Electrofuels: Better Than Biofuels?

This post is presented by SBE, the Society for Biological Engineering--a global organization of leading engineers and scientists dedicated to advancing the integration of biology with engineering.

My name is Derek Lapiska and I recently completed my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware. This July, I joined the Society of Biological Engineering (SBE) as the New Technology Associate. So what exactly does one do as New Technology Associate? Promote new technology, of course! The field of engineering is bursting with new ideas and innovation in both industry and academia. Upon starting with SBE, I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of topics I was being faced with. Biofuels, tissue engineering, pharmaceuticals, metabolic engineering... I was instantly entrusted with sending emails to conference chairs regarding the program content. My first task was to begin promotion of a new conference on Electrofuels.

Well, this is a bit of a problem... I had never heard of electrofuels. Quickly, I turned to my ever so helpful and trustworthy college friend, Wikipedia. No luck. There wasn't even a page for electrofuels. This had to be seriously NEW technology. So I began gathering my own information on electrofuels. I began by looking up the conference chair organizers Eric Toone and --Greg Stephanopolis. This led me to the Advanced Research Projects Agency and then to their project page on electrofuels. Finally, I was getting somewhere. I started reading some of the project descriptions and quickly realized that electrofuels were not actually electric fuels like batteries. Basically, the term electrofuels connotes a category of highly efficient biofuel production schemes whereby algae and other microorganisms utilize solar-derived electricity, hydrogen, or metal ions to convert carbon dioxide to fuels. No petroleum or biomass needed. Wow, these electrofuels are pretty incredible. The saying "you don't get something for nothing" might be proved wrong. In April 2010, the Department of Energy awarded 44.5 million dollars in research grants to universities and companies for the pursuit of electrofuels projects.

Check out some of the projects above. Clearly the DOE understands the necessity of alternative forms of energy, but the word is still not out. But why is that? Electrofuels are so great, think of all the money I would save! To ever see electrofuels at the pump, research must continue to develop and demonstrate the ability to produce cheap fuels on an industrial scale. This will require the support from engineers in the promotion of this new promising fuel source. This brings us back to the issue at hand. Now, it's our issue. As an engineering community, we must do our best to make this new technology accessible. I will be attempting to do just that in my articles, but I require your assistance as I do. I welcome your comments and criticisms!

Do you think it's a good idea to switch our focus away from traditional biofuels?


DerekLapiska's picture

I agree that scaling is definitely an issue. Sometimes those issues are resolved through additional research efforts. I suppose my question ultimately asks if we should consider pursuing electrofuels projects with the same time and money as with biofuels. Maybe traditional biofuels have had their shot and we have learned that there are a great deal of issues associate with scaling up pilot plants using biomass as a feedstock. Not much attention has been given to electrofuels, but with a greater number of grants awarded to projects in the area, it is likely that it will prove itself as a promising fuel source without the complications associate with traditional biomass production schemes. I wonder if it’s time to shift our efforts more radically if we ever expect to see these fuels at the pump.

Robert S's picture

This sounds like a fantastic opportunity. Sounds quite promising and I am definitely interested in hearing more about this technology. But if the question is to focus on this at the cost of other developing technologies, I would say no. A lot of things sound promising (so new it doesn't even have a wiki page? I didn't think that could happen) at this stage. Let's do the research and look at the results before declaring a winner. Looking forward to hearing more.

Luong's picture

Sorry to burst anyone's bubble here but fact is, all this "green energy" is nothing more than a big flop! Solar, wind, wave energy and all their cousins have failed to provide the need for America's energy consumption.

dbcnyc's picture

If you expected green energy to replace coal, oil, and gas overnight then I guess you have reason to be disappointed. Personally, I think it should be interesting to see what the next decade brings. In the meantime, we will, of course, continue to rely heavily on traditional sources of energy, but one day I expect that to change. What option do we have with a finite supply of fossil fuels?