Skip to content

Consumer Products

Is butanol our next biofuel?

Dependence on fossil fuels, increasing global energy demand and concerns of greenhouse gas emissions have led to an interest in alternative fuels produced from domestic renewable sources. In recent year, interest in bio-butanol has increased due to its perceived advantages over the traditional gasoline substitute, bio-ethanol. Here I will discuss the current state of bio-butanol and the challenges and possible solutions to making bio-butanol.

1-Butanol (butyl alcohol or n-butanol) is a four carbon straight chained alcohol with a molecular formula of C4H9OH (MW 74.12) and boiling point of 118 ºC. 1-Butanol is an important chemical precursor for paints, polymers and plastics Most 1-butanol produced today is synthetic and derived from a petrochemical route. Synthetic butanol production costs are linked to the propylene market and are extremely sensitive to the price of crude oil.

Renewable 1-butanol is produced from the fermentation of carbohydrates in a process often referred to as the ABE fermentation, after its major chemical products: acetone, butanol and ethanol. The ABE fermentation is a proven industrial process that uses species of bacteria called clostridia to convert sugars or starches into solvents. Biobutanol is an attractive renewable liquid transportation biofuel with superior properties to bio-ethanol. Bio-butanol is compatible with existing fuel infrastructure, has a better energy density, higher octane rating and less hydroscopic than ethanol and can be made from more sustainable feedstocks than bio-diesel. Therefore, if bio-butanol can be made cheaply and on renewable resources, it can readily replace ethanol and bio-diesel in the biofuel market estimated to be worth $247 billion by 2020.

Commercial production

The ABE fermentation process was first developed in the UK in 1912 and was quickly adapted for commercial production during World War I and II; first to produce acetone for ammunitions and second to produce butanol for use in paint lacquers. Butanol is now the preferred solvent since it attracts a higher price in the chemical market. By the 1950s, a synthetic route was developed and the renewable solvents were no longer cost effective. Today, research into the ABE fermentation process may make bio-butanol a new competitor in the bio-fuels market.

China leads efforts to re-commercialize the ABE fermentation process by investing over $200 million into six major corn starch-fed plants with plans to expand production capacity. Traditionally, most plants operate in a semicontinuous fashion with each fermentation lasting up to 21 days. The reactors consist of a cascading series of fermentation tanks that convert seed cultures and fresh feedstock into solvents. Conventional distillation is then used to recover the acetone, butanol and ethanol. Most plants are next to ethanol plants to reduce utility and operating costs. The butanol and ethanol plants can share treatment facilities to process the aqueous waste streams produced from anaerobic fermentations. Biogas produced as a bioproduct is used for heat and power.

The challenges for ABE fermentation

In general, to make the ABE route profitable, there is a need for cheaper feedstocks, improved yields, and more efficient solvent recovery and waste water recycle. Feedstocks contribute most to production costs, typically over 75% of the total. Biobutanol profitability is extremely sensitive to any price fluctuation in the price of feedstocks. Therefore, transitioning to a cheaper (non-edible) feedstock offers the greatest opportunity for cost reduction and improved sustainability.

Butanol titer and yield

The butanol titer (concentration) and yield (fraction of feedstock converted into butanol) of the ABE fermentation is largely a function of the microorganism. Performance can be improved by inducing mutations using chemical mutagens and selecting for improve traits, specific genetic manipulation or a combination of both. There are four main solvent producing strains that have been used industrially with Clostridium acetobutylicum ATCC 824 being the best studied and manipulated strain (the others being C. saccharobutylicum, C. beijerinckii and C. saccharoperbutylacetonicum). Research into manipulating these strains has been helped through the publication of their genomic sequences. Significant progress has been made in genetically manipulating C. acetobutylicum while the progress to genetically engineer the other strains has lagged.

Feedstocks

Currently, biobutanol is economical if it is sold as a chemical commodity instead as a cheaper biofuel. For it to be sold profitably as a biofuel, the cost of feedstocks must be reduced. If cheaper waste streams (such as corn cobs, corn stover, sugar cane bagasse, wheat straw and municipal solid waste) could be converted into feed stocks then biobutanol could compete on price with ethanol for the biofuel market.

Solvent recovery

Currently, distillation is used as a robust and proven process to recover butanol from fermentations but the process is energy intensive. Improvements can be made to make the conventional distillation process for energy efficient but the biggest reduction in energy use can only be achieved by development of nonconventional means. Since butanol is toxic to the ABE strains, online removal of butanol from the fermentation will result in higher yields. Methods like gas stripping, pervaporation, reverse osmosis, vacuum fermentation, and aqueous two phase separation are being researched for online butanol removal.

What’s Michigan Doing?

In April of this year, Cobalt Technologies and American Process announced an agreement to build the world’s first industrial-scale cellulosic biorefinery to produce biobutanol. A plant is currently under construction in Alpena, Michigan. By April 2012, the Alpena Biorefinery will produce 470,000 gallons of biobutanol annually, which will be pre-sold to chemical industry partners.

Conclusions

The clostridial ABE fermentation is an old, but proven, industrial fermentation process that has be re-established recently. The clostridial ABE fermentation process is relatively simple and existing ethanol plants can be retrofitted fairly easily to produce butanol. In order to penetrate the larger biofuel market, biobutanol needs to compete on cost with ethanol despite its superior fuel properties. Reduction in feedstock cost offers the best opportunity especially since clostridia are well suited for sugars derived from cellulosic material. Further advances for both 1-butanol are likely to come from the deployment of continuous culture, especially when coupled with in situ methods for solvent extraction and recovery. The application of advances in biotechnology and engineering to the clostridia ABE fermentation process will drive down the cost of 1-butanol production.

Free Energy!

Okay, not quite. But certainly free-er in the sense that it could let you make do with other’s energy scraps. What the heck am I talking about? (Don’t worry, sometimes I wonder too.) The point of this particular rambling is a new device that captures ambient electromagnetic energy to power small electronic devices. Some folks have recently found a way to tap into the energy transmitted by power sources like radio and television transmitters, cell phone networks, and satellite communication systems. This energy has become more and more pervasive as our devices have proliferated, and it now looks like we may be able to use the spill-over from all of this broadcast energy to power our device’s microprocessors and communications chips.

Manos Tentzeris, a professor at Georgia Tech, is leading the research and says, “There is a large amount of electromagnetic energy all around us, but nobody has been able to tap into it. We are using an ultra-wideband antenna that lets us exploit a variety of signals in different frequency ranges, giving us greatly increased power-gathering capability.”

And the coolness doesn’t stop there… Tentzeris and his fellow researches are using inkjet printers to combine sensors, antennas, etc. on paper or flexible polymers. The devices can capture energy, convert it from AC to DC, then store it in capacitors and batteries. They can so far take advantage of frequencies from FM radio to radar (100 MHz to 15 GHz or higher.) Once I can start printing this kind of thing, the price of the ink I keep having to put in my printer might start to seem worth it.

A presentation on this technology was given on July 6th, at the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Symposium in Spokane, Washington.

This was actually a fun few weeks in science… in other news, it turns out that Polar Bears are Irish.

Taking Social Networking Into the “Real” World…

At the recent IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems (ICDCS)  in Minneapolis, Dong Xuan (associate professor of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University) introduced a smartphone App called eShadow that uses nearby wireless networks and smartphones’ wireless communications to tell users that a friend who also uses the software is nearby,  and even gives directions to that friend’s location. At first blush this seems a natural extension of social trends like foursquare and Yelp, which utilize the geolocation of an individual to interact with others online. Social networking is about interacting, so meeting in the “real world” would seem an obvious next step.

Actually, before I thought about that, I had to force myself to get past the similarity of Xuan’s name to Don Juan, and how a character like Juan could really benefit from an App that helped him pick up women. Is it just me, or does it seem that quite often the name given of a scientist in a study being covered in the news contains an irony fitting to that particular study? If it’s a study on mating habits of Chimps, the lead scientist’s name will be Ben Dover or something like that. I haven’t done a formal study on this, but one should be done. The coincidence seems unlikely. Anyway, back to the actual topic…

The researchers working on eShadow stated that their biggest challenge had to do with efficient use of the wireless signals. They had to develop algorithms that let the phones send and receive signals quickly to keep from clogging up the network. When tested on the Ohio State campus, eShadow took an average of 25 seconds to connect two users who were 20 to 50 yards apart, and 35 seconds for seven users.

Apparently Xuan suggested a military application for the software, allowing soldiers to locate each other on the battlefield. I’m a bit skeptical about the usefulness there, as it would also allow the enemy to easily lead soldiers into traps with a bit of hacking.

Despite my normal skeptical eye through which I peek at most new products (software included) I think that Xuan and his team are on to something with eShadow. As someone who’s developed websites professional for a bunch of years now, I’ve done a lot of following of online technology as it develops, and a lot of speculation on where it’s likely to lead to. What I’ve seen is that the success of a device/application is almost always directly connected to the ease of the interface. It doesn’t end up mattering if there’s a point to doing something – as long as you can make it easy to do, people will do it. (Twitter comes to mind.) A good example is the success of devices like the iPhone with touchscreens, over the old BlackBerry and Newton. The iPhone improved on the miniscule buttons that hamfisted guys like me couldn’t manage. But many of the tasks are the same, while admittedly a bit more developed.

What eShadow is hinting at is the world where we can automate a good deal of our societal interactions. We’ve seen this in science fiction for some time. There’s already been a progression from desktop to laptop to handheld, and the next logical steps are visual and then actual brain interfaces. (And people are definitely already working on that.)

My hope is that by the time software like eShadow is ubiquitous, that someone takes into consideration the role that chance plays in social interactions. Software can easily match up likes and dislikes, sorting us like a bunch of library index cards, but with us humans it’s not always the best way to find others that we hit it off with. It could be that your next best friend or partner for life is someone who has opposite viewpoints and tastes, or even somewhere in the spectrum between same and opposite. Once we have algorithms that can make sense of us on that level, things will really begin to change in interesting ways.

If you’d like to learn more:

E-Shadow: Lubricating Social Interaction using Mobile Phones
http://www.cse.ohio-state.edu/~xuan/papers/2011_icdcs_tzlbx.pdf

Wireless Power

At the recent D9 tech conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Meredith Perry and Nora Dweck demonstrated their ability to send electrical power ultrasonically (beyond the range of human ears) with their prototype device. In this case we’re talking about a “proof of concept” version sending about a quarter of a watt over a three foot distance. The idea is to provide a device that would be like wifi but for electrical power instead of Internet access.

They company they have created to work on their idea is called uBeam.  (Upon first glance at the company name, two mutated memes instantly began competing in my brain. The “iBeam, uBeam, we allBeam for iBeam” line and of course Apple-ish little letter followed by a capitalized word. Whether those are actually memes, and whether memes actually exist, I’ll save for a future post.) Anyway, I was attracted to this story because a few years ago I started wondering why we couldn’t use the Earth’s magnetic field as a kind of carrier wave to provide truly comprehensive Internet access everywhere on the planet. Not the same thing, but it reminded me of it nonetheless.

Despite it’s geek appeal, there seem to be some fundamental problems with the technology. One easy one to notice is that when her hand blocks the signal the power drops off in a big way. Sort of like the problem that clouds pose for ground based solar power collectors. Altering the distance between emitter and receiver even a few inches also appears to have a large noticeable effect, which makes sense since a sound wave rapidly loses energy as it travels from it’s source. (This is why it’s hard to hear someone waaaaaay over there as opposed to right here.)

I found it interesting to learn after some Googling that wireless power isn’t all too new a dream. Nikola Tesla tried to make this happen over a hundred years ago.

A more recent attempt at this same goal, from back in 2008, was Intel’s use of magnetic waves to light a 60 watt bulb from about three feet. This direction has been more fruitful so far, leading to neat ways to power your electric toothbrush and cell phone.

A new product that’s the bee’s knees!

I wasn’t sure where to start in finding the topic for my first post here. (By the way, hello!) My problem was solved, however, while listening to the local Public Radio station in my car the other night. The program that was on was CBC’s As It Happens. Aside from their having a pretty nifty and hip theme song, I’ve liked this program because of the conversational approach to the news they cover. In any case, what caught my ear was a five minute segment about the Bee Station.

Some quick background – I own a business, and sell websites to make a living. As a result, I don’t begrudge anyone coming up with products to sell.  Hurray for capitalism. However, what bugs me about what I heard was the marketing angle. It turns out that I do have a problem when people try to cash in on fear. I also have a problem with people selling something that won’t do what they claim it will do.

The Bee Station is supposedly a way you can help your friendly neighborhood bees by providing a nest and feeding stop for them on their busy routes. Explaining his product, Jamie Hutchinson (designer of the Bee Station) tells the show’s hosts that because bees have been dying, the remaining ones are working harder. His website repeats the point…

Our bees are dying at an alarming rate and the remaining bees are working twice as hard to keep our planet alive.

That was the first thing that made me tip my head and think “huh?” The questions that came to mind were along the lines of, “how do the surviving bees know they’re supposed to be working twice as hard?” and “is there some kind of bee work quota that they are trying to maintain?” In my admittedly limited understanding of bees, it seemed to me that a bee will work as hard as it needs to in order to survive and support the hive, with no regard to the situation of other bees or any danger to humans. When I contacted him for his opinion, Eric Mussen, Extension Apiculturist at UC Davis agreed.

So bees are not like a marathon runner (an analogy used in the radio interview) in need of an energy drink because they’re running twice as hard. The emotional buildup continued in Jamie’s interview, as it does on their website…

Our bees are dying at an alarming rate and without them we’re in real trouble. Our food, clothes and very survival depends heavily on the pollination carried out by this little, stripy workforce.

For those of you playing the skeptic game at home, you should have several logical fallacy points racked up by now. In general, the arguments that I heard made on the radio program were an appeal to emotion. The website also paints a similar picture… it’s not just the bees that need to be saved, you need to save your wife and children! Quick buy this product now!!! If you don’t, we’ll be naked, hungry and then dead! Along with cashing in on the concern for dying bees, the appeal to fear is made by pointing out that without bees our whole world will come crashing down. The final pitch is then made with an appeal to flattery.

The Bee Station is your chance to help our bees… The Bee Station is the perfect gift for anyone with an interest in the environment or design.

So, if you buy buy this product you can feel good about yourself. You’ll have saved the bees, and by extension, the world. (Or given the same as a gift.) In reality, there are better ways to make a difference. An expert I contacted at the USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory agreed that flower planting (in particular, planting a diverse range of types of flowers) would make more sense, and that feeding stations were likely not the answer.

Eric seemed to feel similarly, and told me that honey bees don’t cluster outside the hive (which would seem then to mean they don’t need a Steve Jobs looking rest stop). If the main use of this product is acting as a feeder, there are definitely less expensive ways to provide sugar syrup to honey bees.

And seriously, looking at the above picture, can’t you just imagine next year’s hottest product from Apple… the iBee? It would connect wirelessly to the Internet and regularly update a Twitter page with the number of bees, local weather, etc. (Mr. Jobs, if you make this I expect some kind of compensation.)

Anyway, back to my main point… the interview was difficult to listen to because it was deceptive, and was intended to get people thinking they were making a difference by spending their money. In my mind this is akin to homeopathy. The true danger is in preventing someone from doing anything actually beneficial. You want to help save the bees? Plant some bee friendly flowers. Get started by buzzing over to the Pollinator Partnership’s Pollinator Friendly Planting Guides website. (And be thankful that I didn’t find a way to work a popular Beatles song title into this article! The temptation was strong…)

More information…

%d bloggers like this: