Preface. Hey 60 minutes, do some fact checking first.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
On January 6, 2019, 60 Minutes had a segment on an amazing biofuels breakthrough invention by Marshall Medoff, an “81-year old eccentric with no science degree” (watch the video or read the transcript here).
His stunning innovation has won over many famous board members, such as Steven Chu, the former Secretary of Energy, as well as Shell Oil executive Sir John Jennings, George Shultz, former secretary of state and former defense secretary, William Perry.
Medoff’s company, Xyleco, has also garnered hundreds of millions of dollars from investors impressed with his inventive use of accelerators. Sixty minutes describes this as his “novel idea of using these large blue machines called electron accelerators to break apart nature’s chokehold on the valuable sugars inside plant life – or biomass”.
But wait! There are thousands of research papers going back as far as Imamura (1972) about using electron accelerators to break down lignocellulosic biomass. This is done to create more surface area for the next step, in Xyleco’s case, enzymes to break down the cellulose further. Other ways biomass can be shattered are milling, chipping, shredding, grinding, and pyrolysis.
But all of these are highly energy intensive methods. In fact, one paper thought that electronic beams were probably economically infeasible (Saini 2015).
This plant is also likely to fail because all other commercial level cellulosic ethanol plants have gone out of business. Only one plant still exists, POET’s $275 million Emmetsburg, Iowa facility, with a capacity of 25 million gallons per year. I can’t find out how much was actually produced there, but even if all 25 million gallons were made, that is a far cry from the 8.5 billion gallon cellulosic ethanol mandate of 2007, which will be reduced to 418 million gallons in 2019 because cellulosic ethanol is clearly not commercial yet (Rapier 2018).
Dr. Steven Chu told 60 minutes “that biofuels could make a 30% dent in the petroleum market, according to a report by the Department of Energy”. Well, I’ve read that report and it is hogwash. It treats crop residues and other biomass as “waste”, when in fact, if this so-called “waste” isn’t returned to the soil to prevent erosion, add nutrition, create ways for water and air to reach plant roots, and provide a natural immune system, then next year’s crop production will decline.
Another huge problem with “waste” biomass is that it needs to be within 40 miles of a biofuels plant, or the amount of diesel energy to harvest, compact into a bale, and transport the biomass to the refinery is more energy than you’ll ever get out of the ethanol after it’s created.
One reason cellulosic ethanol isn’t commercial is that to break the cellulose down further after physically blasting it apart, enzymes are needed to break it down even further. But enzymes take too much money and energy to make now. Yet that’s the next step at Xyleco where the electron accelerator it will be “combined with a proprietary enzyme mix”. And another hurdle is that by blasting apart biomass, by products are created that enzymes can’t cope with very well.
Robert Rapier (2019) wrote that “they were pretty nonchalant about the kinds of fuels that were being produced, as if it’s equally easy to make ethanol, gasoline, or jet fuel. The former is pretty easy to make. The other two — no way can he do this cost effectively via this route. Finally, biodegradable plastics have been around for a long time. Again, Lesley is leaving the implication that he has invented something new.”
Xyleco also proposes to turn biomass into materials, chemicals, and the sugar “xylose which could reduce obesity and diabetes, since it is consumable, and low in calories, and doesn’t decay your teeth”. Well, again, xylose has been around a long time, this is not a new discovery.
Xyleco isn’t yet in business, so it remains to be seen if the founder’s name ought to be Madoff rather than Medeff.
Imamura, R., et al. 1972. Depolymerization of cellulose by electron beam irradiation. Bulletin of the Institute for Chemical research, Kyoto university 50: 51-63.
Rapier, R. 2018. Cellulosic ethanol falling far short of the hype. Forbes.
Rapier, R. 2019. Private communication.
Saini, A., et al. 2015. Prospects for irradiation in cellulosic ethanol production. Biotechnology research international.