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The process was inspired by an explosives making method

What can't palladium do?  Named after the mythological statue erected by Greek goddess Athena in honor of Pallas, the daughter of her cousin whom she slew in a friendly fight, the platinum group metal (PGM) is used in everything from catalytic converters to explosives making.

I. From Explosives to Biofuel

Researchers at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (referred to as LBNL or Berkeley Lab) -- located on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley -- have devised a way to use palladium to catalyze the production of gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel from fermented biomass.

Traditionally biomass, fermented by genetically engineered bacterium, produces a slurry of low-carbon byproducts -- acetone and the alcohols butanol and ethanol (known collectively as ABE).

The LBNL researchers were inspired to use palladium as a means of producing higher-carbon byproducts based on a similar technique used to produce cordite, a type of smokeless explosive.  While largely made obsolete by newer formulations in the improved military rifle (IMR) nitrocellulose smokeless powders, cordite played a key role in military history, being used heavily by the British in World War II.

Palladium bar
The new work is one more example of the value of multi-functional palladium.
[Image Source: Unknown]

Co-author Harvey Blanch describes the pickup of this throwback catalysis process, remarking, "In some ways, this work is a step back in time in which a very old fermentation process is being used with some new engineering and chemistry.  While there has been some progress in engineering microbes to produce advanced biofuels, the quantities produced thus far – technically, the solution’s titer – tend to be very limited. A hybrid method, combining microbial production with chemical catalysis, might provide a pathway to more efficient production of these advanced biofuels."

Biomass bacteria
The process begins by bacterial fermentation. [Image Source: Toste Group]

From a layman's perspective, the bacteria takes biomass -- say yard waste -- and "digests" it to produce a byproduct that is three parts acetone, six parts n-butanol, and one part ethanol.  The acetone is the key to move to longer chains, as it can be used to "tack" on carbons onto the short-chain alcohols, building long carbon chains that mirror those found in traditional fossil fuel-derived gasoline.

The acetone's nucleophilic alpha-carbon undergoes alkylation reactions to produce longer chain carbons.  But the process is slow and energetically unfavorable, so a catalyst is needed to lower the energy barrier.

Many catalysts were tested, but the LBNL team found one worked much better than the rest -- palladium.  Researchers say the process, which they tested in small vats, is amenable to commercial production.

II. Challenges Remain

One limiting factor will be the cost of palladium.  While fuel is valuable as anyone who drives a car recognizes, palladium is an even more expensive resource.  It sells for approximately $20,500 USD per kilogram [source].  Therein lies one problem; the longer the ABE spends on the palladium, the more long-chain byproducts are produced.  So if you had more palladium and more vats, you could spread the ABE out for more palladium TLC.  But the high costs are somewhat limiting to that approach.  That said, process engineers could optimize the process to maximize yields and minimize cost.

Still, the process is much better than other ABE techniques, such as hydrogenation from a yields perspective.  States Professor Blanch, "Integrating chemistry and fermentation is a useful way to capitalize on the best of both worlds. The chemistry described in our Nature paper is exciting because new carbon-carbon bonds are being formed between molecules and oxygen is being rejected without the need of hydrogenation. This results in very high yields."

The researchers have published their work in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature.  The paper's co-authors include Professor Blanch, plus Pazhamalai AnbarasanZachary BaerSanil SreekumarElad GrossJoseph BinderDouglas Clark, and corresponding author Dean Toste..

The research was funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute.

lawn waste
Coming up with a viable biomass supply change is a key challenge.
[Image Source: DeCamp Trucking]

Looking ahead, while the researchers exhaustively tested a series of PGM catalysts, they are hopefully that they may discover even better novel catalysts.  Comments Professor Toste, who splits his time between UC Berkley and LBNL, "While palladium on carbon was the best catalyst in these tests, we have already identified other transition metal catalysts that could be even better."

Tough challenges for a biomass-based fuel economy remain -- including how to funnel/transport common biomass sources (yard waste, forestry byproducts, farm waste, etc.) into a steady supply chain to fuel production facilities.  But work like this gives biomass fermentation a leg up over other struggling biofuel offerings like the highly unattractive corn ethanol.

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By FITCamaro on 11/9/2012 1:17:54 PM , Rating: 1
Just refine the strains of algae that can produce diesel fuel more and switch to all diesels in the US. Grow your fuel. Just need water. How do you get plenty of that? desalinization plants powered by nuclear reactors.

What do you get out of all of this? JOBS!

But the libs would never go for it since its not electric.

RE: Or...
By yomamafor1 on 11/9/12, Rating: -1
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By geddarkstorm on 11/9/2012 2:05:34 PM , Rating: 5
1) Wrong. The algae get the carbon for the diesel from the CO2 already in the air. This is why biofuels are viewed as CO2 neutral.

2) Fear mongering. Diesel is a lot cleaner now, and is already used around the world, so I don't know what carcinogens you are referring to specifically. That's what catalytic converters are for.

If you get your electricity from the grid for your EV car, most of that comes from burning coal which is usually much dirtier than diesel toxicity wise.

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 2:39:28 PM , Rating: 3
Diesels are cleaner than they used to be, but still not as good as gas.
Passat TDI: Bin 5 emissions
Passat 2.5L: Bin 2 emissions

The World Health Organization recently classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic due to recent evidence:
I'm not going to say that this is enough to outlaw diesel or anything like that, as there needs to be a much more thorough review of how these findings apply to everyday life, but it isn't empty fear mongering.

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By Spuke on 11/9/2012 2:48:23 PM , Rating: 3
The link does not specify the source of the diesel exhaust. is this diesel exhaust from a commercial generator or a VW Golf TDI? It doesn't say.

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 3:00:28 PM , Rating: 2
That's why I said there needs to be more work regarding the study's applicability to everyday life. I just gave the link to show that the carcinogen claim isn't completely empty like a lot of health nut nonsense.

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By Spuke on 11/9/2012 5:43:00 PM , Rating: 2
Gotcha. Thanks.

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By Samus on 11/10/2012 1:50:13 AM , Rating: 1
Wait, you mean exhaust is carcinogenic!? Damn I gotta stop hitting that tailpipe, I thought the high was safe...

Listen, all exhaust is highly carcinogenic. Sure its a myth the black smoke (mostly sulfur) from diesel isn't as unhealthy as it looks, but all car exhaust is unhealthy, and anywhere there is traffic, there will be a lot of pollution.

The solution is more hybrid's, EV's, and bicycles/light vehicles. Yes, much of the electricity comes from coal, but the coal power plants aren't in urban areas where the exhaust will affect the mass population health.

Coal burning, sulfur/carbon monoxide exhaust, etc etc, all linked to cancer. There is no reasonable arguement that these carcinogens don't cause lung cancer and adversely affect the populations health.

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By BZDTemp on 11/10/2012 11:13:44 AM , Rating: 2
The issue with Diesel fumes is the particles and especially the size of those particles. There is a reason Diesel cars are having to use particle filters in more and more countries - the world is waking up to seeing how the particles is an issue.

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By liem107 on 11/11/2012 9:04:41 AM , Rating: 2
That is true for all modern diesel engines that are based on high compression ratio
But there is a new approach initiated by Mazda with its skyactiv D endgine eliminates the need of a catalyst AND micropaticle filter altogether. This is also very fuel efficient. Just have a look on youtube for easy explanation on the skyactive d engine.

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 2:46:55 PM , Rating: 2
Oh, and regarding coal, you can't just look at overall production averages. You have to evaluate on the margin.

EVs are overwhelmingly charged at night, when electricity demand is low. Natural gas peaker plants are already built to handle the daytime peak, but they sit idle at night. EV adoption will simply result in them running at night. Only natural gas consumption will go up. Incidentally, this will also reduce the per-kWh price for that peaker, as it ends up running at higher capacity factor. That will eventually get passed onto all consumers.

So no, EVs won't result in any new coal construction. They fit very well into our existing infrastructure.

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By Spuke on 11/9/2012 2:53:50 PM , Rating: 2
How is more usage at night result in lower prices but during the day it's the exact opposite? That makes NO sense at all but I'm all ears.

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 3:11:26 PM , Rating: 2
Peaker plants get more per kWh generated than baseline plants precisely because they idle at night, wasting electricity generating capital. They place a high bid for electricity (say 10c/kWh), and when the city needs more electricity, they win the bid and produce, but otherwise they idle. They are in competition with others, so they can't make an arbitrarily large bid, but it needs to be profitable enough to make up for the O&M and construction costs.

When plants get called upon at night due to EVs, they now get more revenue with minimal extra cost (~3c/kWh for the natural gas). Through competition, they are then more willing to lower prices on their bids during the day.

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By JediJeb on 11/9/2012 3:43:56 PM , Rating: 2
In my area all the power plants are coal based, so even at night it would be coal producing the electricity.

In the end nuclear would be the only carbon neutral high output power plants that could be built anywhere in the country that a normal coal or natural gas plant could be built.

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 4:33:29 PM , Rating: 3
That's highly unlikely. I bet your area gets power from neighboring regions to fulfill the daytime peak.

Coal plants don't do daily ramping up and down. It causes too much wear from thermal cycling. Nuclear plants also have such low fuel costs that it just isn't worth it to ramp up and down. These are used for baseload power, and are built under the assumption that they will running at a high capacity factor and getting revenue around the clock to amortize the construction costs. Even the more expensive, highly efficient CCGT plants are built primarily for baseload power.

For the daytime peak, though, it's better to build a cheap gas turbines are built to ramp up and down. If there's enough capacity to satisfy nightime demand in your area, nobody will build another coal plant if they can only get daytime revenue yet have to keep burning coal at night. Instead, your area will import electricity from others during the day.

I'm pro-nuclear, BTW. I'm just telling you what the market is like. We have a lot of natural gas capacity already built to handle extreme situations. Extra nightime demand will be supplied by them. Even with new baseload construction, natural gas got so cheap recently that it's probably the #1 choice.

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By Spuke on 11/9/2012 5:45:14 PM , Rating: 2
Great education!!! Thanks very much.

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By JediJeb on 11/9/2012 6:21:30 PM , Rating: 2
I live in Ky, in the middle of the coal fields, with no really large cities so the difference in base and peak probably isn't that large. I have at least 5 coal fired power plants within a 40 mile radius of where I live and one small hydro plant at the end of Kentucky Lake. Not sure where the closest natural gas plant is, but I think they are going to build one in Louisville which is 150 miles from us.

I do know that during the ice storm in 2009 when the main transmission towers went down they almost lost one plant because they could not shut it down fast enough and they were making too much power with no where for it to go.

One of the small coal plants nearby normally idles at night and gets fired up during the day, not sure how much it produces wattage wise but the whole facility isn't very large at all, looks something like and old brick 4 or 5 story warehouse. It doesn't completely shut down at night but comes pretty close to it.

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 10:41:04 PM , Rating: 2
In that case, it's highly likely that the coal plants around you are mostly generating the baseload for other areas. A few hundred miles of reasonably low loss transmission is a piece of cake.

Still, even if someone's electricity all comes from coal, increasing their night time consumption would almost never result in any more coal burned. There would simply be less exported, and in the neighboring areas there would be more natural gas burned.

As for that small coal plant that idles at night, AFAIK it's an outlier.

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By EricMartello on 11/13/2012 8:16:50 PM , Rating: 2
In the end nuclear would be the only carbon neutral high output power plants that could be built anywhere in the country that a normal coal or natural gas plant could be built.

I'm also for more nuclear power plants, however they do require a lot of water to operate which limits their construction to either coastal areas or in close proximity to a river or lake. Coal plants can be built pretty much anywhere.

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By drycrust3 on 11/10/12, Rating: 0
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By Odysseus145 on 11/10/2012 3:52:36 PM , Rating: 2
You need to do a little more research on the topic.

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By SPOOFE on 11/10/2012 6:22:34 PM , Rating: 1
He may or may not have intended to, but he hit on a valid point: As long as no new volumes of CO2 are being put in the air, the system remains balanced. Algae that uses CO2 already in the atmosphere can only return, at most, as much as it took out, making the overall addition of CO2 to the system completely zero.

As for CO2's insulating properties, well, I won't touch that one. :D

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 2:24:41 PM , Rating: 3
We don't need to switch to diesel for biodiesel to become viable. There's a huge demand already of 24 million barrels per day worldwide. Biodiesel just isn't there in cost yet, despite subsidies from production mandates.

EVs have long been proven to have far lower cost per mile than gas/diesel. They also don't need any more generation capacity to charge, as nighttime electricity demand is lower than daytime, so it's just natural gas costs (which are lower than ever). It's only a matter of up front costs.

Plugins are already about to become break-even. Look at the C-Max Hybrid SEL ($28200) vs Energi ($32950), which are similarly equipped. Only $1k difference with tax credit, <$5k without. The Energi can shift 7000+ miles per year from the pump to the nightime grid. That's an easy lifetime win, and since the electricity is produced domestically, it also means JOBS. The engine also lasts longer since half the miles are done on electricity.

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By FITCamaro on 11/9/2012 3:23:22 PM , Rating: 3
I didn't say biodiesel was ready yet. I said we should research it and refine it.

And if hybrids are so good, take away the tax credits.

All electric cars do is shift us away from a rare resource and move us to an even rarer resource we don't control. Can you imagine rare earth metal prices if the entire world suddenly demanded electric cars?

Algae based diesel means we grow it domestically, have an infinite supply, and create thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs in the process. Plus you move away from coal to boot as you build up your nuclear power base providing cheap, clean electricity.

Solar and wind will never be reliable. Not to mention the vast amount of space it would take to build enough capacity if we even wanted to. I'd rather not have hundreds of thousands of acres of wind farms to accomplish what we could do in hundreds of acres with nuclear power. Modern reactor types eliminate all issues that hippies love to whine about.

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 4:14:26 PM , Rating: 2
I didn't say biodiesel was ready yet. I said we should research it and refine it.
We are researching it, and we will refine it. No guarantee that it'll wind up cheaper than from refining oil. For electricity, it's a sure bet.
And if hybrids are so good, take away the tax credits.
We will, just like we did for regular hybrids.

But don't pretend like these credits had no impact in accelerating the manufacturing expertise. If we just waited for battery prices to go down naturally without any subsidized EV demand, we'd be either be a few years behind where we are today, or another country would subsidize it and they'd be the nexus of EV manufacturing.

Also, don't pretend like there's no societal benefits to EVs. Reducing the trade deficit creates jobs, increases tax revenues, etc. Reduced urban pollution saves health costs. Longer lasting vehicles reduces transportation costs.

Finally, don't pretend like this is some prohibitive cost. At a cap of 200k credits per manufacturer, it's a cost of just a few billion spread over 4+ years for a technology that will take a decent chunk of a half trillion dollar per year industry.

The rare earth problem is grossly exaggerated. EVs don't really need them. Induction motors (e.g. Volt) need no permanent magnets. NiMH batteries needs rare earths, not Li-ion. Tesla and Nissan don't use any rare earth metals at all in their motor/battery.

It's simply a smart decision to go down this path ASAP. People are lending to the gov't at near 0% interest rates, so turning down a sure fire investment opportunity like this is lunacy.

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By FITCamaro on 11/9/2012 5:03:28 PM , Rating: 1
Since when are we an EV manufacturing power house?

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By Mint on 11/9/2012 11:44:13 PM , Rating: 2
Aside from the Prius plugin in Japan and a few thousand Fiskers in Finland, almost all plugins are built in the US. Most are sold here, too ( ), and the drivetrain for some European cars are probably built here too. Tesla's Model S is about to ramp up, as will the CMax and Fusion plugins.

There is no question that the US is leading the charge with plugins.

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By FITCamaro on 11/10/2012 8:49:10 AM , Rating: 1
So because of the 4-5 plugins available, 3 are built here, that makes us an EV powerhouse? The Volt is assembled here now but there is talk of that moving to China. If Fisker or Tesla ever truly want to complete they'll have to move their production out of the states as well.

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By Mint on 11/10/2012 12:17:25 PM , Rating: 2
Why are you so adamant about defending this strawman you created?

I never said the US was an EV powerhouse. I said that without subsidies we'd just be waving the white flag and let someone else claim the industry.

The Model S, Volt, Focus Electric, CMax Energi, Fusion Energi, and Coda Sedan are all made in the US. In a couple months we'll see the 2013 Leaf, Spark EV, and more. The majority are produced by the US.

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By FITCamaro on 11/12/2012 7:16:13 AM , Rating: 2
Yes because the federal government is essentially paying them to. Not because we're a better place to build them in. Quite the contrary in fact. But when the government is handing you money with the stipulation that production has to happen here, of course its going to be here.

Take that away, and the production here goes away as well.

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By corduroygt on 11/12/2012 2:30:56 PM , Rating: 2
So the federal government giving out loans and tax breaks to encourage manufacturing jobs in the USA is a BAD THING now?

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By JediJeb on 11/9/2012 3:56:48 PM , Rating: 2
EVs have long been proven to have far lower cost per mile than gas/diesel.

Mainstream use of EV has not been around that long so we can't know for sure what the ongoing costs really will be. I know for certain you can't do a do it yourself brake job for $40 on an EV with regenerative braking at home, and even getting one done at a brake shop will cost more than conventional ones.

Not to say I am average but my $40 oil changes once a year at 10k miles along with tires every 50k miles have meant the ongoing cost of my truck has been pretty cheap, only fuel would be the difference in cost per mile versus an EV. If a battery costs $5000 to replace in an EV then at $4/gallon gasoline and a 30mpg vehicle that gets you to something like 37,500 miles, at 40mpg it gets you to the equivalent of 50,000 miles. So increasing the mileage of a regular ICE could possibly nullify the advantage of even fuel depending on the price and longevity of the batteries in EVs.

They also don't need any more generation capacity to charge, as nighttime electricity demand is lower than daytime, so it's just natural gas costs (which are lower than ever).

This is provided that all night time generation is done by natural gas, around me it is all done by coal.

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By Mint on 11/10/2012 3:49:58 PM , Rating: 2
As I said above, marginal generation is all done by natural gas now, regardless of what plants are around you. If you increase your night use, the plants will export less to other areas, and those areas will use more natural gas.

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By HrilL on 11/9/2012 2:30:20 PM , Rating: 2
Why wouldn't you just use the ocean where a lot of algae already grows. You could easily build places to do this on the shore or even off the coast.

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By FITCamaro on 11/9/2012 3:24:10 PM , Rating: 2
Fair enough. I just believe the current algae uses fresh water.

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By jeffkro on 11/9/2012 2:41:22 PM , Rating: 2
Why not use algae that grows in salt water, instead of desalining the water?

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By jeffkro on 11/9/2012 2:43:39 PM , Rating: 2
Dammit it happened again.

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By room200 on 11/11/2012 12:41:31 PM , Rating: 1
And if "libs" proposed it, you'd SUDDENLY be against it.

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By FITCamaro on 11/12/2012 7:18:42 AM , Rating: 2
If liberals were going to propose it, they'd have already done it. But the environmental movement by and large doesn't like anything that burns and that's a group the Democrat party answers to. They made fun of Gingrich proposing this.

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By YashBudini on 11/12/2012 1:33:45 PM , Rating: 1
But the libs would never go for it since its not electric.

Thank you once again for your well researched and cited information. I was wondering how long before the lunatics in your party free all the rapists in prison. After all religious persecution is illegal in this country, and they were simply performing God's will.

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By mars2k on 11/13/2012 4:36:04 AM , Rating: 2
I don't know about switching to all diesel, a mix would seem to be a better, less disruptive solution. As for delsalinization why not use waste water from sewage treatment? 2 birds with one stone there right? As for nuclear lets go solar. Other wise it seems as if you've mellowed Fit

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