Stories tagged ethanol


The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.
The fuel of the future?: Termite guts break down cellulose into a form that could be used for fuel.Courtesy Velo Steve

Scientists for the US Department of Energy are studying termites in hopes of developing new sources of fuel.

Termites eat wood. Wood is made of a tough material called cellulose. There’s an awful lot of cellulose in the world, and its easy to grow, making it an ideal raw material for making ethanol. Except – it’s really, really hard to turn cellulose into ethane (natural gas). It’s much easier to make ethanol out of food crops like corn – but that creates problems of its own.

Termites, however, have microbes in their stomachs which break down cellulose quickly and efficiently, as anyone who’s ever had a termite infestation in their house knows. Scientists hope to figure out how the microbes do their job, and then duplicate the process to help fill the nation’s energy needs.

The incomparable Cecil Adams weighs in with his thoughts on cellulose-based ethanol.


Well, well. It’s happened again.

Members of the so-called “scientific community” have molted from their crusty pupae and emerged as the wriggling little thieves and plagiarists I’ve always known them to be.
I’m sure this sounds a little bit harsh, and it is, but deservedly so, for the crime committed is most egregious. Let me explain, and I think you will agree…
The solution to all transportation fuel problems.: This man somehow got into my head and stole my idea. Possibly metaphorically.      (photo by Richard Faverty, permission for use granted by Bob Arno)
The solution to all transportation fuel problems.: This man somehow got into my head and stole my idea. Possibly metaphorically. (photo by Richard Faverty, permission for use granted by Bob Arno)

A team based out of the University if Wisconsin-Madison has recently announced its “discovery” of a two-stage process for turning the sugar fructose into “a liquid transportation fuel with 40 percent greater energy density than ethanol.” The first set of quotation marks here are for irony, the next are meant to give credit where credit is due, something often overlooked among certain scientists.

We are all aware of the increasing focus being placed on renewable fuels, especially those for transportation. Ethanol is currently the only one being produced on a very large scale, and it is not without problems. Ethanol contains relatively little energy compared to fossil fuels, it evaporates quickly, and it readily absorbs water from the atmosphere, which must be separated from the fuel through an energy intensive process before it can be used.

DMF, the fructose-derived fuel, is not water-soluble, it is stable in storage, and it costs less energy to produce. The article I read also seems to suggest that DMF is carbon-neutral (that us to say, it doesn’t contribute to the global warming CO2 in the atmosphere), but I’m not sure that this is accurate.

DMF itself is not new, but the process developed at UW is. Using acid and copper catalysts, and salt and butanol as a solvent, the new process is much more effective at deriving the DMF than previous methods, adding to its potential as a commercial fuel.

This all sounds great to you, I’m sure, but I think we should get back to the real meat of this story: shameless thievery.

Every night I dream about falling asleep on a silk bed that floats in a pool of some kind of liquid gold (not real liquid gold, though, because that would probably burn the bed). The means of achieving this dream I have always kept secret, until now, when it seems there is no more point to it: converting simple sugars to pure energy. My novel method is only slightly different than that of the UW “scientists.” Using seven and eight-year catalysts, and five and six-year-old solvents, I could solve the world’s transportation problems.

The children - with the consent of their parents, of course - would be given fructose rich fruit-flavored drinks, or bowls of pure sugar (also fructose rich), and then harnessed to cars. Cars with empty gas tanks! The fired-up kids would tow the vehicles! Current production model cars could use the new technology with only minor adjustments (although larger vehicles would require a greater child-power rating to reach optimal speeds – somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 mph). The control interface would be entirely voice activated – I’m thinking something like “If you don’t get me to the mall by the time I count to three, you will be in so much trouble, JGordon! One… Two… Two and a half…” And you’re off!

It could have been win-win-win! The kids would have gotten the sugar they want so badly (as well as healthy exercise), drivers would have had plenty of fun, and I would have been rich, rich as Reagan. But no. My genius idea has been stolen, stolen and perverted to the point where I want nothing more to do with it. Oh well.

A side thought – as I understand it, one of the problems with ethanol can be growing plants that efficiently produce carbohydrates. Corn, obviously, is the main candidate around here, but I guess sugar cane is one of the best things to use (Brazil makes tons of ethanol, and they use sugar cane). These crops, however, can be pretty rough on the land, and the various steps in farming and harvesting can create a fair amount of pollution. I wonder if producing the fructose needed for DMF could be similarly problematic.

There are some issues here that aren’t generally what we think about in association with fuel production. Anyone know more about this?

DMF – More or less my idea.

Just some stuff on Brazil’s alternative fuel industry.


It seems that everywhere I look, energy is in the news these days. Here are a few more stories that caught my eye recently.

Wind power

Delaware is considering building a massive windfarm in the waters off their Atlantic coast. Experts estimate this could generate enough energy to light 130,000 homes. But some people raise concerns about the damage this might do to migratory birds, ocean shipping, and the natural beauty of the view.

Nano solar panels

We’ve discussed how nanotechnology might revolutionize solar energy elsewhere on this blog. Now come word from Rice University of a breakthrough: an efficient means of creating molecular-sized semiconductors, an important component of high-efficiency solar panels.

Green fuel guide

Ethanol. Biodiesel. Hydrogen. Lots of new fuels are vying to replace gasoline as the automotive energy of the future. Popular Science magazine gives a run-down on the pros and cons of each.

All about CFLs

We’ve had a couple of threads here on Compact Fluorescent Bulbs and the advantages of replacing your regular bulbs with low-energy CFLs. For those who want to learn more, here’s a handy round-up, telling you everything you need to know about these bulbs.

Indy goes green

by Gene on May. 04th, 2007

All cars in this year's Indianapolis 500 will be powered by ethanol. The Wall Street Journal has a video discussing how this came to be.


Some Science Buzz writers specifically go looking for science stories to write about. Then there are lazy folks like me, who just surf the web as per usual, and when something sciencey crosses our path, we bookmark it.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been running across a lot of stories on energy. None of them seemed big enough to merit its own story, but they are too good to completely ignore. So, here’s a potpourri:

Recycling nuclear waste

America’s energy needs keep growing. Producing energy by burning coal or oil pollutes the environment. Nuclear energy is much cleaner, but it produces radioactive waste. Now a government-funded project in Tennessee is trying to recycle the waste from nuclear power plants to produce a new type of fuel—one that could produce up to 100 times as much energy, and produce 40% less waste.


One old technology that may be making a comeback is gasification—turning organic material, such as coal, into a gas which can be burned for energy. It’s cleaner than burning coal directly for energy—a lot of the pollutants are captured and re-used. And, you can gasify any organic material, including plants and farm waste.

The problem with ethanol

In other threads on this blog, we’ve discussed some of the downsides of ethanol-- increased demand for corn causes farm prices to shoot up. A report from Brazil outlines some of the other potential problems, from pollution created in its manufacture, to destroying large ecosystems to raise the crops that will be turned into ethanol.

Oil shale

When drillers go looking for oil, they look for large pockets of liquid trapped in the earth, surrounded by non-porous rock. This is sometimes called “easy oil”—ready to refine as soon as it comes out of the ground. But there are vast amounts of oil in porous rock, like sand or shale. Miners have to dig up vast amounts of oil-soaked rock, and then separate the usable oil from the sand. It’s a very expensive process. But, as the price of crude oil keeps climbing, we are getting to the point where shale oil makes sense. And what’s even better, some of the largest deposits in the world are found here in North America.

The article linked above describes a shale oil operation in Canada. There are also operations underway in the
United States. And there’s another project underway in Israel.


Michael Waltrip's car: Courtesy stevejk.
Michael Waltrip's car: Courtesy stevejk.

Michael Waltrip's NASCAR team was heavily fined this week for cheating. Inspectors found an unspecified substance in the engine which was thought to unfairly boost his car's performance. But what was this mysterious stuff? Most sources say inspectors found oxygenate in the engine's intake manifold. So if that's the case how does this stuff work?

Internal combustion engine: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Internal combustion engine: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
First we need to do a quick run down of how a standard car engine works:

  1. Gasoline and air get mixed together inside a small chamber called a cylinder.
  2. A piston shrinks the size of this valve compressing the gasoline and air.
  3. A spark plug makes a tiny electric spark which ignites the gasoline and air causing the piston to move. The piston's movement is linked to the wheels, causing them to turn.
  4. The piston also comes back around another time to force out the gases left over after the explosion. That's the exhaust that that comes out your tail pipe.

The air that gets sucked into the engine just comes from the outside world. The same air we breath. The explosion works because our air has about 21% oxygen in it and oxygen really likes to burn. But what if we could add more oxygen to this equation? This results in a more complete combustion of the fuel and more power. More power means more speed.

From what I've read on the web it seems that Waltrip's team was using a type of gel that sits in the air intake on the engine. As the gel evaporated it would release oxygen into the engine which would then be used for combustion, increasing power. NASCAR was none to happy about this and fined the crew chief of the team, David Hyder, $100,000 and kicked him out of the garage.

Incidentally you might be using another type of oxygenate in your car right now, ethanol. Ethanol is mixed in with gasoline to reduce emissions because it is an oxygenate. When you get a more complete combustion with added oxygen you also get less exhaust and less harmful emissions. I still think that Ethanol is a poor alternative fuel strategy but that's another story for another time.


Hydrogen from soybean oil
Hydrogen from soybean oil

Homegrown fuel

Many consider hydrogen to be a perfect fuel. The waste product produced when it is burned is water. Hydrogen is a component contained in a variety of materials but figuring out how to cheaply extract that hydrogen is what one scientist refers to as the Holy Grail of 21st century energy.

U of Mn scientist, Lanny Schmidt, extracts hydrogen from biofuels

Lanny Schmidt, a Regents professor at the University of Minnesota, has invented such a process. It will produce hydrogen from renewable fuels like ethanol, sugar water, or soybean oil.

The reactor is deceptively simple in design. At the top is an automotive fuel injector that vaporizes and mixes the ethanol-water fuel. The vaporized fuel is injected into a tube that contains a porous plug coated with the catalyst. As the fuel passes through the plug, the carbon in the ethanol is burned, but the hydrogen is not. What emerges is mostly carbon dioxide, burnt carbon, and hydrogen gas. The reaction takes only 5 to 50 milliseconds and produces none of the flames and soot that usually accompany ethanol combustion. The reactor needs a small amount of heat to get going, but once it does, it sustains the reaction at more than 700 degrees C. University of MN

Minimize transportation costs

Also, his device is small and portable One of the thorniest economic problems of making biofuel from cornstalks or sawdust has been the cost of transporting the bulky materials to a distant factory. With Schmidt's invention, you wouldn't have to — the "factory" could be located on a farm or at a sawmill.

Electricity without powerlines

Converting biofuels into electricity requires fuel cells which generate electricty from hydrogen. Schmidt imagines a 1 kilowatt unit about the size of a washing machine where the electricity comes from a fuel cell powered by hydrogen, derived from ethanol or other biofuels. This could allow developing countries to eliminate the need for expensive powerlines into rural areas.

Sources: Pioneer Press and MPR


Black cottonwood: Courtesy Oak Point Nursery
Black cottonwood: Courtesy Oak Point Nursery

Ever heard of Populus trichocarpa? It sure is shaking up what researchers understand about plant biology and evolution. That’s right, Populus trichocarpa is a tree, more specifically a black cottonwood.

The black cottonwood is the first tree to have its full DNA code sequenced. Reports state the poplar tree has far less DNA in its cells than humans or other mammals, but twice the number of genes. The poplar has 485 million basepairs! Basepairs are the letters orchestrating a genetic code (A=adenine, T=thymine, C=cytosine, G=guanine). Researchers have found more than 45,000 possible genes (units of hereditary information). To put this number in perspective, humans and other mammals have a little over 20-25,000 genes.

Why is this cool?

Besides figuring out specific questions about botany, having the full DNA sequence of the black cottonwood will also have industrial implications.

The research team discovered 93 genes of the poplar where involved in making cellulose. Cellulose is an organic material found in large quantities on Earth. Cellulose is the primary structural component of green plants. It can be broken down into sugar, fermented into alcohol and distilled to produce fuel-quality ethanol.

Dr. Gerald Tuskan, the lead author of the report in Science, stated, “Biofuels are not only attractive for their potential to cut reliance on oil imports but also their reduced environmental impact.”

Populus trichocarpa identification:

Leaf structure: Alternate, simple, deciduous, ovate-laneolate to deltoid, dark green and silvery white underneath, wavy margins.

Fruit: Releases cottony-tufted seeds
Bark: When young, it is smooth and yellowish tan to gray; later on it turns gray to gray-brown and has deep furrows and flattened ridges.

Form: Tallest broad-leaved tree in the West. Able to grow up to 200 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter.

Found: Flood plains and along river and stream banks. Prefers moist/wet sites.

Keep your eyes open for a black cottonwood tree near you!


Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85.  Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85. Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Biofuels are fuels that are derived from recently living organisms, such as corn or soybeans, or their byproducts, such as manure from cows. A recent study at the University of Minnesota examined the total life-cycle cost of all of the energy used for growing corn and soybeans and converting these crops into biofuels to determine what biofuel has the highest energy benefit and the least impact on the environment.
Corn grain ethanol vs. soybean biodisel
Two types of biofuels are becoming more visible as we look for alternatives to petroleum because of increasing gas prices: soybean biodisel and corn grain ethanol, such as E85. The study showed that both corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel produce more energy than is needed to grow the crops and convert them into biofuels. However, the amount of energy each fuel returns differs greatly. Soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than is used to produce it, while corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25 percent more energy than is used to produce it.
The study also compared the amount of greenhouse gases each biofuel released into the environment when used. Soybean biodiesel produces 41% less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel fuel while corn grain ethanol produces 12% less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.
Not a silver bullet
The researchers conducting this study caution that neither biofuel is ready to replace petroleum. Even if all current U.S. corn and soybean production were dedicated to biofuels production, it would still only meet 12 percent of gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand, and we still need to produce these crops for food. Biofuels are steps in the right direction, however, and can be a piece of the overall puzzle needed to be put together to solve our energy needs.