More Pieces in the Distributed Biofuel Production Puzzle

Here are some additional musings on distributed production of biofuels and economies of scale:

Following on last month's launch of the efuel100 Microfueler, which seems to be a step toward distributed biofuel production, comes word of a couple of high school students who built a "Personal Automated Ethanol Fermenter and Distiller" (via Wired) for the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

In the video, Eric Hodenfield and Devin Bezdicek don't give a great deal of detail about their project, but I think it is fascinating that a couple of high school students decided to build a widget intended to facilitate personal fuel production.  Kudos to those two.  The device, like the Microfueler, is supposed to produce ethanol on a small scale, but both would be useful to produce Butanol instead if the appropriate microbe were handy, as I have written about before.

But why stop there?  What about home production of petroleum?  The TimesOnline this week has a short story about LS9, featuring Greg Pal, who suggests the company has a microbe with the capability to produce petroleum at $50 per barrel using Brazilian sugar as a feedstock.  (See my earlier post LS9 - "The Renewable Petroleum Company" - in the News.)  That number is interesting, because when I met Mr. Pal last fall at a retreat organized by Bio-era, he was more reticent about proposing a target price.  It would seem that the company is making decent progress, with Mr. Pal suggesting to the Times that LS9 hopes to be producing fuel on a commercial scale by 2011.

The Times article goes on to list some rather large sounding figures for the land that might be required to supply the US fuel weekly demand of ~140 million barrels using microbes; "205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago".  Skipping the issue of whether there is enough sugar produced around the world to use as feedstock, the choice of paving Chicago over to crank out a weekly supply of renewable petroleum is a little odd.  Simplifying the calculation makes the whole problem seem quite reasonable.

First, consider that US daily oil consumption is something like 20 million barrels, according to the DOE.  So, if in practice biofuel production is no more efficient than LS9 projects, we will only require a little over 29 square miles of infrastructure or a plot about 5.4 miles on a side.

Spreading that out over all 50 states (ignoring the fact that population is not evenly distributed), we would need only ~.6 square miles per state.  Every city of decent size in this country has industrial parks bigger than that.  No problem there.

Taking the this approximation to the extreme -- say, to the "personal fermenter and distiller" high school science project -- dividing the 29 square milles by the 2008 US population of about 300,000,000 gives a silly figure of 10-7 square miles per person; that's about a foot and a half on a side.  Switching to more rational units, it is ~40 cm on a side.  A family of four (on average) would therefore require roughly a square meter to produce a daily supply of fuel at present consumption levels.  Coincidentally, photos of the efuel100 Microfueler suggest it has a footprint of about a meter square.

Of course, only about two-thirds of total oil consumption goes to transportation, with much of that used by commercial operations, so that family of four would be overproducing even at a meter square (in the present ridiculous units of [production/day/person/area]).  Realistically, larger facilities would probably be employed to produce fuel or "renewable petroleum" for industrial purpposes.

How much the capital costs would be for the square meter of production capacity is up in the air.  The Microfueler lists at ~$10K.  I'll bet the high school students can beat that.