19 Hurdles for Large-Scale Biofuel Use: Reflections from the Emerson BioRefinery Summit

corn%20ethanol.jpgIn an energy hungry world, oil has allowed us to achieve unbelievable feats. An inconceivable amount of resources have been poured into an infrastructure that allows us to travel to every corner of the globe. As the fuel for this way of life dwindles, the future of transportation has yet to be written. We are so entrenched in the status quo and corn-based ethanol present insurmountable challenges.
In the World Energy Outlook Report, the International Energy Agency predicts a global shortage by 2030 of a staggering 28.6 million barrels of oil a day. It is hard to say what the leading technologies will fill this gap, but biofuels have a good shot to play a huge role if certain hurdles are overcome.
Speakers today at the Emerson Biofuels Summit highlighted some of the hurdles for large-scale production for 2nd generation biofuels. These challenges include:

1. Competition for Food: Although some experts do not believe that recent food shortages were caused in large part by corn-based ethanol production, it is imperative that 2nd generation biofuels do not compete with food production. Randall Fortenbery, a professor at the Renk Agribusiness Institute at the University of Wisconsin raised the point that food and fuel is a necessary combination because food crisis solutions require energy for refrigeration and distribution.
2. Price Volatility: A variety of feed stock are in the running as future sources of ethanol. The price volatility that we have seen this year however increases risk and hinders long-term planning in the marketplace. What may be a cost-effective feed stock today may not be tomorrow.
3. New Feedstock Not Energy Dense: Switchgrass for example is not as energy dense at corn kernels. This creates huge transportation and storage challenges because larger quantities are needed.
4. Variety of Feedstock Necessary: The U.S. consumed 140 billion gallons of gasoline in 2007. “No single feedstock is going to bring us there,” said Randall Fortenbery. What might work very well in one part of the globe may not be viable in another. This will keep the scientist busy.
5. Compelling Message: The public support of ethanol has waned due to concern about food scarcity, food prices, and land use for corn cultivation. When socially and economically responsible options are available, public support must be earned once again.
6. Water Use for Cultivation: It takes 2,500 gallons of water to grow one bushel of corn, which equates to a measly 2.5 gallons of ethanol. Some future options for ethanol production including natural prairie, which requires little or no irrigation.

7. Regional Solutions:
It is not practical to transport feedstock all over the planet, especially if it is not energy dense. “Feedstock streams of tomorrow will be varied,” said Tim Donohue, Director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. An ideal option in one area could be inconceivable in another. Palm oil cultivation in Alaska for example is a bad idea.
8. Technology Breakthroughs: “Microbes need to be developed that will eat all sugars at once,” said Tim Donohue as he spoke about cellulosic ethanol. It is not viable for microbes to eat only one type of sugar.
9. Minimal Impact on Land Quality: Land degradation can have significant financial, social, and environmental ramifications. Corn for example necessitates high inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, water, etc.) and has a low species diversity. Native prairie on the other hand has comparatively low inputs and high species diversity.
10. Collaboration With Engine Manufacturers: These technologies cannot be created in a bubble. Flex-fuel vehicles for example have engines that can run off of both E85 and gasoline. The automobile and biofuels industries must work in tandem.
11. Effective Economy of Scale: Larger ethanol facilities require sizable quantities of feedstock and increase need to transport fuel across greater distances. Smaller scale production may be difficult due to the current railroad infrastructure limitations and price considerations.
12. Optimal Biofuel Plant Location: Proximity to feedstock, local governmental support, transportation infrastructure, and distribution channels are some of the top concerns in the industry regarding location.
13. Competing Land Use: Many ethanol advocates encourage the use of marginal lands for ethanol feedstock, such as switchgrass. Randall Fortenbery contends there is no such thing as marginal land.
There is great concern about the impact of additional land being under cultivation. Many countries do no possess underutilized land and maintaining natural habitat is important in countries that do. High yield crops are preferable because less land is needed for cultivation.
ethanol%20laboratory2.jpgAndrew Held, Director of Process Development for Virent Energy Systems says that they are developing a transportation fuel that can be used in gasoline pipelines with existing pumps, pipelines, blending equipment, and engine technology. This mitigates infrastructure and logistical costs, while minimizing the carbon footprint.

16. Favorable Net Energy Balance:
Needless to say, for a transportation fuel to be economically, socially, and environmentally sound, a high net energy balance is vital.

17. Bringing Technology to the Marketplace Quickly:
If oil production is near or has reached its peak, viable alternatives need to be quickly implemented.
18. Price: Ultimately, most of these factors come down to the price at the pump.

19. Highly Risky Market:
Tim Donohue referred to the cellulosic ethanol market at a “high risk, high payoff business.” The right scientific breakthrough could revolutionize the industry or researchers could be barking up the wrong tree.
The electric car could have widespread use quickly, thus reducing the demand for biofuels. Jet fuel and diesel however are more likely around for the long haul.

Photo Credit: National Renewable Energy Labs

Sarah Lozanova is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.

15 responses

  1. Biodiesel from Algae makes the most sense to me. The conversion of the suns’ energy is much more efficient than any plant. There have been great advances in high density production as well.

  2. Biofuels, as they exist now, are a scam. They rely on huge govt subsidies, pollute the environment to a high level, including greatly increased agricultural runoff into oceans, and overall produces fuel with much higher per gallon costs than current oil-based gasoline. The increased fresh water requirements will also become a serious problem in the near future. We would all be much better off sticking to true renewable energies, and moving away from expensive, polluting food sources for fuel.

  3. Biofuels are a complete waste. The problem is not the KIND of fuel so much as CONTROL of the fuel. with any “pump” bought fuel you are at the mercy of whoever CONTROLS said fuel and since fuel is MANDATORY not optional its a nasty arrangement.
    Battery Electric Cars are the ONLY viable solution but they are effectively for now rendered illegal since GM sold the NIMH patent to Chevron and they refuse to license it. It Expires 2015. At most they can “hold off” production another 2-5 years by BUYING all the factories that are tooled up to make them (which would make sense for them to do) so it would take another 2-5 years before someone else could tool up and sell them affordably.
    It won’t be long from then before we have under $13,000 electric cars that can go over 100 miles on a charge.
    Solar panels will offset the electricity cost. a $2600 solar array (including the grid tie in) is all 99% of us need to produce enough solar power to sell back to the grid to MORE than 100% offset the power used to charge the car IE free to drive.

  4. It would NOT take 97% of the whole united states’s land to plant enough corn to fuel the nation. Brazil has about 60% of our population and they create enough alcohol to run the country from a little more than 1% of their land. Plus why would you use a crop that’s food?

  5. biodiesel is the only current viable biofuel technology. simple processing, multiple non food raw material sources. waste can be utilized to enrich soil. some crops can be grown on marginal lands and be irrigated with brackish or waste water.

  6. Ok how about a mix of all of these in order to maximize our chance of success, and this includes vehicles that run on electricity. If we took a mere 10 percent of the funds that go into oil scouting extraction production and transportation I am sure would could come up with a solution. Reduce the need by reducing fuel using cars, come up with multiple sources of fuel and cars that can use all of those types of fuel, increase the efficiency of those cars, and get more people t use public transportation. If over reliance on oil is a sickness then lets use a broad spectrum of antibiotics on this sickness to make sure we get rid of it good and permanently.

  7. Biofuels, as they exist now, are a scam. They rely on huge govt subsidies, pollute the environment to a high level, including greatly increased agricultural runoff into oceans, and overall produces fuel with much higher per gallon costs than current oil-based gasoline. The increased fresh water requirements will also become a serious problem in the near future. We would all be much better off sticking to true renewable energies, and moving away from expensive, polluting food sources for fuel…

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