrels of crude oil. As a natural resource with billions of dollars worth of investments and infrastructure used in extracting it, in terms of price per unit volume, crude oil is for all intents and purposes is only slightly more expensive than bottled water at present.

That's why even if some biofuel pioneers still get their used French fry cooking oil to fuel their biodiesel vehicles practically for free, used cooking oil is actually more expensive price wise in comparison to it's crude oil sourced counterpart on a per volume basis. Although we can’t deny that it will soon run out and before it runs out after we hit “peak oil” it will surely skyrocket in price.

During the 1960’s a chemist from Société Française des Petroles BP in France named Alfred Champagnat had experimented in extracting edible proteins from crude oil. The process was said to be efficient: he managed to extract about half a pound of protein from one pound of crude oil. And the process is several thousand times faster in producing edible proteins than farm animals can produce it from fodder. Though now almost forgotten, can Alfred Champagnat’s process of extracting edible proteins from crude oil be modified for use in extracting automotive fuels from crude oil that mimic biofuels – i.e. one that produces up to 90% less carbon dioxide in automotive use?

Though Alfred Champagnat’s method of extracting edible proteins from crude oil could easily be modified for use in extracting biofuel-like automotive fuels from crude oil if major crude oil companies wanted to. Ultimately, there is a very urgent need to wean our industrialized society away from crude oil and other fossil fuels because for one they are running out. And they are one of the main contributors of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, climate change, and sea level rise among other things. A cleaner crude oil-source automotive fuel that produces way fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants such as harmful oxides of nitrogen and sulfur would help us in tackling the problem of climate change and global warming. But sooner – rather than later – we should wean our industrial civilization from crude oil and other fossil fuels through greater investment in truly carbon neutral renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and really safe nuclear power like nuclear fusion - which would truly qualify as a real alternative energy in comparison to what we currently have.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Remembering Boron Automotive Fuels

Made famous by Caltex back in 1964 when they launched it in Belgium. Given the promise of more energy per unit weight are boron additives in gasoline a viable answer to our energy needs?

By: Ringo Bones

It probably started during the 1960’s when NASA developed boron fuels in order to propel their space vehicles during Project Gemini, or was it the famed boron-based “zip fuel” used by the US aerospace company Northrop that allowed their XB-70 Valkyrie strategic bomber prolonged flights at Mach 3. Given these “promises”, the development of boron-based fuels for viable civilian – make that commercial – applications seems to irresistible for multi-national crude oil companies of the time. Remember that as far back as the 1960’s concerns are already voiced over the long-term supply of crude oil sourced hydrocarbon fuels, given that they are not exactly inexhaustible.

On the civilian side of things – i.e. automotive or car fuel usage – those old enough to remember will probably say that it is the crude oil company Caltex the first one to use boron in gasoline from their adverts back in 1964. Especially with print ads, which showed a cartoon figure at the wheel of a car and later driving a motorcycle while the text promised: “With BORON you can travel the world over without trouble.”

But the truth is it was the Ohio-based Standard Oil Company who was the first to develop boron as an additive for gasoline to boost its octane rating. Boron is very promising in this application because they were already widespread concerns over the environmental and physiological toxicity of tetraethyl lead, the original octane-booster and anti-knock additive for gasoline. Given that boron showed promise back then by making ordinary gasoline more energetic – thus making supplies last longer, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that all biomass on planet Earth – whether the fossil fuels crude oil, coal and natural gas or vegetable matter – is mostly carbon-based. The major source of naturally occurring boron is from salt lake deposits, which does create a substantially large carbon footprint in its extraction and processing. Which is the very thing we want to avoid in using boron in the first place. Plus, the way we used boron back in the 1960’s was only in minuscule amounts as additives to make our gasoline powered cars require less fuel for the given mileage. Eventually, boron-added gasoline created deposits and eventually clogged-up piston engines during long-term use thus was eventually abandoned. That’s why those old enough to have grown up during the 1970’s only saw non-functional gasoline pumps with the word BORON emblazoned on them.

Even though boron-added gasoline to those old enough to remember is now seen as belonging to the IGY (International Geophysical Year) and Project Apollo – era America, boron has turned up in unexpected ways for use in our cars today as we strive to move away from crude oil-sourced fuels. Like using boron to efficiently store elementally pure hydrogen for use in fuel cell powered cars. And also for use in advanced high-energy batteries for future electric car applications, which emit no carbon dioxide, whatsoever in its operation.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Political Lobbying Over Science?

Given the net energy loss and possible future carbon trading fiscal disadvantage, are coal-fired plants really given a new lease on life - in environmental impact terms – via carbon capture and sequestration technology?

By: Ringo Bones

During the turbulent campaign period of the 2008 US Presidential Elections, incoming President Barack Obama pointed out back then that coal-fired power plants will bankrupt themselves the longer they operate due to stricter environmental regulations with regards to greenhouse gas emissions. Especially when it comes to carbon dioxide where coal-fired power plants will lose out in the end economically due to binding international treaties governing carbon trading schemes.

But given coal’s abundance and aggressive lobbying at Capitol Hill, will carbon dioxide capture and sequestration schemes really lends a new lease on life on coal-fired power plants that generate electricity. Or just a politically buoyed gimmick of dubious benefit in reducing the overall harmful effects of global warming brought about by our excessive greenhouse gas producing industrial processes? Will the phase-out of excessive greenhouse gas generating coal-fired power plants just technological and environmental policy inevitability?

From a physicist’s standpoint, carbon dioxide capture and sequestration from a stationary fossil fuel burning internal combustion engine used to generate electricity will always result in a net loss of overall energy output. Due to that energy being diverted to extract the carbon dioxide from the amine-based separation solvent used to capture the greenhouse gas from the coal-fired power plants flue gases.

Plus the regeneration and reuse of that solvent also diverts additional energy from the stationary plant. Not to mention the transport of the carbon dioxide gas to it’s final – and hopefully geologically stable – long-term storage space requires another additional carbon expenditure. Even when the carbon dioxide is stored in the abyssal depths of the ocean bottom still require an additional expenditure of energy which unfortunately results in the release of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere under our current methods.

Unless a renewable energy source such as solar energy were employed, the amount of carbon dioxide generated by the energy requirements to support the entire carbon dioxide capture and sequestration processes could exceed the amount being sequestered from the atmosphere. In truth, is carbon capture and sequestration really just whitewashing – or to put it into perspective “green-washing” – so lobbyists / interest groups can attain their political and economic ends? It would be terrible if policymakers will have to wait a tragic incident like the one that occurred in Lake Nyos of Cameroon back in August 21, 1986 where 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock suffocated due to the sudden release of carbon dioxide from the lake.