Sunday, May 1, 2011

Economic Development, Biorefineries And The Carbohydrate Economy

by Trevor Bogle

Change is scientific. Progress is ethical.
Bertrand Russell

Jamaica sits battered and hopeless at a crossroad at the beginning of the 21 century. Its current leaders tenaciously hold on to an economic model hopelessly mired in the paradigm of the last century .The ship of state meanwhile is relentlessly buffeted by geopolitical waves while narrowly avoiding the shoals of the unfurling energy crisis. This author has seen a glimpse of the future and like Prometheus the one who brings light, I seeks to bring the light of the new century to the people, a new paradigm and the beginning of a prosperous future for our nation. The nation’s leaders, fixated on the dying remnant of the 20 Th century; the hydrocarbon century are hardly recognizing the nascent birth of the Carbohydrate century and the promise it hold for the nation. The hydrocarbon century favored those nations who by luck of geography were endowed with the precious elixir, oil. The carbohydrate century favors all, for all are endowed with carbohydrate. All economies require an engine and fuel for growth. The preferred fuel that drove the worldwide engine and growth over the last century was inarguably oil, a hydrocarbon. Today it is consumed at an astounding and unsustainable rate of 1000 barrel per second, 80 million barrels per day, and 30 billion per year. Unsustainable in sheer quantity even without considering the deleterious environmental consequences now known as global warming and climate change. Jamaica, like all small island states, suffers all the physical , economic and social vulnerabilities, that severe climate change will and has wrought and must in its national interest as well as moral and ethical ones, move expeditiously and boldly into the carbohydrate century ; the carbohydrate economy.

What are carbohydrates and what is a carbohydrate economy? Plants takes carbon dioxide (CO2) from our atmosphere, water (H2O) from the soil and energy from the Sun and synthesize or bond them together in the presence of a cellular catalyst chlorophyll. The product CH2O is carbohydrate the cousin of hydrocarbons or CHn , Hydrocarbons are dead carriers of carbon and compact form of energy produced over millions of years in the earth’s crust, wherein the extreme heat and pressure have stripped the Oxygen away. Carbohydrates are living carbon and energy carriers. Carbohydrates are trees, plants, grasses, tubers, generically call biomass or living carriers of carbon and hence energy. While having much in common with their hydrocarbon cousin in that they can fuel our cars and trucks, our power plants and stoves, they are also feedstock for a chemical industry. They do so without significantly polluting our environment and most importantly are sustainable, renewable and indigenous. Carbohydrates democratize the world. All are endowed.

The key to the Carbohydrate Economy is the knowledge that every chemical and fuel produced from hydrocarbon can be produced from carbohydrates. Dow Chemical list at least 200 chemicals now produced from hydrocarbon that can be produced from carbohydrates. Fuels include Ethanol, Butanol, Methanol and Dimethyl- Ether or DME. DME and Butanol are touted as the fuels of the 21 century .DME, is a superior diesel fuel, cooking fuel and every manufacturer of gas turbines has endorsed its use in electricity generating power plants. Worldwide, current production is primarily from natural gas, a hydrocarbon. However, Sweden is pioneering the synthesis of DME from biomass, in particular from forest trees. Locally it can be produced from indigenous biomass sources such as sugar cane stalks, bagasse, guinea grass etc. via biomass gasification technologies being pioneered by Sweden. Butanol on the other hand is a superior fuel that can effectively replace gasoline. It has 1.5 times more energy per gal than ethanol. It is less volatile and thereby less hazardous to handle than either gasoline or ethanol. Moreover and most importantly it can be used in current automobile in high concentrations without costly engine modifications. While plant capital cost is significantly less than a similar capacity ethanol plant, in fact in the order of 35-50% cheaper.

In addition to fuels, carbohydrates are natural feedstock for plastics, polymers, paints, detergents, tinctures, gels and too numerous consumer products to mention all (including textiles and apparel; construction materials including hemp fiber reinforced limestone that is superior and cheaper than cement blocks and steel), pharmaceuticals and medicines, a virtually endless compendium of useful and exportable range of products made locally and from carbohydrate. Of the over 200 chemicals derived from sugars this author is recommending a pilot scale project to select a niche from which to launch a sugar based biotechnology industry in Jamaica. Foremost among these are the so called Polyol or sugar alcohols. Polyol can be recovered from molasses generated as a byproduct of sugar production. Polyols as non-nutritive sweeteners, find wide uses in low calories beverages, bake products and cosmetics. Polyols , although derived from sugars are not processed by the body like sugar and have many advantages such as reduced calories as compared to sugar; reduced insulin response; does not promote tooth decay and does not brown in bakery applications. Polyols can be produced from plant based sugars much more efficiently and cost effectively than from petroleum from which they are currently produced. Secondly furandicarbooxylic acid or FDCA from succinic acid derived from sugar cane to make biodegradable PET bottles a US$12 billion industry worldwide as container for beverages and juices. Thirdly, other sugar derived organic acids i.e. levulinic acid for deriving methyl tetra hydrofuran as fuel oxygenate and solvent and numerous other industrial and cosmetic products.

The carbohydrate economy represents the necessary paradigm shift to mobilize the entire Jamaican people and to revitalize the moribund Jamaican economy on a scale supplanting the 1950’s and 60’s, the period of greatest economic expansion in our history. It shifts focus from urban to rural; from primary production to value added; from low technology to high; from brawn to brain. The new economy conservatively has the potential to produce 200,000 direct, indirect and multiplier effect jobs. These are high skill and high value added enterprises. They will employ scientists of all disciplines (bio-physicist, bio-chemists, botanist, and agricultural sciences), engineers, technologist, technicians etc and last but by no means least farmers. The carbohydrate economy elevates our farmers and farming to a status unprecedented in their long service to humankind. The farm becomes the engine of growth and the hub around which biorefineries and biochemical laboratories revolve, regenerating rural economies and rural life, the bedrock of the Jamaica soul. These are not cottage industries in the common sense but advanced production units located close to their feedstock. The carbohydrate economy would usher in a revolutionary electric age in Jamaica wherein married to other indigenous electricity generating technologies such as photovoltaic, wind energy and ocean thermal energy conversion the cost of electricity generation can be reduced to US$0.06 per kw-hr instead of the currently prevailing US$0.23. With a cheap, renewable, sustainable and environmentally friendly energy base the Jamaican economy can at last provide for the well being of its entire people. The carbohydrate economy is not only scientific it is ethical. I humbly urge our decision makers to consider and dream.