Friday, February 02, 2007

Blair says Science will Save Air Travel.

Tony Blair has said that he will keep on flying - which rather flies in the face of comments from the Environment Minister that the cheap airline Ryanair is "the irresponsible face of capitalism" in its opposition to an E.U. carbon emissions scheme - adding that it is impossible to expect people to make personal sacrifices by taking holidays closer to home. There are so many issues attending the subject of air travel, that many key points become obfuscated by spaghetti policies. On one hand we should (as a nation) be cutting our CO2 emissions, and yet plans advance for the fifth runway at Heathrow Airport. So does this mean that planes are exempt from consideration in reducing CO2; and then are cars and other road vehicles exempt too, since there seems to be no credible action underway to provide an alternative (non-oil based) means for road transport? "Use the trains", we hear, and yet there are all kinds of troubles with the railway network, especially since it was sold off from what was British Rail years ago, and only now is necessary work being undertaken to shore-up much of the infrastructure. Mr Blair contends that "Science" will find solutions to airborne CO2 emissions, and there is some room for hope in that. It is feasible that better fuselage designs could cut fuel use (and hence CO2 emissions from planes) by 30%, but not for another 30 years, as the plans are still on the drawing board. No airline will adopt such an untested type of plane unless it is sure that it will recover its costs in doing so very quickly. There is a lot of competition between airlines in the U.K. and in Europe (as has been the case in the U.S. for decades), especially from budget companies like Ryanair, and a cynic might wonder if this is what the environment minister was really referring to - that they are being irresponsible in taking profits way from establishment capitalism (the larger and more expensive national airlines) , not necessarily as capitalism per se.
Biobutanol is a word you may or may not have come across, but it is being mentioned as a potential future aviation fuel. Bioethanol: everybody is talking about that, but (bio)butanol is a less "combusted" alcohol and will release more energy when it is burned weight for weight, closer to gasoline or aviation spirit (kerosene). Most biofuels such as biodiesel become very viscous (thick or syrupy) at the low temperatures typically encountered at normal flying altitudes, which have the advantage of saving fuel through reduced air resistance than encountered lower down in the atmosphere. Highly viscous fuels would pose a real problem since they cannot be pumped easily around a jet-engine. In contrast, bioethanol remains a low viscosity liquid down to these and still lower temperatures. There are safety issues over running planes on ethanol (although probably not to the extent of running planes on hydrogen) and so biobutanol might be thought likely to prove itself as the useful alternative fuel to kerosene. However, pure biobutanol is even more viscous than kerosene (similar to a high quality deisel fuel) and would need to be introduced as a mixture with kerosene, therefore not eliminating the need for the latter entirely. True, burning biobutanol will produce CO2, as is the case for all carbon containing fuels, but there is the potential benefit that it is produced from a crop which hence must absorb CO2 from the atmosphere by photosynthesis during the growing season before it is harvested. The crop will probably not absorb 100% of the amount of CO2 that will be generated by burning the biobutanol obtained from it, but there is still an improvement over burning oil-based kerosene alone, in proportion to the fraction of that final fuel which is actually butanol (e.g. a 5% butanol:95% kerosene mix would make no real difference, whereas 50:50 might). Also, if that biobutanol can be produced on our own shores, we are less dependent on imported oil to run our fleet of planes. However, I would guess that the amount that can be produced given the available area of arable land in the U.K. is highly limited and would compromise food production to make any significant quantity of it. In any event, since we cannot run the existing number of planes on pure biobutanol and still need kerosene, how, other than by means of imported oil and consequently raising CO2 emissions, are we to treble the number of flights by 2030, as the government has projected. By then the world will have got through well over half of its remaining one trillion barrel proven reserve of oil, and so planes will long have given way to other necessities that are underpinned by oil. It seems to me that projected demand and limited fuel supply are two forces pulling in opposite directions. The dearth of fuel must win out since it is a simple consequence of depleting a finite supply - and this must cause much of transport (all, road-borne, sea-borne and air-borne) to grind to a halt. Widescale coal liquefaction could in principle produce very great quantities of fuel and yet, with only 15 years left until we have used half the oil there is now remaining, not one single coal liquefaction plant has been built in the U.K. Science cannot save even the existing burden of air-travel, even if we were to implement new technologies immediately, and there appears no serious intent to do so. There will be more pressing needs for oil to support survival on the ground. It is a less mobile and consequently more localised society that awaits us, and widespread plane travel is a mere luxury against that stark backdrop. Capitalism must shoulder its responsibilities more pressingly at ground level, whatever face it chooses to show of the many we have seen so far.


Anonymous said...

Bio-Butanol seems to me the logical next generation aviation fuel; if merely to help upper atmosphere pollution.
I am concerned though about any viscosity or freezing issues an airline has to overcome. Also, how will paying customers feel about using a "new" fuel source?
Check out the following web link for a small Butanol pilot plant operating in the US.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Indeed, butanol has a number of properties in common to conventional fuel, and it can be used in standard internal combustion engines without needing to modify them first. The energy yield and air/fuel intake ratio is similar for the two fuels. The issue of viscosity is signficant, and other than by blending butanol with oil-derived aviation fuel, it is difficult to see how it might be used effectively as a fuel for aircraft. My main fear is that it can olnly be produced in relatively limited amounts, without compromising growing crops for other uses - e.g. providing food! As far as biofules go, I am putting my money on biodiesel from algae, but this of course does not make a good aviation fuel, ceratinly not at temperatures of e.g. -50 degrees C. that are typical for passenger aircraft. I have looked at the link,, which is very interesting; however it does not answer these questions about viscosity or level of supply. I made some discussion of the letter point in the posting: "What chance for biobutanol?" Probably for aviation purposes, it will be necessary to "crack" biodiesel into a lighter "aviation spirit" of lower viscosity, and use that instead. I can only see significant uses for butanol at ground level, but how much can be produced does appear limited.


Anonymous said...

Bio-butanol production is limited? I beg to differ since fermentation of ANY biomass can be made into Bio-Butanol!! Clostridium acetobutylicum will consume such items as grasses, woody plants or for that matter anything that can be converted into sugar.

My research shows that you can make one US gallon of Bio-fuel per 30 pounds of Biomass. In fact, some grasses, switchgrass for example, can produce nearly 20 US tons of biomass per acre. The quick math shows there is the potential to produce nearly 1300+ US gallons of either Ethanol OR Butanol!!

Limited? I doubt it...

I'm anonymous because of a Java Script problem

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

In principle any biomass *could* produce biobutanol (or ethanol) but those technologies are not fully developed. I mean that you have to break-down the biomass to sugar first, then Clostridium acetobutylicum can convert the sugar to butanol.

One of the hallmarks of this blog is that I show my calculations, so show me your figures too, and if I am wrong about that technology not existing yet maybe you could give me a reference to this effect. The latest I have heard is that it may be possible to use biomass, all of it, I mean, not just the sugar component from some crops) for biofuel production by 2015.

Java script or not, you could say "my name is Fred Smith and I work for Unilever", for example, as we are having a friendly discourse, here.

If butanol is a feasible option then I will write an article to that effect. I'm not against biofuels but I have yet to see a set of figures that supports any conclusion other than that if we attempt to match oil/biofuel ton(ne) for ton(ne) there will be a direct competition for food crops.

I agree with your 1300 gallon/acre figure, and indeed some crops produce more than 20 tonnes of biomass, e.g. sugar-cane which produced around 80 tonnes per hectare = 34 tons/acre. But I don't think that can as yet all be processed into butanol.

1300 US gallons is around 5000 litres, and x 2.5 = 12,300 litres/hectare, or about 10 tonnes/hectare of butanol. So in the UK we need (assuming highly efficient diesel engines) 40 million tonnes, or 4 million hectares = 40,000 square kilometers of land to grow the switchgrass on.

That figure can be compared with an arable land area of 61,000 km^2 - i.e. it would take up about two-thirds of our food production area. Quite a compromise! There is another 112,000 km^2 used as permanent pasture, and I suppose some of that could be turned over to growing switchgrass, but not 40,000 km^2 as we still need to graze animals.

My point is that there is a conflict between biofuel production and food production if we are to attempt to match current petroleum based fuels by biofuels. Growing algae looks the best since that gives over 100 tonnes/hectare.

What about the viscosity problem? Do you have any thoughts about that?

Not at all anonymously - Chris Rhodes.

Anonymous said...

Energy balance, my name is Neil Glasgow and I live near New Orleans, LA. (USA) where I am negotiating with local biomass sources for a bio-fuel company.
Land availability doesn't appear to be a problem in Louisiana since much of this state is farmlands, woodlands or swamp. For that matter, we are looking into recycled newspaper and municipal waste as possible feedstock. If you get a chance, follow this link to a Q & A section on available US Biomass from Agriculture-
The group I work with are actively looking at Butanol as the next energy wave; instead of Ethanol. Risky thinking and cutting edge considering hardly anyone outside of the Bio-Energy field, and few in government, knows what the heck Butanol is or its potential as a non-petroleum based fuel.
Butanol’s viscosity, its freezing point and the possibility it will be used as an aviation fuel was brought up at our last meeting based on the fact that Virgin Airline's owner, Sir Richard Branson, is offering financial support to companies perfecting a "green" fuel solution:
So far, I have located enough of a biomass inventory (non grain or food stock) to operate our 3 million gallon per year capacity fermentation plant but the owner is looking into expanding capacity to 60 million gallons per year by the end of 2008. A lot of speculation of landing a major airline customer in 2008 is fueling; pardon my pun, my quest about making Butanol or a Butanol hybrid mix the winning combination for high altitude travel.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Neil, good to meet you!

that's very interesting what you say, and your involvement in the biofuel industry. I heard about Richard Branson's interest in butanol... but as you say he probably doesn't know much about the properties of the fuel, along with congress/parliament. I agree, butanol would need to be blended probably with conventional fuel to be used in aircraft, to get around the viscosity problem.

It may well be that the situation is different in the US from over here (UK), in that you have more land to grow fuel-crops on, and I take on board what you say about land use in Louisiana.

60 million gallons of fuel is a lot - around 240 million litres - 1.5 million barrels. But that is to be compared with 7.5 billion barrels of oil used annually in the US. Maybe it is possible to set-up hundreds of such plants, but it would still be hard thus to meet that total budget. In the UK we just don't have enough land.

This is just my opinion, but I can envisage that a combination of biofuels (ethanol and butanol), some conventional oil-based fuel, diesel from various sources (especially algae in view of the huge yields 100 tonnes/hectare); the use of more-efficient engines (e.g. diesel gives 40% better tank-to wheels mileage, and hybrids even better), and probably more localised thinking, food production (farms) and so on to curb transportation to some extent. Biofuels could be supplied to meet some of the regional demands on a local (state or county?) level.

What scares me is that if we carry on in a "business as usual" scenario, we will hit a brick wall, where we fairly abruptly are unable to fuel a world which is not prepared for change. So, I hope to see a slowing-down of demand to meet what can be provided from these alternatives... but I fear we will instead see wars to grab what is left!

I remain optimistic, but I think the world needs to act sooner not later, while there are still enough conventional resources left to "fuel" the transition.

Please keep me posted with your projects!

Meanwhile, I'll read those links!

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

At this point, we are only talking about ramping up to 60 million gpy capacity and will commit only after receiving positive news from a potential customer or government source.

I like the idea of 100 other mirror operations spaced out around the country producing 60 million gpy or 6 billion gpy/42 gallons=143 million barrels). This figure still looks like a drop in the bucket but it is potentially 143 million barrels less we need from OPEC ($8.58 billion)

One thing would be certain though; they would need a lot of Biomass!!

I have a meeting this Friday morning with the Louisiana State Economic Development Manager to go over a state grant program helping Bio-Fuel companies. I'll give you an update as to how flexible and generous they are going to be after they review our business plan for 60 million gpy. I'll be sure to mention the plant mirroring idea.

FYI-Butanol is selling for $3.50 per gallon in bulk and up to 7.00 in smaller quantities-Ashland Chemicals. I hopefully will have a new price quote by Thursday.

My email is Write me at this address if you prefer private conversations and use the subject title Energy Balance.