Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A NATIONAL ENERGY POLICY: Off the shelf, hot and fresh, from the Third Reich

When George W. Bush signs something into law, anyone with common sense must be immediately suspicious that it is bad news.

So it was with the much applauded energy bill, mandating gas mileage standards for 2020 which were small potatoes in the Seventies and Eighties.

Growing up in Pennsylvania the Seventies, DD was intimately familiar with gas mileage in dad's giant Chevrolet station wagon. Equipped with a V8, it got a whopping 9-12 miles/gallon, about what the average SUV does in Pasadena, today.

Good old Dad worked at the ALCOA aluminum extrusion plant in Cressona, Schuylkill County, Pennsyltucky. Nine miles a gallon was great as long as we lived near the place.

But things got tough when ALCOA closed its Cressona facility and reassigned him to a bottle-cap making plant outside Lancaster, a three hour daily commute, round trip.

By the early Eighties, Chevy ownership in such a situation was sucking big time, fuel-wise. In fact, it was a financial calamity. Good old Dad bought a Volkswagen Rabbit with a diesel engine. Oh, how the mighty fell hard.

So you'll excuse DD for sneering at the energy bill, just another example in which Democrats show bad judgment and zero leadership in crafting meaningful energy policy.

If GWB likes it, it must -- by definition -- stink.

Throughout the press was the usual stupid and airy belief in biofuels, which are just a way of pushing the carbon load sent into the atmosphere off to a compound different than oil or coal. Since you have to burn more ethanol to get the same kick as gasoline, it's no special deal. It is, of course, quite special if you're a mega-agribusiness corn grower.

The other piece of wishful thinking that went into the energy bill is the usual mealy-mouthed tripe about ethanol from "cellulosics."

Journalists love the word. It sounds sophisticated! Especially when you combine it with "switch grass," of which it said there is going to be plenty to turn into ethanol.

But journalists definitely do not understand how cellulose is enzymatically degraded into shorter chain sugars, fit for fermentation/conversion to ethanol. And that's where the trouble starts.

While at Lehigh University and working on a PhD in chemistry in the mid-Eighties, this writer was familiar with a faculty member, a molecular geneticist, studying Trichoderma reesei, a fungus which produced cellulases.

Cellulases were microbially-produced proteins which catalyzed the breakdown of cellulose and, naturally, the big-eyed idea then was also to define and apply the science enough so as to enable the maximum production of cellulase for use in production of biofuels.

The scientist built a career on it, but cellulosic ethanol still isn't running the country. Although cellulase from T. reesei is used in the digestion of cellulose, it is not especially inexpensive or practical. In the past couple of years, an oil-rush-before-actual-oil industry has sprung up, one which promises cheap cellulases as well as many other things. Much of it is new snake oil for the investment rubes, lubricating jacked-up subsidies, grants, and hand-outs.

Without going into great detail on why the infinite bounty of nature's enzymes has resisted easy lending to cheap-as-water industrial transformations, it may suffice to say that old-timey molecular geneticists and biochemists knew something of the limitations in engineering various microbial boxes.

It involves some complication to explain precisely why, for example, active proteins which work miraculously well for the microbial systems in which they evolve, tend to become increasingly unstable when removed, purified, and put in a different environment. Regardless of having genetic sequences for the production of cellulases in hand, lifetimes can be spent puzzling over and characterizing the fine details of a protein's chemistry and its interaction with the world at large.

Journalists don't understand any of this. Real understanding would get in the way of cheerleading pieces of news on theoretical future biofuel production.

The New York Times is a good example of this regular putting of the cart before the horse for the sake of something which sounds glib and now.

"Corn ethanol is ... astonishingly inefficient: because vast amounts of fossil fuels are required for its manufacture, every 1 unit of energy nets a mere 1.3 units of ethanol," wrote one clever heevahava for the New York Times Sunday magazine recently.

"Is there a better way?"

Not obviously, no.

"In 2007, significant steps were taken toward a potentially great second harvest, some of it coming from the byproducts of animals, some of it from municipal waste and garbage but the bulk of it coming from plant biomass, which is really about breaking down cellulose, the key structural component of all plant cell walls and the most abundant of all naturally occurring organic compounds on earth," continues the reporter. "A recent Department of Energy study found the United States can produce a billion tons of plant biomass annually, yet 400 million years of evolution has made cellulose resistant — the term of art is 'recalcitrant' — to manipulation. Unlocking its complex compounds of sugars, whose potential yield is 4 times that of corn on a gallons-per-acre basis, typically requires an aggressive, four-step thermo-chemical process. Taken together, these steps have been too costly or too energy intensive for cellulosic fuel production to become economically viable. Cracking the conundrum of plant cell walls cheaply has become a Brigadoon-like dream that has been '5 years away,' as one wry observer put it, 'for the last 30 years.'"

Next comes the energy miracle, "a potentially revolutionary technique," just waiting for development.

"Until now — at least if you believe Vinod Khosla, one of the best-known venture capitalists in America, who was a founder of Sun Microsystems and an early investor in Google, and who has in recent years invested hundreds of millions of dollars into a dozen different biofuel companies using new and potentially revolutionary techniques," continues the prediction.

"Khosla has ... supported efforts to utilize the power of bioengineering. The goal here has been to create bacteria that will, in effect, eat cellulose and excrete oil. In February, a Khosla-backed company, LS9, announced its plans to make genetically engineered microbes that do just that. Another company, Verenium, exploits naturally occurring cellulose-eating enzymes in termites and fungus to produce ethanol."

Yes, another "revolutionary technique" -- harvesting cellulases -- has been intrepidly coming but never quite arriving since at least back when DD was first learning about protein chemistry, the purification of enzymes, and their kinetics in the real world.

Yep, of course one can harvest cellulases to degrade cellulose. It's just not particularly efficient or cheap or doable on the scale envisioned by those who write our national energy policies.

(Read the original piece of New Year's hype at the NY Times.)

"The [energy bill sets] a mandatory 'renewable fuel standard, requiring that the use of 'biofuels,' such as ethanol, be expanded five-fold by 2022 to 36 billion gallons," writes Tribune's William Niekirk at the Swamp blog, here republished at the Baltimore Sun.

"Technological breakthroughs are necessary in this area, too, and would require the mass production of ethanol from 'cellulostic' [sic] plant material that is now essentially waste."

A clue that Niekirk might also be in over his head on basic energy science is in the misspelling of cellulosic.

While Niekirk is hard on "cellulostics," it's not because he knows something the reader doesn't. It's because he's been told to question it by an energy consultant who is peddling an alternative, a worse one.

"[Andrew Weissman, an energy expert at FTI Consulting in Washington] is one of the skeptics," writes Niekirk. "He favors pushing head with proposals to liquefy coal in a clean process that would require the burying of carbon dioxide underground."

You certainly can do worse than think wishfully about cellulosic ethanol. Stupidly thinking that Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil plants are clean is one way.

Back in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, once one of the beating hearts of the coal industry, there was and is great interest in bringing in a company to employ old Third Reich technology for converting waste coal, of which there is plenty, to oil.

The Third Reich used Fischer-Tropsch plants to produce fuel when it was cut off from oil resources in World War II by the Allies. As the Reich crumbled, it became expert in the infrastructure of Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil production, so much so that the US military organized an effort after the war to salvage what it could from the German engineers of it. The then secret scientific survey was called the Technical Oil Mission and one can read about it at

Politicians pushing Fischer-Tropsch plants always call it "clean coal," as if the production of thousands of tons, even millions, of carbon dioxide in the process is just a slight exhale.

The toxic Democratic senator of West Virginia, Jay Rockefeller, also pushes Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil. In this, he is identical to pols working for a plant in Schuylkill County, PA. Both regions are flat-out desperate for infusions of jobs and money. There, businessmen have become rich in waste coal and slag heap management and these are the same businessmen who would like to become oil barons.

"Separate measures crafted by members of West Virginia’s delegation provide guaranteed loans and extend tax credits to develop coal-to-liquids technology, viewed as a critical component in making American energy independent," wrote the Register Herald newspaper in West Virginia.

"Developers must show they are capable of capturing 50 percent of the carbon emissions from a [coil-to-oil] facility in the next two years, and the figure must climb to 75 percent by 2010," it continues.

This is an impossible goal and DD will get to why in a minute. It essentially requires breaking the laws of nature, which even Congress cannot mandate.

"There is no single alternative fuel source that will address our growing energy needs and lessen our dependence on foreign energy," Jay Rockefeller told the newspaper.

"The responsible use of clean coal to meet our electricity and transportation needs must be in the mix. The overwhelming support of the Senate (a 79-14 vote) sends a clear message — coal conversion is a technology worth investing in.

"As he described it earlier in a meeting with The Register-Herald editorial board, the senator called for a major federal investment paralleling the Manhattan Project to find a workable solution to sequestering carbon."

The Allentown Morning Call and the Pottsville Republican newspapers have regularly covered the effort to build a Fischer-Tropsch plant outside Gilberton in Schuykill County.

Schuylkill County's coal-to-oil facility is being pushed by the owner of a waste coal management company.

"The plant, proposed by Rich's company Waste Management and Processors Inc. of Gilberton, Schuylkill County, would employ 600 people and use 3,400 tons of [waste coal called culm] a day to create more than 5,000 barrels of diesel fuel at the Mahanoy Township facility," reported the Call recently. "That would translate into 40million gallons a year that also could be refined into jet fuel and home heating oil."

The plant would also cost at least one billion dollars, a figure which shows about one doubling from its last published estimate.

"For the plant to get the green light, Rich must prove it won't cause more environmental harm than he contends his new fuel would prevent," reported the newspaper.

And that's not doable unless good-for-the-environment is redefined as wanting to get into the business of cheering on and abetting global warming. Yet this is exactly the type of energy business our politicians and and national leaders seem to like.

"The [Fischer-Tropsch] plant would increase global carbon dioxide emissions by 2.28 million tons a year, according to the Energy Department's impact statement," reported the newspaper.

Then, the so-called miracle cure, couched in hesitant terms.

"It may be feasible, the report said, to reduce that amount by sequestering underground some of the captured carbon dioxide." The newspaper did not mention that the same report mentioned industrial scale sequestration was at least fifteen years off in the future.

To understand why sequestration is something of a certified laugher, one that journalists don't really get into because it involves science, requires digging into a smidge of chemistry and physics.

To see the phrase "sequestering underground" almost makes one think it's as simple as pumping carbon dioxide into a hole in your backyard. Voila! Global warming cured!

Sequestering requires that carbon dioxide, as a gas, be converted to a stable mineral, a carbonate.

Nature can do this. Very very slowly. And the reason for this is because the reaction kinetics of the chemical fixing of carbon dioxide onto a common mineral deposit, like magnesium silicate, are not favorable in the way a carbon dioxide-producing global energy hog like the United States needs them to be.

This is a law of nature, one which cannot be overcome by wishful thinking and political fiat.

"These [sequestering reactions] are thermodynamically favorable but suffer from exceedingly slow reaction rates," writes a Department of Energy research report on the chemistry from 2003.

"The main thrust of the investigation was the direct reaction of serpentine [a common mineral] with carbon dioxide," continues the report.

"Substantial efforts are being made to devise technologies for the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One of the more environmentally desirable technologies for the sequestration of carbon dioxide is the reaction of [it] with serpentine, forsterite and related ... minerals to immobilize the carbon dioxide as a benign compound, magnesite."

"However, the reaction rate of the gas/solid reaction is extremely sluggish at all temperatures below the thermodynamic phase boundary."

And that is the crux of the matter. The reaction rate is just fine in nature. If it were fast, in the way a Fischer-Tropsch plant requires it to be, we wouldn't be having this fun discussion. The earth probably would be a dead world. Green plant life could not exist if the laws of chemistry were favorable to coal-to-oil producers, as the ground would have gobbled up all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere aeons ago.

[The report is here as a .pdf. It delves into a few experiments aimed at reaction acceleration, none with very enticing results, as would be expected.]

So the desperate research is to find a way to quicken the fixation of carbon dioxide. That means pumping energy into the reaction through a variety of means. The problem arises in that one winds up spending too much energy in an attempt to do it. This destroys any value a Fischer-Tropsch coil-to-oil plant may have.

Of course, if you don't give a fig about that pesky carbon dioxide...

The significance of carbon dioxide sequestration in earth's history is rather nicely framed in this story from Science Daily here.

"The chemical reaction that weathered away part of the Appalachians would have consumed large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere –- right around the time that the Ordovician ice age began," reads the article. Ironically, the Appalachians are exactly where our always-so-wise politicians want to build Fischer-Tropsch plants, because that's where the coal -- now in big waste piles -- was.

"The crustal plate underneath what is now the Atlantic Ocean pushed against the eastern side of North America, lifting ancient volcanic rock [which made the Appalachians] up from the seafloor and onto the continent," reports Science Daily.

"This kind of silicate rock weathers quickly, [a scientist] explained. It reacts with CO2 and water, and the rock disintegrates. Carbon from the CO2 is trapped in the resulting sediment."

"The weathering of the mountains pulled carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, causing the opposite of a greenhouse effect -- an 'icehouse' effect," theorized scientists for the article.

So if you're up with global warming and opposed to an Ice Age, then you're in-line with all those smart and efficient national leaders who think "clean coal" and "coal to liquids" are the up-and-coming thing, not dusty and now virtually worthless tech dating from the Third Reich.

In any case, nature's weathering of mountains and the fixing of carbon dioxide isn't going to become a magic cure for gross polluters anytime soon. Make that never, DD would bet, if he were a betting man.

John Rich, who would like the Fischer-Tropsch plant built in Schuylkill County, told the Morning Call newspaper "carbon dioxide is a big concern."

"Rich also pointed to conflict in the Middle East as a reason to build the plant," added the newspaper.

"Nothing is more threatening to the environment than warring over energy," Rich added.

This is a rather amusing thing to say when one considers that the war in Iraq was brought on by George W. Bush and not out of immediate energy necessity. And if someone's environment has been wrecked, it's been Iraq's, not our great nation's.

"Budget Bill Has $8 Billion for Clean Coal," reads an item from a recent story on the Motley Fool investor site.

"Also in Washington, the House passed a budget package which includes $8 billion in loan guarantees for clean coal and coal-to-liquids projects through September 2009."

If you enjoyed this post, you surely won't want to miss the second installment. Includes more on efforts to mitigate carbon dioxide.


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