Cleantech: Biodiesel, Solar and Wind


Some news today highlights Biodiesel, solar and wind technologies in the era of cleantech and renewable energy.

The first article discusses a study that was just completed in Ontario, Canada that analyzed the use of biodiesel as an alternative fuel source for agricultural use. This study, which was co-sponsored by the NRC, Environment Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, UPI Energy, and the University of Guelph, is hoped to accelerate the adoption of biodiesel use in on-farm applications across Canada. More at Evaluating Biodiesel Fuel For Tractors In Canada.

Solar power seems to still be behind in the race for the most cheap, and efficient technologies despite being around for a number of years. There are a few problems that need sorting out (listen here scientists, and business-types), “the development of complimentary technologies, in particular low-cost storage of electricity, is critical,” says Erin Baker, who is a scientist at the University of Massachusetts that led a USDoE study in the area. Baker’s other finding notes that government dollars won’t bring this technology to fruition along, and that private investment is needed in the manufacturing sector specifically; tax breaks, and public-private collaborations will also help to push this technology forward. The article “Cheap, Efficient Solar Power: What’s Needed Now To Get There? gives a great analysis that discusses the order of investment to develop solar tech:

  • Focus first on getting power from the new inorganic materials that show promise but are far from viable for large scale production
  • Then focus on purely organic cells with organic semiconductors; these hold the promise of low costs but still haven’t achieved high levels of efficiency and face serious stability problems
  • Last, investigate third-generation cells, which use entirely different technology but may ultimately yield much more power

Wind turbines are another fast-moving technology with much promise. So much so that Mitsubishi Ups Investment in Wind Turbines threefold to increase its wind turbine capacity to 1,200 megawatts / year by March 2009. As Paul Kedrosky points out, that is about two-thirds of what the city of Atlanta requires on a typical summer day.

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Biofuels Outlook Update


Invest in biofuels today. At least, 2 people think you should — Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures, and Dr. Jens Riese of McKinsey & Co. who gave keynote speeches at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing.

An article from TheAutoChannel discussed this in further detail, but I want to highlight some important points from the post:

In a speech titled “The Role of Venture Capital in Developing Cellulosic Ethanol,” Khosla outlined the range of technologies currently being commercialized to convert cellulosic biomass to transportation fuels. Khosla said that the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent grants to cooperatively fund biorefineries that produce ethanol from cellulose is an acknowledgment that the technology is moving faster than expected. He said that a 100 percent replacement of petroleum transportation fuels with biofuels is achievable, and predicted that ethanol from cellulose technology will be cost competitive with current ethanol production by 2009.

Dr. Jens Riese of McKinsey & Co. also addressed the World Congress plenary session with a speech titled “Beyond the Hype: Global Growth in the Biofuels Industry.” Riese predicted that global annual biofuel capacity would double to 25 billion gallons over the next five years and could reach 80 billion gallons – meeting 10 percent of world transportation fuel demand, enough to replace the annual oil production for fuel of Saudi Arabia – by 2020. According to McKinsey & Company’s model, biofuels can economically replace 25 percent of transportation fuel with crude oil above $50 per barrel. He concluded that the race is on to build a biofuels industry and that companies should invest now.

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Turning Carbon Dioxide into Fuel


It’s been said that we have been polluting the air with billions of tons of carbon dioxide and that its a bad thing. Well … not if you’re Frederic Goettmann, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany. He is designing a catalyst that could help turn CO2 into fuel!

Goettman stated “We have taken the first step towards using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a source for chemical synthesis. Future refinements could allow chemists to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels as sources for making chemicals. Liquid fuel could also be made from carbon monoxide split from CO2.”

Here are some highlights from the Goettmann article:

In an attempt to emulate this natural process, Goettmann and colleagues Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti developed their own nitrogen-based catalyst that can produce carbamates. The graphite-like compound is made from flat layers of carbon and nitrogen atoms arranged in hexagons.

The catalyst’s next useful step was to enable the benzene molecules to grab the oxygen atom from the CO2 in the carbamate, producing phenol and a reactive carbon monoxide (CO) species.

The researchers are now trying to bring their method even closer to photosynthesis. “The benzene reaction currently supplies the energy that splits the CO2,” Goettmann says, “but in plants it is light.” The new catalyst absorbs ultraviolet radiation, so the team is experimenting to see if light can provide the energy instead.

The Max Planck technique has only been demonstrated on a small scale and it has a low yield of 20%, he points out. “But it looks quite promising,” he adds. “The catalyst can be made cheaply and it works at a relatively low temperature.”

Investors, investors? Where are you? This is a disruptive technology in the making. If these guys are really able to turn carbon dioxide into fuel in a way that yields a net energy gain, it is a monumental step for energy sustainability. If they can adapt the technology to breakdown carbon dioxide and convert it to other non-polluting sources such as graphite, it could even be used to fight global warming — albeit, it would have to be used quite broadly!