Biofuels: Freedom from Fossil Fuels?
On July 20, 1969, America achieved the seemingly impossible.
Now, nearly 40 years after Neil Armstrong’s first lunar steps, Randy Ryan believes a new impossibility beckons—overcoming America’s petroleum addiction.
Buffalo gourd, a plant that grows well in the Southwest, could be an effective regional biofuel.
Credit: The Department of Natural Sciences, Western New Mexico University and the Dale A. Zimmerman Herbarium
“There’s a catastrophe looming. We need to take moon-exploration steps to solve it,” said Ryan, assistant director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at The University of Arizona.
Part of the solution requires coming together at a local level, he said.
Ryan is working with a consortium of business leaders and biofuel researchers from all three Arizona universities—UA, Arizona State, and Northern Arizona—to develop successful petroleum alternatives.
Biofuels generally burn cleaner than petroleum products and are considered a way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
Ryan’s group is not only focused on the improvement of traditional biofuels—ethanol and biodiesel; it is also researching energy sources like hydrogen and syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
America has needed successful alternatives fuels for more than 30 years, Ryan said, beginning with the first oil crisis in 1973.
At the time, the U.S. imported about 35 percent of its petroleum. When the foreign supply was cut off, the results were disastrous—oil prices soared, the economy crumbled, and gas rations created mile-long lines at fueling stations.
Today, the U.S. imports about 60 percent of the oil it consumes, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“Here we are—oil prices are climbing at an alarming rate, we’re in a national and worldwide recession…From a local and national perspective, we need to be looking at how to address our critical energy needs,” Ryan said.
While the U.S. produces only 10 percent of the world’s oil supply, it consumes 24 percent. It’s no wonder energy independence is touted as one of biofuels’ greatest advantages.
Charles Bensinger, co-director of New Mexico-based Renewable Energy Partners, sums it up with one question: “Would you rather have your dollars going to the Midwest or the Mideast?”
His words have become an industry catch-phrase, equating purchasing biofuels to supporting the American farmer—instead of a Middle Eastern oil company.
While it is an oversimplification—only 16 percent of U.S. oil imports come from the Middle East—the premise works. More than 90 percent of the ethanol and biodiesel made here comes from food crops.
Figure 1. Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture's long-term projections, biofuel production is expected to increase dramatically before leveling off at the end of the decade as motor vehicle blending requirements approach maximum limits.
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Credit: Michael Yost, US Department of Agriculture, [download ppt]
About one-third of all U.S. corn produced in 2008 will be used to make ethanol, resulting in an estimated 9.3 billion gallons. Nearly one-fifth of the soybean crop will be used to make biodiesel, producing about 500 million gallons, based on projections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Ethanol—used only in gasoline engines—is made by fermenting and distilling natural sugars, or starch that is easily converted to sugar. In the case of corn, the starch used accounts for 7 percent of the vegetable’s net weight. The rest is crushed and used as a high-protein supplement for animal feed.
Biodiesel—used only in diesel engines—is made by mixing vegetable oil (or animal fat) with alcohol and lye. The oil undergoes a chemical reaction called transesterification, which turns it into fuel. With soybeans, the extracted oil accounts for 20 percent of the vegetable. Like corn, the leftover meal is mainly used for animal feed.
Both fuels are old news. Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T was designed to run on ethanol, while Rudolph Diesel’s namesake engine first ran on vegetable oil back in 1898.
With the discovery of Texas crude oil in the early 1900s, energy-dense gasoline became affordable—and those other early fuels took a backseat. In a society built around petroleum, just giving consumers the option to buy biofuels can be a big hurdle, Bensinger said.
His non-profit group has opened two biofuel stations in Santa Fe since 2003, giving New Mexico a whopping total of four stations. A large portion of the biofuel supply is trucked in from other states, he said. In a couple years, Bensinger hopes to change that.
“Everyone is thinking about fuels from locally available feedstocks,” he said, naming algae, mesquite trees, buffalo gourd and even municipal solid waste as promising biofuel sources.
“There’s a lot of stuff sitting around that could be transformed into fuels,” he said. And all of that “stuff” has the potential to vastly outperform food crops.
For example, one acre of corn can produce 200 to 400 gallons of ethanol. That may seem impressive, but when compared to non-food sources, the amber waves lose every time. There are 900 gallons of ethanol in an acre of buffalo gourd, 2,000 in an acre of mesquite trees and 4,000 in an acre of algae.
All of the “second generation,” non-food feedstocks have yet to be produced on a commercial scale. “The current bioenergy from food-crop model is a transitional program,” Ryan said.
But there’s still potential to explore in corn- and soy-based fuel, he added, citing the success of Arizona’s only ethanol production plant, Pinal Energy LLC.
Located in Maricopa, Ariz. the plant is associated with Pinal Feed Co. and uses only feed corn (grown for animal consumption) to produce 50 million gallons of ethanol a year. The state also boasts six biofuel stations.
Not everyone sees the potential in improving food-based biofuel production, however. Global food prices have risen 43 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Over the past three years, average food prices have increased 83 percent, potentially pushing 100 million people into extreme poverty, stated a World Bank report, released in April. The report went on to blame biofuel production for 75 percent of the price hike.
The USDA holds many factors responsible for soaring food prices, including increased fuel costs, drought, export restrictions, and a rise in the standard of living in several developing countries. Biofuels accounted for about 3 percent of this year’s average food price increase, the USDA estimates.
Sweet sorghum has many advantages as a biofuel including its efficient use of water relative to other fuel sources.
Credit: Ultimate Biofuels
Ryan recognizes the concern over using food crops for fuel, but disagrees with the idea of moving away from biofuel production altogether.
“If we abandon our efforts and say, ‘Let’s just burn oil,’ how are we going to improve?” he said.
Ryan is doing his part to move away from food-based biofuels, with an experimental crop of sweet sorghum. The water-efficient grass has the potential to produce two hundred times more ethanol than corn, while keeping out of the food for fuel debate. Only the juice from the stalk is used in ethanol production—the grain is used for food (mainly flat bread and porridge), while the crushed stalk is used for animal feed.
Developing successful biofuels “is the same as the space race,” he said. “We didn’t start with the rocket that took us to the moon.”