Ethanol isn’t the only biofuel


Photo courtesy of
Mista Fitz at Flickr.com.
There’s currently a bit of a corn shortage, driven by rising food consumption, ethanol consumption, and changes in diet in developing countries. Luckily, corn isn’t the only alternative to oil.

While ethanol made from corn gets the most attention, there are all sorts of other biofuels under development. There are companies working on producing ethanol from straw and other farm byproducts such as coconut fiber and cotton seeds. There are factories working on producing diesel from landfills, turkey processing waste, algae, canola, old tires, and other low cost sources. In fact, the US government is actively promoting development of alternative fuels, especially alternative fuels made from non-corn sources (would that be alternative, alternative fuels?):

The government is pushing to get the industry off the ground. Legislation passed last year mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022, less than half of it from corn ethanol. Almost all the rest is supposed to come from nonfood sources, though the requirement could be waived if the industry faltered.

The future of our fuel supply is going to be very different, and there are positive signs that we’ll be using more green biofuels sooner than anyone expected.

Photo courtesy of
jurvetson at Flickr.com.

Ethanol: More harm than good?

It’s a complicated issue to be sure and there and the one thing that you can be certain about here in the 21st century is that anyone who shows up on your doorstep with a simple solution to any of the complex problems we face today need the door slammed in their face.

Take this article on NPR about Ethanol and Global Warming; If you look at biofuels in the light of the study done by Tim searchinger at Princton we need to go back and rethink our biofuels strategy.

“The simplest explanation is that when we divert our corn or soybeans to fuel, if people around the world are going to continue to eat the same amount that they’re already eating, you have to replace that food somewhere else,” Searchinger says.

What the study actually shows, rather than a clean cut this is bad, that is worse; if we keep going at the rate we are going, using the same technologies we are using for the next 30 years we are going to wind up with the net effect of doubling the overall CO2.

But it’s not that simple. We aren’t at full capacity yet; not all the farmland we have available is being used to plant anything. Since the fall of the USSR we haven’t been planting as much land as we could. Tobacco lands are being used for growing Canola oil (Rapeseed oil, in other words) for use as fuel and few would argue that that’s a bad thing; certainly it isn’t producing more C02. The shortage we have been experiencing and the reactions to it are more growing pains than long term effects.

What is vital to keep in mind is that ethanol and biodiesel are stopgap measures at best. If we are still using huge amounts of ethanol or biodiesel in 30 years, or even in 15 years something is terribly wrong. Biofuels are a way for us to wean ourselves off of the internal combustion engine while finalize solar and wind and perhaps safer nuclear plants and cars that can be effectively powered by them. The much smaller number of remaining internal combustion powered cars will not put a huge dent in the farmland production especially when you factor in garbage to biodiesel, air to biodiesel, and plants that will grow in places crops won’t.

While I agree with some of their conclusions, such as how we should be looking towards other than crop sources sooner than later, I can’t agree with the level of urgency that they deliver that message with.

Harmarville PA company developing new biodiesel from feedstock technology

According to this article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; The National Institute of Science and Technology has awarded  Thar Technologies Inc, a Harmarville PA company $1.9 million to develop a new single stage process to extract bio-diesel from feedstock. 

Thar President and Chief Executive Officer Lalit Chorida said that to date, bio-diesel production has been a two-stage process — first, hexane is used to extract vegetable oil from oilseed, then the vegetable oil is converted to bio-diesel.

In Thar’s proposed single-stage process, carbon dioxide replaces hexane, a toxic solvent,

 The new process reduces the energy required to produce the fuel by 25% while reducing the cost of production by 14%.  With improvements such as this and with rising fossil fuel prices this will make subsidy-free biofuels even closer to reality.

In addition to biodiesel production, the process can also improve ethanol production, and can even be used for non-biofuels such as shale oils.