The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00470: Clutching At Straw

Key concepts:
ethanol, biomass, alternative fuels, energy crises, microbes, cellulose, biotech solutions
Attention Conservation Notice:
It might take you a couple of beers' worth of ethanol to work your way through all of this.

The US is broke on oil costs, knee-deep in blood and unable to provide security even for Israel – so why not join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the hot new AntiTerror Bloc for oil-rich Communists? It's like the old Warsaw Pact, only with Exxon's money! Will Serbia join? Will India?

People in the USA know nothing of Brazilian ethanol. The Brazilians been running on rum for years. So there's the proof-of-concept.

Brazil doesn't merely have ethanol, it's got a different breed of car. Not a hybrid, but a "trybrid." The Obvio runs on ethanol, gasoline or electrical wall-power.

Any ethanol plug-in "trybrid" could run on wind-power as well as ethanol. That could be handy indeed.

The Brazilian Obvio is not as fast or sexy as this Tesla all-electric sports car, but its fuel-tank is full of pure booze. You get some mint and crushed ice, it's a rolling mojito.

Our beloved Viridian Mascot, "Big Mike" the microbe, is unsurprised to learn that the planet Earth is a cosmic magnetic pump for interplanetary sepsis. How long has the planet Earth been saturating outer space with electrically charged microbes? If you went past the orbit of Neptune, would you find Devonian microbes floating there? Microbes are full of surprises! Compared to them, we know nothing!

Is there a cloud of dust anywhere in this galaxy that isn't soaked in microbes? Is Thomas Gold chuckling in his abiotic petroleum grave?

It comes down to this. Since it's lethal to dig up and burn the planet's reserves of fossil carbon, why not burn the living biomass that's on the planet's surface today? Because most of it is cellulose, that's why. Cellulose is hard and dry and resists decay and fermentation. It is straw. It's wood. It's solid and recalcitrant. It burns badly! Still, if you could somehow turn that hard straw into a liquid fuel, in the way that yeasts brew starch and sugar into booze....

And then get some venture angel to evangelize that...

Of course, you'd have to go head to head with the Forces of Darkness. So, start in California. The Californians may be smart enough to realize that the oil companies are doing to California just what the power companies did to California. Exxon, Enron, same thing, really.

Did I mention it was 122 degrees Fahrenheit in Palm Springs, California this week?

It was so hot in California that MySpace blew out. MySpace collapsed from the Greenhouse Effect. In today's grim climate, is it even possible to be a dotcom guy without also being a green fuels guy? Do you think blackouts are good for your business?

Rather than fight with Vinod Khosla and his Silicon Valley pals in California energy-politics, DuPont and Shell are busily brewing a rival to ethanol, bio-butanol. Do you think Shell and DuPont are trying to 'greenwash' each other here? Or do you think maybe they can do math?

Russians, being Russians, can make alcohol out of sawdust. They've been doing that for decades. Of course, with crude Soviet microbes and tons of sulphuric acid, that's a messy, polluting process. You'd have to really want that alcohol. Which they do.

(((You wanna seriously chew up and then burn cellulosic biomass, you've got to deal with the world experts: fungi and yeasts. If it weren't for fungi and yeasts, this planet would be stacked miles high in undecaying timber. The problem is that microbes have their own agenda, and it doesn't include powering our cars.)))

Link: "Converting cellulose to ethanol involves two fundamental steps: breaking the long chains of cellulose molecules into glucose and other sugars, and fermenting those sugars into ethanol. In nature, these processes are performed by different organisms: fungi and bacteria that use enzymes (cellulases) to 'free' the sugar in cellulose, and other microbes, primarily yeasts, that ferment sugars into alcohol.

"The ideal organism would do it all – break down cellulose like a bacterium, ferment sugar like a yeast, tolerate high concentrations of ethanol, and devote most of its metabolic resources to producing just ethanol. (((And this boozy 'ideal organism' would make more money than OPEC and the coal lobby put together.))) There are two strategies for creating such an all-purpose bug. One is to modify an existing microbe by adding desired genetic pathways from other organisms and 'knocking out' undesirable ones; the other is to start with the clean slate of a stripped-down synthetic cell and build a custom genome almost from scratch." (((A pretty bold declaration of intent, eh? Do you think the 21st century can do this? An all-purpose bug would be a biotech hack big enough to transform the planet. Military, economically, financially, industrially, the works.)))

(((Nobody has ever bred or engineered a native American prairie plant such as switchgrass so as to turn it into an ultra-flammable fuel-heavy crackable super-grass. Attempts are under way, though.))

(((Switchgrass is also aptly known as "Panic Grass," a pretty good coinage for an attempt to run a superpower on hay.)))

(((If switchgrass looks vaguely familiar, that's because it already grows all over the place. Switchgrass grows much faster than windmills or nuclear power plants. It's a native American weed.)))

(((The kicker? Switchgrass adds carbon to the soil through its dense prairie roots. So it's a car fuel that actually subtracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Especially if you zap the grass with RuBisCo genes, not too much of a step if you're also cracking straw with genetically altered microbes.)))

(((So what we have here is a weird, historically unprecedented, gene-altered biofuels scheme that tackles the planet's most pressing environmental, economic and military problems, and also looks like a business plan. Sort of. I know that "grasping at straw" is the desperate act of a drowning man, so let's deal with a few of the obvious deal breakers first. Is there any substance here?)))

  1. Most cars don't burn fuels that are rich in ethanol.

That's true. You'd need a new flexfuel fleet and "trybrids" would be even better. On the plus side, it's a positive advantage if these new cars are huge SUVs. The automobile majors are already selling flexfuel cars in Brazil. They know how to do it, unlike with fuel-cell cars. They can make money.

  1. What about the many energy needs that aren't transportation fuel?

You can burn the grass directly as boiler fuel, or even make electricity with microbes eating grass.

  1. Ethanol raises the cost of corn and starves poor people in order to fill rich guy's gas tanks.

That's only true of the starch ethanol that comes from edible grains. Cellulosic ethanol comes from grass, cornstalks and leftover sugarcane bagasse. Poor people don't eat those.

  1. Ethanol takes more energy to make than it contributes to our society.

This is a largely academic distinction. Furthermore, it isn't true even of old-school corn ethanol, while cellulosic ethanol is a new, unheard-of process, that, if it really worked, would be hugely efficient at turning solar radiation right into booze.

  1. If this cellulosic microbe cracking worked, somebody would be selling me booze made of their lawn clippings now. So where are the big cellulosic refineries? They don't even exist. Show me.

We'll have to take that pressing issue up with Novozyme, Danisco, Diversa, Abengoa, and Acciona Energía. These new cellulosic startups may all pop just like dotbombs. On the other hand, if we don't somehow rapidly solve soaring oil costs and the climate crisis, there won't be any conventional economy left either. There are a lot of methods of going after the knotty problem of cracking cellulose, and we're getting better at most of them. This scheme is not yet prime-time, but it's not cold-fusion, either.

  1. When you burn ethanol, carbon dioxide goes into our sky. That's bad, isn't it?

You're not getting it yet. This scheme means covering the USA with a Saudi Arabia of prairie. That means sucking CO2 out of the air and turning into a vast sea of sod. Most of the fuel plant is roots, so it remains underground. You're not going to burn that part. You're using green plants to suck the burnt coal and crude-oil out of the sky and turn it into topsoil. Unlike nuclear power, this scheme is a chance to actively grab the excess CO2 out of the sky and get rid of it. It's better than a closed carbon loop. It's carbon sequestration.

  1. . Fuel-cell hydrogen is a much cooler idea than this hick-centric hay-bale nonsense.

Yeah, it is, but there is no giant Brazil already running on fuel-cells. By the way, Brazilian sugarcane consists of cellulose besides the sugar than makes rum, so Brazil's vast, well-established fuel canefields ought to at least triple in value under this dispensation. The Brazilians become the new Saudis. At least voodoo freaks don't blow themselves up.

  1. . There's not enough room in the croplands to grow endless multitons of biofuels. We'll all starve!

It's not about fermenting our edible crops. It's about fermenting hay. There's plenty of room for hay. Hay grows where crops can't grow.

  1. . Genetically modified organisms are the work of Satan!

So are heatwaves, warfare and genocide. We're getting way past the point of being picky here. If you really want to see renewable, sustainable solutions to vast, planetary-scale crises, there has to be some time and place where you are willing to take "yes" for an answer. The best is the enemy of the good, while the status quo will kill us. This is a very innovative game plan which could expand with great speed and which, at its basis, is all about grass. Are you really afraid of grass?

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