Wollensky, September 2008 edition

Grass roots growth in the biofuels business

1 October 2009

"Two distinct biodiesel market opportunities have apparently blossomed"

The public flare-up over the propriety of biofuels has been something of a surprise. The fervour of their friends and foes has seemed almost religious at times. Perhaps less surprising has been a flourishing at the grass roots of the biofuels business. I refer to the swift but relatively humble exploitation of certain biofuel ideas that president George W Bush probably did not think of.*

If your branch of our industry is gensets, however, you are likely to have foreseen two distinct biodiesel market opportunities that have apparently blossomed. One is to make the product more cheaply than the mainstream suppliers can. The other is to make the product cheap for the consumer.

‘Waste’ oils from catering establishments and food processing plants are typical sources of ‘raw materials’ for the small, privately run ‘reactors’ that can be, and now (according to the press) increasingly are being, employed to produce usable – and, above all, economical – biodiesel. Mostly the stuff is bought by smart operators in commercial transport, though I gather that some diesel car drivers (motorists as well as cab firms) are as eager to reduce their fuel bills as are the hauliers, truckers and so forth.

Transport does hog the limelight, as genset people know.

Biomass fuelling is of course a frequent subject in MPS. (A story that I specially savoured was the one in last April’s issue about the claimedly first efficient chp plant fed with spent grain from beer-making.) The reports of a bulge in self-helping self-biofuelling lead me to hope that we shall be hearing more from readers (and others!) who run their own home gensets and garden-shed reactors. Who knows? – some truly novel, or just fascinating, technology may be brewing out there.

A common remedy beckons

I have been reproved for bemoaning the opprobrium borne by our industry because it puts so much climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere. The iron and steel industry, I have been assured, is even worse. “You power people do at least have some options”, an accuser has finger-stabbingly growled at me. “You’ve got alternatives. You’ve got nuclear energy. You’ve got renewables. But we steelmakers depend so much on the blast furnace process† that we’re responsible for roughly five percent of all the CO2 produced by mankind. We’re by far the biggest direct industrial emitters of this pollutant.”

I gather that about ninety percent of steelmakers’ CO2 contribution to our earthly burden is from blast furnaces, which devour carbon and exhale its dioxide on a colossal scale. Carbon is of course an essential element of their product, as well as their energy source, and they can turn to electric furnaces to some extent in their attempts to reduce their CO2 output, but that is just shifting the problem over to us, the electricity providers.

It is hard for me not to sympathise with the steelmakers in their plight. Ultimately, I suppose, they may be driven to the same remedy that so much of our own hope now rests upon: capture and sequestration of the guilty gas.

No surrender to nuclear

Among my ruminations last January I wondered whether, in our increasingly enlightened times, an instrument that had been marketed under the trade name NucleoSTOP could still be on sale. You may remember that this product had been offered to buyers with the promise that it would filter out the nuclear-generated fraction of mains power supply and return that menacing superfluity to its sender. Thus it would save the electrical appliances and consciences of the instrument’s purchasers – ‘green’ consumers – from contamination.

Unexpectedly, I found my question answered in the March issue of our stablemate, Nuclear Engineering International, which reported that ‘this handy device’ remains available at a price of ‘only r949’. The editor of our ever-alert sister journal commented that NEI had first published a notice of the NucleoSTOP over seven years ago, and that ‘it still seems to be going strong’ on the green market in Germany.

Not all MPS readers are at the same time subscribers to NEI, and I do apologise for not having relayed this news to you sooner.

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