let’s say we let the termites eat the wood, then make ethyl alcohol out of the termites. How efficient would that be in terms of capturing the energy stored in the wood, let’s say compared to what we would get just by burning the wood or by converting wood into methyl alcohol (which people seem not to like because of alleged inability to technologically handle toxicity problem) and burning that?
How? Termites are insects. Insects are not filled with alcohol under normal conditions.
When burning wood to get energy, you need to adress other points, too: depending on the type of wood, you’ll get a lot of soot that needs to be filtered out. Different types of wood have different wetness, and different energy density, and different temp. with which they burn (hot and short vs. long but smoldering), which is interesting if you have a wooden fire at your log cabin, but difficult if you want to produce power.
Plus, you produce CO2.
Who says that methyl alcohol is difficult to handle technologically? I’ve only ever heard that methy alcohol is bad if people drink it, because it’s cheaper than real alcohol.
Converting wood into methyl alcohol and burning that is going to be less efficient than burning wood simply because you have two (or more) steps, and each step will have some loss. In some cases, you might prefer having methyl alcohol instead of wood, for example, in fuel cells, alcohol needs less space than a chunk of wood; and because it can be smoldered, instead of burning with an open flame, has less risks. But that’s a compromise for other reasons, not the most efficient use.
If you really want to use biomass that’s otherwise unused, you go a different route: you take human and animal waste and /or the leftovers from farm production (the stalks of food plants and similar - not specially grown energy plants!) and put them into a big tank, if necessary add a few seeder bacteria to get the thing going, and then the whole thing will ferment anaerobically to produce methane. This methane you trap and burn instead of natural gas. The rest of the waste in the tank is very dry and therefore reduced in volume.
Small-style with shit this is done in many third-world countries, where lack of proper toilets and lack of wood for home cooking are both big problems handily solved both with this solution. Big-style with farm waste it’s done in Europe.
As for wood, leftover wood - the part of trees not cut into lumber, the branches and small stems picked up when clearing the forest - can be cut down and pressed into pellets, which can be burned very efficiently, with high heat, in modernpellet ovens to heat homes.
Termites cannot convert ANY of the wood’s stored energy.
However, the germs that live in symbiosis in the termites’ guts are fabulous at it.
Just like we currently use enzymes to break down corn, into simpler sugars, that yeast can use, to make ethanol, for us to use as fuel, research continues in using the enzymes from the bacteria that termites have – to break wood down into simpler sugars, … yadda yadda,… fuel. I said research is continuing, but like everything else, the devil is in the details.
so why bother with devil, details and enzymes when we already have termites? Is it too hard to raise them and then reprocess into whatever organic substance we want?
termites provide a habitat for cellulose digesting microorganisms, the termites use up energy.
if the microorganisms could be raised in a vat then there would be less wasted energy.
This is in fact a basic concept of thermodynamics, as we change energy from one form to another, we lose some at each step. Living things, in particular, are very inefficient compared to the machines humans build. Also, cellulose is pretty resistant to enzymatic attack, wood even more so. This is important, or plants wouldn’t be able to build large, enduring structure out of them. For that matter, neither would humans be able to build things out of wood.
IIRC, cows also have the same bateria in their stomachs to convert cellulose to something the cow can use as food. Horses don’t, which is why horses leave nice firm muffins of cellulose, while cows leave big liquidy splats.
Really what think we will need eventually will be vats that mix sawdust and bacteria and harvest the resulting alcohol, much like sugar distilleries. This bypasses the cow or termite middle-person. Quite a few companies are researching this.
Better than using them for energy, we should use them as designated drivers.
I think that thermo for dummies should be best handled on by Bill Nye the Science Guy rather than here. So if nobody here knows any quantitative or even qualitative explanations of how efficient or inefficient are the termites in converting cellulose into biomass, that’s a pity.
I note that there is nothing outlandish in using insects to produce substances that we would then extract and use, on industrial scale. Silk comes to mind.
silk is the intended product in that case.
if you wanted to make ethanol then termite body parts is not a good intermediate step.
termites use energy to live, if they aren’t a necessary intermediate step then that step is a waste. that makes thermodynamic sense.