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Biofuel Bonanza


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And there are a ton of different parties all with their own agendas is in points of view that make kind of tricky to understand if you're trying to come at it from an objective unbiased perspective. The topic is of course biofuels which I imagine is in the title of this episode somewhere so it shouldn't come as a surprise now. There are a lot of topics that are either directly or tangentially related to biofuels and that makes this more complicated than just saying x material represents Y amounts of energy if you put it through process process Z.. Right if that's all it were if we could just say let's take these two different materials and say how much energy would you get after. Say burning them And that was it. It'd be a lot easier but as it turns out it's way more complex than that. There are environmental concerns. There are arguments about climate change. Really really the only argument is how can we alleviate it because climate change is undeniably. A thing I don't well I guess people people can deny it but they're wrong anyway. There are also national security considerations. And there's a lot more to think about too so we're going to break this down and we're going to get a deeper understanding understanding about biofuels. What they are what they aren't and you know stuff like that? So this is one of those topics where it really is important to think critically the about everything I know. I stressed that a lot in this show and in this particular topic I think it it really comes to play. It's very easy to say. Fossil muscle fuels are bad. Then we should stop using them. Now I happen to believe that that is true. That fossil fuels are not great for us to use them. We should stop using them but you also also have to acknowledge why we use fossil fuels in the first place as opposed to other stuff. What is it about fossil fuels that makes most of the world dependent upon them for energy? Gee consumption purposes and the answer isn't as simple as because big oil wants it. That way. I mean yeah. Big Oil does want it that way. Because has any business leader wants their business to be thriving one but it's not as simple as conspiracy theories might make it seem a lot of conspiracy theories try to wrap up very complicated issues and create a very simple message to deliver that and it turns out. The reality gets a lot more whibley. Wobbly the time you wind me now. My goal is to once again encouraged critical thinking in which we examine a problem from many angles to determine what the best solution is and that solution might be fully dependent upon whatever your specific goal happens to be so for example if your goal is to move dependency away from big oil companies companies and countries with rich oil deposits. That maybe aren't your friendliest neighbors. That's one thing right. If that's your gold. If you say I have identify what my goal is. I don't want to be dependent upon oil. Well then you can come up with lots of different potential solutions. But let's say that your goal is different. Maybe your goal is I wanNa make make the smallest environmental impact possible well. The solution may end up being a different one from the solution to gold number one. And if you have multiple goals then you have to start weighing everything against each other and say well. How do I prioritize this? How do I pick a solution? That is not necessarily going to be the best at all all of these but is the best option out of all the different options I have and like I said it gets tough. So we're going to start off as simply Lee as we possibly can which is asking the question. What is fuel now? I know it sounds silly for me to ask that question. You probably all are very well aware aware of what it is but building our understanding on basic fundamentals will help later on so a fuel is a substance that contains energy more more importantly it's energy that can be released and then harnessed to do work of some kind even if that work is just as simple as releasing heat so we can think of fuel we'll as stored energy that we must release in some way typically through a type of chemical reaction such as through the process of burning it now now ancient humans figured out that would works pretty great as a fuel if you can figure out how to set the stuff on fire there were you know there are plenty of trees around. There's lots of wood available and it contained enough energy to be practical to keep you warm. It could provide light so would was a really good fuel source for a very a long time. Now you might remember from science class. That fire needs three things to exist. The triangle right. You need to have fuel will you need to have an oxidizer such as you know oxygen and you need heat if you're missing one of those three things you don't get fire which honestly is a good thing or else we wouldn't be here. If if wooden oxygen were all you needed then would would catch fire immediately upon being exposed to oxygen oxygen. If you didn't need oxygen then once a fire started it would be really hard to put it out. Since nearly all of our methods of extinguishing a fire rely upon removing oxygen oxygen from that triangle. I just talked about. Now there's an actual chemical reaction that happens when you have would in an oxygenated environment and it reaches its ignition temperature. When would reach is about one hundred fifty degrees Celsius or a three hundred degrees Fahrenheit? Some of the cellulose material that makes up the wood begins to decompose into three different types of stuff you get volatile gases which released from the wood and two they. That's what smoke is. That's it's part of You know the stuff we can see. That's part of the volatile gases released from would when it reaches that temperature and volatile gases consist of compounds of Hydrogen Carbon Carbon and oxygen. You also get a substance of nearly pure carbon called Char- charcoal ends up being and you end up with a by. I product called Ash an ashes. All the stuff in would that isn't actually burnable. It just as left behind stuff like calcium when the volatile gases get up up to around two hundred sixty degrees Celsius or five hundred Fahrenheit. The material in the wood breaks down and recombines with oxygen forming stuff like Carbon Dioxide Oxide and water vapor and we call the actual process burning and this chemical reaction generates a lot of heat that heat is enough to sustain the the reaction as long as there's fuel oxygen present so it will continue to burn until the fuel is gone if this didn't happen then firewood flare up but then quickly die down because the heat would not be sufficient to keep the reaction going. Not all fuels burn. The way would does would burns earns up and leave behind stuff like Charlie. Nash and you can use Char as fuel as well though that reaction is much slower than it is with would But other fuels work in a different different way. It's still a basic idea is that you've created a chemical reaction using a substance to produce heat and then you can harness that he do something useful so for example you you could use that heat to boil water to generate steam. You could channel that steam. So that had to pass through turbine and the force of this escaping keeping steam would be strong enough to rotate the turbine. which could use magnets to induce electricity to flow through a conductor and Bam? You've got your self esteem powered electrical generator later than you can generate electricity that way now. The entire world is largely dependent upon fossil fuels. Right now and this is where things are immediately tricky because if you trace back the source of fossil fuels you get to organic material so in other words biological material so you could make aac a very technical argument. That fossil fuels are biofuels. But that's kind of missing the point and it's being super pedantic and I'm told nobody nobody likes it when I do that. which is really big blow to me in my personality especially at parties now see? Fossil fuels are called that because they've they've developed over the course of millions of years under intense heat and pressure under layers and layers and layers of material layers of rock sand sediments and soil. They all built up over decayed organic material. Most of the The fossil fuels that we ended up getting came out of algae that died millions of years ago seed analogy would be the two big ones but other stuff as well and The pressure and time over the course of these millions of years breakdown that organic material and it transforms into stuff like coal and oil and natural gas but it takes millions billions of years for that to happen. So that is why we call this a non-renewable resource a non-renewable source of energy. It's not that they're truly non-renewable renewable right now if you were able to live forever in the super super long term over the course of millions and millions and millions of years you could renew those resources but for our purposes for humans non-renewable. I mean for all practical purposes because just keep in mind that modern humans have only been around a few thousand years nowhere close to a million let alone hundreds of millions. So there's no way we could wait. Hundreds of millions of years. More four for the earth supply of fossil fuels to replenish that by the time stuff from the dawn of humanity has transformed into fossil fuels. We may very well be extinct. Stint as a species so he can't really think of it as renewable. It doesn't make any sense. Oh and when we say organic material were chiefly talking talking about carbon carbon is king here Burning these fossil fuels unleashes that carbon that had previously been locked away inside inside coal or gas or oil and deep under the earth's surface. Now mainly it gets unlocked and released in the form of carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide is a greenhouse the house gas and contributes to climate change a really big way so when we talk about fossil fuels from an environmental perspective We're really talk about dumping an enormous amount of carbon dioxide along with some other not so healthy gases into the environment and this is carbon that had previously been safely safely locked away and moreover it's into an environment that cannot easily process this excess amount of carbon dioxide carbon dioxide is part of a natural actual cycle on earth but that cycle is dependent upon the steady supply of carbon dioxide are really a stable supply supply not an increasing supply but we are unleashing yet more carbon dioxide that had previously been locked away down underneath the earth now on top of that there are many other things that go into the extraction processing refining and distribution of fossil fuels and all of that also adds into the environmental mental impact overall as well as the cost of the fossil fuel industry. Some extraction methods caused greater environmental damage than others but none. None of them are exactly eco-friendly. They're just levels of bad and the be fair biofuels are not magically immune to this we will look at how biofuels can also have a negative environmental impact. They do not get a free pass on this Again critical thinking is key. Here we need to look at all all the different factors of all the different options now. Despite the fact that fossil fuels are non renewable. And that we're dumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere every day. We depend heavily on these fossil fuels according to the World Bank fossil fuels account for about eighty percent of all energy consumption around the world so they represent the primary energy consumption path. We humans rely upon today. So why is that. Why do we rely upon it so heavily if we see these potential negative consequences to using them well for one? These fuels are dense with energy. Which means you get a lot oath when you burn the stuff? Plus we've built systems and infrastructures around the idea. Yeah of harvesting processing and burning these fuels now some of the elements in those systems. We might be able to adapt so that they can handle a change into a different fuel source right so in other words the stuff. We've already established. We might be able to repurpose but some things. We probably couldn't repurpose. So that would mean that switching the to a different fuel. It's not just as simple as saying. Hey this stuff's pretty bad for our environment because it may also mean having thing to make really big systemic changes across the board which is difficult. And it's expensive now. That's not to say it wouldn't be worth the investment when you look at the alternatives turnips especially if you look at the consequences of climate change over the long term. You could make a very convincing argument that this is an investment. We have to make but it's hard to get that ball rolling because when you've already got another option that's easier. The tendency is to go to the easier option. Should even if that option. Isn't you know better. It's just easier overtime. The supply of these fossil fuels will dwindle Wendell particularly as we see our consumption trends globally on the rise and we'll see the price for them go up because supply will go down. Demand will be increasing increasing in order to reflect that. You'RE GONNA see prices go up even in order to reflect it. That's just the way. The world works of Economics. So we've already seen global conflicts that hinge at least in part on access to fossil fuels those will likely escalate. Should our dependency remain steady. While supplies decline so in other words we could see the instability across the world as a result of this dependence upon Fossil fuels. Okay but what are biofuels. Then will these our fuels that come from biological materials organic material biomass. In other words they can be solid fuel Would is an example of a solid biofuel Or poop you know manure that can be a solid fuel. They could also be liquid fuels such as grain alcohol also known as Ethanol Hyphen all They can be gases like various synthetic or sin gas products which in itself is sort of shorthand for synthetic natural gas. Ask now like fossil fuels. These feels also released carbon when you burn them though. Not necessarily as much as fossil fuels might but more importantly you you can replenish these fuels much faster by growing new biomass new feedstock and changing to a reliance on biofuels would mean having to plant the stuff while it's growing it's essentially a carbon storage unit. It's taking carbon into itself was taking it out of the environment and so you're actually locking it down for the duration of growing the stuff so rather than dumping new carbon into the environment by unlocking stuff that had previously been stored away in petroleum or coal. You've got a cycle of carbon in the form of your fuel crop. At least ideally so prehistoric. Humans relied on bio fuels. Feels like would but even some early inventors in the era of internal combustion experimented with biofuels. Rudolf diesel for whom the diesel engine is named built his engine to run on peanut oil. He imagined a future in which engines would run on various vegetable oils. Now when we come back I'll talk about more about bio fuels and divide. Divide them up into two big categories. Talk about some of the pros and cons but I I wanNA give you this word from our sponsor now. Whoever said it's all about about the journey has never traveled during the holidays? 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So the two main forms of biofuel or biodiesel and ethanol now as I just mentioned biodiesel diesel comes from stuff like vegetable oils or fats or greases. You can run diesel engines on this stuff without having to alter the engine at all which is pretty darn handy Now that's not to say a gallon vegetable. Oil has the same energy density as a gallon of petroleum based diesel fuel. But the fact that you can run diesel engines is on vegetable based fuels is a huge. Plus you can take used oil from stuff like a fryer and with a minimum amount of processing news as fuel for something like a diesel religion. Now there's also work being done on what's called third generation biodiesel which would come from stuff like algae Santo Bacteria now. These sources could could potentially yield an enormous amount of biodiesel with respect to the amount of area. They take up on earth so in other words you need to think about factors like how how much physical space is the production of biofuels coming to take because we have a limited to that right. We don't only have so much space on the planet and we have to dedicate it for various things so we have to reserve only a certain portion of that for the production of fuel. Well you want your fuel to we dance and you want to be able to to get a lot of it in as little space as possible so you can dedicate the rest of that space for other things. That's one of the potential benefits for are using things like algae and Santa Bacteria. You could grow a great deal of the stuff that could yield a good amount of energy for the amount of area it takes but right now the process to convert that stuff into biodiesel is a little bit on the expensive side and that means it's not as attractive so if that that expense comes down it could become an economically viable option. But if it doesn't then from financial standpoint you could argue that makes more sense to use a different source for biodiesel or using petroleum based diesel even though the alternative would make less use of space biodiesel fuels do create pollutants burning. They do not burn totally clean. They aren't some sort of magic material But the amount of pollutants is significantly lower than you would find with petroleum based diesel on top of that biodiesel is nontoxic and it's also biodegradable. So the fuel is safer to handle and dispose of than petroleum based diesel is. There are other issues but we'll get into that. Let's look at the other type of biofuel ethanol so ethanol is alcohol like it. It's the stuff that makes alcoholic drinks. Alchoholic is the same alcohol as you would find in beer or wine or hard liquor comes from fermented sugars. And it's used as an additive in fuels around the world. The three main types that you tend to find in the United States are e ten which is ten percent ethanol and ninety percent gasoline. Fifteen which no big surprise. Fifteen percent ethanol and eighty five percent gasoline and e. eighty-five which is not eighty five percent. Ethanol is actually somewhere somewhere between fifty one. Eighty three percent depending upon the blend And the rest of it is gasoline. So it's more than half ethanol. As opposed to gasoline now unlike biodiesel to use ethanol an engine has to be designed to handle it above a certain percentage otherwise. They're going to get some problems as he tried to. Burn the fuel you you might get damage to the engine or various engine components and at lower percentages the performance issues are negligible and so in the United States. All gasoline powered engines engines are rated to run E ten. Ethanol without any real issue beyond that though you would need a fuel-flexible vehicle to take advantage of higher percentages of ethanol without causing damage to the engine. Ethanol comes from fermenting various plants in the United States. It's almost exclusively corn so it makes up. The vast majority of all feedstocks used to create ethanol in the US. But farmers have also tried. Other stuff like sugarcane potato skins beats yard clippings rice and switch grass. Now in Brazil sugarcane is far more common as a feedstock and nearly all the cars and Brazil can run on pure ethanol rather than a mixture Although mixtures of gasoline also still sold in Brazil. But you could run most Brazilian vehicles on pure ethanol ethanol also traces. Its history as a fuel you'll for cars way back to the early days. Henry Ford designed the model t to run on a mixture of gasoline and alcohol. Way Back in one thousand nine hundred eight mixing ethanol end with gasoline reduces the amount of pollutants emitted when burning the fuel in the United States in Nineteen Seventy S. The oil crisis led to large investments in producing and distributing ethanol all so that became a standard type of fuel is pretty much stayed that way sense so in other words they were looking at well. We're GONNA have fuel shortages unless yes we can make up some of that volume fuel with another substance that we can produce here in the United States that substance was ethanol now as it turns out it gets way more complicated than all this. You can't really go apples to apples with fossil fuels and biofuels. Let's get down to some of the sticking points that make this a tricky rickie debate right. One of those is the amount of energy that's stored within these fuels because not all fuels are created equal a gallon of gasoline in and a gallon of ethanol for example contain different amounts of energy a unit. We use to measure the amount of energy within fuel. When it's you know burn released when you burn it is Btu or British thermal unit? This unit in turn is based off the amount of heat needed to increase the temperature of one pound of water her by one degree Fahrenheit. Then I can hear all the folks in other countries rolling their eyes right now. I hear you rolling your eyes. I can't see you but your your eye. Rolling is making noise because this is a very non metric way to go about things so the metric system would use units like The Calorie in which describes the amount of heat needed to heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius and the The unit to measure energy would be the jewel one. BTU is equal to around one thousand fifty five jewels more or less. Okay so you can really think of. BTU's a shorthand for how much energy is stored within this given fuel. And so you want a bigger number right. The bigger the number the more energy is in that fuel the more work you can do with that amount mounted fuel and here's where we see one of the big differences between fossil fuels and biofuels so a gallon of gasoline contains approximately one hundred. Twenty four thousand eight hundred would be to use nearly one hundred twenty five thousand. BTU A gallon of ethanol would represent only eight hundred thousand Btu so eighty thousand two hundred twenty. I five thousand so the amount of energy within a gallon of ethanol is less than what you would get with a gallon gasoline. All right so let's take a slightly bigger picture. Look we're using and fuel to do something right like let's say we're using it to power a car and let's say we're operating the car as stay demand for energy. There's no point where the engine is going to require More power so we're just thinking that has like us nice smooth steady road now granted. This isn't really how stuff works in the real world but simplifies things for the purposes of our discussion. You'd be able to drive the car further on a gallon of gasoline. Then you would be able if you were using a gallon of of pure ethanol in fact you need one point five six gallons of ethanol to get you as far as a single gallon of gasoline could take you assuming all all other factors remain the same so this makes the discussion about greenhouse gases also a little more complicated because burning a gallon of ethanol will release less carbon dioxide than burning a gallon of gasoline. The remember the ethanol does less work. So really you have to burn one point five six gallons of ethanol to represent at the same energy released as one gallon of gasoline. Then that starts to shave away some of the advantage of releasing less co two. Because you're in fact burning more fuel to make up for the shortfall in energy density. Even so you're still producing fewer pollutants in just the strictly the burning of the fuel itself. So they're still benefit using ethanol. I just wanted to point out. That doesn't quite make sense to go gallon for gallon when you're talking about pollutants because you're going to need to use is more ethanol to do the same amount of work you could with gasoline. Still another thing to keep in mind. As ethanol is carbon neutral which means that the amount of carbon released it was the same amount of carbon that the organic material absorbed during its full lifespan. And with ethanol in the US. Like I said we're really talking about Korn here right so if we were to stop all fossil fuel generation right now like we we no longer harvested refine it. We're done with fossil fuels. We're just else using biofuels magically somehow we would be working with a more or less closed cycle right because we wouldn't be dumping new carbon undock side into the atmosphere we would be locking it away in whatever fuel stock we were growing and then we'd be releasing it again when we burn fuel stock but then we'd have a new generation of fuels of feedstock growing keep saying full stop. I mean feedstock We'd have a new generation of feedstock growing knowing that would lock that carbon away again and you would just have the cycle the water cycle at all. Stay the same. You wouldn't have an increase in carbon dioxide because you're not unlocking carbon that was previously locked away deep under the earth according to the US Department of Energy taking the full life cycle cycle of ethanol into account amounts to an average reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of thirty four percent. Assuming you're using corn based ethanol because does that factor matters a lot if however scientists can produce ethanol efficiently using cellulose based feedstocks meaning more woody parts of plants. So you wouldn't have to grow corn. You could grow lots of different stuff and you wouldn't necessarily have to use good farmland for it because the stuff is really hardy and it can grow in lots of different conditions. Then you could see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Go Up as high as one hundred eight percent taking into into account the the full life cycle of ethanol. Now the reason I even bring this up is to point out that this is more complicated discussion than just fossil fuels are bad night did mentioned earlier. There are other considerations to like national security. So what do I mean by that. Well let's say you live in a nation that is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and that to meet the demand that your country has You have to import fuel from other parts of the world because you don't produce enough of it at home to meet your needs now. That means that the day to day operations in your country are dependent upon the exports of other countries. And should you have any say diplomatic. It's us with those other countries or if the oil industry in those countries were somehow be impacted by regional issues like a war or something like that. You could be in serious trouble. Your supply could be in jeopardy so imagine rolling power outages across an entire country because there are fuel shortages and those were all brought around around because of some international dispute or conflict. These things can and do happen. And a big reason why the United States began to use ethanol on a widespread basis in the nineteen seventies seventies. Or imagine that you're limited in options as to where you get your oil from and the best source of oil meaning the the most plentiful or at least expensive offensive or however you wanted to find best in this particular scenario and happens to be in a country that either engages in or supports efforts that are in opposition with your own so in a drastic example. You might be feeding money into a country. Those using that money to fund military operations that threaten your country or your allies or it might be a country that helps fund terrorist cells. The clearly. You wouldn't want to hand over cash to someone who wants to see you brought down but at the same time you have needs that have to be met now. That's what I mean by national security unless you are in a country with plentiful fossil fuel reserves. You'RE GONNA be at least partly dependent upon upon what other nations are able to produce and that is a security vulnerability and if you have plentiful fossil fuels in your country. Then you might be a tempting getting target. For other countries that do not have those fossil fuel reserves biofuel advocates argue that biofuels can help migrate a country into energy independence penance as long as the country is capable of growing the right feedstocks. Then it can wean itself off of fossil fuels and depend more on biofuels to meet its energy needs. It's it creates industry. Within the country itself as farmers grow the feedstock for the rest of the nation producing the basic fuel needed and freeing the country from depending upon potentially unreliable partner nations. But again to do that they have to take a lot of other things into consideration. You have to consider the actual needs of the public. How much energy is the public consuming on a daily basis? How much biofuel would you need to grow in order to meet the demand of the public? Is there actually enough capacity within your country to grow that feedstock while still dedicating sufficient farmland for other purposes. You know like growing food if not then you're trading energy dependency for food dependency and instead of being endanger of blackouts. Now you're in danger of starving or the very least last year endanger of affecting the economics of food prices because if you have less land for food production you're going to have a smaller supply of food. The demand for food is is going to remain high because people got to eat so you in this most likely be reflected in rising food costs beyond capacity. We have to take into consideration the environmental verma impact of growing feedstocks in the first place the actual process of farming and harvesting and then refining the stuff into fuel so farming on its own just requires a lot of water and it also can create a lot of pollutants So while the process of burning the fuel could be cleaner than fossil fuels. Rules are like if you put a gallon of gasoline and a gallon of ethanol and a gallon of biodiesel and you measured all the pollutants. That came out you would say all the gasoline producing more pollutants. Luton's that might be true but you have to take into consideration all the other contributing factors and you have to consider these factors as they grow to scale as well. It's possible all that at a smaller scale. The environmental impact isn't really that severe bio-fuels come out as a clear superior choice over fossil fuels but then as you start to scale scale up in order to meet all the energy needs of country. It's possible for that to actually change now for one thing. Farming Equipment still largely runs on fossil. soules so you still have to burn fossil fuels to create the alternatives to those fossil fuels. which seems like that's a problem? The means that maybe you need to start developing holding you know farming equipment the runs on biofuel to help alleviate that but then you also stuff like fertilizer. You need fertilizer to help. Grow things. Like corn and fertilizer requires fossil fuels and its manufacturing process. Then there's the transportation of all this stuff like the trucks that are taking it to and from places whether it's raw feed stocks or refined fuel. All of this is part of the infrastructure. I was talking about earlier. Now that's one of the big reasons that scientists are working to improve the efficiency of cellulosic. Ethanol so you like ethanol comes from those more woody parts of a plant and it's more challenging to get a big yield from that type of feedstock doc but on the other hand it's way easier to grow that stuff and it requires less of an investment in resources and it also produces fewer pollutants right. Because if you don't don't have to use as much heavy equipment to farm the stuff then you're not burning as many fossil fuels so you can also use low quality land to grow cellulosic. Hello Sick feedstocks. Stuff like switch grass for example that allows you to reserve the higher quality land for food production farming. So you don't have that conflict between do you grow food here or do grow fuel here. But unless he can get the conversion rate high enough that is the rate of fuel you get from the amount of biomass uh-huh mass you're growing and processing then you're fighting a losing battle because if it if it costs less and requires less work to use. Something like corn or sugarcane than it may not make sense to switch over to cellulosic feedstock. Right you have to look at all the different pros and cons now. That being said had a lot of work is going into improving the conversion rates for the stuff and if it works out it could be a huge game changer. In fact it will be a big game changer if it works out because the amount of work would be low compared to stuff like corn. And you'd be looking at a big energy gain meaning that the energy represented by the fuel would be sufficiently higher within the amount of energy that was spent creating the fuel in the first place. Like if it takes you X. amount of energy to produce the fuel and the fuel represents X. X. Plus One. You could argue well. That wasn't really enough of a gain. it was negligible and therefore we barely broke. Even we just is barely got ahead. You want you want to have a sufficient gain of energy based on how much you put in now when we come back we'll go onto a few more considerations that we have to take into account when we talk about bio fuels but first let's take a quick break today. I I want to talk to you about Caserta by Lutron. Smart Lighting Control brought to you by Lutron pioneers in Smart Home Technology. A lot of people think you need smart. Bulbs is to get smart lighting. But there is a smarter way CASSANDRA's smart dimmer and switches. Replace the switch in your wall making all of the lights. That's which controls act smart thing about all the places in your home where a switch controls more than one bulb ceiling lights chandeliers bathroom vanities things like that save money by replacing the switches instead replacing all of those bulbs. Smart Bulbs are only smart while the switch on the wall wall is on if someone kids or visitors anybody switches off. 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All you have to do is visit apple dot co Slash Code with Apple to reserve your spot. That's apple dot co slash code with Apple. So I've covered some of the big concerns that we have to keep in mind with biofuels have a couple more dimension but I thought it'd be interesting to talk about the actual methods used to create more advanced biofuels from biomass you know beyond just fermentation what are the processes we're talking about. Why is there this block between The harvesting harvesting a bio fuels and the processing it so generally speaking the first challenge is breaking down the cellular walls in plant cells which contain stuff like cellulose and Lignin and this materials tough and it represents sort of an energy barrier right. You WanNa get at the sugars that are inside these plants. In order order to ferment them for example for for the purposes of ethanol you WanNa ferment though sugars and then produce ethanol but you have to get to the sugar. I and you've got these tough barriers in your way. You have to break those down there a couple of different ways of doing that. There are two broad approaches to breaking down the material high temperature deconstruction and low temperature deconstruction. So let's hope that low temperature. I actually typically in this approach. You would mix this bio-mass ass with some chemicals or some biological enzymes and their job is to break down this Cellular material so that you break down those barriers. The cellulose Lignin that kind of stuff so that you can actually get to the sugars It creates a new kind kind of material that is typically called an intermediate because it is in between the raw feedstock and the processed fuel. It's kind of a stage in the middle so the chemicals are enzymes. Break down the exposed sugar polymers into simple sugar building blocks and that can then go into a further fermentation process to produce ethanol. Then you have the high temperature deconstruction method which actually has a few different ways of of working all depends is on your specific approach so one of those approaches is called pyrolysis in which you put the biomass into an Oxygen Free Chamber and you heat that chamber very quickly to a very high temperature between five hundred and seven hundred degrees Celsius now remember earlier. I mentioned if you WanNa have a fire you need three elements have fuel you have to have heat and you had to have an oxidizer on this case you only have two of those three you got fuel and you have heat heat. But you don't have an oxidizer. Now that means the material heats up but doesn't burn it goes through pyrolysis. This process means that the cell walls was actually do break down. And then you can take the material after you've gone through this process and put it through fermentation to create sin gas. You could take the biomass and heated in the presence of a small amount of oxygen and you would increase the temperatures beyond us for pyrolysis. You're going in excess of seven hundred degrees he's Celsius. This creates a gas. That's mainly a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen and can be used as sort of a synthetic natural gas then If you wanted to make biodiesel from algae you could use a different high temperature method called hydrothermal liquefaction. Which I'm pretty sure the SPA right down? The road offers as a luxury treatment. But maybe they just don't understand what words mean anyway. One actually means is that you would be using the biomass with a little bit of water and you but inside a pressurized chamber and he'd that pressurized chamber up between two hundred to three hundred fifty degrees Celsius and that would rapidly turn the biomass into a sort of synthetic phthalic crude oil. You have a bio oil now typically after deconstruction you have to take this intermediary material all and then put it through another process or maybe a two processes in order to get actual usable. biofuel this is where we start running into you not just energy barriers but cost barriers and also potential environmental impact all of these processes require energy. They all have byproducts. This is why all you have to look at these systems as a whole as opposed to narrowing your focus down on just the simple burning fuel because if you do that you might be ignoring other the challenges that have real world impact and you could be in a position where you're no better off than where you started from or you might be better off in some ways but worse I often others. That's why we have to take this sort of big picture approach. I find the whole process actually pretty fascinating for creating biofuels. Now if you other factors that play into the debate around biofuels are that as farmers clear land to produce the feedstocks. you start seeing a decrease in biodiversity particularly regularly in places like the United States where you know they're clearing up enormous amounts of land in order to grow corn coming down. Biodiversity is pretty bad for ecosystems. Just generally speaking. You WanNa have a lot of biodiversity and you don't want to decrease it if you can There's also the danger of cutting down rich echo diverse diverse environments like the rainforest. You can see that. In parts of South America where there are areas of ancient rainforests is getting cleared away in order to create like an oil palm production facility. That's not great either Then again if we are able to use stuff like algae for biodiesel and more grasses like switch grass or ethanol production weed reduce the need to clear forests and reduced by diversity. We could use land again. That isn't quite as rich in order to grow the stuff but the breakthroughs have to come first and they have to be economically viable which can be helps significantly through stuff like government subsidies so brings a political element into this as well. In addition engineers and scientists are working on ways to capture capture carbon dioxide from things like power plants now the captured. Co Two could then be stored in some long term storage technique nyc pumping pumping it into geological formations deep under the earth or in sediments under the ocean floor essentially locking the carbon dioxide away inside the earth earth. kind of like how was locked away before we started digging up all those fossil fuels to begin with we essentially be returning the carbon to underneath the surface of the planet and and if we use biofuels to do all this like instead of fossil fuels we're just using biofuels to run our power plants and the equipment. We use to generate electricity. We could begin to see an overall reduction of co two in the atmosphere right because the feet stock would pull co two. The atmosphere as they were growing They would essentially essentially be capturing and locking away carbon dioxide and then you could further capture. Co Two as it was being produced. When you're burning it at the power plant then you could pump it down beneath the earth and lock it away and see an overall reduction? In greenhouse gases in the atmosphere you would actually be removing co two who reversing that trend. No that's a pretty darn good gold stripe for considering. The current trajectory were on with regard to climate change and greenhouse gas submissions. But it requires a whole lot of stuff to fall into place properly and a lot of work done on our behalf In order for this to all will actually work out. It's not a technological problem so much as a person problem like as social problem political problem. There's a lot of complicated hid messy stuff beyond the technology now. There are plenty of people who argue we should not be focusing on biofuels anyway. That really. That's almost a lateral. Move off off of fossil fuels when you take the big picture into account. I would argue that. Fossil fuels overall are more environmentally harmful than biofuels. But I also admit bio-fuels feels themselves are not perfect. They have a lot of of Contributing factors toward environmental damage as well so there are people who say we don't need to be thinking about any of this at all. Instead of timeout feedstocks. We should be relying on stuff like wind power solar power thermal hydropower. That kind of stuff. Many of those solutions would require that we use some sort of energy storage technology essentially batteries. We would have to have batteries because we wouldn't always have access to the stuff that was generating the electricity and that's one of the big drawbacks for those technologies. Because right now we're essentially produce electricity when we need it so when the demand is there we have power the plants that produce the electricity and it gets distributed throughout the power grid and the power plant goes into heavier production at times of higher demand and it can slack off a little bit when undermanned is lower and many of the green energy solutions produce electricity according to some external force so for example solar panels obviously produce `electricity when they're exposed to sunlight when it's night they're not producing electricity but people still need electricity at night. So you have to have a storage system. You have to have batteries batteries to store the electricity that you can use later on and you'd have to make sure that you can produce enough electricity during the day to meet. Everyone's needs plus produce excess electricity. That could charge up batteries. So that you would have a resupply whenever it's dark or overcast also with these green green energy solutions. They obviously won't work equally well everywhere in the world right if you live near the equator and you typically are in an area that gets a lot of sun exposure solar panels make Ton of sense but if you're closer to the Poles and you don't get as many hours of sunlight during parts of the year or maybe you get more overcast days than sunny days as on average solar power might not be a great solution. And if you don't live near a river hydropower becomes less viable and so forth right. If you aren't in an area area that regularly gets steady winds wind power is an issue. All these drawbacks. There are other alternatives such as nuclear power but nuclear your plants that rely on vision have their own set of problems. Both practical and political they produce nuclear waste. Some of it is extremely dangerous and needs to be disposed of secure location Asian far from many people and kept sequestered from everybody else for thousands of years but as you can imagine not many folks are eager to have such a disposal facility located nearby so even if nearby is still one hundred miles away most people are like I n rather that goes somewhere else. So that's become a big issue. Nuclear plants ants are way more efficient especially more efficient than they used to be They do not produce greenhouse gases the way coal fired plants or natural gas plants. Do but they're still as there's still this big issue right there still this perception problem of them being unsafe. And there's a practical problem with a nuclear waste like even the safest how nuclear power plant is still going to be generating waste that you have to deal with That is something you just can't get around now. If we ever get around onto making nuclear fusion work as an economically viable means of generating electricity. We'd be all set for a good long while. Nuclear Fusion does not produce nuclear waste the same way. Nuclear Fission does It's the same nuclear process that we see in stars right. The Sun son is a nuclear fusion. Power Plant essentially if we could replicate that and we could harness that sort of energy economically. We'd be able to produce all the electricity. We would need for a really good long while we'd likely see a huge change like we'd see a migration to more electric vehicles for example example because the energy source would be plentiful compared to more traditional fuels. But the big problem we face right now is that nuclear fusion requires an awful awful lot of energy to start. It requires a lot of energy just to get a fusion. Reaction going in the first place sustaining a reaction or being able to do multiple reactions to generate electricity on a regular basis. Remains a really big challenge so while we have had a few research fusion plants create reaction actions that produced enormous amounts of energy. We haven't quite cracked the problem of making it something practical that we can repeat without costing as much or more energy to start as we get out of it so if you're having to pour more energy and then you're getting out that's a losing proposition. Right you're the net net energy loss if you're getting more out than you put in but it's incredibly expensive. That's a different challenge but still a challenge so we have a lot of hard decisions to make right. We need to select one or more strategies for meeting our energy needs and we need to move away from fossil fuels that seems to be pretty darn clear for multiple reasons and we need to acknowledge that these challenges each alternative has that they exist. We have to acknowledge that we need to consider how to overcome or mitigate those challenges in order to make the best choice for us and we have to commit toward the action of moving away from fossil sle fuels instead of doing the sort of wishy. Washy well this area this. This one's maybe not as good because of XYZ and this one maybe not as good because of ABC. Eventually we have to say here. Let's make a plan. Let's identify and prioritize our approach. Let's diversify it. That's not not put all of our eggs in one basket and let's actually do this. We have to do that at some point. The question is when do we do it now. I don't bring up. All the challenges are drawbacks in an effort to persuade anyone for pursuing alternatives to fossil fuels. I do it so we can move forward with our eyes on a solution and not just rhetoric That is the biggest challenge I see. Is that we. Because we're looking for the perfect solution. Were not moving moving at all and at least not as fast as we need to Particularly the United States but other parts of the world also fall into that category. So that wraps up this discussion of biofuels like I said it is complicated. It's something that If you think about all the INS and outs you realize okay. I can see Y. There's been a debate on the subject. you can also see where there are potential arguments to be made by interested parties. Let's say that you're You know a representative senator of the oil industry well. You can see plenty of opportunities to object to alternatives by pointing out their shortcomings and you don't even have to address the problems of your own industry right. You just hammer home that these alternatives have their own drawbacks back and that can be enough to halt progress We have seen that as well. I don't think it's so much a conspiracy as it's just people trying to protect their own interests interests and not being terribly obtuse about bad it seems pretty transparent to me but we still have to get past that. Somehow it's imperative really. I want to see a world Where my nieces when they're adults aren't struggling in in an increasingly hostile environment due to environmental and fuel related problems? That's the world I want to see and The only the real way of making sure we get there is to find this alternative to fossil fuels all right. Well that wraps up this discussion I hope you guys got something out of it and if you you have suggestions for future episodes feel free to reach out to me. The email address is tech stuff. At how stuff works DOT COM or to get in touch on facebook or twitter. The handle it both of those as tech stuff. H W you can pop on over to our website. That's tech stuff. PODCAST DOT COM. You'RE GONNA find an archive of every single episode. We've ever recorded their go. Check that out and also you'll see a link to our online store. If you go to the link you will be able to see all sorts of merchandise has tech stuff logos and other other other shows stuff on there and every purchase you make goes to help the show. We greatly appreciate it and I'll talk to you again really soon. The tech stuff is a production of iheartradio's how stuff works for more podcasts. From iheartradio visit the iheartradio APP apple podcasts. Or wherever you listen to your favorite shows move at. IBM problems inspire us to a push. The world forward. That's why so many people work with us on everything from city. Traffic to ocean. Plastic smart loves problems IBM. Let's put smart to work visit I._B._M.. Dot Com slash smart to learn more.

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