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Biofuels: Hope or Hype?

By Jeanne Roberts

Dec 2, 2009

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated this week that it is increasing the biofuel "blend wall," the amount of ethanol allowed to be added to gasoline.

It's still running tests, and it delayed a final decision until summer, but the agency said Tuesday that initial data indicate newer engines can handle more ethanol than the current 10 percent limit.

"It is vitally important that the country increase the use of renewable fuels," EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, co-chairman of the ethanol trade association Growth Energy, which requested the blend wall be bumped from 10 to 15 percent.

Biofuels have been widely pitched as developed nations’ best hope to cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide energy security. However, as their use has grown, unintended consequences have surfaced, raising questions about just how large a role some biofuels should play.

Food or Fuel?

Biofuels . Henry Ford designed his 1908 Model T to run on ethanol from corn, but Standard Oil and its fossil fuel cohorts, seeing the threat biofuels presented to their business, lowered their prices and drove biofuels out of the marketplace.

By the 1970’s, the United States had become so dependent on foreign oil that the Oil Crisis (twice, in 1973 and 1979) caused an outright panic when the Middle East reduced exports and raised prices.

To avert disaster, the late saw the creation of commercial biofuel projects in 21 countries, but most (and specifically France) were using non-food crops like rapeseed as feedstock.

In 2005, the state of Minnesota became the first to that all diesel fuel contain at least 2 percent biodiesel. In 2008, The American Society for Testing and Materials, or ASTM, published the first, comprehensive specification for biodiesel blending.

All biofuels are not the same, however, and all are not created equal.

Bioethanol uses various fermentation processes to convert the starches and sugars in plant food crops (typically corn, sugar beets and sugar cane) to alcohol-type fuels. Biodiesel uses transesterification (with alcohol as a catalyst) to convert vegetable or animal fats (lipids) to esters, which make fuel. Palm oil, a driver of deforestation in Indonesia, is an example of a vegetable fat.

The primary problem, and one that in in the form of spiking and food riots worldwide, is that all these “first generation” biofuels use what would otherwise be food to create fuel.

This approach, which allows BMW drivers to feel good about their environmental footprint, doesn’t feel so good to families living in a tarpaper shacks in Mexico City with only enough pesos to buy either a package of corn tortillas or the oil to cook them in.

Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, highlighted the disparity in a recent conversation:

“I don't think biofuels have anything to do with energy. They are, in fact, part of a larger agrarian transition in which industry subsumes agriculture to its own particular interests, making biofuels a captive market that provides an investment opportunity for monopolies which control grain, and for the financial sector, which needs to offload a lot its money into another bubble. In fact, what we saw in 2008 was precisely that.”

Draining Natural Resources

Attachment Size
EPA Letter-Ethanol.pdf 494.51 KB

This was a very informative article about the dispute over biofuel based on the main threats to our world, such as its effect on the use of natural resources and how its impacting human society. I think it's important for society and companies to understand the importance and relevance of using biodiesel fuel.

I still like biofuels - in

I still like biofuels - in moderation. There is wasteland out in the tropics where palm oil can be safely grown. And closer to home we can turn all sorts of farm, forestry and household waste into fuel that will genuinely help the climate.

Let's make use of that used chip fat and straw and woodland clippings. And memo to greens: You should be in favour of waste incinerators, if they are hooked up to the power plants.

But planting the world with biofuels and sucking the rivers dry to keep our tanks topped up? That way starvation and madness lie. And it might not even prevent global warming.

Further clarification

The corn used as feedstock in ethanol is field corn, which in the larger food chain is converted to animal protein (it's used as livestock feed). In ethanol production, only the starch in the kernel is used - the protein is still available and is converted to DDGS, a high quality, high-protein feed for cattle and hogs. This co-product is a valuable revenue stream for ethanol plants, which could just as correctly be called DDGS plants...with ethanol as a by-product. The food vs fuel argument doesn't hold up well when DDGS are factored in.

Further, many of the ethanol facilities in Minnesota are farmer-owned co-ops or LLCs, and provide not only a financial hedge for these farmers but also allow them to share in more of the value of what they produce. This adds financial strength to state and local economies by keeping more fuel dollars in Minnesota rather than sent off to the Middle East, Venezuela - or Canada.

Biofuel activists condemn delay to ethanol ruling

Biofuels companies are extremely upset about the delay for more testing. The head of the Renewable Fuels Association said the delay "threatens to paralyse the continued evolution of America's ethanol industry" and " will chill investment in advanced biofuel technologies at a critical time in their development and commercialisation." (from agrimoney: )

A lot of incorrect and inacurate information

There are so many inaccuracies and so much misinformation in this article its staggering.

First off, biodiesel in the US is made from 3 main feedstocks; soybean oil, waste animal fats, and waste cooking oil. A soy bean contains roughly 80% meal and 20% oil. More demand for soy oil creates more food not less. The other 2 feedstocks are waste products.

Second, water use in biodiesel is first generation technology, and while its still around, most plants now a days use dry filter media rather than water to polish the biodiesel. Even in the biodiesel plants that do use water the amount is very low compared to most industrial processes, and are particularly low compared to petroleum production.

Third, on indirect land use, over the last 10 years the production and use biofuels has multiplied exponentially, but the actual rate of global deforestation has dropped steadily. This shows that the "indirect" land use argument is not supported by real world evidence. ()

Forth, on the subject of energy balance, many studies including those done by National Renewable Energy Laboratory, shows soy biodiesel to contain between 3 and 4 times the energy used to create it. The waste sources are even better. The "researcher" sited in your article above has been thoroughly refuted by dozens of government and non-profit studies.

Fifth, in terms of human impact, biodiesel has been a rapid growth industry that has created good paying green collar jobs throughout the US including struggling rural farmers and under employed urban residents. And, because the reduced emission fuel goes into diesel trucks, the positive health effects of biodiesel are amplified in our most polluted communities...just where they are needed most.

Finally we should remember that in terms of global warming gasses, biodiesel reduces life cycle CO2 emissions of about 17.3 pounds per gallon as compared to diesel fuel. (links below) Multiply that by the 700 million gallons produced in the US last year and it means that we have reduced co2 in the US by about 12.1 billion pounds.

Which is the equivalent of taking over 1 million cars off the road last year alone. (average car=11,450 lbs of carbon/yr - link below)

While there are very real and valid concerns about certain biofuels, i think it is important to appreciate all the good they do as well. Because the bottom line is, at the moment, the alternative to biofuels for a lot of us is just more petroleum.

Brent Baker
Tri-State Biodiesel

diesel co2 emissions (22.2 lbs/gallon) --

Biodiesel co2 emissions (78% reduction = 4.7 lbs/gallon) --

Average annual auto co2 emissions (11,450lbs/year) -

Biofuels-Hype r Hope.

The original author appears to have very shallow information indeed. Water requirements for ethanol derived from corn are published by DOE and are much higher than those quoted which were water used at the biorefinery. To these usages one must add irrugation which is over 10 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol. Yet we need all the ethanol we can get from corn without causing food shortages or negative environmental impact.

My major concern is that the author focused on "first generation biofuels" which can be viewed as a stop gap measure. First generation biofuels are mostly ethanol made from corn and biodiesel made from animal or vegatable fats. There are real engine life concerns with either of these fuels and before all else we need correct standards to protect millions of engines. Details are available if needed. Replacing engines before their time has huge negative financial and environmental impacts.

What the author needed was a focus on second and third generation biofuels. They are defined as fuels made from biomass which cannot enter the food chain. Examples are ethanol from cellulose or diesel from cellulose. Cellulose can be treated with acids or enzymes to convert it to glucose which can be then fermented to the same ethanol (chemically the same). There are still engine issues (hence the need for standards) but now we can use energy crops like switchgrass, spent crops or residuals left over from logging (and that ia a whopping 40% of the logged hardwood tree). Now the environmental and finiacial models change. The best case may be the combination of first and second generation biorefineries.

One example of this is being developed by Poet, the corn ethanol firm. They have devised a method to harvest corn cobs with the same machine used to harvest the corn. Corn goes to the corn to ethanol plant. The cobs go to a second generation biorefinery next door. The cellulose in the cobs is converted to bioethanol. Please do not burden me or the readers about soil depletion as folks smarter than either of us have worked all of this out. Their whole model depends on increasing yield and soil nutrition not depleting either.

Anothe example is to gasify switchgrass, spent crops or forest residuals, clean the syngas so tha only carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide are left. This is an environmentally friendly process. The clean syngas is passed, under pressure, thorigh a Fischer-Tropsch catalytic process and the gas is converted to a VERY pure distalate which can be refined to ethanol, gasoline or diesel quite easily. One such plant in South Africa makes 6.7 million gallons per day of fuels from coal. We know how this works because CLEAN syngas from coal and CLEAN syngas from biomass is chemicaly identical. So we get chemically pure fuels from waste materials or crops that do not have to compete with food crops. Theren is a pilot plant in the US that is not making synthethic diesel from biomass daily. There is more good news. Significant heat can be recovered from syngas cleanup and from the exothermic F-T process. If this biorefinery is placed adjacent to a factory which uses fossil fuels, the factory can reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use by switching to the spent heat for which they should pay. This is the plan for Flambeau River Papers who will disclace about one trillion BTUs generated from fossil fuels with recovered heat from the Flambeau River Biorefinery which does not require any fossil fuels.

My next concern is that the original author failed to mention thermal efficiencies of any apporaches. All of the first, second or third generation biorefineries are simply BTU factories. Thermal efficiency is of paramount importance and must be considered in every case. I have gathered daya on many processes and am willing to share it with those who need it. Contact .

lack of knowlege, plenty of prejudice

While you express many valid concerns about biofuels, your depth of knowledge on the matter is about as shallow as it gets. You've got some amazing insights, but you manage to tie them in with dead wrong assumptions, or facts.

"Holt-Gimenez also targets biofuels as, “a Trojan horse for the GM (genetically-modified foods) industry”, since corporations like Monsanto use GM crops as a way of cracking open markets by contaminating pure food species to allow for the gradual progression of GM crops."

YES! Loved it! One of the arguments used by agricultural biofuels produces is that they are not increasing the amount of land they use for farming, but rather are increasing their yields. A lot of this is done through GM crops.

"The greater source of pollution from biofuels is water pollution, as refineries inadvertently or intentionally discharge sludge or fluids containing glycerin and methanol (and, potentially, hexane), the byproducts of refining."

Really? Is this actually an argument against biofuels? You could substitue "biofuels" with any number of the products of industry, and it would still ring true. I'm sure you 're very aware, but we have rules and regulations in place to prevent this from happening. Does it prevent it all from happening? No, but the general idea is, if someone is polluting the water table in the process of producing biofuels, they are doing it wrong and should be held accountable. It's illegal for biofuels producers to dump waste down the drain, just like its illegal for a nuclear plant to dump its waste in the river, just like its illegal for an auto shop to dump its oil down the drain. And I'd like to see how this is a systematic problem of biofuels production, outside of isolated incidents, and not a problem with industry in general.

"All biofuels are not the same, however, and all are not created equal."

You have no idea how true this is, but this whole article lumps them all together and is using one big brush to paint them all in the same negative color. The large majority of the time you were saying "biofuels" you meant "corn Ethanol."

And you could do some responsible research and not find the only study that puts biofuels at a negative energy balance. The same study that the previous commenter pointed out has been debunked, not to mention it's extremely outdated.

Or, i guess we should just continue using petroleum.

A few clarifications about biofuels from Minnesota

I'm not going to address some of the claims from "Food First," other than to point out they seem to be a rather odd little anti-trade group. Also, the majority of studies on the net enegy gain of biofuels say they do deliver more energy than it takes to make them. The only studies that found differently used (now retired) Prof. Pimentel's numbers, and his reserch has been widely debunked.

Minnesota now has a 5% biodiesel mandate, up from the 2% we started with. We also have more E85 outlets than any other state, 350+.

Only a Minnesotan would know this, but none of the state's ethanol plants are located on "The Range." They are all in the lower 2/3 of the state, where the corn grows.

Robert Moffitt
Communications Director
Clean Fuel & Vehicle Technologies program
American Lung Association in Minnesota

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