Saturday, December 01, 2007

"Oil" from Wood Chips and Nuclear Power.

The two are not directly connected, and yet are set to be part of the energy mix deemed necessary to run the post-cheap oil world. Shell has collaborated with Choren Industries to build a pilot plant in Germany, near Freiberg, which uses wood chips to make synthetic fuel. In an adaptation of the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) technology in which coal is "fired" into synthesis gas ( a mixture of H2 and CO) and this is converted into hydrocarbons over a cobalt catalyst, wood chips are similarly gasified and turned into synthetic fuel. The FT process was invented at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut fur Kohlenforschung in 1923, and contributed to keeping Hitler's armies fueled during WWII, which would otherwise have ended years before it did as the Allies had blockaded Germany from conventional supplies of crude oil. It was thought that the Germans would be starved of fuel within months of the start of the war, but their scientific ingenuity proved otherwise.

The generalised methods of converting coal to liquid fuel are termed coal to liquids, CTL, and wood etc. (biomass) to liquids conversion is analogously known as BTL. The latter is strictly an experimental technology and there is much more to be done before it might be implemented on the grand scale. It is one of the second generation of biofuels, which is really the only way that anywhere near the amount of petroleum based fuel might be matched from renewable "bio" sources, without compromising food production when growing crops for fuel encroaches onto land for food crops. As an example, even if all of the UK's arable land were turned over to growing sugar for ethanol fuel, only about half its oil based equivalent could be matched. Hence even if we starved, we could only run half our current transportation fleet, overall. The essential basis of "second generation" biofuels is the conversion of lignocellulose into fuel, and hence increasing vastly the "yield" per hectare of fuel, by using a material that is normally discarded in crop production.

The pilot plant in Freiberg will make 15,000 tonnes of fuel each year but the construction of a far larger plant to produce "Sunfuel", as Choren has nicknamed the BTL product, at Schleswig-Holstein with a capacity of 200,000 tonnes annually, is due to begin next year. BTL is a component of Shell's XTL programme, which includes GTL, a form of diesel made from natural gas, hence the "G". The latter technology is being implemented in the form of the world's greatest civil engineering project, employing a workforce of 30,000, namely "Pearl", based in Qatar, with the intention of converting some of that country's huge reserves of natural gas into 140,000 barrels daily of synthetic fuel. This amounts to over 50 million tonnes per year of a diesel that is completely free from sulphur. I attended a meeting run by the Royal Society of Chemistry in Oxford recently at which it was concluded that second generation methods, either cracking lignocellulose into sugars to make ethanol, or via BTL/FT into diesel would not be operating commercially before 2020, i.e. well into the Oil Dearth Era.

Nuclear power is set to be an essential component of the energy mix. When I started writing these articles I thought that we could dispense with nuclear and run everything on renewables; I am no longer of that opinion, and we will need to replace the old generation of reactors in addition to building new ones. How feasible it will be to expand the nuclear industry remains to be seen both in terms of engineering and the availability of nuclear fuel. Depending on how uranium or for that matter thorium is "burned" in nuclear reactors, and how assiduously exploration for further sources of these fuels is done, we may have hundreds or thousands of years worth left to exploit, and hence the technology could be viewed as "renewable". Gordon Brown has, however, outlined four sites for new-build nuclear, and these are at Sizewell in Suffolk; Dungeness in Kent; Hinkley in Somerset and Bradwell in Essex. It is interesting that all these are in the south of England and none in Scotland where of course, Mr Brown hails from!

Related Reading.
(1) "Shell turns to wood chips and straw in search for the road fuel of the future," By Carl Mortsihead, International Business Editor, Timesonline, 2nd March, 2007.
(2) "Brown outlines four sites for nuclear power stations," By Colin Brown, The Independent, 29th November, 2007.


sustain_ability said...

Peak Oil has come and gone in the sense that oil price increases continue to break through all "psychological" barriers. Unimaginably and astonishingly, a new era of scarcity is taking hold after the 50-year long era of Big (Cheap) Oil.

New types of economic benefits/surpluses could appear:
a healthier citizenry (reducing the need for health care), redefining money supply ( Perspectives On Capitalism In Crisis.pdf), a long overdue analysis of technology (emphasis on consumerism replaced by a stringent measurement of industrial progress as per economist E.F.Schumacher and inventor B.Fuller).

Using innovative housing such as and residential composting such as, we may achieve significant levels of sustainability quickly. The transition away from Peak Everything is well within our means today.

talli said...


Do have a link to the proceedings from the RSC workshop? I am very interested in hearing the arguments for the 2020 forecast.

In my voyages, I've gotten the sense that while cellulosic fuels are not around the corner, they aren't as far off as that forecast.

Perhaps, though, the RSC was talking about next generation fuels like the kinds Amyris, LS9 and Synthetic Genomics are working on?

energybalance said...

Hi Talli,

the main speaker on biofuels was: Dr Geraint Evans (NNFCC). There are various sites that refer to him, and particularly "second generation biofuels".

The particular topic was biofuels-to-liquids/ Fischer-Tropsch technology (in analogy with coal to liquids), both using syngas. Also enzymatically digesting lignocellulose into sugars for ethanol fermentation.

I have seen a lot of different estimates for when we might expect them to come to our rescue, but 2015 - 2020 seems a reasonable average.