Energy self-sufficiency is not only possible but almost within our grasp. If the cost of energy ceases to plague our economy then the global economy may expect to make positive strides and create jobs without worrying about energy availability and its increasingly volatile cost. This is the concept of eAGE or energy agnostic global economy. eAGE is easy to appreciate if you consider the distributed ability of computing at the hands of any person who owns an iPad or notebook computer versus the first computer called ENIAC, which required 30 separate floor units occupying 1800 square feet and weighed 30 tons. Sources of oil (gasoline) and electricity today are analogous to the grotesque ENIAC if we consider exploration, drilling for oil, refining and transportation to gas stations. Similarly, the electricity producing power plants of the utility behemoths generate 60-80% of the electricity by burning fossil fuels.
These activities continue to add green house gases (GHG) to our atmosphere which may influence the quality of our environment. Steps to reduce or restrict GHG emissions in an uneven global economy fuels acrimony between nations and fractures global goodwill.
Hence, the importance of the computing analogy if we recognize that science and technology in the progress of civilization succeeded in shifting the paradigm of computing from a feeble yet gargantuan ENIAC weighing 30 tons to the high performance iPod weighing only a few grams in the palm of your hand.
Through this article, I urge and advocate a renewal of the spirit that led to the iPod from the ENIAC. A similar shift in necessary to relieve the world from the vagaries associated with fossil fuel sources and the cartels who control our economy and jobs, hence, our ability to invest in education, healthcare and the quality of life.
The paradigm shift in energy is technologically at hand but difficult to inculcate and disseminate because of geo-political issues and the lobbying power of the energy behemoths. The shift is based on the fact that we (scientists) have succeeded in producing butanol (direct replaces gasoline) and glucose from microorganisms using sunlight as the primary energy source. Hence, we are now able to manufacture energy. In contrast, the fossil fuels are products of a drilling industry because oil, gas or coal must be excavated. Nuclear energy depends in part on mining the raw material but the bulk of the industry is manufacturing and distribution.
Therefore, what we have achieved is the ability to use sunlight and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as raw materials through the medium of microbial growth to manufacture liquid fuel, butanol, which is a direct replacement for gasoline. This yield from this manufacturing process is variable but the volume is small.
If small refers to volume, then, in that respect it is a relative term. If your require 10 gallons of gasoline for your transportation every day then you are travelling 50-500 miles per day depending on your vehicle. Are you? Boston to New York is less than 200 miles. On an average people add less than 33 miles per day or about 12,000 miles per year on their car. At 10 miles per gallon that is 1200 gallons of gasoline over 365 days or about 3.3 gallons per day. For an average family or household of four we need 13.2 gallons of gasoline per day if all four individuals travel each day the average distance. Now shift gears and think about butanol as a direct replacement for gasoline. Butanol is not as efficient as gasoline and releases about 90% energy equivalent of gasoline. If the household demand is 13.2 gallons per day of gasoline then the equivalent volume for butanol may approach 15 gallons per day for an average US household.
We have, naturally, used the US (population ~300 million) as the model in the above rationale. What about Europe or the 27 countries that make up the European Union (population ~500 million)? Do you think EU households may travel as much by private transportation and demand 15 gallons of butanol per day, too? The distance between London and Paris (in two separate countries) is just above 200 miles, each way.
It is, therefore, may not be egregious of us to re-visit the issue of “small” with respect to the volume of butanol which may be currently produced by photosynthetic (using sunlight or solar energy) microorganisms. But critics may intervene and point out, justifiably, that we have not, thus far, addressed the electricity demands of the US household to run washing machines, dishwasher, refrigerators, lights, heating and cooling. Estimates reveal that the upper limit of average US household of four use about 150 kWh (kilo Watt-hours) of electricity per day (about five times the global average but only one third if compared to Iceland). Converting the numbers in terms of butanol reveals that we need another 5 gallons of butanol per day per US household.
If combined, an average US household may be energy self-sufficient if the household manufactured only about 20 gallons of butanol per day and converted 25% for electricity while using the rest for their transport. Hence, the question may focus on butanol manufacturing at hand and the relationship of the butanol volume produced in the laboratory (small or micro-scale manufacturing) to the average daily demand of 20 gallons.
With the butanol bio-energy manufacturing technology we have at hand or improvements which are likely in the short-term (1-2 years), we ask what is the small volume which can be manufactured? Is small referring to 2 gallons or 20 gallons per day? If the answer is 20 gallons per day (per unit or per machine) then we have the global energy problem solved! But, let us exercise cautious optimism and assume hypothetical manufacturing volume of only 2 gallons per day. What good can come from 2 gallons of butanol per day? Plenty, really!
To create new markets for business growth one must move beyond US and EU (market of ~800 million) to China and India (market of ~2500 million) including South-East Asia (market of ~840 million). For average households in China, India and Asia (including Pakistan, Bangladesh) the average daily energy consumption may be well below 5 kWh. Therefore, energy from the “small volume” of 2 gallons of butanol per day may be sufficient to provide electricity to 10 households for a market which is approaching 3.5 billion or about half of the world’s 7+ billion population.
This is the real global value of a small volume butanol manufacturing unit or machine fashioned as a domestic appliance, even if we are talking only about a miserly yield of only 2 gallons of butanol per day. Providing renewable energy relief to half of the world’s population may work wonders for economic growth and peace.
The concept is one of distributed energy manufacturing which whittles away the impediments from lack of scalability. By distributing the ability to produce butanol to households, the system operates on micro-scale energy autonomy which when aggregated by function offers macro-scale energy security and global stability. Therefore, in some ways, distributed micro-scale energy autonomy is analogous to distributed computing which was achieved when the functions delivered by the 30 ton ENIAC were also found in an iPod in every pocket weighing only 120 grams.
The scope of the imminent geo-political tsunami from butanol driven micro-scale energy autonomy may send shudders through the OPEC cartel and the global petroleum oligopoly. But, the energy Genie still remains locked out of its ability to change the world.
Critics will point out that the dependence on solar energy for the photosynthesis of butanol makes it less attractive to industrial nations in the Northern Hemisphere (US, EU) where the ability of every household to access sunlight is limited. Fortunately, there is an elegant alternative which leads us to a win-win scenario. It promises to be an economic revitalizer for the tropics and create new lines of commodities business for the energy supply chain. In addition to butanol, the solution is to produce glucose from micro-organisms in countries with high insolation or abundance of solar energy, eg, Africa, Asia, Central America and Middle East.
Several methods are available to produce butanol without the need for sun light as long as the microbes are fed with a source of glucose as the primary energy material. Corn, sugar cane and other food sources as well as biomass (waste) are vegetation-dependent raw material (currently used for production of mainly ethanol). Vegetation-dependence has caused much consternation and ignited the food versus fuel debate as the price of food continues to increase since food sources are used for manufacturing of high value molecules (ethanol).
Biotechnology similar to photo-production of butanol can also produce glucose in bacteria in the presence of sun light. Thus, nations with abundant sun light may manufacture butanol for domestic use and glucose as a cash crop for sale as an energy commodity. Industrial nations or corporations may lease high insolation real estate and set up glucose plants in the Sahara Desert or Bihar (India) or Indonesia. Entrepreneurs in South America may use the Atacama Desert or North Americans can use Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California and parts of Utah as glucose factories. Packaging and transport of solid or semi-solid glucose is an easier and less expensive logistical operation than transfer of liquid fuel. Stockpiles of glucose with its long shelf-life offers much needed energy security and may end the need for oil wars.
The conundrum, therefore, as to why such an important and transformational change in the future of the global energy economy still remains cryptic may be better understood (?) by scratching the surface of venture funding in US.
To understand this quagmire, albeit in part, it is important to recall that this proposal presents the need for a machine or domestic appliance which will produce the butanol because the butanol must be produced “in” something. A mechanical “product” which will produce liquid butanol may be analogous to a bread machine. For the discussion at hand the micro-organisms require sunlight to synthesize the butanol and secrete it in the growth medium from which butanol must be separated and extracted. This process must happen in an unit we refer to as the “product” which will be sold for domestic manufacture of butanol, in every house. It is this machine or product which may be limited in its liquid fuel production volume, at this time. We have chosen the hypothetical volume of production from this machine to be 2 gallons of butanol per day.
US investors, keen on maximizing return on investment, may demand a “bigger” machine to scale the production to improve margins and profit. The fact is biological processes are not always easy to scale because the chemical reactions that constitute the biological processes are influenced by an array of factors which may be difficult to optimize with increasing volume. The production cost of a domestic appliance capable of manufacturing 2 gallons of butanol per day may pose problems but none may be insurmountable if the purpose is aimed to distribute micro-scale energy autonomy. Investors may find the latter oxymoronic. In this approach the small volume production is viewed as a mechanism to provide the world with access to global public goods. This approach may be an anathema to investors who are strictly motivated by equity.
Investors are also agonizing over cost of scalability (per kilo Watt hour). The progress of technology leads to price reduction. Reviewing the history of random access memory (RAM) one finds that 1MB RAM in 1957 cost US$411 million. In 2010 it declined to 1 cent per 1MB RAM. Similarly, the first VCR manufactured, by AMPEX in 1956, cost $50,000.00 each. VCR production ceased in 2006 due to decline in price and profit from sales.
The convergence of ideas, tools and technologies necessary to create this “product” which will manufacture butanol or glucose in every household will advance and may become simpler but it is not simple. Nothing of value is ever simple. Biological processes may not scale in a linear manner. For example, if you add two oranges to a juice machine you can expect a certain volume of orange juice. Let us assume you can obtain one cup of juice from two oranges. If you may add 20 oranges to the machine you can expect 10 cups of orange juice. The same linear relationship may not hold in the attempt to increase butanol photo-production in bio-reactors from 2 to 20 to 200 gallons per unit per day.
Photo biosynthesis suffers from other drawbacks which include the availability of average hours of direct normal irradiance (DNI). Of course, indirect sun light, diffuse, reflected and refracted light as well as high-angle-of-incidence solar irradiation may still be useful but not all of the energy spectrum in the sun light can be used. In plants, the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll works best in the blue (430 nm) and red part of the spectrum (680 nm). Hence, the quality of sun light may be an issue. Because the growth of the microbes require energy from the sun light, it follows that increasing the volume of medium may be counter-productive in the same manner that penetration of sun light decreases with increasing depth in the sea or ocean. Yet, the optimizations necessary are quite within our reach because commercial photo bio-reactors are widely in use.
In the end game, the cost of this unit or domestic appliance will determine its adoption. In my opinion, the demand for this appliance may break records if a small volume unit producing 2 gallons of butanol per day may cost US$500 or less. Let us use the numbers from India and China where retail gas prices are US$5 and US$4 per gallon, respectively. Let us assume that this is also applicable to SE Asia, in general. In this scenario, the use of one US$500 domestic butanol unit may still serve the domestic electricity demand for 10 households. Investing US$50 per household is equivalent to buying 10 gallons of gas in India which may be equivalent to domestic electricity for 50 days assuming 0.2 gallons per day per household. Even if the product has a life cycle of only one year, the investment to buy a new unit every 12 months may be well worth it because the return on investment may take less than 2 months.
Therefore, in the market of 3.5 billion, assuming an average of four per household, there may be 875 million households. We know that more people per household may be the norm and hence modify the number of households to 500 million. Using this conservative rationale, the demand for this product in Asia alone may exceed 50 million units assuming one unit for every 10 households. Factor in increasing demand, growth of other electricity consuming appliances and electric vehicles. In a decade, every household may need their own unit. Hence, the small volume 2 gallon per day micro-scale butanol unit is a renewable energy manufacturing business with a market for 500 million units, in Asia alone. Now think about new job creation and the business services (maintenance of microbial replenishment) which will continue to generate micro-revenue for the entire lifecycle of the product.
In the US and EU the scope of the US$500 unit producing 2 gallons of butanol per day may be viewed as a US$5,000 monstrosity (plus maintenance services at US$1 per unit per day) because the combined array of 10 micro-scale units may produce the daily demand for 20 gallons of butanol. Return on US$5,000 investment at an average gas price of US $4 per gallon is 85 days or 170 days if gas is $2 per gallon. ROI in the UK may be under one month or just above a month in EU. In general, gas prices in EU are twice or thrice that of the US (price per gallon of gasoline is US$8.75 in France and US$11.50 in UK as of 04/30/2011). Households in US and EU may purchase 2 billion micro-scale units if each array contains 10 units (for 200 million households).
If 10% of the projected market materializes, the product sales will be a staggering 250 million units, which is five times the global annual production of car. But, no matter how lucrative the proposition may be it is true that equity investors find it difficult to brew enthusiasm about open source products. It is also true that the advantages of the small volume butanol manufacturing system may be rendered obsolete if advances from other walks of science can deliver energy in a manner that is simpler, cheaper, faster or if the intellectual property (IP) rights for another energy product is already securely under the legal control of investors.
No matter how optimistic one may sound, there is nothing absolute about any particular approach or solution. Most have caveats, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Renewable micro-scale butanol manufacturing is promising and may lift many boats but it is not a panacea. It may well serve domestic users in emerging economies and developing world. It will remove the threat of environmental embargo on nations that are aggressive in their development and must have the freedom to build infrastructure. It may also help small and medium businesses to escape carbon taxation and gain carbon credits. But large offices, industries, organizations, government operations and emergency services may still require conventional energy from the electricity grid. Hence, renewable butanol is certainly not a replacement but a parallel liquid fuel from non-fossil sources which does not add to the global GHG emissions due to its carbon neutrality. If users produce more energy than they can consume, it may lead to an energy cottage industry where users sell or auction their excess capacity to the electricity grid if the smart grid is enabled for bi-directional flow of electricity and dynamic pricing incentives are offered by grid operators to buy electricity from households.
In conclusion, butanol, which can replace gasoline, can be produced by micro-organisms but suffer from low yield in photo bio-reactors which uses sun light as the primary source of energy. Hence, the debate rages on whether the method is scalable for mass production. The suggestion here is to transform this handicap into a key advantage. Small scale or micro-scale energy production serves the distributed concept of energy self-sufficiency. If every household or unit product produced some energy or enough, then, scalability may not be an impediment. Excess energy may be sold or auctioned by individuals (cooperatives) to the smart grid. Bio-energy tools at hand offers an immense opportunity to grow an energy cottage industry. It may liberate the economies of the developing world and improve the lives of 80% of the global population whose ability to earn even a basic living is eviscerated by and is at the mercy of fuel prices. Butanol does not deplete food sources because Butanol manufacturing uses renewable sources. Hence, it is carbon neutral and does not add to green house gas (GHG) emissions which helps to improve the quality of the global environment.
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