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“The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented.” – Henry Ford, 1925

Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford designed the Model-T to run on either gasoline or a corn-based fuel called “ethanol”. Even before that, in 1897, Rudolph Diesel demonstrated that his engine could run on peanut oil. Today, following an eight-decade detour in the petroleum age, biofuels are back – fueled by a powerful combination of advancing technologies, rising environmental concerns, farmer support, and soaring oil prices.

After a century of relying on fossil fuels, so-named because they come from plants and animals buried in the ground for many millions of years, humans now have a growing understanding of the problems related to petroleum products. Climate change is caused in large part by CO2 emissions, the biggest man-made source of which is transportation. A near epidemic of asthma is closely linked to diesel exhaust and particulate matter. Oil spills, arctic oil drilling, and strip mining for coal represent other potential environmental problems associated with fossil fuels.

Technology and science have invented ways to make bio-based products less expensive and more adaptable.

Currently, Bio-Based Products Can Be Used to Replace:

  • Gasoline
  • Diesel fuel
  • Home heating oil
  • Plastics (from computer parts to water bottles)
  • Textiles
  • And much more

The prospect of a society with much greater use of these products is often referred to as either the “bio-based future” or a “carbohydrate economy”. Significant resources are being invested in this future. Biofuels get the most attention, and have the greatest investment; for good reason, the prospect of replacing the black gold that our economy runs on is exciting and potentially lucrative.

Biofuels: What Are They?

All biofuels and bio-based products come from “biomass”, a term that covers all living or recently living biological material, which can be used as fuel or for industrial production. Examples include wood, corn, sugarcane, and manure. Unlike fossil fuels, which come from plants and animals long dead, biofuels come from plants grown today. That makes them endlessly renewable.

Biofuels Can Be Separated Into Three Basic Categories:

  1. Ethanol: Primarily used in cars, ethanol is a type of alcohol and is most commonly made from corn or sugarcane. Based on sugars.
  2. Biodiesel: A substitute for diesel fuel, which is used mostly in trucks in the US but also in an increasing number of diesel cars. Most commonly made from soybeans. Based on oils.
  3. Other Biomass: Mostly used for generation of electricity or heat. Examples: burning wood chips to boil water and create steam, which spins turbines and creates electricity; collecting methane from manure piles to generate heat or electricity.

It’s important to distinguish between two major energy needs in North America: Transportation and Electricity

Transportation
Cars and trucks run primarily on refined oil, and not on electricity. Although plug-in hybrid cars are on the road, and electric vehicles are gaining popularity, portions of the auto fleet will continue to rely on liquid fuels. Biofuels are today’s primary alternatives to oil.

Electricity
Our homes, businesses, and more recently, our automobiles, run on electricity, most of which is generated from coal or nuclear power. Solar power and wind turbines are today’s primary alternatives to coal and nuclear generated power.
While solar power and wind turbines are alternative sources of electricity, these technologies do not reduce our need for transportation fuels.

Ethanol: How it Works

Man pumping gasoline in a car.

Ethanol may be in your car right now. All gas-powered cars can run on a small percentage of ethanol mixed with regular gasoline, and either ethanol or MTBE is often added to promote complete fuel combustion.

“There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.” – Henry Ford, 1925

There are over 5 million “flexible-fuel” cars in the US, capable of running on any combination of gasoline and ethanol, though the majority of them actually just use gasoline. It costs automakers less than $100 extra to make a car flex-fuel.

While there is no perceptible difference driving a flex-fuel car running on ethanol, miles per gallon would be 15% lower.

Brazil is an example: in Brazil, the sugar cane industry is huge. They use it to make ethanol to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. Now most Brazilians drive flexible-fuel cars, and buy whichever fuel is cheaper.

Benefits of Ethanol

  1. Ready-to-Use: Ethanol can be used in our existing car fleet, added to gasoline at up to 10% of a tank.
  2. Accessibility: New cars can run on a 20% mix of ethanol with gas, and only minor changes are required for new cars to run on any mix of ethanol and gasoline, up to 85% ethanol, known as E85.
  3. Transport: It can be transported easily and use the same gas stations.
  4. Surplus Corn: This is a good use for surplus corn production.
  5. Global Warming: The burning of fossil fuels releases CO2, a primary contributor to global warming. Ethanol has the potential to significantly reduce our CO2 emissions.
  6. Pollution and Related Health Problems: Ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, and would reduce problems such as asthma and some cancers.
  7. Foreign Relations / Dependence on Foreign Oil: Much of our economy relies on continued supplies of oil from countries with unstable governments.
  8. “Peak Oil”: Oil is not a renewable resource; it will get increasingly scarce and eventually become too expensive to extract. This concept is known as “Peak Oil”, and while there is much debate about when it will arrive, some analysts believe we may be close to, or already past our peak of oil extraction.

Problems With Ethanol

Most of the problems with ethanol are based on the current main ingredient: corn. Alternative methods are available, but are not yet cost effective.

  1. Ethanol is currently made from corn, and the way corn is grown in the US is not sustainable. Corn is often genetically modified, and grown using fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which have environmental ramifications.
  2. So much energy is used to grow and harvest the corn that ethanol is only marginally efficient.
  3. Corn is a commodity, and as such is supported by government subsidies that distort market signals and cause overproduction. This perpetuates poverty overseas, where our surplus crops are dumped at below-cost prices.
    100% Ethanol cannot be shipped through existing pipelines, because of its chemical properties.
  4. One-fifth of the US corn crop is currently processed into ethanol at 114 biorefineries. To meet Pres. Bush’s 2017 target of producing 132 billion liters of ethanol, the entire current US crop would need to be turned into fuel.
  5. Each additional acre of corn planted for ethanol uses about 137 pounds of chemical fertilizer, a pound of toxic herbicide, and a considerable amount of water for irrigation. In addition, incentives to expand ethanol production in the US have led to the release of 30 billion tons of carbon when farmers cleared and prepared previously natural land.
  6. Although Brazil meets 40% of its transportation needs through ethanol, critics warn that farming the sugarcane used to produce ethanol encroaches on wildlife habitat, degrades soil, and causes pollution when fields are burned.

US Industry Status

Over the last year, ethanol production has received substantial interest and investment. It has become much higher profile in part due to major investments by Bill Gates, a plug by president Bush in his State of the Union address, and a major marketing campaign by GM. Of course, the high price of gasoline helped increase interest in alternatives as well – as the price difference between gasoline and ethanol narrows, demand for ethanol increases.

As of June 2017, U.S. ethanol production was 41 million gallons per day, with gasoline production at 412 million gallons per day. Ethanol production has been trending upward for over a decade, with the latest statistics from the US Energy Information Administration showing a steady rise:

  • 2014: 13.5 billion gallons per year
  • 2015: 14.2 billion gallons per year
  • 2016: 15 billion gallons per year
  • 2017: 15.5 billion gallons per year

In 2007, the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard required volumes of renewable fuels to increase yearly. However, in 2017, a proposal from the Trump administration sought to reduce the biofuel volume required in gasoline and diesel fuel.

Outlook for Future Ethanol Production: Ethanol from Corn

Ethanol made from corn would be improved if the corn was raised sustainably on mid-size farms, sold through co-ops, processed locally into ethanol and used regionally. This would be more efficient and would help small farmers survive. Encouraging ethanol to develop in this way could be done with incentives that encourage small ethanol plants, with seed money to start cooperatives, and with incentives to promote more farmers growing corn sustainably.

Beyond Corn: Cellulosic Ethanol

Advances in technology will allow us to produce ethanol economically from almost any type of plant material. Cellulose (the most common organic compound on earth, found in all plant fiber, including the leaves, stem, and stalks) can be broken down by enzymes into sugars. The sugars can be fermented to make ethanol. The ethanol produced from cellulose has many important benefits.

The following table illustrates some of the benefits of cellulosic ethanol compared to corn-based ethanol:

Corn-Based EthanolCellulosic Ethanol
Relies on conventional food crops, such as corn and sugarcane.Uses a wider range of plants, including agricultural waste (corn stalks, wheat straw, waste wood).
20% reduction in carbon emissions relative to gasoline.Potential 90%+ reduction in carbon emissions relative to gasoline; may promote beneficial carbon storage in the soil with perennial energy crops, like switchgrass.
Conventional crops require greater use of chemical and water inputs to grow.Energy crops require fewer inputs and may be perennial crops, such as grasses, which help prevent soil erosion.
High-value byproducts include animal feed.High value byproducts include a wide variety of chemical products, such as lubricants and plastics, as well as electricity.

Advancing the technology to make cellulosic ethanol requires major investment. Unfortunately, the 2017 proposal from the US Environmental Protection Agency lowered the target for advanced biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol.

Biodiesel: Smells Like French Fries

Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil or other natural oils mostly derived from soy in the US. Biodiesel can also be made from waste vegetable oil; the US Army currently produces biodiesel from used cooking oil.

According to the U.S. EPA, biodiesel is less toxic than table salt and more biodegradable than sugar. It has none of the toxic or environmental hazards of fossil-derived diesel fuel.

Biodiesel contains no petroleum, but it can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel to create a biodiesel blend. It can be used in diesel engines with little or no modifications. Currently biodiesel is available in all 50 states. There are 25 places to buy biodiesel in Massachusetts alone, out of 2300 gas stations.

Biodiesel is superior to petroleum-based diesel fuel according to most diesel engine mechanics. According to the U.S. EPA, biodiesel is less toxic than table salt and more biodegradable than sugar. It has none of the toxic or environmental hazards of fossil-derived diesel fuel.

If you were driving a diesel car – as many people in Europe do – you could just fill up with biodiesel one day, instead of regular diesel. It is actually better for your engine, and it makes your exhaust smell like French fries.

Benefits of Biodiesel

  1. In many ways biodiesel works better than diesel. It’s better for the engine, better for the environment, and better for human health.
  2. As the industry grows, biodiesel can provide a new income source for farmers, revitalizing rural economies.
  3. It’s much simpler to make biodiesel than ethanol; this can be done on a farm scale with soybeans grown on the farm.
  4. Replacing diesel with biodiesel also helps reduce smog, ozone, acid rain, cancer and asthma, some of the ills associated with burning petroleum diesel.
  5. Biodiesel burns up to 75% cleaner than conventional diesel fuel, substantially reduces carbon monoxide, and eliminates sulphur dioxide emissions. Arguably the largest benefit would be a reduction in greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

Biodiesel is not perfect, but it is an improvement from petroleum diesel, even when you only consider the usage of these fuels, and not the production. Issues of peak oil, climate change, and geopolitics are the same as mentioned above for gasoline vs. ethanol.

Problems with Biodiesel

There are sustainability issues with growing soybeans, similar to those with corn. There is a risk that increasing biodiesel use would only expand the monocultures already existing today. For example, Brazil has already seen an increase in deforestation as its soybean acreage expands for biodiesel production. This has a negative impact on C02 reduction, a main reason for pursuing biofuels in the first place.

The efficiency of making biodiesel is better than that of ethanol, but it’s still is not very efficient. Proponents suggest that new methods will increase efficiency; opponents suggest that there is a long way to go.

Like ethanol, there are limits to how much biodiesel can be produced. Land use, water availability, and competition with food crops all limit the production levels. It would require a major technological advance for biodiesel to replace all diesel fuel currently used in the US.

Us Industry Position

Biodiesel production is a much smaller industry than ethanol, although it’s growing very quickly. Ethanol has a head start due to its use as a fuel additive to help states comply with the Clean Air Act. Monthly biodiesel production was 149 million gallons in August of 2017, up from 142 million gallons in August of 2016 and 124 million gallons in August of 2015. The biodiesel tax incentive that went into effect January 1, 2005 helped biodiesel demand to climb. However, as noted above, proposed target resets to biofuels in the US may inhibit this growth in the near future.

Outlook for Future Biodiesel Production

There has been much research demonstrating that vast amounts of usable oil can be harvested from algae (60 gallons of oil per acre of soy, compared to up to 10,000 gallons of oil per acre of farmed algae). If this technology is perfected and results in a highly efficient source of oil to make into biodiesel, it would rate high for sustainability. Alternatively, steps could be taken to encourage and equip farmers to produce their own oil crops and biodiesel, reducing a costly and unpredictable expense. If production can be kept small-scale though creative incentives, farmers stand to benefit much more from this new market.

Impacts of Biofuels
on Sustainable Agriculture

This is a hotly debated topic, and only time will tell the real answer. However, in the short term, there will be more demand for corn and soybeans, and thus higher prices. This has both positive and negative results:

Positives:

  • More money to farmers; less reliance on the subsidy system and fewer farmers going bankrupt.
  • Higher prices for corn and soy feed, which will make raising cattle on grass more economically viable.
  • Less “dumping” of corn and soy surplus overseas, which distorts trade and perpetuates poverty.

Corn farm

Negatives:

  • Higher prices for corn and soy will only encourage farmers to plant even more of it, increasing the impacts on the environment. When a switch to cellulosic technology arrives, the corn farmers could face a price crash from overproduction.
  • With more money to be made and big companies already very involved in ethanol production, this may cause more consolidation of farms in fewer hands.
  • Long term, the picture is quite different once corn is taken out of the equation and cellulosic ethanol emerges:
    • A major shift in acreage away from corn to something more sustainable, such as switchgrass, would have large benefits for water quality, energy efficiency, climate change and health.
    • One likely negative is the creation of genetically modified crops that are ideal for conversion to ethanol.
    • The big question is how long it will take to transition to cellulosic methods of ethanol production.

Closing Thoughts

Biofuels will never be a “silver bullet” solution. The energy problems we face are so large and complex that multiple strategies will be needed. Biofuels, teamed up with efficiency measures and conservation, can be a part of an overall solution. However, in the short time that biofuel crops have been planted aggressively, we have seen a rise in grain prices globally causing hunger and starvation among the world’s poor, and increased prices for grain-based staples for everyone.

The biggest negative with biodiesel, and with ethanol, may be that it serves as a distraction: it holds out hope that we can build a new supply of renewable fuels, and not have to change our lifestyles or take other steps to reduce demand.