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How Biofuels Will Lead Transition to a Sustainable Economy

RP Siegel | Monday November 26th, 2012 | 0 Comments


As we have explored the history and the emerging role of biofuels in the transition to a sustainable economy, we have seen that, in many ways, it represents a return to the roots of American industry.

The same thing can be said as we expand our scope to include other plant-based products that form the building blocks of the newly re-emerging bio-based economy.

Indeed, before petroleum became widely available, driving prices down, most of our products were plant-based, derived, not only from lumber and cotton, but also corn, soy and sugar beets, which were used to make chemicals, paints, construction materials, clothing, and other household materials.

Today, a staggering number of the products we consume contain some amount of fossil fuels, if not in their makeup, then in their production. I’m not just talking about fuels here, either. Many everyday items ranging from plastics, to preservatives, to fertilizer, from nylon to polyester, are derived from oil. What if most, if not all, of that could be replaced with fuel and materials derived from biological sources? That is the premise and the promise of a bio-based economy.

The idea never really went away, especially among long-range thinkers like Henry Ford, who in 1941, showcased this super-strong plastic car (see video) no doubt in response to the steel shortage brought about by the war. The car could also run on ethanol.

Now, not only have gas prices gone back up, but we have even better reasons to avoid fossil fuels, including a sustainability movement that strives for an economy that emulates nature in its means of production.

“Mother Nature looks at greenhouse gases as a feedstock. It’s what trees, plants and huge structures like coral reefs are built from.” So says a video (below) from NatureWorks, a subsidiary of Cargill in describing the bio-based materials they produce.

According to USDA, bio-based products are “commercial or industrial products, other than food or feed, that are composed in whole, or in significant part, of biological products or renewable agricultural materials (including plant, animal, and aquatic materials), or forestry materials.”

Public benefits that can be expected from such a transition would range from national security, increased economic demand for farmers, industry, rural communities, as well as environmental benefits at the global, regional, and local levels.

The USDA founded the Alternative Agricultural Research and Commercialization Center (AARCC) in 1992 to encourage investment for the development of “new non-food and non-feed products made from agricultural/forestry commodities.” They recognized that this was a good investment, since the markets they create will ultimately reduce the need for agricultural subsidies as well as reducing the need for imported oil.

The agency created a label in 2011 with the intention “to promote the increased purchase and use of biobased products,” with the idea that doing so would:

  • provide opportunities to boost domestic demand for renewable commodities
  • create jobs
  • create investment income

Products can qualify for the label with a minimum of 25 percent bio-based content, unless otherwise specified by the standard.

In the first year since its inception, over 500 products were certified to use the label. Unfortunately, the funding for the labeling program is currently stalled, awaiting the passage of a new farm bill.

The National Research Center’s 2000 report “Biobased Industrial Products: Priorities for Research and Commercialization” projected liquid fuels growing from 1-2 percent to 50 percent by 2090, biobased organic chemicals growing from 10-90 percent and biomaterials growing from 90-99 percent over the same timeframe.

So why haven’t we heard more about this?

Although there are significant activities going on here, it seems to be more prominently discussed in Europe. The OECD has come out in support of industrial biotechnology, focusing primarily on policy issues. They claim that, “Obtaining the full benefits of the bioeconomy will require purposive goal-oriented policy. This will require leadership, primarily by governments but also by leading firms, to establish goals for the application of biotechnology to primary production, industry and health; to put in place the structural conditions required to achieve success such as obtaining regional and international agreements; and to develop mechanisms to ensure that policy can flexibly adapt to new opportunities.”

EuropaBio – the European Association for BioIndustries, maintains bio-economy.net where they describe developments in the areas of: food and feed, bio-materials, biofuels, enzymes, chemicals, and biorefinery.

Novozymes defines the bio-based economy as deriving products from plants and (organic) waste. A good example of the latter is Fiberight, which we described earlier in this series.

There are a number of reasons why the prospect of a bio-based economy is compelling. One is the sheer volume of raw material that can be made available, benefiting many local economies, since biomass, unlike fossil fuels, can be produced anywhere.

By 2030, an estimated, 914 million tons of biomass residue will be available from the following eight regions: China (221), U.S. (180), Brazil (177), EU (151), India (110), Argentina (39), Mexico (20) and Australia (16), most of it as a by-product of food production. This figure represents 17.5 percent of the total produced, since most of the residue (75 percent) is left on the ground to nourish the soil. Still, this is enough to provide for half of the world’s projected gasoline needs at that time. Of course, this will require modification to automobile engines since those being produced today can only accommodate a maximum of 15-20 percent ethanol blended with gasoline. But there is no reason why cars can’t be built to run entirely on ethanol. Brazil has being building them since the 1970s. In fact, the original Ford Model T did just that.

Novozymes estimates that the bio-based economy will create 8 million new jobs, consisting of 4.6 million in construction, 1.8 million in operations, 0.9 million in collection and 0.7 million in transportation. That doesn’t include additional farm jobs.

Biotech solutions are key element in many aspects of this new economy. Special blends of micro-organisms can improve yield and reduce environmental impact. Enzymes can help utilize the raw material more efficiently. They can also be added to animal feeds to make them more digestible, break down biomass into sugars for ethanol and other fuel production, and be used to produce fuel from waste.

The idea is spreading. Ford has recently begun using soy-based foam in its seat cushions that were previously petroleum-based. They are not alone. According to Bloomberg, there are more than 3,000 U.S. companies producing some 25,000 bio-based products.

A recent report by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) found that, “Bio-based materials have been tested and deployed in a number of automotive components. Flax, sisal, and hemp are used in door interiors, seatback linings, package shelves, and floor panels. Coconut fiber and bio-based foams have been used to make seat bottoms, back cushions, and head restraints. Cotton and other natural fibers have been shown to offer superior sound proofing properties and are used in interior components. Abaca fiber has been used to make underbody panels.”

The biobased economy is coming and we should be happy to see it. While it might not be as glamorous as high tech solar or cutting edge wind turbines, it has enormous potential and we should not be surprised to see it carry a large share of the transition to a more sustainable economy. Think of it as another way to put the green in green economy.

[Image credit: stuff tara has seen: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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