Saturday, August 29, 2009

What is Fischer-Tropsch?

I had time to browse around for white papers on Google. I came across one with a really succinct description of Fischer-Tropsch. I thought it might be worth capturing for future reference.

Thanks to a group focusing on "Improved Fischer-Tropsch Economics Enabled
by Microchannel Technology"

Fischer-Tropsch Process and Products

The FT process was first developed by Franz Fischer and Hanz Tropsch in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. The chemistry is based on making longer chain hydrocarbons from a mixture of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), referred to as “synthesis gas”, at an elevated pressure and temperature and in the presence of a catalyst.

The excess heat generated from the reaction has typically been removed by inserting boiler tubes that carry water. In theory, any source of carbon can be used to generate the synthesis gas. The majority of the products from FT synthesis are paraffinic waxes based on the following chemical equation.

nCO + (2n+1)H2 → CnH2n+2 + H2O (1)

Typical byproducts are liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and naphtha. After the FT process, heavier hydrocarbons can be hydrocracked to produce distillate products, notably diesel and jet fuels.[

FT derived transportation fuels are typically referred to as synthetic fuels. During the 20th
century, these fuels were derived from coal in situations where petroleum was not readily available, such as Germany in WWII and South Africa during Apartheid.

The white paper of course goes on to describe why its relevant now. Regardless I love how simply this captured the subject. It is also worth note that the paper's focus on micro-channels ain't half bad neither. Oregon State University has some reasonable research going on around micro-channels and its supposed to have a huge potential. Though the promises of a micro-channel biodiesel technology never really materialized as promised five years ago (being it was five years out five years ago).

Friday, August 28, 2009

150 Years of Progress.... Now Time for the Next Paradigm

Yesterday marked the 150 birthday of the commercial petroleum industry. With Edwin Drake's discovery of oil in Pennsylvania the future of western civilization was moved forward at a speed unpredictable and mind bending. Ironically (a little trivia history) the day Drake struck oil was the day he received word from his backers to pull out and stop drilling.

Wired Magazine and Fastcompany both have tribute mentions on their website.

Usually presented as a force for evil or sinister change the benefits of petroleum have been spectacular. The immediate ability of humanity to harvest the btu's and calories of another geological dynasty has been good to those of us in the U.S.. Bending hydrogen and carbon molecules to our own needs has given us wealth and lifestyles beyond the imagination of any human alive in the 19th century. At the time of the American revolution in fact the wealth and lifestyle of today's American middle class would impress the great monarchs of Europe. From food and entertainment options the wealth cheap power provides is mind boggling when you consider it.

That brings us to what next? I would like to state simply (in honor of the 150th anniversery of petroleum) a hypothesis. That the prominence of petroleum at the center of our civilization is because of two items. One the cost of extraction is so cheap that the product is nearly free in comparison to most other products. Two, the amount of research and development reinvested by the petroleum industry have turned this nearly free btu rich product into the center piece it is to our civilization.

In short, as petroleum costs rise there is no reason other products will not take petroleum's place. In fact the harvesting of biomass and recapture of garbage can provide 100% of our energy in a closed carbon neutral loop. It only takes two things. A little market share for these new synthetic crude technologies as well as 150 years of experiments to bring them along to where petroleum is.

Look them up. Fast pyrolisis, Fischer-Tropsch, thermal depolymerization, and similar variant technologies. All simulating the Earth's geological process that created crude oil by heat, pressure and a oxygen poor environment. Reforming biological materials commonly seen around us magically into a source product for everything we take for granted in the modern world.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Business Model Conept and Thoughts

Recently with the new Renewable Fuel Standard being promulgated by the EPA and Obama administration (commonly referred to as the "RFS2") a change has taken place. Specifically the creation of carve outs for certain biofuel technologies. Next generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol, gas to liquids, and other type technologies are being given set aside market share.

The RFS2 proposes to that the existing Renewable Industry Numbers ("RINs") system and set aside requirements for petroleum refiners and importers to buy a specific amount of cellulosic ethanol and waste to ethanol in their biofuel requirements. With this there is new value attached to cellulosic ethanol. This is coupled with a renewed funding effort by the US DOE, USDA and others to get cellulosic ethanol plants off the ground.

Close to home Trillium Fiber Fuels just pulled a $750,000 grant to build a cellulosic ethanol plant (this after a sizable grant to experiment with various feedstocks about a year ago). But as I look at it I'm seeing some serious bring to market issues with smaller cellulosic plants. Namely that it doesn't make sense to build a host of small commercial scale ethanol plants in regions where there are already idle corn ethanol plants.

The issue I see is the cost of capital, the need to return an investment to this capital, and the fact that if the cellulosic technology is proven it will likely be licensed and integrated right back into the already existing corn ethanol plant. These corn ethanol plants also already have two really important things for a cellulosic ethanol plant. Namely expertise making ethanol to ASTM specification and the ability to place this product in the stream of commerce (no small feat for a sub-5 million gallon plant with no experience).

So here is my thought (and a regulatory question as well). Being on the west coast we need to import our corn and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Why not focus on making cellulosic carbohydrate instead of ethanol, Then run the carbohydrate through the already existing corn based ethanol process. Qualify this product as a next generation fuel by carbohydrate volume placed in the process with the corn.

It makes logical sense. This being the method preferred for counting electron when generating green power from solar or wind projects. The real issue is does the EPA trust ethanol producers enough to do so given that there might be a full $1 a gallon additional value in a cellulosic gallon of ethanol.

This raises two questions to be feasible. One is the cost of freight and creation of the cellulosic sugar something that I believe can be managed. Second, will the RFS2 allow a measurement of this product placed in a batch with corn ethanol. Essentially we would create the same debate that exists with ConocoPhillips and their Renewable Diesel process where they add fats into the crude oil pre-distillation at the refinery.

Just some thoughts.