Biofuel 2.0: Cow Rumens and Helicopters

18 Nov

I was on the road this past Monday, visiting biofuel researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It was my first real research trip for the book, and my mind is still spinning.

Because it’s one thing to read about biofuels, to get a handle on the general story of how corn ethanol boomed and then went bust, leading to great interest in cellulosic biofuels. But it’s really another experience entirely to meet people who work on this stuff and see first hand what they’re doing every day. The moment you begin to really dig into the science of biofuels, the complexity and enormity of the task of turning plants into fuel begins to come into focus. And it’s at the same time fascinating and exhilarating and even frightening.

Biofuel research is fascinating and exhilarating for a few reasons. First, because it’s incredibly complex–much more so than the sense you get from reading about biofuel in the popular press. For example, the obvious first step in developing cellulosic biofuel (fuel made from non-edible plants, also known as biofuel 2.0) is finding the best plants to grow as energy crops. And there are a few promising candidates, including switch grass, miscanthus (a tall, bamboo-like grass of Asian origin), tropical maize (a type of corn that in North America does not produce ears and so ends up storing its load of sugars in the stalk–also known as “Midwest sugarcane”), and others.

But determining which of these plants, or what combination, works best is difficult. And the methods used to study the problem are way more high tech and complicated than I ever would have guessed. I met with ag engineers at UI whose approach to study crop growth involves hardware and tactical maneuvers resembling a military campaign. They use tall observation towers equipped with infrared cameras to monitor crops as they grow. $60,000 remote controlled helicopters hover over the crops, taking pictures. Robots about the size and shape of Wall-E are deployed into the fields with webcams to give researchers a real-time view of how the crops respond to insects, water stress, weather patterns, and everything else.

Then there’s the question of how to best harvest energy crops. Existing harvesters are designed specifically for corn. Set a corn harvester loose on a field of miscanthus and there’s no telling what may happen. So a big part of the puzzle is redesigning harvesting tools to chop miscanthus and other grasses in the most efficient way.

The list of other basic crop-related problems goes on and on. And then there’s the not-so-small matter of inventing the best way to take raw grass and process it into liquid fuel. Plant cell walls are some of the toughest, most resilient objects in nature.  They’ve evolved over millions of years to resist insects, drought, wind, and anything else that poses a threat. So we’re literally up against the full bore of plant evolution here. Which is why scientists are looking for answers in nature, specifically inside cow rumens, where hundreds of different types of bacteria excel at breaking down nearly every kind of plant material out there. In their own way, these bacteria are as efficient and expert at breaking down plant cells as plants cells are at keeping themselves intact.

But even if scientists were to pinpoint the specific bacterium best suited to break down miscanthus, say, it’s still anyone’s guess as to whether we can mimic the process in a biorefinery at industrial scales.

Bottom line, there’s great promise in biofuels, but also great uncertainty. The people I met at UI are incredibly smart and talented and dedicated, but they’re also savvy enough to recognize that they’re only at the beginning of a very long, uncertain process that may or may not get the sustained funding it needs to produce significant results.

And so it’s all a little frightening. Because, after all, the stakes are pretty high. By all accounts, biofuels have the potential to become a major piece of the renewable energy puzzle. But there’s no guarantee. Basic research has a long, long way to go, and like all basic research, its future depends on funding and government mandates and policy and many other external factors over which the scientists best able to do the research have very little control.

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One Response to “Biofuel 2.0: Cow Rumens and Helicopters”

  1. Simson September 25, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    Biofuels that are derived from human or anmial feed as co-products may not represent an unavoidable increase in agricultural land. For example, converting the undigestible carbohydrates in corn to ethanol prior to feeding it to cattle does not reduce it’s food value, but does increase it’s profitability to the producer and farmer. The material in the feed corn that could have been made into fuel passes through the cow, to end up as manure. This breaks down into nutrients the plants can use, which is a utility. If ethanol were made as a co-product, the CO from combustion would be absorbed by the plants, providing a different but comparable utility. The comllex carbohydrates can either be recycled through the soil, or through the atmosphere. One path provides fuel, the other doesn’t.Somewhat similarly, Canola grown for biodiesel also results in high-protein, highly digestible cattle feed, once the oil has been extracted. If so much of our agricultural energy is devoted to feeding cattle, and if a co-product of cattle feed can be used for transportation fuel, then there is no additional land necessary. Without extracting the fuel co-product portion of cattle feed, we use other sources for an equivalent amount of fuel. Those sources are already having undesirable effects, which should be compared to the food or fuel debate.A point missing from virtually every food debate is the question of how many people we ought to be feeding, rather than how to feed any arbitrary number of people using only finite resources that are showing indications of unsustainable overproduction.

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