Sir Richard Branson's new green aviation fuel

Sir Richard Branson has disclosed a new project to make jet fuel from the waste gases from steel mills, saying that

"This could turn aviation from a dirty industry to one of the cleanest".

Of course, Sir Richard is always seeking publicity for his airline, Virgin Atlantic, but this very recent blog from him is well worth reading and could prove serious. It clearly does not suffer from the criticisms often made against biofuels which are the result of growing crops, frequently on land which could be used for food production.

The process, devised by a British bio-chemist, sends chimney emissions from steel production through water containing a bacterium found in the gut of rabbits. A chemical reaction then turns the carbon content into ethanol, which can then be collected and refined into jet fuel.

The refinement process is currently done in Sweden by a New Zealand company called Lanza Tech. According to the article, this company has a test facility in New Zealand. More importantly, it is reported to have signed an agreement with the largest Chines steel producer, Baosteel, to build a plant which will produce 30 million gallons per year from 2014 onwards. Not surprisingly, Virgin will be the first customer for the fuel.

The substance in the gut of rabbits which has this effect is called clostridium acetobutylicum, also known as the Weitzmann Organism, after the scientist Chaim Weitmann who, when working at Manchester University, used it as long ago as 1916 to produce acetone, ethanol and butanol from starch.

To me, this is an illustration that when a decision (e.g. to reduce carbon emissions and to avoid an on-going reliance on oil) is made, the human brain of some clever people can produce surprising and outstanding solutions to what seemed insoluble problems. As an example of this, I give a story from an entirely different field of endeavour.

At the start of the last war, the Allies captured a copy of the German ENIGMA cypher machine. After examining it, they concluded that the resulting coded messages from it could not be broken, so they effectively gave up. However, Poland was in deadly peril, being militarily squeezed between Russia and Germany, and their government said that the code just had to be cracked. So their brightest minds did exactly that.

I believe that the same attitude should prevail for the case of nuclear energy from the current nuclear power stations: if we really decide that they must be stopped then people will be sufficiently motivated to find new, innovative ways of generating power without leaving spent nuclear fuels that will stay radioactive for the lifetime of many generations. One such possibility has long been promoted by the CERN Nobel prize physicist, Carlo Rubbia: although it carries the word "nuclear", it does not result in the same radioactive end byproducts. A fascinating presentation of this can be found as this pdf document on the Web



10:39 Posted in Potpourri | Permalink | Comments (0) | Tags: aviation, virgin, ethanol, fet fuel, kerosene, rubbia, cern, nuclear | |  del.icio.us | | Digg! Digg |  Facebook

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