Message Font: Serif | Sans-Serif
No. of Recommendations: 15
The Future is Solar
Posted by Robert Rapier on July 26, 2007 - 2:00pm

Or more precisely, the future should be electric.

I have done a lot of research lately into various alternative diesel technologies as I was working on my renewable diesel chapter. One thing that became very clear to me is that the world will not be able to displace more than a fraction of our petroleum usage with biofuels. I already knew that this was the case with ethanol, but now I think this will be a general limitation for all liquid biofuels. Consider this sneak preview (still in draft form) from the book:

There are approximately 4 billion arable acres in the world. There are many different feed stocks from which to make renewable diesel, but most biodiesel is made from rapeseed oil. Rapeseed is an oilseed crop that is widespread, with relatively high oil production.

Consider how much petroleum could be displaced if all 4 billion acres of arable land were planted in rapeseed, or an energy crop with an oil productivity similar to rapeseed. The average rapeseed oil yield per year is 127 gallons. On 4 billion acres, this works out to be 33 million barrels per day of rapeseed oil. The energy content of rapeseed oil is about 10% less than that of petroleum diesel, so the petroleum equivalent yield from planting all of the world's arable land in one of the more popular biofuel options is just under 30 million barrels per day. This is just over a third of the world's present usage of petroleum, 85 million barrels per day. Yet this is the gross yield. Because it takes energy to grow, harvest, and process biomass into fuel, the net yield will be lower, and in some cases may even be negative (i.e., more energy put into the process than is contained in the final product).

The fundamental problem here is that photosynthesis is not very efficient. Consider the rapeseed oil yield above. Gilgamesh made a table that is basically the solar capture/conversion to oil from various crops. The gist is that only a few hundredths of a percent of the incoming solar energy gets converted into liquid fuels. Of course some did get converted into other biomass, which could be otherwise used for energy, but generally we get a very low capture of the sun's energy for use as liquid fuels. (This exercise can still be proven by assuming the theoretical limit for photosynthesis. One must just make more assumptions and it is not as easy to follow for a general audience).

Consider instead direct solar capture. Let's not even consider the record 40+% efficiency that Spectrolab announced last year. Let's not consider any of the more exotic technologies that are pushing the envelope on direct solar capture efficiency. BP's run of the mill silicon solar cells operate with an efficiency of 15%. That's about 250 times better than the solar to rapeseed oil route. Or, to put it a different way, you can produce the same amount of energy with direct solar capture in a 13 ft. by 13 ft. area that you can by photosynthesis in 1 acre of rapeseed. And odds are that you have a roof with an area that size, which could be used to capture energy without the need to use arable land.

Of course the disadvantages are 1). The costs for solar are still relatively high; and 2). We have a liquid fuel infrastructure. But in the long run, I don't see that we have any chance of maintaining that infrastructure. If we are to embark on a Manhattan Project to get off of our petroleum dependence, we should direct our efforts toward an eventual electric transportation infrastructure.
Print the post  


What was Your Dumbest Investment?
Share it with us -- and learn from others' stories of flubs.
When Life Gives You Lemons
We all have had hardships and made poor decisions. The important thing is how we respond and grow. Read the story of a Fool who started from nothing, and looks to gain everything.
Community Home
Speak Your Mind, Start Your Blog, Rate Your Stocks

Community Team Fools - who are those TMF's?
Contact Us
Contact Customer Service and other Fool departments here.
Work for Fools?
Winner of the Washingtonian great places to work, and Glassdoor #1 Company to Work For 2015! Have access to all of TMF's online and email products for FREE, and be paid for your contributions to TMF! Click the link and start your Fool career.