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Switchgrass for biofuels  RSS feed

 
Steve Nicolini
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I just read an article about using switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol.  The article talked about how cheap it is and how much more efficient it is than corn.  But toward the end, it said "these costs do not include the costs of transporting it to the biorefinery, nor the costs to process it in the biorefinery."  My question is how much will that cost, in terms of money and energy?  Is it worth it to even try?  Is there any way to "biorefine" switchgrass ourselves?
 
Susan Monroe
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Location: Western WA
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It's easier to make alcohol from sugar and starches.  In other words, moonshine.

In Alcohol Can Be a Gas by David Blume, he said there's a bunch of crops that can produce a lot of alcohol per acrecattails, sugar and fodder beets, sugarcane, buffalo gourds, potatoes, cassava, castor beans, low-quality citrus fruits, comfrey, jerusalem artichokes, mesquite pods, marine algae, molasses residue, palms, wild watermelon, prickly pear, sweet potatoes, sweet sorghum, fruit waste, pastry waste, candy waste, etc.

The efficiency of the method (or lack thereof) leans best toward small farmers and farmer co-ops that work it into a closed-circle, no-waste system.  The beauty of this method is that a group of farmers or food producers can send their crop or waste to a co-op distillery, have the alcohol fermented out of it, and the only thing that ends up being removed from it is the sugar and/or starch, which were produced by sunshine and photosynthesis.  Every single other nutrient that was in the original crop or waste is still there, so the waste could be fed to livestock to be pooped back into the soil via their manure, or turned back into the soil, over and over again, with no loss.

He says a community could have a couple of cattail lagoons that they could run all their sewage through to clean it up before it goes into the ocean or wherever, and then harvest the cattails two or three times a year (depending on location and climate) and use that harvest to make alcohol (at least 2,500 gallons per acre, per crop), and then the waste is returned to the wastewater cattail marsh to grow more cattails so they can keep doing it, over and over.

I think he said (2007 figures) that a smaller distillery operated by a farmer or co-op costs around 60 cents per gallon (that's ALL costs).  Large (50 million gallons/year or more) are much less efficient because they tend to use fossil fuels to operate their system, and theirs runs around $1.60/gallon.

He also said that American vehicles can run RIGHT NOW on 35% alcohol, and with slight changes, up to 98%.

The U.S. currently makes flex-fuel (gasoline or alcohol) vehicles but they don't advertise them.  Most of them are sold to our government, but anyone can buy them, and they cost the same as the same make/model in gasoline-only.

It's a big book, nearly 600 pages, but fascinating and easy to read.  It's a plus if you understand auto mechanics.

Sue
 
              
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Location: West Iowa
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Giant miscanthus is another grass they are looking into.  Yields more than switchgrass.
 
Susan Monroe
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Location: Western WA
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Going back to your original question, 'But toward the end, it said "these costs do not include the costs of transporting it to the biorefinery, nor the costs to process it in the biorefinery." '

I believe the 'cheapness' they speak of is in the growing.  Grasses don't require anything near the nutrient inputs that common crops take.  That quotation points out a common way to gain attention through fallacy.  We need to stop seeing 'cost' as just the surface, easily-seen obvious costs of doing something.  The cost of turning switchgrass or miscanthus into alcohol is more than simply the cost of growing it.  It is ALL the costs involved that should be considered.

I was reading that if all the costs of using gasoline as a fuel were really taken into consideration, the actual COST of gasoline would be as high as $15+.

Fuel alcohol activist David Blume says it is more cost effective to have small (~1 million gals/yr) alcohol distillation plants built all over the place than to have a few huge (500 million gals/yr) several hundred miles apart.  He envisions small plants centered in farming areas that are no more than 10 miles from the local farms.

Sue
 
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