What Is The Best Biofuel?

This is Part Two regarding biofuels. Part One compared ethanol with methanol. This earlier analysis summarily dismissed biodiesel as far too inefficient and miniscule to even be considered for attention.

I've spent most of my professional life in academia. However, my early years were devoted to biomass engineering in industry, and, over time, I also gained broad experience from three years as a Special Assistant in the U.S. Senate, helping start several companies and serving on the board of Hawaii Biotech during its important transition period. For about a third of century I have in various capacities been involved in a wide range of processes to convert biomass into a liquid fuel. I've chaired a range of bio-energy conferences and for the specific field of methanol from biomass, assisted in securing funds in the neighborhood of $25 million to conduct experiments and participate in economic assessments of this option.

You can refer to the biomass section of Chapter 2 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth (see box on right) for the details, but by all common, economic and scientific sense, the simplest of alcohols, methanol, should be the sustainable fuel of choice over ethanol. I was thrilled when Nobel Laureate George Olah published Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy. All the science and future speculation you wish to know can be found in this book about this alternative.

Thus, after a lifetime of research and pontification, I recently called my own bluff and drafted a letter to several colleagues to interest them in establishing a biomass to methanol holding company, to be called BioMethanol International. If a partnership is formed, we would seek the advice and active partnership of individuals and organizations throughout the world. If anyone more enterprising can be influenced to start his own company using the following strategy, great, as the whole point of this article is to get this field going.

In the following "hypothetical" letter, A, could well be an experienced venture capitalist operating out of Manhattan, NYC, and B might be Dr. Methanol, himself, perhaps a former professor at MIT who once ran the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) biomass gasification program. C and D are university faculty members. E could be a consultant with the Department of Energy and F a high level official of NREL. In principle, we've been talking about taking this step for over a long, long time, so while these alphabets represent real people who are all aware of the contents, nothing official has happened, yet. So, here is that open letter to the readership of the HuffPo Green:

Dear A, B, C, D, E and F:

Ethanol and biodiesel are slowly sinking as biofuel options, but the Farm Lobby will ensure that, if we decide to form a methanol producing enterprise, we will have a few years to refine the effort. As far as I can determine, there is no group obviously on the horizon spearheading a similar venture. E mentioned to me that the bio-energy planning session held in Honolulu in May did not even consider this pathway. While F indicated to me a few months ago that NREL was hoping to start discussions about expanding the national biomass program, it appears that USDOE headquarters will be sticking to their current policy of purposefully excluding methanol. All this is mostly good, for the lack of competition is an almost necessary requirement for us to proceed.

Shockingly, I haven't seen even one overview paper treating the topic: okay, ethanol and biodiesel are dead, so, what else is there? British Petroleum seems to be stuck on fermentation for higher carbon biofuels, a very slow and inefficient process, and Shell is dabbling in cellulosic ethanol (if you have fiber, it is easier and cheaper to produce methanol), hydrogen and marine algae for diesel. If there are other teams around the world at our stage or beyond already proceeding, who are they? Maybe we can link with one of them.

The timing is ideal, then, to quickly form a holding company to pursue this methanol from biomass initiative. I would like to suggest the following ten step strategy:

1. Select a company name. We can always change it to suit our needs, so, for now, it shall be BioMethanol, International. If anyone has a better idea, let us know.

2. A, you are the only financial guy on our team, so you can be President. I'm writing this, so I'll make myself chairman of the board. B, do you want to be chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee? C and D, you're teaching, but you can serve on B's committee if you wish. If you can suggest anything more relevant, we'd like to hear from you. E, as you're still consulting for the USDOE, we need to keep you on an informal advisory capacity. Anyone know others who might serve on either the company board or the scientific committee?

3. This should be simple boiler-plate formality for you, so, A, can you send us your version of the articles of incorporation and any financial details, including a strategy for angel financing.

4. We need to begin the process of adjusting congressional language to qualify methanol for the existing and future tax incentives. I'll look into this.

5. C and D, if you wish to participate, can you review the state of knowledge? Gasification systems, catalysts, whatever. You're all busy, so something simple would be satisfactory. If any developmental pathway looks especially promising, let's co-op the technology by asking them to join our partnership, but this has to be after we look credible enough. We should also, later, add a process for converting marine macroalgae to methanol. The moisture content could be a problem. Japan is ahead of us in this area, so I'll inquire.

6. We need to already interact with Barack Obama's people to insure that in the transition they will better appreciate the need to find another pathway to liquid fuels, and methanol, more specifically, should be in their vocabulary. Discussions must be held with the staff of our congressional delegates. We can discuss how this initiative might unfold, but, E, can you figure out who our government contact should be? As of this moment, there is no individual allowed to even think methanol. This person has to be important in 2009, if she exists.

7. There might well be an oil company or equivalent interested in bankrolling this effort. We should explore around, for they have tens of billions available for their future. Under any circumstances, we will someday soon need a major player involved.

8. What our holding company will do will be to sign up the most promising technologies, meld them into an operational system and commercialize the process. Of course, considerable research will still be necessary to fill in the gaps and otherwise enhance the above, so C and D can handle those plans as necessary.

9. I'm completely open to anything, but my sense is that we will create the best possible biomass to methanol concept, including at least a pilot plant operation, and hope some larger company buys us out in five years. A more successful version of the Maui biogasifier project, one that produces real methanol, needs to become operational within five years for a sum of, say, $25 million to $50 million.

10. The toughest part of our challenge will be to secure funding. Well, actually, the more difficult requirement will be to convince anyone of importance that methanol makes more sense than ethanol. We need to discuss these matters at our next stage of activity. While most of this can be accomplished electronically, it would be ideal if a critical mass of us can meet for a day within a few months, either in Honolulu or Denver.

I have attached two articles delving into methanol, and, in particular, the direct methanol fuel cell, for this liquid is the only biofuel capable of being fed to a fuel cell without reformation. I think the DMFC for vehicles will be the breakthrough technology to smooth the way for methanol in a decade. Who knows, we might end up becoming the holding company for this thrust instead, for the DMFC for portable electronics is already close at hand to replace batteries.

This is heresy, but my interest is not in necessarily making a pile of money. The more important objective is to initiate the development for what many of us believe to be the most sensible biofuel: methanol. I look forward to your comments.



P.S. Anyone reading this wishing additional information is encouraged to communicate with me at patkentak@hotmail.com

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