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Bush says One Good Thing. - The Life and Thoughts of Zach

Jan. 31st, 2006

10:37 pm - Bush says One Good Thing.

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Those looking for my brief minor thoughts about the state of the union address can find them here in bdar's journal. I'll quote the positive part and leave the snarkiness and anger sitting over there.

Out of the whole 51 minutes he spent about one sentence saying something that I liked. He talked about making ethanol from grass and other non-starchy biomass. My hope is that that means he's going to pour more funding into cellulase research, research which would help us mass-produce the currently expensive enzyme which would let us ferment cellulose into ethanol. The department of energy currently estimates that cellulase adds $.50/gallon to the cost of ethanol made from non-starchy materials but predicts that further research can get that cost down to $.05 in the forseeable future.

Imagine instead of harvesting corn and only being able to turn it's sugars into fuel and ending up with a stalky mashy waste biomass, instead turning the whole plant into fuel, turning discarded paper and cardboard into fuel, turning any kind of pulpy biomass into fuel. That'd be huge. I think cheap cellulase has got to be a major component to any sane short term energy strategy.
Time to get back to work.

Oh, in wildly unrelated news, here's a followup to the whole Firefly Season 2 thing. Basically nothing has changed except that now a well known website has actually talked to the involved parties to confirm things. Some random dude who heads up a microscopic studio thinks he can make it happen but hasn't actually even talked to Joss yet.

Current Mood: awake
Current Music: Jazz on NPR

Comments:

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From:arun251
Date:February 1st, 2006 08:35 am (UTC)
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He's totally talking about hemp.

Totally.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:February 1st, 2006 08:43 am (UTC)
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One crop that gives us both massive amounts of cellulose (for cellulosic ethanol) AND massive amounts of oil (for biodiesel)! Beautiful...man.
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From:samwize
Date:February 1st, 2006 02:17 pm (UTC)

mmmm.....carbon......

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I'm right there with you on the almost... ridiculous utility of hemp. Seriously, I consider it to be as ontologically troubling as Adams' babelfish.

But I've got _real_ problems with ethanol as a fuel source. Yeah, we need to squirt a cellulase-making plasmid into E. coli or something and make it cheaper, cause right now it takes more energy to make than you get burning it. But my real problem is this: YOU ARE BURNING YOUR TOPSOIL IN YOUR GAS TANK.

Making ethanol out of garbage left over from food processing is fine. That's just being efficient and non-wastefull. But when you start talking about making a crop primarily for fuel, you've got problems. As it stands, modern American ADMified farming loses our topsoil every year through the utterly criminal act of tillage. Burning it in our gas tanks is a recipe for disaster unless we can simultananeously switch our agricultural methods to soil _building_. (Go talk to the kinsellas about this sometime. Fascinating work out on their farm.)
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From:zarfmouse
Date:February 1st, 2006 05:38 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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It is not at all well established that ethanol yields negative energy. There are some poorly done studies that suggest this may be true of current crappy ways of making ethanol from corn (which has a very low sugar content). If we made ethanol from something like sugar beets it would have a MUCH higher energy yield per acre.

And with sustainable permaculture farming methods we wouldn't be burning topsoil, we'd be burning carbon taken from and returned to the air. An interesting thing about making ethanol is that the pulpy mash that is left over can be fed to cows, the cows digest it more efficiently than the raw feed corn we feed them now, and then they can poop on the very same fields where it was all grown. Heck feed it bison instead of cows and they even aerate the soil with their pointy hooves! There's all kinds of smart things to do with the waste products from the process. There's all kinds of ways to farm other than the ADMified method.

I'm all about fuel crops. Fuel crops are a simple and efficient means of harvesting solar energy and transporting it to where it is needed.

Someday when I finish reading the books I need to read and have more than a bullshitting knowledge of permaculture, I'd love to talk to the kinsellas about their farming methods and theories.
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From:sarpo
Date:February 1st, 2006 08:58 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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We also need to come up with spiffy ways of making stuff out of not-petroleum based materials. Right now, nearly everything is made of polymers made from oil. Need to be able to cheaply turn plant fibers into strong, colorful, wear resistant, hygienic, non-corrosive, non porous, lightweight materials to reduce the use of PE, ABS, acrylic, vinyl, PS, PP, PC, etc.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:February 1st, 2006 09:36 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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Definitely agreed!

Although luckily the clock isn't ticking quite as fast on that as it is on energy. My understanding is that we only use like 10% of oil production for making plastics. If we significantly reduce or eliminate our consumption of oil for energy, the supply for plastics will last a LOT longer.

The problem with energy is not that we're about to run out of oil, it is that we're about to start consuming more energy per year than we can pull out of the ground in a year. It doesn't matter how much oil is in the ground if we can't pull it out fast enough, but if we find other ways to satisfy our energy needs we can probably keep pulling oil out of the ground for plastics for a while.

Of course, we definitely definitely need to convert to sustainable materials SOON. I've heard that they have ways of making plastics from plant oils. Do you know any details on that? Do you know what the main technological stumbling blocks are to making this cheap?
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From:sarpo
Date:February 1st, 2006 09:51 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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I don't know much about it - but I would guess the stumbling blocks are - we aren't out of oil yet so it's not a priority, we've gone so far with plastics (the colors we can mold now are amazing, and a recent development), and what we do now is so damn cheap - a sustainable material product just can't compete. I've heard about plastics from natural oils, but don't know anything about them. My guess is they aren't durable and cheap enough (yet).

My beef with petroleum based plastic is not just that it takes oil (although that's part) - the whole lifetime of such a product is disturbing. Sure, it's great we can make plastic at such a low cost, but by doing so, we encourage this disposable society we have going. And so little of what we make gets recycled, even if it is recycleable. We're great at making cheap crap (or China is rather, we're just good and buying it) and it just ends up in landfills. Plastic starts out with toxic fumes as we mold it, we package it in more plastic, it's bought, used briefly, breaks, is tossed and replaced with more plastic.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:February 1st, 2006 10:14 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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Definitely agreed on the outrageous terribleness of this.

I am overwhelmed with a strange dual guilt when I fail to finish eating food at a restaurant because I'm faced with the choice of either wasting food or putting my food into some terrible styrofoam container that I'm only going to use for 12 hours or so before throwing it out. I need to start bringing tupperware (also plastic! ugh.) to restaurants.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:February 1st, 2006 10:16 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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There's a weird set of tradeoffs between durability and biodegradability/recyclability. It's nice to make things that are very reusable. It's nice to make things that won't sit in landfills for thousands of years. It's nice to package things in stuff that won't react with it's environment...it's hard to find such inert stuff that also biodegrades. Tricky!
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From:sarpo
Date:February 1st, 2006 10:47 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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true. I suppose we have to get better at designing things with timelines in mind - design things that are meant to be kept to be robust, design things that are meant to be discarded biodegradable.

So many products have built-in obsolescence. iPods, for one. Mine broke after not even 8 months of use, but hey, that's fine Apple says, I'm supposed to upgrade to a newer, cooler one anyway.
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From:zsquirrelboy
Date:February 2nd, 2006 10:28 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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It's in Apple's interest to get you to buy something else. That's the whole reason you have the issue of engineered obsolescence. I think that this presents an interesting way to think outside the box on this problem. (It's on a site with a collection of green articles for kids.)

I don't think we're too likely to get to a system where we won't be dealing with the profit motive. (Even if that's a place some of us would like to get to). I think it's incumbent upon us to take approaches that don't block on completely transforming the economic and political system we.
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From:zsquirrelboy
Date:February 2nd, 2006 10:16 pm (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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People are working on this. By virtue of having a degree in Chemical Engineering, my lovely wife has a subscription to Chemical & Engineering News. You can see the titles here. Unfortunately the articles themselves are behind a subscription system.

Doing a google search for renewable polymers gets some interesting results. .

There's plenty of work being done on this.
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From:xymboulos
Date:February 2nd, 2006 02:32 am (UTC)

Re: mmmm.....carbon......

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The conventional wisdom that ethanol consumes more fuel than it produces is wrong on several counts. The data cited by that argument is from the beginning of the ethanol biofuel industry. Advances in refining have improved efficiency considerably - we currently get about a 1/3 return on the total energy investment.

The data refers to the total energy input, not just the consumption of mechanical fuel. The return on the mechanical fuel investment (fuel for farm machinery, transport, etc.) is about 6:1.

Also, such arguments frequently omit that ethanol production is frequently a by-product or co-product of other materials that produce value for the energy investment.

DOE report
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From:tugena13
Date:February 2nd, 2006 06:10 pm (UTC)
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ok, not to be overly negative, but...

do you think bush actually gives a shit about the environment and our dependency on oil? do you think this is anything but lip service? do you think he's actually going to take any steps to make alternative fuel sources a viable reality?

call me cynical, but i sure don't.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:February 2nd, 2006 08:09 pm (UTC)
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Not at all. I think Bush made some deal with some farm-belt republicans to funnel a little pork barrel money into ethanol research as a subsidy to that region. I think it'll be a drop in the barrel.

I just figured while everyone else was focused on the negative, I'd use that bullshit speach as an excuse to start a discussion about alternative fuels. I've learned a lot from it.
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From:tugena13
Date:February 2nd, 2006 08:17 pm (UTC)
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good point. the more people who know about alternative fuel sources, the better. :)
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