Over at GCC, there's news of gasified biomass to ethanol getting some attention. 114 gallons per ton isn't too bad, roughly 9.4 GJ/ton LHV; if bone-dry biomass has 16 GJ/ton, that's close to 60% conversion efficiency.
The only problem I can see with this is that it's aimed at the same old dead-end consumption technology: the internal combustion engine. The claimed 1.3 billion tons/year of available biomass (at the same 16 GJ/ton) contains 2.1e19 J or ~20 quadrillion BTU of energy. Turn that into ethanol at even 60% efficiency, and you cut that to 12 quads. Compare to roughly 18 quads of gasoline we use each year!
The USA is currently using about 40 quads of oil per year, plus maybe 25 quads of coal. But we only take about 6.8 quads of electricity from coal, and the 45% of petroleum which becomes gasoline supplies us with a mere 2.6 quads of work at the wheels. That totals 9.4 quads, or a bit over half the energy in that biomass. If we could turn biomass into work as efficiently as we can turn it into ethanol, we'd be there already.
Why do we get so little from so much? Briefly, it's because we haven't yet moved beyond the Otto-cycle engine and simple steam turbine. This leads to two conclusions:
Somehow we have to convince people that they have to charge with electricity instead of pumping a fluid (or, heaven forbid, fill something with carbon granules!), or the future is going to be a lot worse than the past.
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