Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Mitigating Forest Fires by Harvesting Potentially Hazardous Woodland Biomass for the Production of Renewable Methanol

California Fires 2018 (Credit: David McNew/Getty)

 by Marcel F. Williams

California's forest, woodland areas, and its nearby residents are the latest victims of climate change as the world's fossil fuel dominated energy economy continues to increase greenhouse gasses in the Earth's atmosphere to dangerous levels.   

The state of California has 33 million acres of forest land.  Less than 400,000 of that acreage  burned in California from 1980 to 1990.  But just last year, 1.4 million acres burned in California. And so far this year, 1.8 million acres of California land has  burned.


California has grown 3 degrees warmer during the autumn seasons over the past 40 years while rainfall in the state has decreased by about one third during the same  period of time.

The  Federal government owns about 57% of the woodlands in California. Privately owned forest accounts for about 40% of California's woodland areas. But the State of California only owns about 3% of Califorinia's forest.

It is currently estimated that California's woodland areas have approximately 129 million dead trees. . Ironically, removing dead trees actually enables the spread of grasses and combustible weeds that make forest more likely to burn. Dry kindling, brush, bushes and twigs are the principal catalyst for the rapid spread of wildfires. So such vegetation also has to be safely managed.

Some of the worst forest fires in California have been caused by power lines. This has prompted some in the state to suggest burying power lines that transverse forested areas. But their are more than 176,000 miles of power lines in California. And putting power lines underground would cost ten times as much as stringing them on poles.

Controlled burning of woodland vegetation has long been a method for fire mitigation since before the arrival of Europeans in North America. But  burning  woodland vegetation would increase the amount of excess carbon dioxide put into the Earth's atmosphere, exacerbating the problem of rising temperatures that have helped to enhance the fire danger in California in the first place.

But  there is an alternative solution that could make the mitigation of forest fires  in California economically sustainable while also reducing California's dependence on fossil fuels. And such measures cold eventually lead California's energy production and use becoming completely carbon neutral.   And all it would  take would be for two legislative measures to pass within the State of California. 

Its my view that the State government in California should pass legislation that:

1. Mandates that  all utilities producing electricity within the State of   California  produce at least 5% of that electricity  for their customers by using-- bio-methanol-- directly derived  from  the dead trees and potentially dangerous woodland biomass in California’s forest and wooded residential areas by the year 2025 and up to  10% by the year 2030


2. Requires all gasoline sold in California to contain at least 5%-- bio-gasoline-- synthesized from bio-methanol that is directly derived from the dead trees and potentially dangerous woodland vegetation in California's forest and wooded residential areas by the year 2025 and up to 10% by the year 2030.

That's it! 

Methanol electric power plant at Point Lisas, Trinidad (Credit: Mendenhall Technical Services)

Approximately 33% of the electricity produced in California is generated by natural gas power plants. About 53% of California's electric power is produced by carbon neutral renewable and nuclear power energy sources.

Its neither difficult nor exorbitantly expensive to modify an existing natural gas electric power plant  to use methanol instead of natural gas. Additionally,  methanol electric power plants would have a higher electric power output than burning natural gas thanks to wood alcohol's  low heating value, low lubricity, and low flash point. 

Gasoline can be blended with methanol up to 15% without any modifications to an automobile. But 
energy companies have been able to synthesize  methanol directly  into high octane gasoline since the 1970s. And this would allow any level of mixing with gasoline from petroleum. In theory, you could have gasoline that is 80% derived from bio-methanol and 10% from petroleum with the remaining 10% of the fuel being composed of ethanol. Such an automotive fuel would be-- 90% derived-- from renewable biomass, reducing the utilization of gasoline from oil by 90%.

Any increases in the cost of gasoline containing bio-gasoline from bio-methanol could encourage Californians to purchase more fuel efficient electric and plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles. But a vehicle fuel mix of 10% ethanol (Federally mandated), 10%  gasoline from bio-methanol, and 80% gasoline from petroleum could substantially reduce oil demand, possibly mitigating any additional cost related to a mandated use of 10% bio-gasoline.

Methanol could also be directly used in high fuel efficiency hybrid fuel cell vehicles. Using methanol directly in automobiles would, of course, be cheaper than converting methanol into gasoline. Bio-methanol derived from California's forest could also be used to produce biodiesel.

There is also a growing global interest in using methanol to power sea vessels. Methanol powered ships would be cleaner and bio-methanol ships  with no sulfur emissions and  lower nitrogen oxide emissions relative to current marine vessels powered by fuels synthesized from petroleum. Marine methanol ferries are already operating between Sweden and Germany.

Legislation mandating the use of bio-methanol from California's forest should provide a strong economic incentive for energy companies selling electricity and gasoline in California to hire forest workers to aggressively harvest dead trees and other potentially dangerous woodland vegetation from California forest and residential woodland areas for conversion into methanol. This should substantially reduce  the level of fire  danger in California's woodland areas while also reducing the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere as the result of the reduction in forest fire and forest fire intensity.  

Beyond the reduction in fire danger,  hiring people to harvest potentially dangerous woodland biomass  should have a  positive economic impact for nearby residential communities.  Converting at least 10% of the  natural gas power plants in California for methanol utilization should also have some positive economic impact for communities near such energy producing facilities.   And the deployment of  pyrolysis and synthesis facilities designed to convert biomass into methanol within  California should have positive economic impact for the entire state.

Notional Flying Whale airship (Credit: Flying Whales)

The enhanced harvesting of dead trees and potentially dangerous woodland vegetation from remote forest might also encourage energy companies within  California  to utilize the next generation of airship technology. And airships might also greatly enhance the ability of the State of California and the US Federal government to fight fires in California's forest.

Airships being developed by the French company, Flying Whales, are being designed to transport up to 60 tonnes of lumbar within forested areas. Such airship technology could obviously be of use in California for removing the hundreds of dead trees that currently exist in California forest.

Lockheed Martin, on the other hand,  is developing an airship that could transporting payloads up to 20 tonnes in mass within a large cargo bay.  Forest kindling, grass,  bushes, twigs and other potentially dangerous vegetation could be removed from California forest by Lockheed Martin's airships.
Similar airship technology could also be used by the State and Federal government to fight forest fires,  dousing woodland fires and residential areas near forest with tonnes of water routinely retrieved from nearby lakes. The Lockheed Martin airships could also be used to rescue residents and fire fighters that might be trapped by raging forest fires.

The aggressive utilization of   airship technology in California could help California businesses to lead the US and the world in  the new age of airships. And, in theory,  such airships could be fueled with dimethyl ether, derived from methanol derived from California's forest  my modifying the diesel engines to use dimethyl ether.

Lockheed Martin airship (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The introduction of a methanol economy into California could also enhance the ability of the state to become-- completely carbon neutral by mid century. This, however,  would require the production of hydrogen through renewable or nuclear resources--  or a combination of both. Hydrogen could be used to synthesize methanol from wasted CO2 from the pyrolysis of urban and rural biomass  and from the  CO2 waste from the flu gasses of methanol electric power plants.

For California to be completely carbon neutral, all of the natural gas electric power plants in California would have to be converted into methanol power plants. The gradual  conversion of electric power production from natural gas to renewable methanol would make California carbon negative during the transition from fossil fuels to renewable biomass,  with more CO2 being extracted from the Earth's atmosphere  than being returned to the atmosphere. However, once all fossil fuel power plants have been replaced by methanol power plants that recycle CO2 from methanol synthesis and flu gas, then electric energy production and consumption in California would be carbon neutral.

Synthesis of renewable methanol from biomass.

Hydrogen in California could be produced from large solar or nuclear facilities located near biomass pyrolysis plants and methanol electric power plants. Alternatively, such facilities located near California coastlines could liquefy the carbon dioxide, exporting the CO2 by tankers to remote ocean nuclear power or renewable (floating wind, solar, or OTEC) facilities  in remote US territorial waters where methanol and other renewable synthetic fuels could be safely manufactured.  The Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) surrounding remote island territories such as: Wake Island, Howland Island, Baker Island, Johnston Atoll, Jarvis Island, etc. could be regions where floating vessels could use carbon neutral energy sources to produce methanol, jet fuel, dimethyl ether, gasoline and diesel fuel far away from urban populations.  Methanol could then be shipped by methanol powered tankers back to the California coastline to fuel its methanol electric power plants or for conversion into renewable gasoline. 

But once the transition from fossil fuels is complete, California energy production and consumption would be carbon neutral. Eventually,  California will have a shortage of bio-carbon resources for its energy economy which would require the extraction of additional CO2 directly from the atmosphere or from seawater or both. 

Links and References

Senate Passes Legislative Packagein Response to Wildfire Danger 

Thinning California's fire-proneforests: 5 things to know aslawmakers move toward a plan 
What fire researchers learnedfrom California’s blazes

 Methanol for Power Generation
Methanol as a Low Cost Alternative Fuel for Emission Reduction in Gas Turbines
Methanol - Gaining Twice: Improving Both the Quality of Air as well as Providing a Reliable Electricity Supply

Renewable Methanol as Liquid Electricity

The Methanol Alternative: 2012 Methanol Forum

The Production and Utilization of Renewable Methanol in a Nuclear Economy

Methanol Fuel Blending

The Production of Bio-Methanol

The rise, rise, rise of bio-methanol for fuels and chemical markets

In France, whales soon will fly

Lockheed Martin LMH-1 (P-791)


Anonymous said...

The major problem would appear to be the expense of harvesting the woodland biomass. It would surely be cheaper to simply burn off the forests as necessary, and to extract carbon from the air or the ocean surface to make such synthetic fuel as was necessary.

Marcel F. Williams said...

One of the major problems with burning off millions of dead trees where they sit would be the pollution. The mortality rate per kilowatt produced for burning biomass would more than double that of coal utilization in the US. However, if airships transported the forest biomass to facilities that used cryo technologies to remove the CO2 (to produce methanol) and pollutants produced from the plant then the health hazards associated with wood burning could be avoided.


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