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Generating Alcohol Fuels From Electrical Current and CO2

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the we-have-those-things dept.

Biotech 82

New submitter AcMNPV writes "A news release from UCLA describes a new process for producing biofuels using microorganisms, electrical current and carbon dioxide (abstract). Quoting: 'Liao and his team genetically engineered a lithoautotrophic microorganism known as Ralstonia eutropha H16 to produce isobutanol and 3-methyl-1-butanol in an electro-bioreactor using carbon dioxide as the sole carbon source and electricity as the sole energy input. Photosynthesis is the process of converting light energy to chemical energy and storing it in the bonds of sugar. There are two parts to photosynthesis — a light reaction and a dark reaction. The light reaction converts light energy to chemical energy and must take place in the light. The dark reaction, which converts CO2 to sugar, doesn't directly need light to occur. "We've been able to separate the light reaction from the dark reaction and instead of using biological photosynthesis, we are using solar panels to convert the sunlight to electrical energy, then to a chemical intermediate, and using that to power carbon dioxide fixation to produce the fuel," Liao said.'"

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82 comments

Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (4, Interesting)

jeffb (2.718) (1189693) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523297)

...and reaction rates. I'm guessing this wouldn't be useful in a regenerative-braking regime, but I'd love to know whether it's fast enough for grid load-balancing, efficient enough to eventually become cheaper than alternatives, or just an interesting proof-of-concept. My money is on the last.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (4, Insightful)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523377)

You might want to cut them some slack. This is a proof-of-concept, er, give-me-more-money demonstration. Of course, most of these sorts of things don't scale, don't work outside the bottle and won't end up commercialized, but it is an interesting way to go about doing things.

In general, I'm leery of using bioreactors as a production tool. They're expensive, cranky of maintenance and tend to smell bad.

But you've got to start somewhere.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (5, Funny)

NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523769)

In general, I'm leery of using bioreactors as a production tool. They're expensive, cranky of maintenance and tend to smell bad.

-> insert ex-wife joke here <-

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39523913)

-> insert laugh and follow up off topic response here <-

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (2)

NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524057)

So if I say "Hmm, sounds like my ex-wife" it's Funny, but if I point out the meta-joke, it's Offtopic?

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39524097)

He didn't claim that the former is funny...

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (1)

b4dc0d3r (1268512) | more than 2 years ago | (#39525535)

And if you think about it as a carbon-fixing tool that can replace the carbon credit system, these things are even less relevant.

Use a little electricity to re-fix some of the CO2 you have released, and you can immediately and locally offset CO2 instead of growing a tree farm hundreds of miles away.

The fuel would likely be a side effect, kinda like whatever is behind the gas flare of an oil operation. It costs more to store and transport than it's worth, so they burn it off. In other words, not the primary goal but a side effect.

You could use a steam powered engine to use energy from the burn-off to provide electricity to run this as a carbon-fixing process. Or is that too meta?

Anyway, there are many uses for this, and it's more important to see it as pure research that can find an application later. Some of the best inventions have been re-purposing things, not inventing new things, so it's wide open as to what this offers.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (2)

jeffb (2.718) (1189693) | more than 2 years ago | (#39525975)

Use a little electricity to re-fix some of the CO2 you have released, and you can immediately and locally offset CO2 instead of growing a tree farm hundreds of miles away.

And everything would be just peachy if we could do that. But thermodynamics, that hidebound, officious boor, insists that undoing our messes takes more energy than making them in the first place. In other words, if you "use a little electricity", you'll re-fix only a very little of the CO2 you produced.

Fixing CO2 to make fuel inherently consumes more energy than burning fuel to make CO2. You win if the energy you're consuming is extremely cheap, or something that would otherwise be wasted. But if your efficiency is only on par with natural photosynthesis (a few percent), you're not winning very much.

Still better to charge a battery, if you can support the size, weight and cost. But it'll be a long time, if ever, before batteries can compete with hydrocarbons (and free ambient oxygen) on energy density.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (1)

DeathToBill (601486) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523393)

Indeed. Last time I saw this sort of research, they'd made a 'stunning breakthrough'.... achieving 0.6% energy efficiency. Trees still do it better.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (2)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523505)

But how much space and time does this need vs. trees? That's the problem with biofuels, maybe this could make them more practical on a large scale.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (3, Insightful)

rgbatduke (1231380) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524421)

Agreed. I'd be a lot more impressed if they can build an entire catalytic converter, perhaps using templated nanoscale catalysts, that take hot CO_2 and H2_O in on one end, use either sunlight or electricity as a free energy source, and spit pure octane out the other side. That one might be able to figure out well enough to where one could engineer large scale electroconversion, production of ethanol or octane (ideally the latter) on an industrial scale. If it can work efficiently with natural CO_2 levels in the air, so much the better.

Of course they can synthesize gasoline out of e.g. coal now -- I recall perhaps the Nazis doing this in WW II? -- but I think the process is still uneconomical compared to pumping and refining oil. I'd really like a rooftop collector that takes a gallon or two of water, atmospheric CO_2, and spits out a couple of gallons of pure gasoline in an normal day of sunshine. At 37 kW-hours per gallon, this wouldn't be terribly easy, actually (or rather, it would require a pretty big roof:-) but that's precisely why it is hard to beat gasoline as a fuel. A 5 kW rooftop collector, an 8 hour day, nearly perfect efficiency would make just one lousy gallon of gasoline. But that's more than I USE in a typical day, and at $4/gallon it would be $1200+ return per year...

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (3, Interesting)

Belial6 (794905) | more than 2 years ago | (#39526099)

An added benefit would be that if you lived in a rural setting, you would have more space for panels and could use the fuel as a storage mechanism for generating electricity at night. It would make off grid solar more reasonable.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (1)

rgbatduke (1231380) | more than 2 years ago | (#39528493)

Truly excellent point. Also, one could cover deserts with panels and get them to literally drip gasoline. If one assumes a gallon of gasoline per 4x4 meter grid square (16 m^2 of collector), then a square kilometer of collectors would produce 250x250 = 62500 gallons of gasoline a day. 100 km x 100 km would produce 6.25 \times 10^8 gallons a day, or about 2 gallons per US citizen. A comparatively small patch of e.g. Arizona or New Mexico could make the US entirely self-sufficient in gasoline and do so in a renewable way that recycles all of the carbon, no net impact on CO_2 (if anybody cares).

Whether or not this is precisely correct, clearly it is within a factor of two or so of the size of the collector space needed, the right order (within the assumptions). Nor does it need to be all done at one place, or at one time.

But this is indeed building dream castles unless/until somebody comes up with such a converter (that also has to be cheap and scalable, not based on scarce materials and/or expensive).

rgb

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (1)

nroets (1463881) | more than 2 years ago | (#39535053)

synthesize gasoline out of e.g. coal ... is still uneconomical compared to pumping and refining oil

Where coal is cheap enough, it can be extremely profitable [wikipedia.org]

It is however also the single largest point source of carbon dioxide in the world [csir.co.za]

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (3, Informative)

FishTankX (1539069) | more than 2 years ago | (#39540023)

The process your thinking of to make gasoline from coal is called the Fischer tropsch process and is currently economical however the facilities are not cheap and the end cost is equivalent to fifty dollar a barrel oil. The reason nobody has built them large scale other than south Africa is that once you start producing on a huge scale if it became a threat then the oil companies would probably ramp production crashing the price of oil and putting you out of business.

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (1)

rgbatduke (1231380) | more than 2 years ago | (#39540397)

It sounds like oil is coming up against an economic barrier, though. While oil is highly profitable companies have a tendency to expand to fill their margins, and after years of operation at a given level of profitability belt tightening beyond a certain point no longer is feasible. If oil companies "ramp production" and crash the price of oil, they no longer can sell the increased production -- indeed, it is this that causes the price reduction, having more oil around than people want/need to buy. The end result is that the oil companies themselves make a lot less money at any production level, and risk going out of business themselves (or at least, getting by at far lower levels of profitability). The difficulty for them is that there are a number of competing energy sources that are being developed that they simply won't be able to drive out of business (assuming that they could -- I actually doubt that they can do so as easily as you describe). Electric is starting to appear for real, with actual charging stations popping up in places where people park cars for the day (there are several on Duke's campus, as I discovered the other night by walking by a cluster, to my surprise). Biofuels are being actively developed (for better or worse -- there are and long have been people running their diesels on spent cooking oil, and then there are the many avenues for producing both methane and alcohols. Electricity can make hydrogen, hydrogen can power fuel cells or be burned directly to run cars. Alcohols actually have an energy density at least comparable to gasoline. Making gasoline out of coal, or directly synthesizing it other ways. Oil companies stand at risk from all of the above.

I'm guessing that the larger obstacle to making gasoline out of coal is political correctness. The Federal Government could at any time block the ability of oil companies to "put conversion plants out of business" by subsidizing the industry in an indexed way or by taxing oil in an indexed way, in either case according to a schedule that guaranteed amortized payoff of the construction investment. There are reasons to do this, given the tight coupling of gasoline prices as an expense to the health of the economy and to national security -- we have a lot of coal in the US and this would very likely make us self-sufficient in gasoline resources for at least 100 if not 100s of years, whether or not the dubious proposition of "peak oil" is or ever will be reached. Oil companies do suffer from the rule that it will gradually become ever more expensive to recover new oil, as we have at least plucked the low hanging fruit from this tree.

But coal and carbon are currently demonized by the CAGW doomsayers, making this sort of subsidy political suicide, at least for now. However, that may well change in the future. Even without subsidy, a war in Iran might well provide the stimulus to not only build such plants, but to do so rapidly, at least if the war lasted longer than the 2 to 6 weeks it probably will.

rgb

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (3, Funny)

ch-chuck (9622) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523529)

I'm guessing this wouldn't be useful in a regenerative-braking regime

I donno, every time you hit the breaks, you get a little bit of candy?

interesting proof-of-concept (1)

Dareth (47614) | more than 2 years ago | (#39526597)

My first thought a "Dune suit" to wear clubbing that turns your breath back into drinkable alcohol?

Dude, have a taste of this stuff I got in my catch pocket!

Re:Sure like to see some info about efficiency... (1)

benjamindees (441808) | more than 2 years ago | (#39531189)

It's fast enough for grid load-balancing. There, do you feel better now?

I read ACLU... (1)

swinferno (1212408) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523305)

and was like..what?

Now this could be potentially game changing.... (5, Interesting)

Ogi_UnixNut (916982) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523331)

Butanol is an excellent replacement for petrol, because it can be used in cars with minimal/no modification to the engine (unlike running on ethanol) making it more akin to the petrol equivalent of biodiesel.

It is also one of the highest density methods of storing energy, and can make use of existing infrastructure (which also doesn't need modification to store, like with ethanol)

However I clicked a few links down and could not find the paper itself, anyone got a link? The ability to generate butanol without sunlight (and by removing CO2 from the atmosphere) sounds too good to be true quite frankly, as this could potentially solve a lot of problems (without needing to take up huge amounts of land, compete with food production, etc...).

TFA mentions using solar panels, but the thing is that it uses electricity, you could just as easily generate it from Nuclear, Hydro or any other power source. The potential in future of people being able to generate their own fuel if they so desire could really be a game changer IMO.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (3, Interesting)

autocannon (2494106) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523445)

For mass production it's likely they would just connect to the power grid and use whatever was available. I'd imagine they demonstrated it at this stage with solar to show that the output of that panel was sufficient to drive the reaction, thereby making it a standalone system.

So would they envision the entire system being in place on a vehicle, or putting larger systems in place at refueling stations. Seems like the latter would be more efficient as well as necessary for extensive night driving. It'd be really good to know what their throughput is for getting fuel out for the size of reaction chamber.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524113)

I wonder what the maximum practical efficiencies are.

If they are very high then they might be better than battery vehicles. You go electricity/whatever-> butanol/hydrocarbon. Then at the car you do butanol/hydrocarbon -> electricity.
Otherwise batteries would beat them.

If the efficiencies are high but not high enough for cars, it still could be good enough for some aircraft. I don't think you'll have battery powered vehicles flying near the speed of sound any time soon.

bioethanol or hydrogen instead (1)

spage (73271) | more than 2 years ago | (#39526697)

butanol/hydrocarbon -> electricity in a combustion engine will have terrible efficiency. It might be more efficient in a fuel cell, I don't know if there's one that operates on butanol.

Planes are going to need liquid fuel because of its high energy density, but it seems more likely that either some reaction to produce bioethanol from cellulosic or algae can be industrialized, or we'll compress hydrogen. CO2 is the end of the line, turning it back into a fuel will take a lot of energy.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (3, Insightful)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#39525603)

For mass production it's likely they would just connect to the power grid and use whatever was available. I'd imagine they demonstrated it at this stage with solar to show that the output of that panel was sufficient to drive the reaction, thereby making it a standalone system.

I suspect they chose solar because virtually any other source of power creates more CO2 than this process would use.
Solar or Wind, which become available on their own schedule, and not always in sync with mankind's needs could use a good sink, and that makes them the logical choice for this type of project.

We don't have enough power on anybody's national grid to accommodate all the recharging of electric vehicles planned for the market as it is. So in my mind its doubtful this process would EVER make economic sense, because its a pretty inefficient storage mechanism, and merely a short term sequestration of Carbon.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (3, Interesting)

mlts (1038732) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523451)

In theory, this would be the next best thing to room temperature superconductors for getting electricity long distances.

I can envision a nuclear/solar/wind farm out in west Texas generating energy, then using this method to create butanol, which runs via a pipeline to a burning facility that is near a populated area, which powers the grid. Yes, this is not that efficient, but neither is the large energy loss from long distance power lines.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (2)

TheLink (130905) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523981)

And what percentage do you regard as "large energy loss"?

I doubt butanol creation and "transmission" losses will be lower than 6.5%:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_transmission#Losses [wikipedia.org]

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (2)

danbert8 (1024253) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524197)

On transmission I agree with you, there are minimal losses moving electrical energy. However, storing energy is a whole different issue. Storing electricity as a liquid fuel is a very attractive possibility.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

icebike (68054) | more than 2 years ago | (#39526073)

On transmission I agree with you, there are minimal losses moving electrical energy. However, storing energy is a whole different issue. Storing electricity as a liquid fuel is a very attractive possibility.

We lack a good storage capability for electrical power, but I'm not convinced this would be the solution.

Not when you calculate the losses likely involved in liquid storage. I suspect the CO2-->Butanol-->Combustion-->Kenetic/heat would be much more lossy than simply pumping water up-hill, and releasing it thru generators, something like done at Grand Coulee [wikipedia.org] where the pump generators are used to pump water uphill, and the exact same device us used to create electricity from the release of that water. Pumped hydro is the most efficient method in current use [gas2.org] .

Ultimately, I suspect the storage problem will end up being ameliorated by battery powered Electric Vehicles. After all, once 256 million vehicles [dot.gov] are converted to battery or hybrids there is a boatload of storage distributed across the grid. Most of it sitting idle most of the time.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

danbert8 (1024253) | more than 2 years ago | (#39527777)

I agree that pumped hydro is by far the cheapest energy storage. However, there are only limited areas where this is useful. You also lose a lot of energy due to evaporation. Believe me, if it were possible I would power the world with hydro energy. Sadly, we consume far too much energy for that to work. And if we can't get fusion figured out and all the idiots that hate fission prevent new plants from being built we'll have to rely on other generation methods that are not controllable.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

benjamindees (441808) | more than 2 years ago | (#39531245)

Listen, this is a simple problem. It's one that I solved in 2005, and which eventually morphed into the Pickens Plan. Synthetic liquid fuel doesn't need to be converted back into electricity. It can be used to fuel vehicles. It does a fine job of that, better than batteries. The inefficiencies don't matter, because of the cost premium of liquid fuels. Just build enough intermittent electric capacity to cover the average usage, and let the market do the rest.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

Dare nMc (468959) | more than 2 years ago | (#39525471)

Losses is only a small part of cost. From what I see Electric transmission distribution costs to a home is at least $.13 /kwhr (based on electric production cost of $.03 to $10, and avg home cost $.20+ local line cost $.03.) While Fuel distribution cost to a gas station is $.25 per gallon [ca.gov] (1 gallon = 33 kwhr.) so gasoline costs $.0075 /kwhr to distribute.
If used for charging a electric car vs hybrid, add in the weight savings of gasoline over electric, storage costs, charger costs. The reduced transportation cost of fuel could easily pay off, even if efficiency at the car is 35% (especially if it is cold out, and you have a need for some of that combustion waste heat for warmth.)

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39524035)

No, the next best thing to room temperature superconductors is current high-temperature (liquid nitrogen) superconductors. This would suck in comparison, and it's not at all clear this could beat high voltage aluminum lines, since you've got conversion losses at both ends (dunno about the biochemical end, but the heat engine is guaranteed worse than Carnot) and losses (drag) in the pipeline, whereas the electric lines have only transmission losses.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39524121)

I think you don't understand why there's a need for long distance energy transmission in the first place. It's all to work around the lack of storage for electricity. The sun alone supplies plenty of energy to cover all our energy needs locally, but we can neither store sunlight nor electricity efficiently and locally. The ideas about solar or wind farms in areas where there's constant sunshine or wind are all about reducing the variance, because without being able to plan the available energy, you need storage, which we don't have, or alternative energy sources. With efficient local storage, these complicated schemes become unnecessary. Of course that doesn't mean that lobbyists and politicians won't try to foist big budget projects on you anyway...

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (2)

walkerp1 (523460) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523581)

The potential in future of people being able to generate their own fuel if they so desire could really be a game changer IMO.

It will definitely spark a revenuer's revival.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39523681)

Butanol also doesn't absorb humidity like ethanol and that makes it much easier to use in practice. Ethanol will soak up severl % of water from the air given a chance and that's not good for combustion in the engine.

Using electricity to drive the reaction would solve the land use and contamination issue with algae based bio fuels. This reaction could occur in much more condensed and controlled circumstances. Also you can run the reaction 24/7 rather than just when the sun shines typically ~5-7 hours a day equivalent of peak sunlight and variable with weather conditions.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39523835)

Ethanol will soak up severl % of water from the air given a chance and that's not good for combustion in the engine.

Actually, it works to clean the valve train, prevent knocks, and cools the engine. The only down side is that it may slow combution but any modern ECU based engine should adjusting timing accordingly. Water has been used to moderate and cool the combustion process since WWII in fighters and bombers. Its a very sound and proven approach. Sorry, but the small amount of water which is hygroscopically absorbed is actually benefitial. Furthermore, some research even notes it can modestly reduce pollution and even improve combustion because of the added HHO.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39526539)

Butane is also great I use it to extract canabinoids for my personal use here is the advantage to my technique:
1- no harsh cloroform
2- no naptha residual like the traditional method
3- less risk of explosion as water is used as an evaporation medium and heat source

Here is my technique :

Prerequisite:
  someone who you do not care about (never happened but there is a risk of explosion) that is will to take 20% to perform the final step.
  an open space outside the city
  plenty of butane bottles from the dollars store
  lot's of the discarded part of trimmed cannabis
  a 2 foots long 2" wide thread copper pipe
  a screwable cap for the pipe
  half a square feet of metal windows screen
  a tightenable metal collar
  20 L of water
  a smooth ceramic bowl where razor blade can scrap easily.

Fabrication of the extraction device:

1- take the pipe cap and drill a hole exactly the size of the largest adapter that came with the butane bottles, do not go all the way through
2- drill through the hole you just drill, using a bit half the size of the precedent one
3- secure the adapter tightly into the larger hole, do it when the metal is still burning hot
4- flood a 2 ply metal screen square
5- attach it firmly to the unthreaded side of the pipe using the metal collar
keep the cap separated from the device when not in use

Utilization of the extraction device:

1-ask your partener to the bring the weed to the field, no need to worry about him steeling the weed, it is worthless unprocessed
2-go to the field with the butane bottles and the device , a 20L of water and the bowl,
3-fill the bowl with water
4-pack the device full with the valueless weed
5-screew the cap firmly
6-tell your partener to take the butane can and empty them into the pipe
6-walk back a few ten ft as soon as he start
7- when the butane starts to come out white tell your partner to stop
8- tell him to go away and put the pipe down
9- wait until the butane stop boiling and a thin sheet of ice has formed on the water since the butane ebullition point is around -2C
10-scrape the canabinoids off the formed ice
11-ask your "partner" to empty the the pipe away
12- go to 4 until there is no more weed or butane
13- slowly discard the water
14- scape the canabinoids from the bowl
15- weight it mixed not dried ;), give 19% to your partener
16- make liquid using the microwave no longer than a 5 seconds interval stop as soon as it start to liquify.
17- let the phase separate
18- draw the water with something cotton based like a cu-tips
19- spread a tiny drop of the golden goo on a heavy-duty aluminum paper
20- put a straw in your mouth
21- heat the paper with a lighter and draw the vapor coming out of the golden goo
22- enjoy

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39526683)

please note that step 15 happen at your "partener" home and 16 to 22 happen at your own place

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (4, Informative)

chichilalescu (1647065) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523725)

the link to the abstract is in the summary; here's the link to the full text: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6076/1596.full [sciencemag.org]

my knowledge of organic chemistry is very bad, so I can't go through the details. what I see is "we have a process that takes in energy and can convert atmospheric CO2 into fuel", which basically means that we no longer need oil for burning (I don't know about plastics). this would be very nice because we could in principle reach an equilibrium between burning fuel and eating up CO2.

couple this with the research from a few weeks ago that allowed "heat extraction" with tiny LEDs, and we may just solve the big problem: nuclear fusion/fission to generate electricity which is then used for a carbon neutral industry/transport, and eliminate extra heat by pointing LEDs at the sky; basically we could have a society that uses a lot of energy, but we don't produce any extra heat or CO2 on average.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524119)

couple this with the research from a few weeks ago that allowed "heat extraction" with tiny LEDs, and we may just solve the big problem: nuclear fusion/fission to generate electricity which is then used for a carbon neutral industry/transport, and eliminate extra heat by pointing LEDs at the sky; basically we could have a society that uses a lot of energy, but we don't produce any extra heat or CO2 on average.

Uh, no. If you can extract energy from heat and convert it into light with an LED, you can do work with that energy. Directing it into space would simply waste it. You'd have to generate more energy to offset the wasted energy you sent into space, which would generate more heat than you extracted in the first place. Simple thermodynamics.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

chichilalescu (1647065) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524479)

I should have explained.
the research I'm talking about is this one http://prl.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v108/i9/e097403 [aps.org] (slashdot discussion http://science.slashdot.org/story/12/03/08/1833224/leds-efficiency-exceeds-100 [slashdot.org] ). those people showed that you can have an LED that you feed X energy (as electrical current), and it emits nX energy as light, where n>1. the extra energy comes from decreasing the temperature of the LED.

I was talking about the fact that if we do succeed in making a carbon neutral industry, we might go over the top and simply generate too much heat. whenever you use a steam engine to generate electricity (no matter if the heat comes from nuclear fission or fusion or from burning coal), you end up with some water that is hotter than environmental water, but too cold to use in the steam engine. people usually dump this water in the nearby stream/river, driving away the wildlife.
if we were to create all the fuel being used by cars and planes with electricity, we would probably have a lot of this water. I was pointing out that the other research allows us to solve this hot water issue as well. I'm not sure how efficient it would be to use this light for additional electricity, in the sense that you might simply be taking up too much space.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 2 years ago | (#39525615)

There's nothing to explain, the details of the process are irrelevant. Your scheme is still thermodynamically impossible. I don't know how to explain it any simpler, so I'll just repeat myself.

Any energy you are drawing from the heat and converting to light (by any process at all) can be used for useful work. If you direct that energy away from Earth, you are going to have to make up for that energy with some other source. Generating more energy for useful work will produce more heat than you extracted in the first place.

This follows trivially from the laws of thermodynamics. There is no free lunch.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

chichilalescu (1647065) | more than 2 years ago | (#39526481)

You are perfectly right. However, if you are generating too much energy (and you can do that with fusion), and you don't want to over heat the Earth, then you have to get rid of excess heat.

I am seriously talking about overheating the Earth once you can use electricity to generate stuff like natural gas because that is a lot of energy to put in, and you can't turn all electricity into useful fuel. the extra heat might need to be thrown out.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 2 years ago | (#39526729)

and you can't turn all electricity into useful fuel. the extra heat might need to be thrown out.

Any extra heat that the LEDs are extracting is useful fuel. You can do work with that heat. Throwing it out is wasting it.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39527229)

Isn't this LED phenomena more like a heat pipe or heat pump? I am not very good at EM physics, but I'm guessing there is a problem trying to do work with the LED output just like there would be problems trying to do work with the output heat of your air conditioning system...

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (0)

fnj (64210) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523767)

Butanol has a somewhat lower chemical energy/volume ratio than gasoline, but substantially better than ethanol or methanol. Sure that makes it "one of the highest density methods of storing [chemical] energy", for SOME definition of "one of", but it doesn't make it outstanding by any means.

The fact that you can synthesize a hydrocarbon from a source of carbon (CO2) and hydrogen (H2O) is no surprise to anyone of normal education level.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (3, Insightful)

Ogi_UnixNut (916982) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523937)

Yeah, but gasoline is one of the highest methods of storing energy we have (as in, both from a scientific and economical perspective). To have something that is similar to gasoline in energy density, can use existing infrastructure (which has had what, 100 odd years of investment and process refining?), fast transfer of said energy, and is compatible with all existing gasoline engines, I think it quite outstanding.

There may be better methods of energy storage, but a pragmatic balance needs to be found, I believe Butanol has potential.

And yet, despite it being of no surprise to anyone of normal education level, it has proved to be very hard to do it in a cost effective way, specifically in a way that does not need light/growing on land (like other algae-based methods of butanol production).

The idea that you could for example, bury the entire butanol production facility underground, and pipe CO2/electricity to it and get fuel, and leave the land above for conventional farming/life/etc... would be quite a cool feature.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (5, Interesting)

Solandri (704621) | more than 2 years ago | (#39525083)

To put it in perspective, gasoline contains about 34 MJ per liter (129 MJ per gallon). Even if you assume an internal combustion engine vehicle has an abysmal 15% efficiency (fuel to wheels), its usable energy density is 5.1 MJ/l (19.3 MJ/gal). If you spend 3 minutes at the pump filling up 50 liters (13.2 gal), you're transferring energy at a rate of 1.42 MegaWatts.

If you then assume the electric vehicle is 100% efficient (socket to wheels), to reach 1.42 MW with the 220 V circuit found in most homes, you'd need 6440 Amps. More than 40x the amperage which feeds into the typical home and enough to melt pretty much any wiring most people commonly deal with. This is the big problem with the idea of capacitors as batteries - unless you switch to extremely high voltages (meaning a steep step-down transformer needs to be on board the car with associated weight and efficiency losses), you're not gonna be able to use a cable in place of a gas pump hose to charge them up in a few minutes. The current will need to be transferred by something much more substantial.

Or if you like the idea of kinetic batteries (flywheels), 1.42 MW is about the same energy dissipation rate as two 2000 kg vehicles traveling 96 kph (60 mph) colliding and coming to a complete stop within 1 second. If you imagine 180 of such crashes happening in the span of 3 minutes, that's how much usable energy you're pumping into your gas tank every time you fill up.

Liquid chemical fuels contain a helluva lot of energy; so much that it's going to be very difficult for other technologies to supplant them for transportation. I really think the energy storage medium for vehicles in the future will turn out to be alcohol-based biofuels generated like in TFA.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (1)

drumlight (1244276) | more than 2 years ago | (#39530807)

I like the way it works in video games, such as Wipeout and a hundred others. To recharge your electric car without even stopping just pull into the lane with the glowing >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> and in a matter of seconds your fully charged. If your car could be charged every few miles you would need far smaller battery packs saving weight and whatever rare or unpleasant materials your batteries are made of. I hate filling my car with gas in the winter and I'm not keen on the concept continuing with electric vehicles. In fifteen years of driving I've rarely ever emptied an entire tank in a single journey, I fill up because of the inconvenience not because I need the range. I'm aware of certain impracticalities with the above suggestion but electric vehicles are different to ICE vehicles and we shouldn't cripple them by relying on infrastructure and ideas based on the latter.

My alternate (more fun but even less practical) idea involves distributing and then irritating huge numbers of Yorkshiremen hitch-hikers. You look for one who wants to go in the opposite direction to which you heading and you then just coast downhill both ways.

clearly you don't live where I do (1)

Chirs (87576) | more than 2 years ago | (#39532173)

I live in the Canadian prairies. The nearest cities with over half a million people are 700km in one direction, and 900km in the other direction. I've done both multiple times.

I've driven 3200km in three days in a 26-foot moving van. I've driven 1700km in 22hrs including a howling blizzard in the Rocky Mountains.

For commuting electric vehicles can be great. For some trips you need energy density.

Re:Now this could be potentially game changing.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39524269)

TFA mentions using solar panels, but the thing is that it uses electricity, you could just as easily generate it from Nuclear, Hydro or any other power source.

Mentioning solar panels gives it bonus points for being "extra" green. Gotta keep that grant money rollin' in.

Basically a battery (1, Informative)

gatkinso (15975) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523387)

That is light, easier to manufacture, easier to transport.

Re:Basically a battery (5, Informative)

JazzHarper (745403) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523675)

Not really. This is a reverse fuel cell. Liquid fuels have higher energy density than batteries.

ARPA-E has funded a whole bunch of these electrofuels projects.

Here's one at Harvard, using a different species of bacteria: http://arpa-e.energy.gov/ProgramsProjects/Electrofuels/EngineeringaBacterialReverseFuelCell.aspx [energy.gov]

And yet another one at Columbia: http://arpa-e.energy.gov/ProgramsProjects/Electrofuels/BiofuelsfromCO2UsingAmmoniaOxidizingBacteria.aspx [energy.gov]

Synthetic Fossil Fuels? (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39523423)

Fossil fuels in the last century reached their extreme prices because of their inherent utility: they pack a great deal of potential energy into an extremely efficient package. If we can but sidestep the 100 million year production process, we can corner this market once again.

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
Strategy Session

Re:Synthetic Fossil Fuels? (1)

mhajicek (1582795) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524357)

Their utility gave them value. Speculators inflated the price.

Where does the hygrogen come from? (1)

Nutria (679911) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523595)

Unless the microbes consume themselves or they fission the C or O, something's missing (probably in my understanding).

Re:Where does the hygrogen come from? (2)

fnj (64210) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523781)

It's pretty obvious water is necessary, too.

Re:Where does the hygrogen come from? (1)

Nutria (679911) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523929)

They break down the water internally or absorb H which has been fractured by electric current?

Re:Where does the hygrogen come from? (1)

gtbritishskull (1435843) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523807)

I did not RTFA, but the H most likely comes from H2O. That is where just about all other photosynthetic processes get it from.

Re:Where does the hygrogen come from? (1)

Nutria (679911) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524089)

I didn't think that water was so easy to decompose via biological methods. Learn something new every day...

Re:Where does the hygrogen come from? (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524303)

It's 'easy' for a plant. For humans, not so much.

Re:Where does the hygrogen come from? (1)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523811)

I ain't no chemicologist or nuthin, but I'd figure water.

Re:Where does the hygrogen come from? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39523899)

I'm guessing water.

Slime (3, Informative)

jklovanc (1603149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523603)

There is one issue that all bioreactors have when they attempt to scale; contamination. They generally work well in laboratory setting where conditions are pristine and test cycles are short but when they attempt to scale they find that the biological reactant very quickly becomes contaminated with other algae and the remains of dead algae. It very quickly become unusable slime. This is an issue that needs to be overcome before large scale bioreactors will ever become viable. Research into the next step, which is the specific process to create a desired output, is useless until this fundamental roadblock is dealt with. It is a bit like designing a robot powered by a fusion engine before the fusion engine has been invented.

Re:Slime (2)

Ogi_UnixNut (916982) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523975)

Yeah, but to continue your analogy, if we develop said robot so well, and to a point where it becomes so cheap to have one, people would push towards investing in getting the other side (fusion engine) working in the knowledge that its the missing link.

In fact knowing the potential of the robot if you could only get the engine working could well motivate more people into investigating solutions, be it for profit, changing the world, fame, or whatever other reason people have.

Re:Slime (1)

jklovanc (1603149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39529391)

I would agree with this if not for the billions that have already gone into R&D in fusion engines in the last 20 years and still no solution has been found.

The other issue is that hoping someone else will pick up the stumbling block is wishful thinking. Basically it is saying the we will do the easy work and let the hard work be done by someone else. It is either s complete solution or it is not a solution.

The premise is based on two assumptions; one that a solution is possible and 2 that someone else will find it. Assumptions need to be carefuly examined

Re:Slime (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39525001)

Contamination can be addressed, the pharmaceutical industry is required to maintain better than laboratory conditions when creating a batch of drug material. There may be costs involved but there's industry in place to support that kind of a setting. I'd say it's more like designing a circulation system and realizing you need a kidney... build the kidney..

Re:Slime (1)

OglinTatas (710589) | more than 2 years ago | (#39525113)

I don't know how large scale you want, but large scale bioreactors are currently producing at all major breweries. Also, very likely at pharmaceutical companies. The problem of contamination is a problem for continuous reactors, but batch reactors with brewmasters to monitor and adjust conditions work great. Contamination generally will only affect one batch and you can isolate it and decon without compromising your entire production run.
Still expensive though. Multiply the cost of your favorite beer (5% abv perhaps) by 20 , then add more $$ for separation (which can be a continuous process) Maybe the cost would be more closely approximated by Everclear (95%).

Re:Slime (1)

jklovanc (1603149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39529335)

That is exactly my point. The cost of Everclear is closer to $200/gallon than $4/lgallon which prices the process far out of reach. The other issue is that they are talking about a continuous process and not a batch process.

Re:Slime (1)

QQBoss (2527196) | more than 2 years ago | (#39531827)

Don't confuse cost of production with price to the consumer, please! First off, you can buy Everclear for about US$14/750ml [budgetbottle.com] (~$70/gallon) today, but that isn't the cost of manufacture and we don't fill our cars from 750ml glass bottles. Want to find out a more meaningful price of 95% grain alcohol in bulk? Buy it by the 55 gallon drum for food purity/proof (think maraschino cherries, as one example) verification. It is very, very cheap to buy that way (at least relative to the profit that can be made selling maraschino cherries and paying for the chemist/equipment power to do the testing even in small batches). As an added bonus, if you can work it out so that each week you have 1-2 gallons left over in a drum that is going to be switched out with no compensation for the dregs, no one cares if you empty it completely and bring the extra to the frat house for the weekend... sometimes I wonder why I still have a liver, or a diploma for that matter (I wasn't the chemist, just a beneficiary).

That still doesn't define cost, but I can tell you the price of that 55 gallon drum was far less than the price of roughly 300 bottles of Everclear (back then, and even today bulk food grade alcohol goes for between $2 and $4/gallon, it fluctuates wildly at times). The other comparison point is bulk denatured alcohol (about $11/gallon for 5 gallon quantities at retail, but drums don't cost that much more direct from suppliers).

The continuous process is still going to screw them reaching for scale, though. I wish them luck.

Re:Slime (1)

jklovanc (1603149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39532573)

The other issue with grain alcohol is that the energy output from grain alcohol is only about 1.2 thims the energy required to produce it and that is not even taking into account the energy required to produce the organic material to produce the mash. To distill alcohol from conventional material requires a lot of heat and then cooling. That heat has to come from somewhere and that is the energy that goes into production. As an additive to reduce emissions alcohol, produced conventionally, works well. As a viable substitute for other energy sources (electricity, natural gas, hydrogen etc) it is not so useful.

Re:Slime (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39573723)

Also remember that not many organisms can survive only from CO2 and a reducing agent, so contamination in this case would be much harder that in other cases. Remember this reaction happens in the dark, so algae cannot survive there.

This beats war any day (5, Interesting)

cryfreedomlove (929828) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523857)

Our current energy policy subsidizes pumping crude oil from the ground. The subsidy consists of a massive influx of American military forces into the Middle East. Imagine life without that. Before you say it is too expensive, make sure you are comparing the cost of this promising new technology to the current costs of war.

Re:This beats war any day (1)

petermgreen (876956) | more than 2 years ago | (#39547161)

Even if (and it's a big if) this works with tolerable efficiency the electrical energy has to come from somewhere. Burning coal/gas/biomass to make electricity to make oil substitutes is unlikely to make sense compared to more direct conversion processes like fischer tropsch. So this kind of electricity to liquids conversion is only likely to be worthwhile in a world where the overwhelming majority of electricty comes from either nuclear or renewable sources.

Slight modifications needed ... (1)

Alain Williams (2972) | more than 2 years ago | (#39523927)

to generate ethanol rather than butanol and next pipes for ice and fruit juice, then voila - a solar powered cocktail machine!

Wow, *another* inefficient solar collection scheme (1)

gestalt_n_pepper (991155) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524051)

that has no chance of scaling up to replace any significant portion of the 160 exajoules of energy currently added to civilization by oil each year. Phew. I haven't seen one of these stories in *weeks.* Next up, algae saves the world (again)!

Re:Wow, *another* inefficient solar collection sch (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524399)

It's not an algae. It's a bacterium [google.com] !

Prokaryotes rule!

(Who do you think will be around after silly humans trash the planet back to the Proterozoic?)

DARPA interest for forward military bases (4, Informative)

crow (16139) | more than 2 years ago | (#39524363)

DARPA was funding research into something like this recently. The idea is that for forward military bases, such as in Afghanistan, you can install a small nuclear reactor for electrical power (much like the navy's reactors), but you have a huge logistical issue with supplying adequate fuel for trucks and planes. So the solution is to synthesize the fuel from the excess electricity, greatly reducing the resupply needs of the bases.

Apparently European countries like France that generate a lot of nuclear power are also interested because nuclear reactors don't scale their power generation with dynamic demand, so there is often excess power. If there are enough non-nuclear plants that can be idled when demand drops, that's great, but if not, then being able to produce diesel fuel for free with the excess is a good option.

I wonder if this was funded as part of that DARPA program?

Electical current and CO2 needed? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39525119)

Um, how about we put these things in the smokestacks at existing coal-fired power plants and reduce their carbon emissions?

We could pay for the installation and maintenance by selling the fuel byproduct.

Re:Electical current and CO2 needed? (1)

Captain Hook (923766) | more than 2 years ago | (#39528889)

Q: Whats the difference between absorbing 100kg of CO2 from air and 100kg of CO2 directly from a power station exhaust? A: Nothing

In both cases you've removed the same insignificant amount of CO2 from the pool of CO2 in the atmosphere.

If the process was more efficient with higher concentrations of CO2 then it might make sense.
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