Chapter 5: BIOFUELS
(Draft date: February 11, 2008)
Author's note: This is a preliminary draft and a work in progress. (Further explanation.)
Biofuel development trends:
The WorldWatch Institute, together with the German Ministry of Agriculture, released a landmark study in the spring of 2006 entitled Biofuels for Transportation: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century. It is a comprehensive assessment of the opportunities and risks associated with large-scale development of biofuels, particularly those which utilize farmed food crops as feedstock. An updated and expanded version of the study is to be published as a book by the same title by Earthscan in May, 2007. Worldwatch Paper #174: Are Biofuels Sustainable? was published in July, 2007.
"25 x 25" is a national organization whose mission it is to have America’s farms, forests and ranches provide 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States by 2025, while continuing to produce safe, abundant and affordable food, feed, and fiber. 25 x ‘25 was conceived by a group of volunteer farm leaders, soon gaining the support of a broad cross-section of agricultural and forestry entities. Leaders from business, labor, conservation and religious groups are now signing on as supporters.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Agricultural Outlook 2007-2015, predicts annual output of maize-based ethanol to double between 2006 and 2015. In Brazil, annual ethanol production is projected to reach some 44 billion liters in 2015 from 21 billion today. Chinese ethanol output is expected to rise to an annual 3.8 billion liters from 1.8 billion liters today. In the European Union, the amount of oilseeds (mainly rapeseed) used for biofuels is set to grow from just over 10 million metric tons to 21 million MT over the same period.
In the 1980's, the U.S. Department of Energy Aquatic Species Program funded research into turning algal oil into biodiesel. One funded study was by Keith Cooksey at Montana State University. Although promising results were obtained, the research initiative was abandoned by the government. Cooksey says, “Rumor had it that big oil got in the way. They didn’t want competition so the project was dropped.” Cooksey’s project developed a stain, Nile Red, which fluoresces in proportion to the oil content of algae, making it easier to measure. While soybeans produce about 50 gallons of oil per acre a year, and canola produces about 130 gallons, the biodiesel demonstration algal ponds got about 4,000 gallons of oil per acre per year. Firms have now revived and are refining biodiesel algal technology, and predict oil yield per acre can be raised much higher than this. Green Star Products of San Diego, CA, built a demonstration algal oil-production pond in Hamilton, Montana, in the spring of 2006. Advocates point out that algae can be grown especially well in desert states that have plenty of sunshine, and grow better in saline, non-potable water unusable for traditional agriculture or drinking. Biodiesel algal production would be particularly suited to desert state locations with saline aquifers. Solarzyme of San Francisco is producing biodiesel from algae; they were interviewed in a National Public Radio show on renewable energy emerging technologies on February 8, 2008.
The moral and political instability issues with biofuels from food crops:
The ethical problem central to biofuels was stated by Doris O’Brien’s letter in the June 25, 2007, U.S. News and World Report: “Even if scarcity of water were not an issue, with millions of people on Earth starving or malnourished, can anyone in conscience justify growing food to feed cars?”
Lester R. Brown’s briefing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on June 13, 2007, was entitled “Biofuels Blunder: Massive Diversion of U.S. Grain to Fuel Cars is Raising World Food Prices, Risking Political Instability.” <www.earth-policy.org/Transcripts/SenateEPW07.htm> His testimony included:
“The U.S. corn crop, accounting for 40 percent of the global harvest and supplying nearly 70 percent of the world’s corn imports, looms large in the world food economy. Annual U.S. corn exports of some 55 million tons account for nearly one fourth of world grain exports. The corn harvest of Iowa alone exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada....In six of the last seven years, total world grain production has fallen short of use. As a result, world carryover stocks of grain have been drawn down to 57 days of consumption, the lowest level in 34 years. The last time they were this low wheat and rice prices doubled.
Already corn prices have doubled over the last year, wheat futures are trading at their highest level in 10 years, and rice prices are rising. Soybean prices are up by half.”
...”In Mexico, one of more than 20 countries with a corn-based diet, the price of tortillas is up by 60 percent....The milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, ham, ground beef, ice cream and yoghurt in the typical refrigerator are all produced with corn....Rising grain and soybean prices are driving up meat and egg prices in China. January pork prices were up 20 percent above a year earlier, eggs were up 16 percent, while beef, which is less dependent on grain, was up 6 percent....In India, the overall food price index in January 2007 was 10 percent higher than a year earlier. The price of wheat, the staple food in northern India, has jumped 11 percent....
In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the wholesale price of chicken in 2007 will be 10 percent higher on average than in 2006, the price of a dozen eggs will be up a whopping 21 percent, and milk will be 14 percent higher. And this is only the beginning.”
“The grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. Converting the entire U.S. grain harvest to ethanol would satisfy only 16 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs.
Since the United States is the leading exporter of grain, shipping more than Canada, Australia, and Argentina combined, what happens to the U.S. grain crop affects the entire world.”
“The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people.”
“There are alternatives to this grim scenario. A rise in auto fuel efficiency standards of 20 percent, phased in over the next decade would save as much oil as converting the entire U.S. grain harvest into ethanol.”
Brown talks about the need to shift to plug-in hybrid cars as the mainstay of the U.S. transportation fleet. “If this shift were accompanied by investment in hundreds of wind farms that could feed cheap electricity into the grid, then cars could run largely on electricity for the equivalent cost of less than $1 per gallon gasoline.”
The 2008 WorldWatch Vital Signs reported that the 2007 grain harvest of 2.3 billion tons fell short of global demand, further depressing cereal stocks from 2006 levels. Ethanol and other fuels now consume 17 percent of the world’s grain harvest. In 2007 the amount of course grains (a group that includes corn, barley, sorghum, and other grains fed mainly to animals) converted to energy jumped 15 percent to 255 million tons. 627 million tons of course grains were used for livestock feed.
Biofuel subsidy and incentive proposals:
Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has designed an alternative subsidy scheme for biofuels which would cost $30 billion over the next 15-20 years instead of the $80 billion in current federal tax policy. Khosla creates a variable subsidy that is countercyclical with oil. If the price of oil goes down, the biofuel subsidy goes up. He points out that this scheme not only saves the federal taxpayer a lot of money, but “from a capital-formation perspective, it dramatically reduces the risk. If you reduce the subsidy but provide more downside protection, the safety for new capital coming in goes up dramatically.”
British Petroleum has funded an Energy Biosciences Institute for $500 million over the next ten years, with a focus on developing ecologically-sound, renewable biofuels production for road transport. The Institute will be housed on the University of Illinois-Champaign and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory campuses.
The Centia biofuels technology has been developed by a collaboration between North Carolina State University and Diversified Energy Corporation. This technology uses any lipid-based feedstock, including all edible and inedible vegetable or animal oils and fats and lipid-containing waste oils, to produce hydrocarbon fuels. A Centia demonstration plant is under construction. The Centia process at industrial scale is predicted to require one half the fossil fuel energy input of other biofuels technologies, have an end-to-end energy efficiency of 85 percent, and the product will reportedly have energy density and cold flow properties which meet aviation fuel specifications.
Section 1. Ethanol Fuel
Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on ethanol. Up until about 1940, John Deere tractors came with two fuel tanks: a small one containing gasoline used to start the tractor (which was done by hand-spinning a huge iron flywheel which also served as a belt power takeoff pulley), and a large tank filled with “farmer’s alcohol” or ethanol to which the tractor was switched when the engine was running.
Premier oil and energy analyst Charley Maxwell, who coined the term “energy crisis” in the 1970's, observes that “Ethanol, for the moment - meaning ethanol from corn - is a stupid investment, as people are discovering. Pretty close to 100 percent of the savings [in oil consumption] that you get on ethanol is consumed by the hydrocarbons fuel that has to be used to grow the corn. You do save something in national security terms - it’s not from the Middle East, and you’re not putting dollars out into the wider world. But if they can convert cellulose to sugar, and sugar to alcohol, then we will really have something.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that, at 2007 production levels, corn-based ethanol offers only a 10-25 percent reduction in total global warming emissions from the total fuel production cycle, compared to gasoline. UCS writes “...using all our corn to make ethanol (with nothing left for food or animal feed) would only displace perhaps 15 percent of our gasoline demand by 2025.” In addition, to make a single gallon of ethanol requires three to six gallons of water be used.
In the U.S. News and World Report feature “Is Ethanol the Answer,” February 12, 2007, reports “In 2006, production skyrocketed, and Washington is posed to push it still higher. What’s not to like? Every gallon theoretically means more money for the iconic American farmer and less cash lining the pockets of foreign sheiks. ‘There’s almost a sense,’ says Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt, ‘that ethanol is morally better than oil.’” Nearly half of the gasoline produced in the United States now contains 10 percent ethanol.
The ten largest ethanol producers and their trade groups have handed out $4.7 million in federal campaign contributions since 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Renewable Fuels Association has increased its lobbying spending 60 percent in the past seven years. Former Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole of Kansas and former Senator and Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota lobby for ethanol’s national security benefits on behalf of the 21st Century Agriculture Policy Project, which represents a consortium of farm and energy interests.
According to this U.S. News article, ethanol started “gaining traction” around 2000 when it emerged as the oxygenate alternative to methyl teriary butyl ether (MTBE), which had been found to have leaked into and contaminated groundwater to potentially dangerous levels. At the same time, start-up businesses like VeraSun developed more efficient production processes, lowering costs. When the Iraq war and high oil prices came along, ethanol refiners could sell their product to the big oil companies for far more than production cost. Because of long-standing ethanol tax breaks, currently 51 cents per gallon, oil companies received $2.5 billion in 2006 for blending ethanol into petroleum fuel, even as buying ethanol for blending saved them money in outlay for fuel source material. The Center for Rural Affairs recommends affording the 51 cents per gallon ethanol tax credit only to plants that are majority locally owned and provide assistance to workers and small farmers who buy in.
As of 2006, 60 percent of ethanol production is in the hands of small producers, often farmer-owned cooperatives. Ethanol’s profitability is attracting new, big players. The number 2 producer, VeraSun, is now owned by venture capital firm Bluestem, founded by Steve Kirby, former lieutenant governor of South Dakota and a big Republican donor. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the politically connected international capital venture firm Carlyle Group are major ethanol investors now.
F.M. Tishkevich warns that there are under-reported consequences of using ethanol as fuel in passenger vehicles. “As a highly detergent fuel, ethanol will loosen the sludge that has built up in engines, clogging the fuel filter and fuel delivery systems....Ethanol will also pull water out of the air, creating an ethanol-water mix that separates from gas, resulting in a rough-running engine. The electrical conductivity in ethanol can corrosion in aluminum gas tanks.”
A. Cellulostic Alcohol
Any cellulose-containing waste can be used to make cellulostic alcohol. Cellulose is a long-chain sugar whose molecular bonds cannot be broken by digestive enzymes produced by vertebrate herbivores. However, various bacteria have developed digestive enzymes that can break the cellulose chain into fructose and glucose sugar compounds which can be digested by the various yeasts and enzymes which can convert sugar cane and corn sugars into food energy. Termites have developed a symbiotic relationship with one strain of such cellulose-digesting bacteria, providing the bacteria a home in the termite hindgut where the bacteria break down the cellulose particles ingested by the termite. Elephants also have a symbiotic relationship with a cellulose-digesting bacteria in their gut. Biochemist Pat Foody in Canada figured out how to synthesize this cellulose-digesting enzyme, and two cellulostic alcohol manufacturing plants are being built in Alberta by a partnership between Foody’s firm Iogen and Shell Oil which utilize this enzyme to break down cellulose into a sugar slurry which then has the same yeast added to it as corn mash for production of ethanol.
Fast-growing grass crops like switchgrass, native from Florida to Saskatchewan, requires less fossil fuels to cultivate than corn, and yields three to five times as many gallons of ethanol per acre than corn. As a result, the Union of Concerned Scientists says the production and burning of cellulostic alcohol generates 70 to 90 percent less carbon dioxide than corn-based ethanol.
Woody tissues consist of cellulose fibers, hemicelluloses, and lignins. Cellulose polymers are composed of glucose molecules linked end to end; the polymers bond together to form tough fibers. Hemicelluloses are complex carbohydrates which contain glucose as well as other sugars. Lignins are complex polyphenols. Both hemicelluloses and lignins contribute to making wood hard as well as strong.
Production of cellulostic alcohol would be far superior environmentally and in terms of net energy produced versus consumed in production because:
- Enzymes rather than heat produced by natural gas or coal combustion as used in corn ethanol manufacture break down the carbohydrate feedstock into ethanol.
- Little or no fuel or fertilizer would be utilized in producing cellulostic alcohol feedstock.
- Cellulostic alcohol feedstock is essentially waste material. After processing for production of ethanol, the slurry remains a good organic soil supplement without having intensive nutrient contents which exceed the ability of natural soil processes to recycle.
Although crop residues can be used as feedstock for production of cellulostic alcohol, removal of crop residues from the land precludes plowing this material back into the soil to decompose, where it serves to feed the beneficial soil biota and recycle nutrients back to the next crop. Soil scientist Wally Wilhelm of the USDA Agricultural Research Service Laboratory in Lincoln, Nebraska, says his review of all research on the question of what portion of crop residues can be removed for ethanol production without reducing soil organic matter levels indicates in most instances we need to leave between one half and two thirds of crop residues to be incorporated back into the soil if soil fertility is to be maintained.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that cellulostic ethanol offers a 70-90 percent reduction in total global warming emissions from the total fuel production cycle, compared to gasoline.
The U.S. government currently estimates the capital cost of cellulostic alcohol at five times that of corn. However, I see this as a reflection of the fact that development of industrial processes to produce cellulostic alcohol efficiently are in a very early stage, equivalent to that for industrial ethanol production circa 1980. The cost of production of ethanol in 2007 is far lower than in 1980 due to high-efficiency industrial processes developed by VeraSun circa 2001.
Senator Tom Harkin pledges to “jump start” cellulostic ethanol demand and supply with research money and loan guarantees in the 2007 Farm Bill. He sees a “chicken and egg” problem in scaling up industrial cellulostic alcohol production to bring production costs down. “Investors are not investing in cellulostic plants because there’s no supply,” he says. “And farmers are not planting switch grass or other energy crops because there’s no market.” According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution in early 2007, “Ga. Plant to Turn Pine Waste Into Ethanol,” Georgia is already well along on the course of building a cellulostic alcohol plant to make ethanol from pine tree processing byproducts. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla reported in December, 2006, that his firm has four cellulostic ethanol investments: one is the Georgia facility, another is in Louisiana to turn sugar cane waste to make ethanol.
The Center for Rural Affairs argues that “We should condition tax credits on leaving sufficient crop residue to maintain organic matter and prevent erosion....we should develop new approaches to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that allow grass to be harvested for ethanol production only if timed to maintain wildlife and erosion control benefits.”
Environmental Defense’s national climate campaign coordinator Steve Cochran says, “With the correct incentives, lower carbon cellulostic ethanol could be brought to market very quickly. Flawed policy is the [current] problem.”
B. Alcohol from Food Crops
In 2006 about 16 percent of U.S. corn production was diverted to make ethanol. Thanks to a liberal sprinkling of federal subsidies, as of early 2007 112 ethanol plants are producing ethanol along the Farm Belt, and 76 are under construction. According to some counts, as many as 200 more have been proposed. Lester Brown projects a third of the U.S. corn harvest will be used to make ethanol in 2008, given the number of ethanol plants that will then be operating.
Of the new ethanol plants coming on line in 2003, more than 60 percent were farmer-owned. From 2006-2009 90 percent of the plants coming on line are non-farmer owned. According to the Center for Rural Affairs in January 2007, as long as oil prices remain at then-current levels, ethanol plants could buy corn at nearly double the price seen in recent years and remain profitable. The Center reports that the ethanol plants operating, under construction, and under consideration in Nebraska would use the entire corn production of the state and leave nothing for livestock production.
In the 1990's, Minnesota passed legislation providing incentives for smaller-scale, farmer-owned ethanol-producing facilities. The state found that each new 40 million gallon plant, if locally owned, resulted in:
• A one-time boost of about $142 million to the local host economy
• Creation of about 42 full-time jobs
• Increased annual direct spending in the host community by approximately $56 million
• An average annual return on investment of about 13.3 percent over a ten year period to farmers and other local investors.
According to a legislative audit of Minnesota’s ethanol incentive program, in addition to the job creation and boost to rural economies, the program also resulted in a higher return in state taxes than it cost the state in subsidy expenditures. Minnesota’s farmers have responded enthusiastically to the program, with over 20 percent of Minnesota corn growers now investors in ethanol cooperatives. In the case of absentee and foreign-owned ethanol plants, the larger scale of these facilities dilutes the beneficial local impact of job creation, exports the profits from operation, and increases negative impacts associated with longer transportation distances of corn to the plants and concentrated production issues, such as waste disposal, air emissions, and the like.
Analysis of the energy benefits of ethanol from corn typically externalize the environmental and energy costs associated with the fact that existing ethanol plants use natural gas or coal as the energy source for heat used in processing and distillation. The new ethanol plant that opened in Richardton, N.D., in January 2007 is coal-powered, for example. 25 percent of ethanol produced moves by diesel tanker truck and the remainder by tank car on rail, pulled by diesel locomotives. Unlike oil and gas, there is no ethanol pipeline infrastructure for product movement to the customer. Some propose co-locating ethnanol plants with big feedlots and using methane generated from the manure to power the ethanol plant, while feeding the byproducts to the animals in the feedlot. The byproduct of grain-based ethanol production is distillers grain, which is suitable for livestock feed since it still has most of the protein and minerals contained in the original grain.
In late 2006, Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s largest biofuel marketer, announced that it considers food-based fuel “morally inappropriate.” “People are starving, and because we are more wealthy, we use food and turn it into fuel,” said Eric Holthusen, a fuels-technology manager for Shell’s Asia-Pacific region. In 2006, ethanol production consumed 16 percent of the U.S. corn crop, consuming more corn than was used to produce foods or food additives (such as corn syrup and starch) for human consumption. Since corn’s primary U.S. use is as animal feed for dairy and beef cattle, pigs, and chickens, meat and dairy producers are reeling from corn prices that have doubled in a year. Corn is now trading above $4 a bushel for the first time in a decade; corn prices are trading in 2007 for double the price in 2006 on U.S. exchanges. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute warns that ethanol is on track to consume a third of the U.S. corn crop in 2008, and half the crop not long after. Brown is calling for a moratorium on new ethanol refineries, similar to the one the world’s number 3 ethanol producer, China, announced in December 2006. This prediction takes into account the fact that farmers are on track to plant 88 million acres of corn in 2007, more acreage than at any time since the 1940's, when yields were a fraction per acre of those obtained today. This gain in corn acreage is coming at the expense of rotating corn into soybeans, which threatens problems maintaining soil fertility and disrupting pest and disease cycles on land planted to successive monoculture crops of hybrid, genetically-engineered corn.
In November, 2006, USDA Chief Economist Keith Collins issued an analysis of future growth of ethanol production from corn and its impacts. The USDA projected the share of the U.S. corn crop committed to ethanol would triple from 6 percent in 2000 to nearly 20 percent for the 2006 crop. Corn prices could set new record highs over the next 5-6 years in response to demand from ethanol production. USDA predicts a shift from export of corn to domestic ethanol production. Corn stocks will be tight and markets volatile; a drought or increased demand from China could cause dramatic corn price increases. Corn ethanol alone cannot greatly reduce U.S. dependence on crude oil imports; despite consuming 20 percent of the U.S. corn drop, ethanol fuel will account for the equivalent of just 1.5 percent of U.S. crude oil imports in 2006. Oil prices have a greater effect on the profitability of ethanol production than corn prices. Crude oil prices would have to fall below $35/barrel for ethanol to no longer be competitive with gasoline. Collins states: “US farmers need to plant 90 million acres to corn by 2010, 10 million more than 2006.”
Citigroup bank of New York City issued an analysis at the same time as the USDA’s. Citigroup projects ethanol profit margins of over 20 percent for the next 10 years with a tripling of ethanol production. This increased production is projected by Citigroup to consume 31 percent of the U.S. corn crop and push corn prices to $2.90 a bushel or higher. High price and demand for corn will cause shifts from soybean acreage and lead to big increases in yield-enhancing seeds and chemicals in corn growing.
Lester Brown observes, “With the massive diversion of grain to produce fuel for cars, [US] exports will drop. The world’s breadbasket is fast becoming the U.S. fuel tank..” “The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people. The risk is that millions of those onthe lower rungs of the global economic ladder will start falling off as higher food prices drop their consumption below the survival level.”
Despite claims that ethanol plants have created over 200,000 jobs, Iowa State University economist Dave Swensen found Iowa ethanol plants created fewer than 1,000 jobs in 2006. The real reason for the explosion in ethanol production can be found in lobbying and its legislative fruit: In 2006, Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), which controls 22 percent of the ethanol market, claimed it did no lobbying at all in mid-2006 when Public Citizen filed a complaint that ethanol industries were under-reporting their lobbying costs. By February 2007 ADM reported a $300,000 lobbying tab in six months. The Renewable Fuels Association reports spending $500,000 on lobbyists from 2000 to 2005, while lobbying firms report they were paid $1.7 million by the Association during the same time. Whatever the truth of the investment in influencing Congress, Congress has implemented and sustained tax credits, tax exemptions, direct payments, and research grants for the ethanol industry that total between $5.1 billion and $6.8 billion a year.
As of October 1, 2007, the spot price for fuel ethanol has dropped 30% since May. From 2005 to 2007 the price of ethanol went from circa $2 to $1.55 per gallon, while the price of a bushel of corn went from $1.60 to $3.25. The reason for this lies in the rapid speculative development of ethanol plants in response to the 2005 Energy Act’s requirement that ethanol be blended in gasoline fuels, creating a demand of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012 versus 3.5 billion gallons ethanol production in 2004. Existing plants and those under construction will be able to deliver 7.8 billion gallons by the end of 2007 and 11.5 billion gallons in 2009. There are currently 129 ethanol plants operating, with 80 under construction or expanding existing plant capacity.
The clog in the system currently is due to two problems. First, ethanol distribution capacity has not kept up with ethanol production expansion. Because of its oxidative characteristics (which is beneficial to lowering emissions from burning gasoline), ethanol absorbs water and corrodes pipelines when put through pipelines built to carry petroleum hydrocarbons. Therefore ethanol must be shipped in truck or rail-carried tanks designed to carry it. There is a backlog of 36,166 ethanol rail cars on order as of the end of the first quarter of 2007. A number of the ethanol plants have failed to build adequate loading facilities to deliver ethanol into the transport tanks efficiently. At the receiving end, a program on NPR showed how oil companies increase their profits displacing petroleum fuel with cheaper-per-gallon ethanol in blends. Despite this inducement, refineries - mostly located far from corn-producing regions and the ethanol plants - have been investing in equipment to meet new diesel fuel and other standards instead of in ethanol-blending equipment, so the demand for all 7.5 billion gallons per year of ethanol for the U.S. fuel supply isn’t there even if the means of transporting it to the refineries was in hand.
Section 2. Biodiesel Fuel
Oilseed plants used for making biodiesel draw CO2 from the atmosphere to build stems, leaves, seeds and roots. At the end of the year, the oil extracted from the seeds to make biodiesel is burned and the leftover plant material decomposes, returning the carbon from the fuel and most of the plant matter to the atmosphere as CO2. This results in no net accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from this fuel cycle. If petroleum fuels are used for fertilizer, farm machinery, and transportation during biodiesel production, then fossil carbon is added to the CO2 load in the atmosphere. The net is that petroleum-derived diesel fuel produces 12,360 grams per gallon of CO2 into the atmosphere, while biodiesel produces 2,661 grams. If the biodiesel is produced using organic farming techniques using farm machinery powered by biofuels or renewably-generated electricity, and is transported to market using machinery similarly powered, then burning a gallon of biodiesel would add zero grams of CO2 to the atmospheric load and have no net global warming effect.
Biodiesel contains an almost unmeasurably low level of sulfur, versus over 2,000 ppm in petrodiesel (which is being removed as of 2007 to lower sulfur dioxide diesel emissions, at the cost of additional fuel refining expense and a loss of petrodiesel lubricity). Biodiesel is highly detergent by comparison to diesel refined from petroleum. If introduced into a diesel vehicle which has been running on petroleum diesel for a long time, biodiesel will liberate coatings from the fuel tank, lines, and injector system which can cause clogging problems while the crud is cleaned out of the fuel system. Thereafter, biodiesel’s superior lubricity and detergent action results in vastly extended engine and fuel injector life relative to petrodiesel. Emissions of most pollutants are lower from biodiesel than petrodiesel. The following table illustrates 100% biodiesel (B100) and 20% biodiesel/petrodiesel mix (B20) emissions:
Carbon monoxide -43.2% -12.6%
Hydrocarbons -56.3% -11.0%
Particulates -55.4% -18.0%
Nitrous oxides +5.8% +1.2%
Air toxins -60 to 90% -12 to 20%
Mutagenicity -80 to 90% -20%
Michikazu Hara of the Tokyo Institute of Technology and his colleagues have demonstrated that a charred mixture of inexpensive sugars, starches or cellulose can be treated to formulate an effective solid-acid catalyst for making biodiesel that is insoluble, cheap to prepare, and easy to recycle.
In the United States, the most promising source overall for biodiesel oil is soybeans, followed by canola/rapeseed and sunflowers. Iowa State University lists soy oil, palm oil, tallow, animal fats, yellow grease, and waste vegetable oil as probable sources, along with brown mustard, sunflower oil, canola, and certain algae that can be grown in ponds in warm climates.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, biodiesel from virgin soybean oil yields 3.2 units of fuel energy for each fossil fuel energy unit required to produce it, reducing lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions by 78 percent relative to petroleum-derived diesel fuel. Soybean crops on average yeild 50 gallons of fuel oil per acre of crop. Palm oil delivers 650 gallons of fuel oil per acre; rainforests are being cut to grow palm oil plantations. Analysts report this loss of forest carbon sink is so large that it will require 100 years of production of biodiesel from oil palms planted on an acre of cleared rainforest land to achieve carbon neutrality in release of CO2 into the atmosphere. The Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance has been formed to address such issues.
The best source of biodiesel is algae, which as shown elsewhere in this article can be produced while scrubbing CO2 and other pollutants from coal-fired power plant emissions. This source of biodiesel does not require clearing rainforest or consuming edible crop production. PetroSun’s Algae Biofuels division is in its final stage of development of commercial-scale production techniques for producing adequate quantities of algae paste before constructing its first commercial algae-to-biodiesel production facility. PetroSun’s business plan is to locate algae ponds and refining facilities for algae-derived biodiesel along major truck routes. PetroSun aims to capture the 39 billion gallon-per-year market for on-highway diesel fuel use; on-highway diesel fuel consumption is increasing 3 percent per year.
A biodiesel mix of 20 percent food oils and 80 percent petroleum diesel has performed well in over 7 million miles of tests in the U.S. and is widely used in Europe. Tests by the U.S. Departments of Defense and Agriculture, and the Southwest Research Institute, confirmed that biodiesel produces less air pollution than all-petroleum diesel while being equally energy-efficient.
At “Sunshine Farm” on Wes Jackson’s Land Institute in Kansas, they are determining how to farm with zero energy input: the farm internally produces all the energy consumed in its operations. The Sunshine farm’s diesel-powered machinery is powered with sunflower and soy oil-derived diesel fuel made from crops grown on the farm. The goal of Sunflower farm is to export enough energy from the farm to offset the embodied energy in the equipment and supplies imported to the farm, while meeting the operating energy needs of the farm with fuels grown and electricity generated on the farm.
Biodiesel from sunflowers: San Juan Biodiesel is moving foward with plans to construct a biodiesel facility in Southwest Colorado. Test plots of sunflowers grown in San Juan County, UT, and Dolores County, CO, in the summer of 2006 produced 735 pounds per acre of 3,300 acres planted by 23 farmers in dryland crop and 2,000 pounds per acre irrigated. The oil from the sunflower seeds is converted to diesel methyl-ester fuel.
Biodiesel from fallow cover crops: University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers tested growing cool-season oil crops such as brown mustard and camelina during the fallow period in wheat systems, successfully producing biofuel while still conserving soil moisture for the next wheat crop. This and other innovative farm water management research and conservation measures can be found in a SARE report at <www.sare.org/publications/water.htm>.
Biodiesel from topical palm oil: Palm oil is among the cheapest and easiest biofuel material for processing into biodiesel. An acre of oil palms will produce 650 gallons of methyl-esters (diesel fuel) per acre, versus 50 gallons per acre by soybeans. However, increased production and export to the U.S. and Asian Rim markets will likely come at the expense of biodiverse tropical rain forests, which are already being cleared to make room for palm plantations in some areas.
Section 3. Biomass
Central Vermont Public Service now offers a new variation on “green power.” Their Cow Power program allows customers to buy electricity generated from methane produced from digesters fed by the manure from two large dairies. More than 3,700 customers have enrolled.
Dan Reicher proposes sequestering atmospheric carbon through a biomass-based energy generation system. The plant removes CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. When the plant biomass is used to produce energy - electricity or biofuels - if the resulting CO2 is captured and sequestered, one gets a net reduction in atmospheric CO2. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla advocates making plastics out of biomass. He sees cost estimates for what he describes as a “relatively modest technology” that are 20-50 percent below petroleum-based plastics when petroleum costs $60 per barrel.
Part IV.4. Bacterial fuel cells
Claire Reimers, professor of chemical oceanography at Oregon State University, has developed bacterially-powered fuel cells for her deep-sea sensors. The seabed is full of bacteria which release electrons when they break down molecules of organic and inorganic matter. Reimers put a 19" graphite plate onto the seabed to attract the electrons freed by bacterial metabolism, with a cathode in the water above the seabed to provide a current path. The microbial fuel cells on the ocean floor produced power without interruption for a year.
Observers note that wastewater treatment plants make use of bacteria to metabolize organic waste. If harnessed in a series of bacterial fuel cells, the bacteria might produce enough electricity to provide for part or all of the treatment plant’s needs.