The recession has tempered America’s voracious appetite for energy and $4-a-gallon gasoline is last year’s bad dream. But economics no longer dominate the search for alternatives to fossil fuels, the source of more than 80 percent of the world’s energy.
Government funding for research is up sharply from five years ago, so are concerns about global warming.
Temperatures are rising most everywhere around the globe. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also up, a hallmark of more than two centuries of industrialization.
More carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere today than in the past one million years, according to measurements taken from columns of South Pole ice. Sea levels are rising, because the sea ice at the North Pole is melting. The Arctic ice cap shrunk about 25 percent from 1979 to 2005, satellite photos show.
By the end of the century, carbon dioxide amounts are projected to double. That could raise ocean levels 1½ feet, enough to put most of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and stretches of the state’s coastal areas under water.
“We’re heading into territory the Earth hasn’t seen in millions of years,” said Robert Jackson, director of the Duke University Center of Climate Change. (Photo at left)
It’s a prospect that gives researchers looking for alternative energy sources pause, because climate change is first and foremost thought of as an energy issue.
The notion of exploring the sun, the wind, water, geothermal heat and plants as energy sources takes on new meaning when the purpose of the research shifts from trying to preserve the status quo to trying to ensure survival.
“We may be entering territory that is unexplored,” said Carl Bauer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Jackson and Bauer made their statements during the RTI Fellows Symposium, a two-day event built around scientific challenges in need of attention. The symposium, which attracted about 400 researchers, was held Monday and Tuesday at the University of North Carolina’s Friday Center in Chapel Hill.
Global warming and what role biofuels will play in the energy supply were two of the scientific challenges addressed at the symposium. (More on personalized medicine, another scientific challenge discussed at the symposium, here.)
Alternatives to oil and coal are nothing new. Geothermal heat made hot spring spas possible thousands of years ago. Windmills pumped water into irrigation canals and milled grain for centuries. Ethanol powered some of the first cars more than 100 years ago. Nuclear power plants started sprouting in the U.S. and Europe in the late 1950s.
None of the energy sources are ideal. But fossil fuels have a lot going for them. They pack a big bang for the buck and are fairly easy to store and transport across the globe.
Bauer projected that by 2030 the energy demand will increase by about 11 percent in the U.S. and by about 45 percent worldwide. With fossil fuels providing much of that energy, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions would go up by about 45 percent.
Biofuels are more expensive than gasoline and less energy dense, but they are a good option to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, said David Dayton, director of chemistry and biomass program manager at RTI International in Research Triangle Park.
Dayton was part of a panel of experts at the RTI symposium Tuesday who talked about biofuels. Also on the panel were Bauer, Steven Burke, chief executive of the Biofuels Center of North Carolina, and Rakesh Agrawal, a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Ethanol made from corn produces on average 19 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline. If the feedstock is biomass, such as agricultural residue, forest waste and switch grass, the reduction can exceed 80 percent.
There’s just one problem: Not enough land to supply the entire U.S. transportation sector with ethanol fermented from the cellulose in biomass, said Agrawal.
By 2022, ethanol production is projected at 36 billion gallons, less than a fourth of the amount of fuel the U.S. is projected to need for transportation.
So the U.S. Department of Energy, which pays for much of the research, is no longer focused on fermentation technologies to produce ethanol. Rather, the DoE is shifting to a broader strategy and spreading out funding among technologies, Dayton said.
That’s a good thing. In the case of alternative energy sources, Bauer said, “one size doesn’t fit all.
North Carolina, for example, focuses on biodiesel and ethanol from corn and biomass to meet an ambitious goal: By 2017, 10 percent of liquid fuels sold in the state should be locally grown and produced.
The first corn ethanol plant is scheduled to go online in January in Hoke County, said Burke of the biofuels center.
Fourteen biomass feedstocks have been planted at research sites and private farms statewide and North Carolina’s 18 million acres of forest are expected to contribute wood waste for ethanol production.
The state also has a partnership with RTI to produce ethanol in other ways than fermentation. Outside of that partnership, RTI recently was awarded a federally funded contract to work on a process that turns biomass into a type of bio oil, which can be mixed and refined with petroleum.
The state’s 10 percent goal is a tall order, Burke acknowledged. It will require an increase of biofuels production from 2 million gallons in 2008 to 600 million gallons in 2017.
He’s counting on music to gain support and boost demand for biofuels. The biofuels center signed up 19 artists, who agreed to have their fan Web sites linked to the center’s site. All artists are featured on a CD called “From Bluegrass to Switchgrass.”
Burke called it music “for a state obsessed with fast-driving NASCAR.”