Next Generation Biofuels are Making Solid Progress

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Biofuel
Image depicts bofuel being created from algae. Image courtesy acore.org

As many of you know most of the gasoline available in North America today has a biofuel component of between 5 – 10 percent. Newer cars and trucks are E85 compatible, meaning they can operate with up to 85 percent ethanol blended into the gasoline – which means there is a growth opportunity of up to 75 percent in the North American biofuel market.

CORE Biofuels Inc, has a patented process using enzymes to turn the wood, grass and paper waste that they receive into a pure form of high-octane gasoline – but with ultra-low benzene levels. The only byproducts are water, pure C02 for use in carbonated beverages and heat which they use to generate 10 megawatts of electricity to sell to the local electrical grid!

Commercial and consumer waste in Quebec, Canada, are now going to be processed into bioethanol by Enerkem instead of ending up in landfills.

Boeing Aircraft has successfully tested biofuel use on it’s aircraft. In 2010, Boeing tested passenger jets and a U.S. Navy F/A 18E Super Hornet with a 50/50 blend of (petroleum-based) aviation fuel and (crop-based) camelina biofuel with excellent results.

Boeing’s Sustainable Biofuels Research & Technology Program (SBRTP) reported up to 80 per cent less CO2 emissions for camelina-based biofuel – when compared to petroleum-based jet fuel.

Biofuel powered US Navy FA 18 Super Hornet
SBRPT F/A 18 Super Hornet biofuel program jet & logo. Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Noel Hepp/Released

An excerpt from the SBRTP summary states;

“The Bio-SPK fuel blends used in the test flights have all either met or exceeded the performance specifications for jet fuel.For example, the Bio-SPK fuel blends demonstrated higher energy density per unit mass than typical jet fuel, enabling airplanes to travel farther using less fuel. For all of the test flights, the blended biofuel displayed no adverse effects on any of the aircraft systems.”

Other biofuels are also available.

Biodiesel fuel can be made from used cooking oil and is already being collected from restaurants and homes then filtered to become vegetable-oil based diesel fuel.

Some cities have done the calculations, and surprise! — it’s more cost effective to re-process cooking oil than to deal with the harm to the environment from toxic used oils. Not only that, many government vehicles run on that free fuel (for the cost of pick-up and filtering it) including city buses, trucks and other government fleet vehicles.

Getting two different kinds of uses instead of one — for every million litres of cooking oil — is a sign of progress.

Some companies in Europe buy used oil or freshly-harvested vegetable oil, filter it and sell it on the open market for use in vehicles. Interestingly, vegetable oil-based diesel fuel emits far less carbon dioxide and other pollutants per gallon of fuel than petroleum-based diesel fuels!

Quite unlike fossil fuels which cause a huge net gain to our atmosphere, the CO2 equation couldn’t be better for plant-based diesel. The CO2 gathered by the plant during its lifetime is (obviously) stored in the plant, which then becomes stored in the biofuel and after combustion simply returns to the atmosphere from whence it came — making plant-based biofuels completely CO2 neutral.

Plants endlessly recycle the Earth’s existing CO2 and have been doing a good job of it for over 3 billion years! The more CO2 we have locked up in green plants and trees the better for our environment, which is why we shouldn’t mind creating green biofuel plantations out of barren, arid land.

Some countries have decided that biofuels belong in their future and have set thousands or millions of hectares aside for biofuel crop agriculture, as discussed in the book Biodiesel 2020 — 2nd Edition by Will Thurmond.

He writes: “China recently set aside an area the size of England to produce jatropha and other non-food plants for biodiesel. India has up to 60 million hectares of non-arable land available to produce jatropha, and intends to replace 20 per cent of diesel fuels with jatropha-based biodiesel. In Brazil and Africa, there are significant programs underway dedicated to producing non-food crops jatropha and castor for biodiesel.”

A potential game-changer for biofuel has come about with the introduction of algae as a means to produce synthetic crude oil, at the same location as existing oil refineries using the familiar on-site petroleum storage tanks as algae growing ponds.

The economics for oil refineries couldn’t be better! When “going green” equals profit, that’s when environmental progress in the transportation sector will take off for real.

Biofuels Virgin Atlantic
Biofuel is used by Virgin Atlantic. Photo courtesy ge.com

Although biofuels offer an exciting new transportation fuel source, the biofuel industry does have it’s detractors, sometimes for good reason – but often the criticisms are unfounded.

First generation biofuel crops such as corn and sugar cane require a constant supply of water, fertilizers and plenty of land management with tractors, etc. Without subsidies in place these crops can not compete in the real world. Not only that, these biofuel crops DO displace millions of hectares of human-food crop land.

Camelina Biofuel
Camelina Farm. Photo courtesy: aviationbiofuel.wordpress.com

Second generation biofuels, such as camelina (known as a weed which will grow almost anywhere) and jatropha (a tree native to hot deserts with a bitter poisonous fruit) are very tolerant of poor soils where human-food crops will NOT grow easily and usually do not require additional irrigation and can survive on rainfall only.

The great thing about second generation biofuel crops is they are often grown in third-world nations where the plantations require hundreds of manual labourer’s to tend the crops throughout the year and thousands of labourer’s during harvest times. (See Will Thurmond’s quote above referring to future biofuel plantations in India, the size of England!) This will provide much needed income to poverty-stricken families in arid regions where jobs are otherwise quite scarce. It is the beginning of an economic middle class in India – people with disposable income.

Biofuel from the tropical Jatropha Plant
Jatropha . Image courtesy: nasa.gov

Third generation biofuels, such as algae or enzyme-assisted conversion, require large amounts of water as part of the process but then release that water in a very pure form at the end of the process. In fact, trace minerals must be re-added to that water for normal taste and ph balance purposes.

Biofuel Algae Ethanol Reactor
AlgaePARC research facility (Algae Production and Research Centre) at Wageningen University & Research centre in the Netherlands). Photo courtesy: algdiesel.blogspot.com

While biofuels by themselves will not replace existing transportation fuels, they can act as feedstock to conventional petroleum in a major way, dramatically lower CO2 and other toxic pollutants and and provide jobs for impoverished third-world citizens.

Not to mention “greening” vast swathes of previously bare land – which in the case of 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels – is merely a different term to describe natural carbon dioxide capture and storage – by plants.

I call that a win for biofuels!

Written by John Brian Shannon

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