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Ike Solem
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Carbon sequestration doesn't work - plus the methane will be burned in the end. That's why you can't make coal clean, no matter how much green soap you use. The overall reaction is coal + water -> CO2 + methane, right? Every ton of coal, on combustion, produces ~2.7 tons of CO2. A plant of this type that consumed 3 million tons per year of coal would still result in some 8 millions tons of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere that year - because the methane would be burned. The only plausible use for the CO2 stream is in Enhanced Oil Recovery - but this is all just part of the lobbyist effort, isn't it? See this from Center for North American Energy Security, an unconventional fossil fuel lobby group: "As a result of these developments, CNAES’s principals began a new unconventional fuels outreach program in 2007. The objective was to create a single organization to coalesce unconventional fuels advocates in all of the affected private and governmental sectors around a unified program to advance the development and use of all of the five unconventional fuels sectors studied in the Task Force report: Heavy Oil, Tar Sands, Shale Oil, Coal-to-Liquids and Enhanced Oil Recovery." This is just more PR for dirty fuel programs that could barely limp along without massive state subsidies - all rely on an assumption of high future fossil fuel demand and $100 a barrel oil prices for profitability, don't they? The energy sector should just admit that unconventional fossil fuels are a big mistake, and move on, despite the efforts of lobby groups: Mr. Corcoran said there has been intense lobbying in the United States to limit the use of Canadian oil sands. "The new development is that there is pushback. A number of the major oil companies ... have substantial interests in Canada. ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Shell, have a corporate strategy to develop the oil sands and are well aware of the sizeable market here in the U.S. On the other hand, this process might be very useful for converting biomass waste to methane. The main difference is that wood chip cellulose has more oxygen atoms than coal does, but the basic principles are the same - and methane burns far cleaner than wood does, too. The difference with biofuels is that the carbon source was the atmosphere, not geological deposits - so burning biofuels results in no net carbon additions to the atmosphere.
This is clearly an area that will require a lot more focused effort in the whole-genome analysis area. It also shows a recurring theme - genetic engineering often disrupts some aspect of biochemical metabolism or basic gene function. Solving those problems will require metabolic genetic engineering, which is the frontier in industrial microbiology these days - because while it is now easy to insert a gene that codes for a single enzyme, inserting a metabolic pathway if far more complicated. Evolution has probably already optimized the basic metabolic system of yeast, and tinkering with it is like messing around blindly under the hood of a car - the most likely result is a breakdown. Sad to say, such research efforts in the U.S. are extremely limited - even the new DOE grants are not for the growth of public university research, but rather are directed to a small number of private-public partnerships outside of the academic system. The NSF and USDA likewise provide no funds for such research, leaving all biofuel researchers dependent on state grants or private support, which usually comes with many strings attached. This isn’t really a problem – unless new technologies are bought up and sat on instead of developed. Maybe the climate is changing, however: Green Tech America, Inc. is developing and commercializing a yeast-based cellulosic ethanol technology that was pioneered by Dr. Ho, Research Molecular Biologist/Group Leader of the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering (LORRE) at Purdue University. (Earlier post.) During the 1980s and 1990s, researchers at LORRE altered the genetic structure of Saccharomyces yeast to enable the conversion of the two major sugars found in cellulosic materials—glucose and xylose—into ethanol. The most notable thing about this is that while the technology was developed in the 1980s and 1990s, it has been sat on undeveloped for a good ten years at least, while Midwestern ethanol distillers have been allowed to switch to coal-powered ethanol distillation – thus giving the whole idea a bad name. Obviously, ethanol plants should be powered by wind and solar.