The cheapest, most plentiful, most environmentally-friendly, most aesthetically satisfying, renewable energy source is wood.
Can we make renewable gasoline from wood?
Wood –> charcoal –> water gas –> hydrocarbons (e.g. octane).
The last step is carried out via the Fischer-Tropsch process . Much of the processing can be done in small portable plants in the forest in order to reduce transport costs of bulky raw materials while reducing pollution impacts on population centres.
Woodchips are already almost competitive with fossil fuels for power generation. The cost of woodchips could be reduced further. The major cost component is interest on capital equipment. Woodchip production costs could be reduced considerably by running a 24/7 operation with three shifts of workers. At present contracts involve a 40 Hour working week . It would be difficult to change in the short term, but it does indicate that, in terms of dollars per megawatt hour, wood can be commercially competitive with fossil fuels .
This needs to be done by a cashed up entrepreneur. Any attempt by government is likely to end in failure; it has to be done as a business opportunity not as a moral duty. By demanding zero emissions by 2050, COP26 has laid the groundwork. Zero emissions must now take precedent over all other environmental considerations. Forget Green Hydrogen, forestry is by far the most commercially viable way of converting sunlight to fuel. It can be done wherever there are plenty of trees.
The Australian forestry sector is one of the most highly regulated and well regarded in the world. Australia has a total forested area of 134 million hectares (Ha), about 17% of the total land mass. Of this plantation is 2 million Ha (1.5% of total forest area) and provides over 87% of total wood production.
But there are some issues as WH points out:
We have 3 huge advantages over the rest of the developed world.
1. We are on the outer fringes of the said developed world,
2. We have a very low population density and
3. We have some very large and under-exploited forests.
Also the descent into chaos may not be all that rapid because the downside of the Hubbert Curve is commonly less steep than the upside. It may well be a decline rather than a collapse.
In summary, any wood-to-petrol solution would very much depend on a stable world order and a business-as-usual situation with regard to equipment and energy supplies, such as electricity, diesel etc. You are wise to be considering this option while we still have time on our side.
And in reply you wrote: “the downside of the Hubbert Curve is commonly less steep than the upside. It may well be a decline rather than a collapse.”
When Hubbert devised his depletion curve I believe that he was committing the ceteris paribus error, i.e., he was assuming a continuation of business as usual on the financial side of the oil industry. In other words he assumed a continuing supply of money to extract oil on the downside of the peak. Many commentators in the oil business think that downward curve will be sharper than Hubbert predicted. Some, for example, think that oil rich countries may be unwilling to export and will begin to keep supplies at home for their own internal consumption. Others believe that now that the “easy oil” deposits are at, or past, their peak and we move onto off-shore, Arctic and other hard-to-get oil deposits the EROI rates (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) will decline substantially, making it very difficult to extract oil at a profit. (This may mean nationalising and subsidzing oil production —yes, even in the good ole capitalist USA, according to some Texas oil men that I read on a blog). This is what the very conservative London Telegraph said a day or so ago:
The world’s energy transition has been botched. Investment in upstream oil and gas exploration has collapsed from $US900 billion to $US350 billion a year since 2014, but investment in renewables has not been enough to close the deficit. There is a massive and untenable mismatch.
The $US86 trillion global economy still runs off fossil energy and will do so for a long time. We have been muddling through until now with legacy fields but these are in decline and there are no new mega-projects to replace them. We are nearing the point in the long commodity cycle when this will come back to bite us.
The vilification and legal harassment of even the best-run oil and gas companies has scared away the capital markets. The rush towards disinvestment has been indiscriminate and premature, hitting the good along with the bad.
I am not sure what will happen to oil supplies from now on— I regularly read oil experts who disagree on this matter. But the lack of investment in new oil exploration and production is really worrying—not to mention the real possibility of disruption of supplies by terrorism, the breakdown of order in certain Middle East countries, or outright war. Hence my suggestion that it is possible that we may not have much spare time in which to get a wood-to-petrol industry up and running.
The word “petroleum” means “rock oil”. I suppose the new product could be called “lignoleum” or “wood oil”.
German car company, Audi, commenced manufacture of carbon neutral fuel, “blue crude”, in 2015. using a very similar process. Their feedstock is CO2 extracted from the air. We would do that part of the process using trees.
Note that 87% of Australia’s total wood production comes from plantation forest. Much plantation forest is privately owned so that it should be possible to set up a prototype facility without it becoming a political issue.
8 Replies to “Lignoleum – Renewable Gasoline”
A comment from Germany:
Burning wood is considered a “green” technology in Europe, they even feed coal power stations with wood these days. You must be aware that in Germany we have a 300 year tradition of sustainable forest economy, and most forest areas here are used in such a sustainable way, with hardly any reserves. Therefore all new “green” projects depend on imports from Russia, Ucraine, Canada or USA. We assume that these imports are hardly sustainable. Liquid fuel from wood is, however, not on the agenda.
Fact is that sustainable forest harvesting here means 10 “Ster” (one cubic meter of round 1 m long round pieces) per hectare and year, resulting in appr. 0.3-04 W average primary power per square meter. So the forest area to replace a 1 GW power station — based on 30% efficiency — is appr. 10 000 square km. Similar requirements can be expected for liquid fuel conversion. Maybe for Australia with its low population density these vast areas are available for cultivation – in fact introducing a forest maintenance system like Germany would probably also solve the bush fire problem: https://www.forstwirtschaft-in-deutschland.de/index.php?id=52&L=1. This might be a synergy that solves two problems at the same time. But it will probably be a solution for Australia that is not transferable to Europe.
The current trend here goes in the direction of a hydrogen economy. Our car industry is trying hard to electrify most cars. Porsche wants to keep one fuel car, the famous 911. They have a contract with a company in Chile who generates hydrogen and liquid fuel from wind power, producing that special fuel at a price of 10 $/liter. I am not aware what Audi is doing currently, except that they are heading for EV’s.
This is all so unreal. Germany wants to transform its industry with renewables and power-2-gas. I am about to write a fact sheet about solar energy, where I am trying to prove that photovoltaics becomes an energy sink when using it for power-2-gas (3 trustworthy sources confirm that it takes 1300 kWh to produce one square m of solar cells. In central Europe it produces 2200-2800 kWh over its lifespan. So it’s easy to see that with an overall efficiency of 25% power-2-gas PV uses appr. twice the energy for production than it returns in nonvolatile stored electrical energy. I would call this CO2 colonialism (the CO2 is produced in China so that our Greens can feel superior over the rest of the world)
Australia consumed a total of 34,170 megalitres of fuel in 2018.
Tasmania consumed a total of 744 megalitres of fuel in 2018.
1 megalitre of gasoline = 9.5 GW.hour , say 10 GW.hr
Therefore 100 km X 100 km of forest would (sustainably) yield 100,000 L per hour = 2.4 ML per day = 876 megalitres per year
= 2.5 percent of the Australian demand = Tasmanian demand.
Tasmania could be self-sufficient in renewable fuel!
Powdered coal can be used as a substitute for diesel fuel. Powdered eucalyptus charcoal would be far superior because it contains no harmful sulphur and much less ash. See Coal in an Engine does not need Fischer Tropsch.
Very interesting. Fortunately us humans seem to be able to invent solutions to most problems. When we were running out of whales we came up with other fuels. Maybe we should look at steam powered cars again. They could run on wood chips. The steam car does have advantages over internal combustion-powered cars, although most of these are now less important than in the early 20th century. The engine (excluding the boiler) is smaller and lighter than an internal combustion engine. It is also better-suited to the speed and torque characteristics of the axle, thus avoiding the need for the heavy and complex transmission required for an internal combustion engine. The steam car is also quieter, even without a silencer.
Yes, you are right, Ralph!
Bring back steam!
Particularly for heavy transport and farm machinery. It does not have to be big and clunky like in the First Steam Age. We have to start the technology shift now and Tasmania is the ideal place to do it because we are already self-sufficient in wood, agriculture and electrical power and have a strong engineering tradition.
Think locally not globally.
Yes, the best way to go is to make water gas from woodchips on an industrial scale and use it to make synthetic liquid fuels for use in existing cars and petrol stations. The “syngas” in this diagram is CO + H2, same as water gas : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_fuel#Indirect_conversion.
One problem with steam, I think, is the start-up time, i.e. the need to get “a head of steam up” before you can do anything. If this can be solved, or reduced, then steam is a real goer—particularly for the tasks that are currently done by diesel—cranes, roadwork, long distance transport etc. I wonder if wood can be processed to make it a denser solid (not a liquid) so that it can more easily be used in locomotives?
Would it really take 100k x100k of forest— 10,000 square kms sounds a lot— to supply sufficient wood for our steam needs?
Tasmania has a total land mass of approximately 68,100 km2, of which nearly half (33,500 km2 or 49 per cent) is forested. Native forest makes up 91 per cent of this and plantations nine per cent. Of the native forest, 69 per cent is either wet or dry eucalypt forest, but there are significant areas of other non-eucalypt forest types. 10,000 km2 is big but it is in the right ball-park.
One way of making woodchips more energy dense is to convert them to charcoal. Powdered charcoal might be the easiest to handle usin worm drives and so on,
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