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The Biofuel Dilemma

Biofuels such as biodiesel may prove to be a useful transition technology for the move away from fossil fuels and into the Bright Green world. While they currently cost more than fossil fuels, a new process from the Tokyo Institute of Technology may bring down production costs dramatically. But attractive as they are, biofuels pose some sticky problems. Fortunately, a solution may be at hand.

There's much to like about biofuels. They can replace fossil fuel uses without requiring significant modification of machinery. Since they are generally derived from vegetation, they're close to carbon-neutral (as the next crop of plants will take up the carbon dioxide released from burning the previous biofuel crops). Biofuels like biodiesel produce significantly fewer particulates and carbon monoxide than regular diesel, and produce few of the sulfur emissions leading to acid rain. And while some regions hope to become biofuel powerhouses, the ability to make biofuels is not limited by geography, so cartels and "peak production" won't become problems.

But biofuels have some notable drawbacks, too. Making biofuels from plants already in demand for food, such as soy, corn and canola/rapeseed, raises the prices of the food versions and reduces available supplies. And increased demand for biofuels is triggering the expansion of agricultural land, with devastating results in some areas. According to this week's New Scientist, the clearing of land in south-east Asia for palm oil production is the leading cause of rain forest destruction in the region; Brazil faces a similar problem with soya plants, already the primary cause of deforestation prior to the biofuel boom.

The solution may be to stop looking at new crops for biofuels, and to start looking at waste biomass.

The use of agricultural material for food and industry is not 100% efficient. Tons of biomass waste remains after the "useful" plant products are gone. Take sawdust -- wood product manufacturing produces millions of tons of sawdust every year (the state of Missouri alone produces around 760,000 tons of sawdust, while British Columbia produces over two million tons annually). Some of that can be reused, but much of it simply goes to waste. A new German process, however, could turn sawdust and other biomass wastes into high-quality synthetic fuels.

Steve Brown, Shell's London-based commercial manager for biofuels, says the result is a domestically produced fuel that outperforms both petroleum and plant oil-based biodiesel. Brown says studies that account for each joule of energy consumed in growing or pumping feedstock and fuel production show motoring on gasification biodiesel produces 85-90 percent less climate-changing carbon dioxide than using fossil diesel, while conventional biodiesel offers only a 50 percent reduction.
Using Choren's biodiesel also generates less soot and smog because the fuel contains none of the sulfur found in conventional diesel and few aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzene. Carmakers DaimlerChrylser and Volkswagen, which helped finance Choren's pilot plant, test-drove on its fuels and measured a 30-50 percent drop in exhaust soot and up to 90 percent less smog-forming pollutants, compared to the cleanest grades of conventional diesel.

Of course, this isn't the first attempt to make biofuels out of otherwise waste biomass. As I noted back in June, University of Wisconsin researchers figured out a better method of converting plant carbohydrates into fuel, using a biomimetic process. And just a few days ago, Jeremy posted about work done at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory using "jungle rot" fungus as a natural method of breaking down cellulose for use in ethanol production.

We should be careful not to imagine that biofuels alone will replace our use of fossil fuels. We need a much bigger change -- a combination of high-efficiency systems, redesigned communities, and energy produced from clean, renewable sources. But changes of that scale take time. Biofuels, like hybrid cars and rooftop solar panels, are a kind of bridge technology, helping us get to where we need to go without cutting us off from our existing systems. It's crucial that our use of them doesn't make things worse in other ways.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Biofuel Dilemma:

» Biofuel future from The Daily Glyph
Great post from Jamais Cascio. WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: The Biofuel Dilemma... [Read More]

» El dilema de la biomasa como fuente de energía from Juan Freire
Con el actual incremento del precio del petróleo se han desatado las predicciones alarmistas y la fe absoluta y acrítica en las energías renovables. David de Ugarte, que hace días ya criticaba algunos errores básicos en los análisis sobre el [Read More]

» New Energy Currents: 2005-12-02 from Winds of Change.NET
After a two-month hiatus to 'adjust' to some new academic obligations, New Energy Currents is back, and better, with a more robust selection of links and significant expansions in two different directions. First and foremost,... [Read More]

Comments (14)

Joakim Ivarsson:

Don not forget that bio fuel is fuelled by oil at the moment: tractors, fertilizers, transportations.. Of course peak oil will affect the price and production volume of bio fuel.

Past a certain point, you can run tractors and transportation on biofuels :D

Best way to make biofuels is probably agriculture waste/waste cellulose and algae production.

Biomass seems to be the key from changing from black garbage dump to a green garden. It covered the earth before we unleashed our pavement and plastic, and still does to a good extent. But it is losing the battle.

I see the biomass future to be intertwined with other renewable technologies. I can imagine a carbon nanocompressible foam and aerogel structure with more open space than a parking lot, filled to the brim with organic hydroponic biomass crops, for fuel, fiber, fun, and food for the masses.

I see the biomass future embracing industrial hemp fiber as the as the ideal fiber. I see them embracing corn, soybean, miscanthus, and all the other beautiful colored and green plants. I see food and energy production being decentralized with biomass fueled hydroponic tanks, adored with beautiful helical VAWTs and HAWTs, transforming wind kinesis into electrical current, covered with quantum dot polymer/semiconductor/metallic solar film, combined with a system using hydrogen producing bacteria to treat and utilize wasted substrate.

I see spociety becoming renewable and intergrated, and extending to the transportation sector and eventually using biomass, wind/solar/water energy, fusion, and maybe even ZPE (tinfoil hat) to electronically fuel the renewable and networked transport of information, people, small goods and freight, dihydrogen monoxide, and waste.
http://spoey.com - The only constant is delta.


I hope people don't forget that we have a machine more or less right now that will take any sort of burnabie biomass,no matter how rough, and turn it into power (mechanical or electrical) with good efficiency, and without the fuss involved in turning it into some sort of fluid first. I am of course talking about stirling engines.

They have come a long way since the failed auto stirling effort of the 80"s. Now they really work- in the lab- and with the usual development process, they will work in a tractor, truck or car. Of course, this development will take place in Japan or China, not here, but that's not a problem for the world, just for us.

I am looking forward to buying a grass/trash/sawdust burning tractor from China.

I have a problem with "here". Just where is that place? Ah, I see, you're talking about "your" "here"!

Wimbi, can you update us on sterling engines? What's needed so we can have them running in many places? Thanks!

Glad to see a balanced post on biomass, Jamais. The idea of biomass being a bridge technology is especially good. Three thoughts:

1. The idea of agricultural "waste" may become obsolete. Right now, cheap energy lets us consider many things to be waste that in fact are valuable inputs to other processes. Agricultural waste is needed for compost, mulch, etc. The idea of removing biomass from the land to fuel our out-of-control transport system fills me with horror.

2. Biomass as transport fuel begins to makes sense with a transportation system that is drastically scaled down. No more jet trips to Paris for a weekend of shopping. No more suburbias. No more reliance on the personal auto as the centerpiece of our civilization. A lot more walking and bicycles.

3. A key to making the transition is to eschew subsidies for fuel. Cheap fuel prevents us from making the changes that will be necessary. In contrast, high fuel prices will encourage innovation. Will we be wise enough to enact fuel taxes?


Nice post Jamais. And you're right, the mass production of biofuel feedstock in developing countries may have the potential of destroying the environment there. We need some kind of "green label" and certification for biodiesel and ethanol, showing that the feedstock used is not based on plantation cultures for which forests have been sacrificed.

George Monbiot wrote a strong piece about this last year, subtitled "The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster". Please find it here.

From what I've learned recently, the best biofuel scheme thus far (cellulosic ethanol) is a false hope.  Conversion to ethanol yields 87-92 gallons per ton, or 46-49% energy efficiency.

Production of gasoline from cruce is 83% efficient; diesel, 88%.  To replace gasoline with cellulosic bio-ethanol would take at least 160% as many BTU's of raw materials as we now consume in oil.

Unless the information I have is very wrong, this is another boondoggle.  And a deadly one.


What about this?


It has potential...


Right, Lucas! "Here" to me is a farm/forest in the middle of the USA. Not in a big city or some other place where biomass is nowhere. That's why I think of biomass all the time, it's surrounding me. And a lot of it is going to rot right where it is or to the dump and rot there. So, EP, I don't see any loss of anything when I visualize stuffing this stuff into a tractor and doing something I hope useful with it and then dumping the ash right back on the ground.

But I know this is nothing like a universal solution- just one that might work in places like where I am. And I sure do agree that there should be nothing like "waste" on a farm.

It happens that my own wood stove stirling project got chopped when my very good technician got snatched off to work for NASA on another whiz bang project that will do them good but not much good to me- or you.

What is needed to get this hardware going is pretty routine stuff. Somebody scrapes up a few megabucks, writes a request for proposal, and stands back. They would get at least ten responses, and maybe three would be good, and one would be great. Go with that one. Result- farm tractor running on stuff lying around the farm. Then the Chinese take it, and turn it into a balance of payment problem- for "us".

Wimbi, I do visualize stuffing biomass into tractors (gasogenes will keep farm equipment going, at least).  You can also do it indirectly, make F-T diesel and generate all the nitrate you need, too.

What it's not going to do is replace petroleum for the same old inefficient internal combustion engines in America's vehicles.  There are too many losses in conversion (46% conversion to ethanol times 15.9% thermal efficiency yields 7.3% throughput).  We need something around 4 times as good; fortunately, we can probably do it.

Unfortunately, it will take a complete change of mind-set.  That's the hardest part.


OK, we have the usual situation -supply has to equal demand. If demand keeps going insanely upward, then supply can't keep up. But, if we could wave a magic wand and make the mind of all those other folks set like ours, all is well. Right---- now where did I put that magic wand???

So I fall back to suggesting the modest strategy of victory by a thousand little bites. A bite of biomass, of wind, of solar, of energy efficiency, of no-heating houses, of all those good things we are so familiar with and know can be done.

Come to think of it, there really is a magic wand, sort of- called true pricing, in which everything bears the price of putting the world back to where it was before the thing was done. And, as everybody immediately yells, that is just as hard to get as a magic wand. SWTD?

The "magic wand" might be the fact that electricity is but a fraction of the cost of gasoline (after drivetrain losses), and the auto companies are forcing us to use expensive fuel if they won't make vehicles that let us PLUG IN!

If you can charge your car on the surplus electricity from your Stirling wood stove, that's just icing on the cake.


It's fun and easy to dream up gadgets, even very good ones, and there are lots and lots of very good people doing this, including of course, EP, who's web site should be visited and assisted (the ergosphere, which I should flag, but won't know how to until my son visits and shows me how in a day or two).

But, we are already swimming in a billowing cloud of brilliant ideas; how do we snatch them out of this virtual state so people can actually use them?

It would be "so cool" as kids say these days, to have my hybrid sitting outside right now, eating moldy hay and running and warming my house while charging its batteries, so when I go into town tomorrow, I am skimming along on sunlight instead of fossil carbon. Certianly possible, maybe even good, but not to be done until a whale of a lot more people have "our" mindset. There's the rub, all right.


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