Could Plants Be the Petroleum Alternatives We’ve Been Waiting For?
Running our cars on corn and used cooking oil sounded like a novel prospect in the early aughts when oil prices spiked. And though it didn’t take off as expected, that doesn’t mean that biofuels are dead. Now, in addition to developing bio-diesel, scientists are working on creating more efficient petroleum alternatives from plants and other renewable sources that could become commercially viable, without competing with food crops.
Are Biofuels Still Worth It?
A universal switch to electric vehicles and a complete abandonment of fossil fuels would be ideal for the planet, but since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, the development of petroleum alternatives mixed with gasoline seems to be one way to incrementally phase out fossil fuels. But with the massive grip the oil industry has on the global energy economy, those steps have been slow and met with a lot of resistance.
Biodiesel has been around for several decades now, though most of the commercially used fuel is blended with traditional diesel. And while B100, or pure biodiesel fuel, is typically compatible with most engines, it isn’t sold everywhere.
There have also been hurdles in its implementation with regulating emissions and ensuring engine compatibility, but in the U.S. the biggest hurdle has been the price. Diesel has been taxed heavier than regular petroleum, making diesel engines less common in the U.S. compared to other countries.
Biodiesel is a much cleaner fuel source, as it’s carbon emissions are offset by the growth of the plants, like soybean, used as the fuel source. The only emission it produces more of is nitrogen oxide, though more recent vehicles have implemented filters to curb NOx almost entirely.
For blends of biodiesel such as B5 or B20, the amount of hydrocarbon pollution is equivalent to the amount of non-biodiesel petroleum in the blend. Though it’s better than nothing, the jump to B100 would result in an estimated 74 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. Making this jump would require sweeping policy changes, but for now the good news is that biodiesel production has been steadily on the rise, though it still only accounts for about 5 percent of all transportation energy sources.
When it comes to biofuels for non-diesel petroleum, the story is slightly different…
While ethanol mixed with gasoline might lower emissions from your car, many argue that the energy-intensive process for growing crops like corn and sugarcane cancels out the benefits, actually leading to greater aggregate emissions. In fact, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the climate benefits from replacing non-diesel petroleum with biofuels is basically nothing. At the same time, ethanol lowers your gas efficiency by at least 3 percent.
Plant Oil As Fuel
There are certain plants that produce compounds called terpenoids, or terpenes, that can generate hydrocarbons, which are typically ideal candidates to be used as a biofuels. Ranging from bacteria to pine, these terpenes are being studied by private companies and government agencies to be genetically modified to produce more hydrocarbons.
Starting in 2009, the U.S. Energy Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, or ARPA-E, was running a research program looking at 10 different potential sources for the next big biofuel. The project was called PETRO, an acronym for Plants Engineered to Replace Oil.
One area it focused on was engineering tobacco to be more efficient in its photosynthesis process by incorporating algae and cyanobacteria for hydrocarbon biofuels. Another project worked on engineering plants to produce more vegetable oil in leaves and stems, rather than just seeds.
The program gave each project three years to prove itself worthwhile before it was scrapped, leading to many successful advents and continued rounds of funding. Unfortunately, the entire PETRO project was cut about a year ago.
But now private laboratories and universities are picking up where ARPA-E left off, further developing terpene-rich plants through bioengineering. One group even alluded to the idea that advancements in genome editing, like those seen with the CRISPR/Cas-9 editing tools, might be useful in this field to induce greater terpene production.
Another area where plants have been studied as a fuel source is for jet fuel. In North Dakota, chemical engineers used a combination of canola oil, soybeans and coconuts to create a fuel indistinguishable from traditional jet fuel. Similar biofuels have been used to fuel jets for commercial airlines using algae, palm oil, and even greek yogurt.
Advancements in Petroleum Alternatives
Instead of looking at plant oil as fuel, one company in Germany has started to convert carbon from air pollution into hydrocarbons to be used as a fuel source. The company, called Sunfire, has now partnered with Audi and Climeworks to create synthetic diesel, branded as E-diesel.
By taking carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, the company is able to create a carbon-neutral fuel source powered by renewable energy.
The process begins with the use of electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The separated molecules are then combined with carbon dioxide in a conversion reactor that then emits water, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen and carbon monoxide are then put into an F-T reactor to create the hydrocarbons burned in combustion engines.
The whole process is powered by renewable energy including solar and wind, creating a completely carbon neutral process. This environmentally friendly diesel is also much more efficient at 70 percent compared to the 40 percent efficiency of traditional diesel.
The product, originally known as Blue Crude, was developed by Sunfire who received an initial investment from Norway to build its first plant. While Sunfire and Audi continue to develop the technology, there have been questions about whether it could succeed in the U.S. with diesel prices significantly higher than regular petroleum. However, in Europe, where diesel is more widely-used and cheaper, E-diesel looks much more promising.
According to proponents of renewables and petroleum alternatives, unless there are drastic policy mandates, the market won’t move away from fossil fuels, especially in the United States. New technology has led to the discovery of more oil and subsequent drops in oil prices, while the cost of lithium-ion batteries remains high.
In Germany, a piece of legislation was proposed that would ban all internal combustion engines by 2030, forcing citizens and the auto industry to hasten development of electric vehicles. But in order for that legislation to go into law, it would have to be approved by the EU’s legislative body. It’s also not necessarily a popular proposal, with Germany’s transportation minister calling it “utter nonsense.”
That sentiment shows the hurdles that would have to be overcome to change the direction of a massive, global industry. Not to mention the strain that producing lithium-ion batteries has on the environment from pollution during the process of mining elements like nickel, lithium, and cobalt. And while recycling these batteries is feasible, it could take decades before there is a significant volume of them to make an impact. It seems that a transition to bio-diesel and bio alternatives would be the most effective short-term solution, until we’re ready to finally abandon fossil fuels.
A Future Without Oil
Buckminster Fuller's Spaceship Earth Is More Relevant Than Ever
How do we make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone? That was the question posed by R. Buckminster Fuller when he devised the Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, the concept that we are all astronauts inhabiting a spaceship, hurtling through the universe, with a greater purpose than just being muscle-reflex machines.
The Earth is a Spaceship
There is a common experience that is shared between astronauts who traveled to the moon and looked back on Earth. A sense of enlightenment, utter transcendence, and overwhelming bliss from the beauty and perfection of Earth in its entirety. At this point astronauts understand the importance and necessity of taking care of our planet and the collective need to coexist peacefully.
Though he never went to space to experience this profound perspective, Fuller shared this sentiment and devoted his life to modeling a future that would embrace it. He was a designer, inventor, author, architect, and systems specialist, but most notably a visionary whose ideas focused on considering the greater picture even when working on the minutiae.
Fuller’s vision for humanity focused on the premise that our intellect gave us an innate duty to overcome physical constraints, ad infinitum, with our ability to think, reason, and solve problems. With this, he coined the word ephemeralization, the concept that the sum can be greater than its parts; that we have the ability to do more and more with less and less, until we can achieve everything with nothing.
Though this might seem paradoxical at its extreme, the utility that we have been able to achieve with technology has followed this line of thinking to a certain extent. Our ability to go from wired to wireless technology or fossil fuels to alternative renewables are examples that embody Fuller’s vision.
This is counter to the Malthusian line of thought, in which exponential population growth will inevitably outpace food production. Fuller argued that through design and technology there should be no reason to have people suffering and starving on Earth. He aimed to create a world that worked for everyone, employing technology to spread our limited resources and satisfy a growing population.
His vision became one which focused on a utopian society of sorts, in which a ‘critical path’ could be developed to cooperatively pilot Spaceship Earth. By using foresight that looked outside of the box and focused on systemic problems in every aspect; solving current problems with the prudence to also solve future ones.
Richard Buckminster Fuller
Fuller’s upbringing seemed to incubate the eccentric genius that he later became in life. His education started at a Froebelian kindergarten, where art and creativity were given as much encouragement as traditional education. Later in life, Fuller attended Harvard though he was kicked out twice, recognizing himself as a non-conformist, misfit.
After serving a brief stint in the Navy, Fuller and his father founded a company that provided affordable, lightweight, weatherproof housing, a concept that would later become the foundation of his design philosophy. But the company eventually failed, and shortly after his daughter passed away from polio and meningitis.
Fuller contemplated suicide when his family fell into financial hardship, which was compounded by the self-imposed guilt from his daughter’s death. Until one day, he had a profound experience in which he felt himself levitating off the ground, encapsulated in a sphere of white light. A voice told him:
“From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”
After this turning point Fuller began to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an experimental school in Asheville, that had a non-hierarchical structure, atypical to most universities. There, students and teachers were considered peers and there were no grades, degrees, or planned curricula. Students decided when to graduate and education was equally balanced with art, farming, co-op labor, and construction projects.
Here, Fuller built his first geodesic dome which he would patent and become known for. This design would later become the iconic geodesic dome, Spaceship Earth, at Epcot Center in Disney World, an homage to Fuller and Walt Disney’s shared dream of a utopian society. EPCOT itself is an acronym that stands for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.
The Montreal biosphere, constructed for the 1967 World Fair is another commonly recognized geodesic dome designed by Fuller that remains to this day.
Though the first geodesic dome had already been ideated and built some 30 years prior, Fuller was the first to patent it and incorporate it into his schema for its myriad uses. He found maximum utility in the design as it used minimal material to provide the greatest amount of volume in a certain area.
A geodesic dome is a hemispherical structure consisting of rigid triangular elements, or an omni-triangulated surface. Fuller was attracted to it for its strength and simplicity, inspiring the construction of hundreds of thousands of them throughout the world. But despite, the avant-garde popularity of the geodesic dome, it was just one design feature that may have overshadowed his larger worldview.
Livingry not Weaponry
One of Fuller’s main concepts was that of livingry, a word he created in direct opposition to weaponry. Livingry touted inventions that supported and enhanced life, ideas, and objects; enriching and advancing human existence, rather than contributing to its destruction. He imagined what could be achieved if the aerospace sector of knowledge was applied only to producing technology that advantaged all of humanity, rather than divisive weaponry. He saw war as obsolete and the threat of total destruction as imminent.
Fuller viewed humanity as an experimental initiative of the universe. That experiment was to see if the universe, in all its complexity, could “maintain the integrity of eternal regeneration” while allowing us, humans, to discover and use mathematical laws to maintain that integrity on our scale.
The answer to this was yes, inspiring Fuller to develop an array of consumer household designs to fit his ephemerilized livingry concepts. He even coined another word to sell his ideas: dymaxion, a portmanteau of dynamic, maximum, and ion. He conceptualized a dymaxion house, dymaxion car, dymaxion bathroom, and others to solve every contemporary design flaw, though most never came to fruition, outside of fringe communes and individual projects.
Though his worldview never truly took off, today we can see a lot of Fuller’s sentiment in the tech industry. Whether directly inspired by Fuller or not, many modern digital solutions aim to solve all of our problems with ephemeralization, using the least amount of energy to gain the most utility; the internet being one of the greatest examples. Though he passed away less than 40 years ago, it would be interesting to know what might he think of our society today. Will we ever achieve a global society like Fuller envisioned?