It isn't any fun, in fact, saying things people don't want to hear. They call you names in return.
Ten years ago, I was one of the very few scientists willing to say, in public, to an audience of farmers- "Ethanol from corn is a bad idea." I made no friends.
Here we are, however- with even the farmers (who have the most to lose) now admitting that ethanol from corn "has limits" regarding how much of a fix it is for anything. And no, I don't blame the farmers for the ethanol rush- they rely a great deal on "experts" to suggest good directions for them.
We're already past "Peak Ethanol." Ethanol Glut Why? Because folks ignored the fact that technologies must be INTEGRATED; all the pieces have to fit into the real world, somehow. Ethanol has a dozen aspects where the concept will NEVER integrate with the needs of humans, or the world; but the one that has currently caused the price of ethanol to drop, and has caused plans for new ethanol plants to be canceled was obvious all the time; and talked about, and explained, and ignored: the corn is in the Midwest; the demand for fuel ethanol is on the coasts. You can't move enough of it, fast enough, to make it work.
A) the major existing fuel pipelines mostly run north/south
B) you can't put ethanol into the existing piplines anyway; it will corrode them.
C) you have to move ethanol via truck, or train
D) there aren't enough trains; or trucks - OR TRACKS OR ROADS.
E) nobody is building new tracks, or roads, or is intending to in the future.
We KNEW all this. And yet- neither our beloved government; nor our beloved universities, nor our blessed free enterprise system prevented us from idiotically going down this path. What stopped it was- hitting the end of the trucks and trains. They're full, and going as fast as they can, and the ethanol producers are already producing more than they can handle.
What does the future hold for ethanol? It's still kind of a sacred cow, out here in corn country; badmouthing it will not make the neighbors smile at you. But the reality is, everyone knows its days are numbered, and as a growth industry- it's over.
The new fantasy the experts are selling is that all those lovely corn ethanol plants will one day be converted to producing... ethanol (what transport problem!?) - but from switchgrass, instead of corn.
I'm sorry. I really am. But just as ethanol from corn was never going to work-
Ethanol from switchgrass IS NEVER GOING TO WORK.
Or Butanol, or "bio-crude", or whatever; from miscanthus, or hybrid willow, or "cellulose".
The systems required do not work; and cannot be made to work; this is a blind alley; a waste of resources needed to find real solutions.
So why so much noise? There's money to be made "developing" the new energy messiahs. $$$8-). Otherwise sensible people can just get sucked right into the fantasy when you wave million$- billion$ - of dollar$ at them. And, this fantasy perpetuates the delusion that we can still have all the SUV's we want. Lots of people are hanging on to that mirage for dear life.
I'm wincing as I write this; because I know I'm going to make a bunch of people angry. I really don't enjoy that, it's no fun being a target, and angry people seldom listen in a reasonable fashion. That, however, is exactly the problem; this entire discussion is not taking place reasonably- it's highly emotional, with a careful avoidance of rational dissection.
Here are the multiple reasons, in order of intractability, in modest but not complete detail. And for those of you not aware, this IS an area where some consider me an "expert" - I've been asked to speak at multiple conferences, including one specifically on "cellulosic ethanol".
Barrier #1) Fire.
This is part of what is making me write this post now; the very recent awareness we have that fires do happen- and may not be controllable. Perhaps people are primed to LISTEN. If it's very dry; and very windy- we are helpless in the face of big wildfires. (And again, in 2008)
This is a moderately good growth of switchgrass:
(Photo borrowed from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, www.nrel.gov/data/ pix/Jpegs/03246.jpg).
Look at the picture- then see yourself touching a match to the base of that dry grass. This stuff is HUGELY more flammable than corn, or wheat; both of which sometimes burn before harvest. It's the definition of tinder- explosively flammable when dry.
Assume that the whole fantasy is in full swing- you'll wind up with hundreds of grass-to-ethanol processing factories around the country. Each of these processing plants will be surrounded by... hundreds of thousands of acres of .... switchgrass. Millions of acres, altogether.
Close your eyes, and see it: hundreds of thousands of contiguous acres- of DRY grass. 8 feet tall.
It has to be big, mature, and dry- for any of the fantasy to work. It turns out that if you cut it when it's green, you seriously weaken the roots- no crop next year. And if you cut it when it's green- you'll either have to use it right now, or spend energy drying it, so it won't rot.
Are those huge fields of dry grass going to burn? Yes, they will; and many times, the fires will be uncontrollable. Lightning. Sparks from harvest machines. Bubba, on Saturday night, after 8 beers, because it's fun. Revenge, after getting fired from the plant. Arson by hirelings of the petroleum industry. Arson by your switchgrass ethanol competitors, to bump their profits up. Terrorists, perhaps.
And. What will be the cost of maintaining fire fighting teams enough to pretend to cope with such fires? Lots of fire teams. Add the cost to the price at the pump, and be aware that just like in California last week, sometimes they're powerless. And sometimes firefighters, and others, die.
Will such fields always burn? Of course not. Will they burn often enough to make the whole proposition uneconomic? YES. Not only the grass will burn, of course- how many houses did we just lose in California? Any switchgrass growing region will be uninhabitable. Would you live in a house, raise your children, surrounded by switchgrass? I wouldn't.
Other cellulosic feedstocks will have similar fire problems, even hybrid willow. In order to be economic, these intrinsically flammable materials have to be grown in the highest density possible- increasing the fire hazard. Regardless of climate, a dry spell will occur; and Bubba, or lightning, will go to work. The profits will be out the window, the company will fold, the system will shut down.
In my trial discussions on this point, the responses have been:
a) "Well, you could put in firebreaks." Flames from mature switchgrass typically rise 50 feet into the air. Take a look at any of the videos coming from California last week- wind driven fires will jump almost any break you can make. Switchgrass is virtually designed to generate airborne sparks- the myriad leaves burn loose, then take flight on the fire generated winds- burning. Bubba, I guarantee, will wait for a windy night. And in any case, allotting substantial ground to firebreaks will cut into the economics- your grass resource will be even more diffuse; transport even more expensive.
b) "Oh, I don't think it will be that big a problem." See California. Ecologists have warned for DECADES that this was a bad place to build homes like this; it was bound to burn, out of control, some day. We knew it. (No, I don't really blame the folks who moved/built there- I DO think they have a right to expect the "government" to adequately warn folks of danger; that didn't happen. The scientists DID; the government didn't.)
"I don't think so" is hardly an adequate response. In this world of global warming, we can count on warm weather- and dry periods; getting worse.
c) "Look, technology is astonishing these days; we'll figure out something later." See nuclear waste. This is the attitude responsible for so many of our problems these days. We have to stop accepting it in the planning phases. "I know coal is dirty, but we'll figure it out..." Etc. The idea that we can solve any problem eventually, is not proven. See cancer.
d) "How dare you run down my fantasy! You have to give these things a chance! You're just being mean!" sigh. No, I'm not. I'm being a parent. I want Smidgen to have a real chance at a future- and I want hard answers to hard questions. I'm sorry if you think I'm kicking your puppy. But you don't actually have a puppy to kick- it's imaginary, and its legs were broken before I got here.
Barrier #2) Storage.
What? I hear you say. What has "storage" to do with all this? Nobody ever mentioned storage before.
Nobody mentioned fire, either.
We're talking here about setting up a large scale industry. All the pieces have to fit together.
If you build a fuel making factory, I guarantee you it will need to run 360 days a year in order to make a profit. Could you build a car factory and run it for 2 months a year? Nope. Corn-ethanol plants run 24 hours a day; as many days as they can. These kinds of biological fermentation processes are hard to start; hard to shut down; best kept running.
Dry mature switchgrass is available to cut in the field for at most 2 months out of the year. February-March-April, depending on your latitude. If you're going to run your factory the rest of the year, it's going to have to be running on grass you have stored somewhere, somehow.
Many tons, per DAY. Can you just bale it up, and leave it in the field, the way they do hay sometimes? Eh. Not very well- if it's sitting in the field; no grass will grow where it sits; and somebody will have to come get that bale, with a tractor, at some point- driving over the growing grass. Those are significant costs to the system. Baling is not free- it has to be done exactly right, or the bale will be subject to wetting in the rain- which will make it start to rot. Your fuel value is disappearing, as it sits there. Hay bales are sometimes wrapped in plastic these days, to slow the wetting problem. More expense; more plastic. Could you store the bales somewhere else? More land. And a roof- piles of wet hay are a favorite source of fires- the heat of composting can build up to the combustion point. That's a really big roof- expensive.
The whole process of harvesting, stockpiling, storing- is very far from trivial. What we already know about storing grass, learned from experiences with hay, indicates that scaling it all up to the huge levels envisioned is not at all straightforward. And may just not be economic; ever.
There IS talk of "pelletizing" the grass; milling it into uniform particles, forming it into uniform pellets. Yep, that would make some of the handling easier, but it would add a tremendous amount of energy input to the process (higher price at the pump) and still would not get rid of the need for huge huge amounts of storage space. In order to be useful, the pellets would have to be very hard- or they will crush to dust in the storage bins- more energy inputs, and possibly material inputs- glue.
Ok, this is getting long. That's because we're talking about a really big, complex topic. But I'll try to wrap this up; realize that I'm cutting the discussion down to the bones; there's far more I could be saying here.
Problem #3) "We expect it to be working in 5 years..."
Yes, there are demonstration plants currently making ethanol from cellulose. The dirty little secret, though, is that ethanol made this way is costing 3-5 times more than ethanol from corn right now. The energy inputs are huge, the yields are poor. Can it be done? Sure. Economically? Not.... yet.
I'll give you a hint; when a researcher says "We confidently expect our spiffy new process to be fully commercial about 5 years from now." - keep your investment dollars deep in your pocket, and run. What they're really saying, in researcherese is "we're stuck, we desperately need a breakthrough, and have no idea if or when one will happen."
If they say "We expect to have a product in one year!" - that means they actually have a research direction established. Expect a real product in about 3 years, at the earliest- and a test of real world functionality in 5 years or so. When they say "we guarantee to have this figured out in 5 years" - it means they have no idea which way to turn. Not kidding.
The track record of the "biotech" industry is quite clear. After decades of promises and billions invested- they have virtually no products that work. Truly. Biotech Investment . The Fabulous Promise Of Biotech is pretty much a bust, apart from a very few simple products. The overwhelming reason is that lab-born scientists have a casual contempt for nature, and a universal tendency to underestimate natural complexity and the astonishing sophistication of natural systems. HIV Vaccine Abandoned.
Sorry to be so rude about it. It's their track record; not mine- extensive promises; few deliveries.
In detail, what they're promising now is that "soon" they will find a magic enzyme; or two; or they'll make one, from scratch, that will immediately make it possible to toss raw cellulose (ok, or lignin/cellulose) into their kettle, and have great quantities of (clean) ethanol popping out the other side.
Here's my big chance to become known as a prophet. No, they won't.
Think, please. What is cellulose?
It's a big long string of sugars. Hey, that should be easy.
It's also the basic structural molecule in... bacterial cell walls. And, oh, yes, plant cell walls.
But it's the bacteria that interest me. They've been around for a long long time; billions of years at least. And in all that time, other bacteria, and fungi, and what have you, have been constantly trying to figure out ways to break into the cells, and eat the goodies in there. And the bacteria have constantly been figuring out ways to prevent that. Layer, upon layer, upon layer of attack and defense.
Both the bacteria, and the plants, are extraordinarily good at preventing breakdown of their cell walls. REALLY REALLY good at it. Billions of years, good at it. But hey, we'll figure it out in 5. Take a look out your window. Any trees out there? Grass? They're all made of cellulose, and they are all busily preventing anything from eating their cell walls. Do they succeed? Manifestly, yes, they do. Granted, when the plant dies, the cellulose will eventually break down. But very very slowly, and usually it's the last molecule to go. Ever see a dead tree suddenly turn liquid? That's what they're saying they'll be able to do, in 5 years. Believe me, the fungi and bacteria would do it now, if they could.
The biotech boys are already aware of some of the difficulties, since they've actually been working on cellulosic ethanol for at least 20 years (that's Four "just five years" ), and don't have it working yet. Turns out the cellulose in there is just really hard to get at. If it was a naked string of sugars, it wouldn't be so bad; but it turns out cell walls are incredibly complex; and most of the complexities are... SURPRISE! - kind of specifically there to prevent anything from attacking the cellulose. And.. SURPRISE!! when you break down one barrier... there's ANOTHER one waiting. Well, I'll be darned. Oh. And another. Take a look at lignin, and all the tangles there.
That's what happens, given a couple billion years of microbiological warfare.
Oh, and, just incidentally. Suppose the Biotech Boys DID come up with a magic enzyme, able to eat any cellulose, anytime? Wouldn't that be a nifty thing to turn loose, accidentally, on the world? Every hear of the nanotech "Grey Goo" nightmare? Say the magic enzyme accidentally gets incorporated into a wild fungus... (not at ALL unlikely) which gets out into the woods... how about "Brown Slime", as the end of the world?
We haven't even gotten through all the major non-scifi barriers; like #4- Water - and #5 -Plant Disease in a Huge Monoculture - #6 - Food (UN:Biofuels Criminal), and Transport...and on, and on.
My point - is not that all research on cellulosic ethanol should cease. My point is- we had really better be looking for other answers to our problems. This one is very very far from being a sure thing. If I were an AntiBushkovite, I'd ask when was the last time any good idea came out of Bush's mouth. And claim that his optimism on switchgrass is abundant reason to abandon it immediately. But I won't go there.
My plea is for hard, hard thinking, before we commit our hope and precious resources to blind fantasies. We don't have time or resources to waste. We need more discipline in our projections for the future. Does this work? Does this fit in place? What happens next? And next?
The only workable solution within sight for our energy disasters, and global warming, is that we must all use much less.
And as long as we indulge in the insane dream of an SUV in every garage- in India, Africa, China, and Mexico- we will not face the reality that we all must learn to live quite differently, and soon.