2011 November 08 Tuesday
Europe Boosting CO2 Emissions With Biofuels Mandate

Biomass energy: the government energy policy disaster that keeps on giving. Yet another reason why biofuel subsidies and biofuel legislated requirements are a bad idea.

A new study on greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm plantations has calculated a more than 50% increase in levels of CO2 emissions than previously thought – and warned that the demand for 'green' biofuels could be costing the earth.

The study from the University of Leicester was conducted for the International Council on Clean Transportation, an international think tank that wished to assess the greenhouse gas emissions associated with biodiesel production. Biodiesel mandates can increase palm oil demand directly (the European Biodiesel Board recently reported big increases in biodiesel imported from Indonesia) and also indirectly, because palm oil is the world's most important source of vegetable oil and will replace oil from rapeseed or soy in food if they are instead used to make biodiesel.

The palm oil plantations let more light hit the ground, heating up the soil, drying it out, and causing the peatlands to break down.

There is more carbon stored in tropical peatlands than in tropical forests.

Dr Sue Page, Reader in Physical Geography at the University of Leicester, added: "Tropical peatlands in Southeast Asia are a globally important store of soil carbon – exceeding the amount stored in tropical forest vegetation. They are under enormous pressure from plantation development. Projections indicate an increase in oil palm plantations on peat to a total area of 2.5Mha by the year 2020 in western Indonesia alone –an area equivalent in size to the land area of the United Kingdom."

By Randall Parker    2011 November 08 07:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2011 July 25 Monday
Sugar Cane For Plastics

Plastic feedstock made from sugar cane in Brazil might be competitive with oil-based plastic.

Making plastic from sugar can be just as cheap as making it from petroleum, says Dow Chemical. The company plans to build a plant in Brazil that it says will be the world's largest facility for making polymers from plants. 

If transportation can be shifted to electric power and then biomass only gets used to make plastics can enough biomass starter material be grown for this purpose? Trying to move all transportation to biomass liquid fuels seems like a non-starter. Not enough tillable land to do that.

By Randall Parker    2011 July 25 12:52 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2011 April 07 Thursday
Skepticism On Algae Biodiesel Yields

Kansas State University researchers claim that optimistic projections of algae biodiesel production are not realistic.

"We found that phycologists -- algae scientists -- maintain that some popular estimates of producing 200 to 500 grams of algae per square meter of open pond per day weren't feasible because there's simply not enough sunlight coming through the atmosphere to do so," Pfromm said. "Unless we can change the sun, such production is physically impossible -- and the hard numbers prove that. Most economists wouldn't necessarily recognize this as an issue in a business plan because it's dictated by physics, not finances."

The team used a more realistic, yet still optimistic, production number -- 50 grams per square meter per day. They determined it would take 11 square miles of open ponds making 14,000 tons of algae a day to replace 50 million gallons of petroleum diesel per year -- about 0.1 percent of the U.S. annual diesel consumption -- with an eco-friendly algae alternative.

The cheaper open pond approaches face problems with water evaporation rates (big underground water reservoirs are already getting depleted), invasion by organisms that eat algae, and invasion by algae species that can out-compete any species ideal for oil production, whether natural or genetically engineered.

Natural algae produce oil best when they are nitrogen-starved.

"Algae don't make oil out of the kindness of their hearts. They store energy as oil when they are starved for nitrogen so they can make more algae in the future," Pfromm said. "The end result is the yield isn't that high because we can either stress the algae to produce more oil or let them reproduce very efficiently -- not both."

Lots of selection for higher production crops amounts to selecting away overhead aimed at protection against predators and competitors. The same will apply to genetically engineering algae for higher oil production. So methods to keep out other species will need to be developed for algae oil ponds that are open. I think this is a very hard set of problems to solve.

By Randall Parker    2011 April 07 08:00 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2010 May 23 Sunday
30 Year CO2 Payback For Miscanthus Energy Source

The carbon dioxide released to create farm fields to grow a perennial grass as a biomass energy source won't get paid back in avoided CO2 emissions from fossil fuels until the field has been used to grow miscanthus as an energy source for 30 years. That seems like a long time.

Champaign, Il – May 3, 2010 - An article in the current issue of Global Change Biology Bioenergy reveals that Miscanthus x giganteus, a perennial grass, could effectively reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, while lowering atmospheric CO2.

Using a simulation tool that models the future global climate, researchers predict that the carbon that is released into the atmosphere from the loss of natural vegetation will be paid back by Miscanthus within 30 years. Previous estimates for other liquid biofuels, such as corn ethanol, were estimated to take 167-420 years to pay back their carbon debt.

Miscanthus is better than corn ethanol only because corn ethanol is such a bad idea in the first place. Corn ethanol economic viability was made possible by government subsidies put in place at the behest of the farm and agricultural industry lobbies.

Miscanthus isn't economically viable yet and it is not clear when it might become economically viable as an energy source. But if it takes off then the result will be a spike in CO2 emissions as more land gets cleared for its growth.

By Randall Parker    2010 May 23 10:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2010 April 23 Friday
Soy Biodiesel Worse For Global Warming?

This is funny. Maybe politicos should do more research before imposing half-baked energy mandates?

BRUSSELS, April 21 (Reuters) - Biofuels such as biodiesel from soy beans can create up to four times more climate-warming emissions than standard diesel or petrol, according to an EU document released under freedom of information laws.

Okay, I know some of you might be angry at the thought that good intentions are resulting in a bad outcome. But it is kinda hard to see biomass energy as a matter of good intentions even before considering the report above. The problems with it have been evident for quite a while, so much so I've gotten bored of the topic.

Still, once more into the breach. The idea that crop residues (e.g. corn stover) would make good sources of biomass energy material is quested in this study that finds loss of precious topsoil from removing crop residues.

MADISON, WI, April 5, 2010 -- Crop residues, perennial warm season grasses, and short-rotation woody crops are potential biomass sources for cellulosic ethanol production. While most research is focused on the conversion of cellulosic feeedstocks into ethanol and increasing production of biomass, the impacts of growing energy crops and the removal of crop residue on soil and environmental quality have received less attention. Moreover, effects of crop residue removal on soil and environmental quality have not been compared against those of dedicated energy crops.

In the March-April 2010 issue of Agronomy Journal, published by the American Society of Agronomy, Dr. Humberto Blanco reviewed the impacts of crop residue removal, warm season grasses, and short-rotation woody crops on critical soil properties, carbon sequestration, and water quality as well as the performance of energy crops in marginal lands. The review found that crop residue removal from corn, wheat,and grain sorghumcan adversely impact soil and environmental quality. Removal of more than 50% of crop residue can have negative consequences for soil structure, reduce soil organic carbon sequestration, increase water erosion, and reduce nutrient cycling and crop production, particularly in erodible and sloping soils.

"Crop residue removal can make no-till soils a source rather than a sink of atmospheric carbon," says Blanco, even at rates lower than 50%. Residue removal at rates of less than 25% can cause loss of sediment in runoff relative to soils without residue removal. To avoid the negative impacts on soil, perhaps only a small fraction of residue might be available for removal. This small amount of crop residues is not economically feasible nor logistically possible. Blanco recomends developing other alternative biomass feedstock sources for cellulosic ethanol production.

My worry is that advances in biomass energy technology will so improve the EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) that biomass energy become far more cost effective. Then it'll take off, driving food prices much higher while also speeding soil depletion. Since I think Peak Oil is coming in the 2010s I expect really strong economic incentives to make biomass energy more viable. The environmental consequences (loss of rain forests, soil depletion, more fertilizer run-off) will cause all sorts of problems down the line.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 23 07:39 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2010 January 06 Wednesday
Study Questions Ethanol Subsidies

It has been quite a long time since I last bashed corn ethanol. I tired of this sport years ago. But a report from the Baker Institute gives academic credence to the obvious: Corn ethanol subsidies for energy security amount to bad policy.

The United States needs to fundamentally rethink its policy of promoting ethanol to diversify its energy sources and increase energy security, according to a new policy paper by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The paper, "Fundamentals of a Sustainable U.S. Biofuels Policy," questions the economic, environmental and logistical basis for the billions of dollars in federal subsidies and protectionist tariffs that go to domestic ethanol producers every year. "We need to set realistic targets for ethanol in the United States instead of just throwing taxpayer money out the window," said Amy Myers Jaffe, one of the report's authors.

Jaffe is a fellow in energy studies at the Baker Institute and associate director of the Rice Energy Program.

Corn ethanol costs a lot. It can't scale.

As an example of the unintended economic consequences of U.S. biofuels policy, the report notes that in 2008 "the U.S. government spent $4 billion in biofuels subsidies to replace roughly 2 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply. The average cost to the taxpayer of those 'substituted' barrels of gasoline was roughly $82 a barrel, or $1.95 per gallon on top of the retail gasoline price (i.e., what consumers pay at the pump)." The report questions whether mandated volumes for biofuels can be met and whether biofuels are improving the environment or energy security.

We do not have enough land for corn ethanol to make a big dent in our dependence on oil. Farming takes energy for tractors, fertilizer, and other purposes. Harvesting and transporting the corn to ethanol production facilities takes energy and the conversion process takes energy. According to some analysts one has to use energy equaled to 1 barrel of oil to get ethanol energy equivalent of 1.3 barrels of oil.

Agriculture creates damaging run-off that creates a big dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The idea that corn ethanol reduces CO2 emissions is in doubt.

The report, which includes analysis by environmental scientists, highlights the environmental threats posed by current biofuels policy. "Increases in corn-based ethanol production in the Midwest could cause an increase in detrimental regional environmental impacts," the study states, "including exacerbating damage to ecosystems and fisheries along the Mississippi River and in the Gulf of Mexico and creating water shortages in some areas experiencing significant increases in fuel crop irrigation." Moreover, the report challenges claims that ethanol use lowers greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and argues, "There is no scientific consensus on the climate-friendly nature of U.S.-produced corn-based ethanol, and it should not be credited with reducing GHGs when compared to the burning of traditional gasoline."

For a small fraction of the money we spend to subsidize corn ethanol we could fund more researchers to work on genetically engineering algae to excrete oil for diesel fuel. Algae probably have the best prospects for workable biomass energy.

The Baker Institute report on ethanol reminds of another recent report from Stanford researchers critical of ethanol's environmental effect on air quality. Ethanol increases ozone levels, especially in winter.

"What we found is that at the warmer temperatures, with E85, there is a slight increase in ozone compared to what gasoline would produce," said Diana Ginnebaugh, a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering, who worked on the study. She will present the results of the study on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. "But even a slight increase is a concern, especially in a place like Los Angeles, because you already have episodes of high ozone that you have to be concerned about, so you don't want any increase."

But it was at colder temperatures, below freezing, that it appeared the health impacts of E85 would be felt most strongly.

"We found a pretty substantial increase in ozone production from E85 at cold temperatures, relative to gasoline when emissions and atmospheric chemistry alone were considered," Ginnebaugh said. Although ozone is generally lower under cold-temperature winter conditions, "If you switched to E85, suddenly you could have a place like Denver exceeding ozone health-effects limits and then they would have a health concern that they don't have now."

The problem with cold weather emissions arises because the catalytic converters used on vehicles have to warm up before they reach full efficiency. So until they get warm, a larger proportion of pollutants escapes from the tailpipe into the air.

We subsidize corn ethanol because of the power of the farm lobby and also due to naivete of a portion of the public that thinks anything involving more green plants must be a good idea.

By Randall Parker    2010 January 06 11:51 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2009 December 11 Friday
Cyanobacterium Produces Liquid Fuel From Sun Power

But will it scale at low cost?

Global climate change has prompted efforts to drastically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels.

In a new approach, researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have genetically modified a cyanobacterium to consume carbon dioxide and produce the liquid fuel isobutanol, which holds great potential as a gasoline alternative. The reaction is powered directly by energy from sunlight, through photosynthesis.

The research appears in the Dec. 9 print edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology and is available online.

This new method has two advantages for the long-term, global-scale goal of achieving a cleaner and greener energy economy, the researchers say. First, it recycles carbon dioxide, reducing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Second, it uses solar energy to convert the carbon dioxide into a liquid fuel that can be used in the existing energy infrastructure, including in most automobiles.

If this can ever be done cheaply it would provide a much bigger advantage: to ease our adjustment to Peak Oil. If some scientists and engineers can find a way to use sun power to drive a liquid fuel economy then we could maintain our current level of mobility post-peak as world oil production goes into long term decline.

Using the cyanobacterium Synechoccus elongatus, researchers first genetically increased the quantity of the carbon dioxide–fixing enzyme RuBisCO. Then they spliced genes from other microorganisms to engineer a strain that intakes carbon dioxide and sunlight and produces isobutyraldehyde gas.

The isobutyraldehyde gets separated easily in gaseous form and they then chemically convert isobutyraldehyde to isobutanol.

By Randall Parker    2009 December 11 08:36 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 November 04 Wednesday
Ionic Liquid Battery To Beat Lithium Ion?

Yet another claimant to the future best battery throne.

A spinoff from Arizona State University says it can develop a metal-air battery that dramatically outperforms the best lithium-ion batteries on the market, and now it has the funding it needs to prove it.

The amount of battery innovation seems to have really picked up in recent years. Clamor for better batteries for cell phones and laptop computers provides big demand today. At the same time, a big push by car companies to develop more hybrids and pluggable hybrids provides assurances that a far larger source of demand is building. Government policy provides incentives for the latter as well as money for research. Hence lots of start-ups.

An order of magnitude higher energy density? That'd be a game changer if it can work well in real world use.

The U.S. Department of Energy last week awarded a $5.13-million research grant to Scottsdale, AZ-based Fluidic Energy toward development of a metal-air battery that relies on ionic liquids, instead of an aqueous solution, as its electrolyte.

The company aims to build a Metal-Air Ionic Liquid battery that has up to 11 times the energy density of the top lithium-ion technologies for less than one-third the cost.

With great batteries the looming threat of Peak Oil becomes a lot less menacing. 95% of all transportation energy comes in the form of liquid fossil fuels and transportation is the sector most vulnerable to declining oil production. Electric power for cars and trucks would let keep flowing the goods and people even as less oil flows.

Update: Here's an ultracapacitor start-up.

An MIT spinoff just getting off the ground received a huge helping hand from the U.S. Department of Energy on Monday. FastCAP Systems, of Cambridge, MA, received a two-and-a-half-year, $5.35 million grant in the first round of funding ever issued by the new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The company aims to commercialize a nanotube-enhanced ultracapacitor, an energy storage device that could greatly reduce the cost of hybrid and electric vehicles and of fast-responding grid-scale energy storage, making it easier to integrate renewable energy sources such as solar and wind-based power.

Capacitors can deliver current faster than batteries and stand between the batteries and the engine and regenerative braking system.

By Randall Parker    2009 November 04 10:38 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2009 October 22 Thursday
Biofuel Crops Seen Contributing To Global Warming

The short version: biomass energy crops are a bad idea. Whether biomass crops displace food crops from existing farm land or the biomass crops get put on land newly converted to agriculture affects how much CO2 emissions the biomass crops add to the atmosphere.

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA—A report examining the impact of a global biofuels program on greenhouse gas emissions during the 21st century has found that carbon loss stemming from the displacement of food crops and pastures for biofuels crops may be twice as much as the CO2 emissions from land dedicated to biofuels production. The study, led by Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) senior scientist Jerry Melillo, also predicts that increased fertilizer use for biofuels production will cause nitrous oxide emissions (N2O) to become more important than carbon losses, in terms of warming potential, by the end of the century.

Using a global modeling system that links economic and biogeochemistry data, Melillo, MBL research associate David Kicklighter, and their colleagues examined the effects of direct and indirect land-use on greenhouse gas emissions as the production of biofuels increases over this century. They report their findings in the October 22 issue of Science Express.

Direct land-use emissions are generated from land committed solely to bioenergy production. Indirect land-use emissions occur when biofuels production on cropland or pasture displaces agricultural activity to another location, causing additional land-use changes and a net increase in carbon loss.

Especially in tropical areas the cutting down of forests to convert them into crop land releases huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Land area used for crops does not contain as much carbon in plant mass as it held when it was tropical rain forest. So these results are not surprising.

Melillo and his colleagues simulated two global land-use scenarios in the study. In Case 1, natural areas are converted to meet increased demand for biofuels production land. In Case 2, there is less willingness to convert land and existing managed land is used more intensely. Both scenarios are linked to a global climate policy that would control greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel sources to stabilize CO2 concentrations at 550 parts per million, a target often talked about in climate policy discussions. Under such a climate policy, fossil fuel use would become more expensive and the introduction of biofuels would accelerate, ultimately increasing the size of the biofuels industry and causing additional effects on land use, land prices, and food and forestry production and prices.

The model predicts that, in both scenarios, land devoted to biofuels will become greater than the total area currently devoted to crops by the end of the 21st century. Case 1 will result in more carbon loss than Case 2, especially at mid-century. In addition, indirect land use will be responsible for substantially greater carbon losses (up to twice as much) than direct land use.

As land gets shifted from crop production to energy production at the same time the human population grows by billions of people. A much smaller human population would create fewer problems for itself and for the environment since it would need less land.

Shift of land into use for biomass energy crops can contribute to warming rather than stopping it.

"Large greenhouse gas emissions from these indirect land-use changes are unintended consequences of a global biofuels program; consequences that add to the climate-change problem rather than helping to solve it," says Melillo "As our analysis shows, these unintended consequences are largest when the clearing of forests is involved."

When forests get converted to energy crops all the wild critters that lived in them lose their home and their food sources. So biomass energy has the potential to heat up the planet and destroy habitats in the name of the environment.

By Randall Parker    2009 October 22 11:57 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2009 September 28 Monday
Corn Ethanol Increases Soil Run-Off

Hey, it has been far too long since I bashed corn ethanol as a product of bad US federal energy policy. Higher demand for corn to produce ethanol causes more run-off of soil, pesticides, and fertilizer due to less crop rotation.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - More of the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow corn would find their way into nearby water sources if ethanol demands lead to planting more acres in corn, according to a Purdue University study.

The study of Indiana water sources found that those near fields that practice continuous-corn rotations had higher levels of nitrogen, fungicides and phosphorous than corn-soybean rotations. Results of the study by Indrajeet Chaubey, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and Bernard Engel, a professor and head of agricultural and biological engineering, were published in the early online version of The Journal of Environmental Engineering.

"When you move from corn-soybean rotations to continuous corn, the sediment losses will be much greater," Chaubey said. "Increased sediment losses allow more fungicide and phosphorous to get into the water because they move with sediment."

Corn ethanol is a bad idea with incentives more aimed at subsidizing farmers than at doing anything useful for our energy problems. The energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) isn't high enough to be worth the costs and it can't scale due to limited availability of good soil. Plus,

Biofuel crops are seen as boosting the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by oxygen depletion as a result of fertilizer run-off.

Scientists in Pennsylvania report that boosting production of crops used to make biofuels could make a difficult task to shrink a vast, oxygen-depleted "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico more difficult. The zone, which reached the size of Massachusetts in 2008, forms in summer and threatens marine life and jobs in the region. Their study is scheduled for the Oct. 1 issue of ACS' semi-monthly journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Christine Costello and W. Michael Griffin and colleagues explain that the zone forms when fertilizers wash off farm fields throughout the Mississippi River basin and into the Gulf of Mexico. The fertilizers cause the growth of algae, which eventually depletes oxygen in the water and kills marine life. Government officials hope to reduce fertilizer runoff and shrink the zone to the size of Delaware by 2015. But that goal could be more difficult to reach due to federally-mandated efforts to increase annual biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022, the study says.

Maybe genetically engineered microbes for biofuels production will prove useful. But using food crops to produce energy is a bad idea. Even without the demand for crops to make biofuels rain forests are getting shifted into agriculture due to population growth and Asian economic growth. We shouldn't make this problem worse with bad energy policy.

By Randall Parker    2009 September 28 11:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2009 August 21 Friday
Algae Strain Uses CO2 Under High Light Conditions

Algae for biomass energy are getting bred for higher productivity.

Today, Aurora Biofuels announces a technological milestone in the company's path to becoming the premier producer of low-cost advanced biofuels. Through a series of biotechnology achievements, Aurora has succeeded in optimizing its base algae strains to more than double CO2 consumption and fuel production, and has proven these results in an outdoor open system over the last several months.

Using tools developed in the fields of molecular biology and biochemistry, Aurora Biofuels scientists have developed a proprietary process which allows for the superior selection and breeding of non-transgenic algae. With this novel technique, the company has optimized its base algae strains with an increased ability to process sunlight and carbon dioxide into algal oil. As a result, these algae strains can produce more than twice the amount of oil. Optimized algae have been producing oil in Aurora Biofuels' outdoor pilot ponds for several months, providing strong evidence that these strains will remain robust at the industrial scale and remove more carbon emissions than previously thought possible.

What I find most interesting about this report: They are selecting for algae that yield the desired result. They aren't doing genetic manipulations. They are just selecting between existing mutations. Selection can certainly yield greatly improved strains. Look at the breeding programs for better crops and how much these programs have revolutionized agriculture in the 20th century. But I suspect that too many changes to algae are needed to make algae suitable for low cost fuel production. Selection will get us part of the way there. But my guess is that genetic engineering will be needed to get us all the way there.

Some labs are working on genetic manipulations on algae. The big decline in DNA sequencing costs and DNA and RNA testing costs will speed up the identification of genes and what they do. Then the returns on investment for doing genetic manipulation for biomass energy will go up.

The company selected for algae that keep incorporating carbon dioxide under the more intense sunlight of high noon.

“Algae have a built-in mechanism to be effective at low light and as it gets brighter during the day their uptake of carbon dioxide levels off,” said Mr. Walsh. “We’ve been able to go in and alter strains by natural mutation to cause the algae to deal with light across the whole spectrum. The algae continue to uptake CO2 through brighter light and are more productive.”

The rate of growth of algae is just one of several factors that affect biodiesel algae costs. Another big factor is extraction cost. What does it cost to get the oil separated from the rest of the algae mass?

What I'm wondering: Will highly optimized strains be at a competitive disadvantage to unoptimized strains? Will contamination by natural wild type strains ruin open air growing ponds? It might become necessary to put genes into the oil production strains that allow them thrive under circumstances (e.g. in presence of a toxin) that will kill or hobble wild type strains. Kinda like how Roundup ready crops are resistant to the herbicide Roundup.

By Randall Parker    2009 August 21 11:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2009 July 15 Wednesday
ExxonMobil To Pump $600M Into Biofuels Using Algae

This latest announcement from Exxon fits into a larger trend where the big oil companies pull back from solar photovoltaics and other non-liquid energy forms and instead focus their efforts on liquid hydrocarbons.

Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. is making a major jump into renewable energy with a $600 million investment in algae-based biofuels.

Exxon is joining a biotech company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., to research and develop next-generation biofuels produced from sunlight, water and waste carbon dioxide by photosynthetic pond scum.

But let us put that in perspective. In 2008 ExxonMobil had $443 billion in sales and $45 billion in earnings. So $600 million is chump change for them. I wonder what odds they place on this effort working.

Other recent biofuel venture fundings included oil refinery operator Valero as an investor for Solix Biofuels.

There were also at least two funding rounds in June. Solix Biofuels Inc. closed on $16.8 million to complete construction of a demonstration-scale facility, with investors including Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd., London-based I2BF Venture Capital, Bohemian Investments, Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC, petroleum refiner Valero Energy Corp. and Infield Capital. Solazyme Inc. added $12 million in an interim round standing at $57 million, which was led by Braemar Energy Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners and brought in new investor VantagePoint Venture Partners.

The oil companies are best thought of as companies that specialize in liquid hydrocarbons. The convenient storage and energy density of liquid hydrocarbons make them the single most widely used fuel for transportation with no other fuel even coming close.

What is not clear: can genetically engineered algae ever become a cost effective energy source with a favorable ratio of energy return on energy invested?

By Randall Parker    2009 July 15 01:04 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2009 May 08 Friday
Corn Better For Electricity Than For Ethanol

Corn as a form of biomass energy would reduce carbon dioxide emissions and move cars more miles if used to generate electricity to power electric cars.

Scientists are examining biomass - plant matter that's grown and used to generate energy - as a potential power source. Two biomass technologies involve ethanol and electricity. Biomass converted into ethanol, a corn-based fuel, can power internal combustion vehicles. Biomass converted into electricity can fuel a vehicle powered by an electric battery.

A study by University of California, Merced, Assistant Professor Elliott Campbell and two other researchers in the online edition of this week's Science journal suggests that biomass used to generate electricity could be the more efficient solution.

In the study, Campbell, along with Christopher Field, director of the department of global energy at the Carnegie Institution and David Lobell of Stanford University, the scientists found that biomass converted into electricity produced 81 percent more transportation miles and 108 percent more emissions offsets compared to ethanol.

In other words, said Campbell, vehicles powered by biomass converted into electricity "got further down the road" compared to ethanol. As a result, Campbell continued, "we found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues, transportation and climate."

I find this an unsurprising result. Previously I've argued that it makes more sense to burn corn kernels in place of heating oil as a heat source rather than use corn to produce ethanol. Why? Almost all the heat from burning the full kernel goes to producing space heat. Burning corn to produce heat for electric power generation will be highly efficient in a big electric power plant. By contrast lots of energy gets used to use part of corn to make ethanol.

My guess is that using corn to replace heating oil will be more efficient than using it to generate electricity to power electric cars. Better to displace the heating oil from heating and then use that heating oil as diesel fuel to power cars. Only once that displacement has been done does it make sense to begin to consider corn for electric power generation.

But keep in mind that the Merced researchers were comparing energy usages of corn. One still needs to compare the use of corn to generate electricity (or heat) with the use of wood or nuclear power or other energy sources. But this Merced comparison amounts to trying to find a more efficient way to placate the corn lobby with a different way to increase corn demand.

I expect you all see there's an obvious problem though in using corn to generate electricity specifically for transportation: the need for battery powered cars. But if the goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions then corn would be best used to displace coal for electric power generation. That displacement would not require production of millions of still rather expensive and limited range electric cars.

By Randall Parker    2009 May 08 07:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2009 May 06 Wednesday
Method Lowers Algae Oil Extraction Costs

Origin Oil claims a faster method for extracting oil from algae.

OriginOil, an algae biofuel company based in Los Angeles, has developed a simpler and more efficient way to extract oil from algae. The process combines ultrasound and an electromagnetic pulse to break the algal cell walls. Then the algae solution is force-fed carbon dioxide, which lowers its pH, separating the biomass from the oil.

Does any reader know much about biodiesel algae economics? If the extraction step became, say, an order of magnitude cheaper would that cut more or less than half the current cost of algae biodiesel production? Is the growing or the extraction the higher cost?

Update: Here is an overview of companies developing algae ponds for energy and feed. Can algae pond operations become more economically feasible by producing biomass for animal food?

By Randall Parker    2009 May 06 12:13 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (17)
2009 April 14 Tuesday
Massive Carbon Dioxide Release From Clearing Rain Forests

Palm oil plantations used to make biodiesel fuel make the carbon dioxide emissions problem worse, not better. The greenies who support biodiesel from palm oil help wipe out species and melt polar ice. Efficiently killing two birds with one stone.

April 14, 2009 – A new study finds that it will take more than 75 years for the carbon emissions saved through the use of biofuels to compensate for the carbon lost when biofuel plantations are established on forestlands. If the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would take more than 600 years. The study appears in Conservation Biology.

The oil palm, increasingly used as a source for biofuel, has replaced soybean as the world’s most traded oilseed crop. Global production of palm oil has increased exponentially over the past 40 years. In 2006, 85 percent of the global palm-oil crop was produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries whose combined annual tropical forest loss is around 20,000 square kilometers.

Conversion of forest to oil palm also results in significant impoverishment of both plant and animal communities. Other tropical crops suitable for biofuel use, like soybean, sugar cane and jatropha, are all likely to have similar impacts on climate and biodiversity.

“Biofuels are a bad deal for forests, wildlife and the climate if they replace tropical rain forests,” says research scientist Finn Danielsen, lead author of the study. “In fact, they hasten climate change by removing one of the world’s most efficient carbon storage tools, intact tropical rain forests.”

The European Union should ban the import of biodiesel made from palm oil. Hello, anyone home?

This isn't hard to figure out.

Tropical forests contain more than half of the Earth’s terrestrial species. They also store around 46 percent of the world’s living terrestrial carbon, and 25 percent of total net global carbon emissions may stem from deforestation. There is therefore an inherent contradiction in any strategy to clear tropical forest to grow crops for so-called carbon-neutral fuels.

Old growth forests contain far more biomass than whatever grows up in their place after they are destroyed.

We already have a huge problem with habitat loss due to population growth and industrialization. Why make it even worse with biomass fuels?

By Randall Parker    2009 April 14 10:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 March 25 Wednesday
Solid Catalyst Makes Algae Biodiesel Cost Effective?

Can a better catalyst make algae biodiesel competitive?

"This is the first economical way to produce biodiesel from algae oil," according to lead researcher Ben Wen, Ph.D., vice president of United Environment and Energy LLC, Horseheads, N.Y. "It costs much less than conventional processes because you would need a much smaller factory, there are no water disposal costs, and the process is considerably faster."

A key advantage of this new process, he says, is that it uses a proprietary solid catalyst developed at his company instead of liquid catalysts used by other scientists today. First, the solid catalyst can be used over and over. Second, it allows the continuously flowing production of biodiesel, compared to the method using a liquid catalyst. That process is slower because workers need to take at least a half hour after producing each batch to create more biodiesel. They need to purify the biodiesel by neutralizing the base catalyst by adding acid. No such action is needed to treat the solid catalyst, Wen explains.

He estimates algae has an "oil-per-acre production rate 100-300 times the amount of soybeans, and offers the highest yield feedstock for biodiesel and the most promising source for mass biodiesel production to replace transportation fuel in the United States." He says that his firm is now conducting a pilot program for the process with a production capacity of nearly 1 million gallons of algae biodiesel per year. Depending on the size of the machinery and the plant, he said it is possible that a company could produce up to 50 million gallons of algae biodiesel annually.

Or are the costs of growing the algae so high that even before processing it the costs are too high? Anyone have insights with which to judge the plausibility of this claim?

By Randall Parker    2009 March 25 10:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2009 March 06 Friday
Venture Capitalists Say Algae Biofuels Not Ready Yet

A few big name venture capitalists say they've looked at many algae biomass energy proposals and found them all wanting.

All three said they’ve looked at dozens of algae biofuels plans in recent years; Mr. Khosla says he’s looked at more than 100. None have invested a dime so far.

For Mr. Doerr of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, the problem is algae itself. To get better economics, you need to grow the stuff in cheap, open-air ponds, not in fancy bioreactors. But that is rough on algae and limits yields.

Vinod Khosla thinks algae has potential as an energy source. But a way to do it cost effectively hasn't been found yet.

I wonder whether genetic engineering will be needed to make algae biodiesel viable. Anyone have insights on this?

By Randall Parker    2009 March 06 01:04 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2009 March 04 Wednesday
Researchers Expect Cellulosic Biofuels To Compete

A collection of expert papers argues that cellulosic technology for biomass energy will compete against other energy sources.

Cellulosic biofuels offer similar, if not lower, costs and very large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum-derived fuels. That's one of the key take-home messages from a series of expert papers on "The Role of Biomass in America's Energy Future (RBAEF)" in a special issue of Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining.

The journal believes that the collection, which includes a comparative analysis of more than a dozen mature technology biomass refining scenarios, will make a major contribution to the ongoing debate on the future potential of biofuels in the USA.

Professor Lee Lynd, the driving force behind the RBAEF project and a major contributor to the special issue, explains the background to the project. "The RBAEF project, which was launched in 2003, is the most comprehensive study of the performance and cost of mature technologies for producing energy from biomass to date" he says. "Involving experts from 12 institutions, it is jointly led by Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the Natural Resources Defense Council and sponsored by the US Department of Energy, the Energy Foundation and the National Commission on Energy Policy.

If these technologies were already mature and cost competitive then we'd already see some cellulosic biomass energy plants in production. A lot of money was available until fairly recently to rapidly construct ethanol plants using corn. Those investors would have jumped on cellulosic tech if it was really ready.

If these experts are at least correct about future costs (and I suspect they are) then more of Earth's landmass will become useful to humanity. More rain forests will get cut down as more land gets shifted toward production for human uses. Habitats for wild critters will shrink and more species will go extinct. I do not see how cellulosic technology is a net benefit for the environment.

Algae biodiesel seems at first glance to potentially offer a way to get energy from biomass without much environmental damage. The algae could be grown in big desert areas with water piped in. The land used for algae biomass doesn't need to be land that currently has a lot of biomass on it. So the competition between algae biomass and natural habitats doesn't seem as severe. So I look for hopeful signs that algae for diesel fuel production will become competitive. If the Light Immersion Technology of Bionavitas works as well as they claim the cost of algae biodiesel might drop soon.

By Randall Parker    2009 March 04 11:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 February 17 Tuesday
Biofuel Crops Seen As Threat To Tropical Forests

Biomass energy crops are a bad idea in a world of expanding populations and shrinking wilds.

Farmers across the tropics might raze forests to plant biofuel crops, according to new research by Holly Gibbs, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

"If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances will be good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks," she warned.

Policies favoring biofuel crop production may inadvertently contribute to, not slow, the process of climate change, Gibbs said. Such an environmental disaster could be "just around the corner without more thoughtful energy policies that consider potential ripple effects on tropical forests," she added.

Gibbs' predictions are based on her new study, in which she analyzed detailed satellite images collected between 1980 and 2000. The study is the first to do such a detailed characterization of the pathways of agricultural expansion throughout the entire tropical region. Gibbs hopes that this new knowledge will contribute to making prudent decisions about future biofuel policies and subsidies.

Of course, the expanding populations are a bad idea too.

Tearing down rain forests to plant biofuel crops causes huge carbon dioxide emissions that far exceed any reduced CO2 emissions caused by using biomass energy in place of oil.

"If biofuels are grown in place of forests, we're actually going to end up emitting a huge amount of carbon. When trees are cut down to make room for new farmland, they are usually burned, sending their stored carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That creates what's called a carbon debt," Gibbs said. "This is because the carbon lost from deforestation is much greater than the carbon saved from using the current-generation biofuels."

Indeed, tropical forests are the world's most efficient storehouses for carbon, harboring more than 340 billion tons, according to Gibbs' research. This is equivalent to more than 40 years worth of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Gibbs' previous findings asserted that the carbon debt incurred from cutting down a tropical forest could take several centuries or even millennia to repay through carbon savings produced from the resultant biofuels.

Far more carbon is tied up in ecosystems than in the atmosphere.

The scientists found that addressing the land-based carbon is essential for stabilizing greenhouse gases at low levels. Overall, land contains 2,000 billion tons of carbon, compared to the 750 billion tons in the atmosphere. In addition, forests hold more carbon than grazing does. Converting land from forest to food or bioenergy crops releases carbon into the atmosphere. Conversely, turning agricultural land back into forests tucks carbon away on land, reducing it in the atmosphere.

Now, I think that tearing down all the forests to enable the human population to continue to grow is a bad idea for other reasons. I don't see any benefit for existing people from the addition of another billion people and I see a lot of costs.

Some University of Minnesota researchers argue that the health and environmental costs of cellulosic ethanol are much lower than the costs of gasoline and corn ethanol.

Total environmental and health costs of gasoline are about 71 cents per gallon, while an equivalent amount of corn-ethanol fuel costs from 72 cents to about $1.45, depending on the technology used to produce it. An equivalent amount of cellulosic ethanol, however, costs from 19 cents to 32 cents, depending on the technology and type of cellulosic materials used.

But if existing rain forests are harvested for the cellulose then the net effect would be increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Cellulosic technology can play a useful role in processing lawn clippings and other biomass wastes. But a big scaling up to produce cellulose from crops is a bad idea.

By Randall Parker    2009 February 17 11:04 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 February 08 Sunday
Solix Aims To Cut Biodiesel Costs

Michael Kanellos takes a look at the high cost of liquid biodiesel fuels from algae and the prospects for lowering their costs.

Algae biofuel startup Solix, for instance, can produce biofuel from algae right now, but it costs about $32.81 a gallon, said Bryan Wilson, a co-founder of the company and a professor at Colorado State University.

But by using waste heat (e.g. from electric power generator plants) Solix claims it can get costs down to $5.50 per gallon. The article reports that cost is equivalent to sustained $150 per barrel oil.

By exploiting waste heat at adjacent utilities (one of our favorite forms of energy around here), the price can probably be brought down to $5.50 a gallon (see Will Waste Heat Be Bigger Than Solar?). By selling the proteins and other byproducts from the algae for pet food, the price can be brought to $3.50 a gallon in the near term.

Beyond that Solix claims to have ways to get the cost down to below the equivalent of $80 per barrel oil. But suppose they can just get it down to $150 per barrel. That would be great news for the post-Peak Oil era since it'd put a long term ceiling on the price of liquid fuel that would allow a functioning industrial civilization not much different than what we currently have.

During our current deepening recession these prices all sound high. But the big drop in oil prices has been caused by a sharp decline in demand. Economic recovery (whenever that comes) will drive prices back up again. So if Solix can survive long enough to get its costs down it could have bright prospects.

The February issue of Biodiesel Magazine reports on a number of recent funding successes for biodiesel players including $10.5 million for Solix. Kinda surprising given the recession and low oil prices. Investors must see higher oil prices and brighter prospects in the longer term.

Fort Collins, Colo.-based Solix Biofuels, a technology partner of Colorado State University, raised $10.5 million in a Series A round of outside financing and reached an agreement with its investors for an additional $5 million to support the construction of a pilot-scale algae oil production plant in Durango, Colo. The oil produced at the facility will be used by biodiesel producers and the chemical industry, according to Chief Executive Officer Doug Henston. I2BF Venture Capital and Bohemian Investments led the Series A round. Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC, Valero Energy Corp. and Infield Capital also participated.

As long time readers know, I see crop-based biomass energy as a bad idea. But algae holds out the prospect of a much smaller land footprint, less impact on the environment, and less susceptibility to weather and other environmental factors.

By Randall Parker    2009 February 08 06:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2008 December 18 Thursday
Genetically Engineered Bacteria Make Longer Chain Fuel

UCLA researchers genetically manipulated E. Coli bacteria to make hydrocarbons for fuel with more carbon atoms for easier processing.

For the first time, researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have successfully pushed nature beyond its limits by genetically modifying Escherichia coli, a bacterium often associated with food poisoning, to produce unusually long-chain alcohols essential in the creation of biofuels.

"Previously, we were able to synthesize long-chain alcohols containing five carbon atoms," said James Liao, UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. "We stopped at five carbons at the time because that was what could be naturally achieved. Alcohols were never synthesized beyond five carbons. Now, we've figured out a way to engineer proteins for a whole new pathway in E. coli to produce longer-chain alcohols with up to eight carbon atoms."

The new protein and metabolic engineering method developed by Liao and his research team is detailed in the Dec. 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is currently available online.

Longer-chain alcohols, with five or more carbon atoms, pack more energy into a smaller space and are easier to separate from water, making them less volatile and corrosive than the commercially available biofuel ethanol. The greater the number of carbon atoms, the higher the density of the biofuel. Ethanol, most commonly made from corn or sugarcane, contains only two carbon atoms.

If we can solve part of our problem with dwindling oil reserves by using biomass it is my expectation that the solution will come from genetic engineering of microorganisms. Small organisms are easier to genetically engineer. Whether the solution will come from genetically engineered bacteria or algae is less clear to me. Bacteria are easier to modify. But algae which can better grow in water might be the better longer term bet. Anyone have any insights on this?

While corn and cellulosic technology have so far favored ethanol the genetically engineered microorganisms will probably be more likely to produce more reduced (having more hydrogens and fewer oxygens) hydrocarbon chains. Diesel might become the most cost effective fuel to produce with a biomass energy approach. So genetically engineered biomass energy microorganisms probably favor increased popularity of diesel engines.

By Randall Parker    2008 December 18 11:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2008 September 23 Tuesday
Lower Cost Catalyst Converts Cellulose To Ethylene Glycol

For biomass energy technology I watch two areas: algae biodiesel and cellulosic technology. The latter is of interest because it makes trees and other non-food plant matter useful as an energy source. Some researchers in China and Delaware have developed a catalyst that converts cellulose into ethylene glycol.

Alternatives to fossil fuels and natural gas as carbon sources and fuel are in demand. Biomass could play a more significant part in the future. Researchers in the USA and China have now developed a new catalyst that directly converts cellulose, the most common form of biomass, into ethylene glycol, an important intermediate product for chemical industry. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the catalyst is made of tungsten carbide and nickel on a carbon support.

You might think that producing ethylene glycol doesn't help much to power an engine. True enough. But oil gets used for many chemical feedstock purposes. A method of replacing oil for the chemical industry will free up more oil for powering transportation. Plus, car radiators contain ethylene glycol.

A team led by Tao Zhang at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (China) and Jingguang G. Chen at the University of Delaware (Newark, USA) has now developed just such a system. The catalyst is made of tungsten carbide deposited on a carbon support. Small amounts of nickel improve the efficiency and selectivity of the catalyst system: a synergetic effect between the nickel and tungsten carbide not only allows 100 % conversion of cellulose, but also increases the proportion of ethylene glycol in the resulting mixture of polyalcohols to an amazing 61 %. Ethylene glycol is an important intermediate in the chemical industry. For example, in the plastics industry it is needed for the production of polyester fibers and resins, and in the automobile industry it is used as antifreeze.

I'm still reserving my biggest biomass energy hope for advances in growing algae to produce liquid hydrocarbons burnable in vehicles. Will genetic engineering be required to make algae more useful?

Update: Technology Review reports that another research group claims a newer and cheaper process for converting biomass into useful chemical energy.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a simple, two-step chemical process to convert plant sugars into hydrocarbon fuels. The compounds created during the process could also be used to make other industrial chemicals and plastics.


The Wisconsin researchers, led by chemical- and biological-engineering professor James Dumesic, employ chemical reactions instead of microbial fermentation. They use catalysts at high temperatures to convert glucose into hydrocarbon biofuels. The process works thousands of times faster than microbes do because of the higher temperatures, so it requires smaller, cheaper reactors, Dumesic says.

We are in a race between the approaching global decline in oil production and technological advances to provide us with substitutes. The longer we can go before the oil production decline starts the more technology we will have to help us adjust to it. It is still not clear to me how disruptive this decline will be.

By Randall Parker    2008 September 23 10:58 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2008 September 15 Monday
Palm Oil For Food And Energy Threatens More Rainforests

Biomass energy with conventional tropical crops is a bad idea because rainforests get destroyed to make room for more palm plantations resulting in habitat loss.

The continued expansion of oil palm plantations will worsen the dual environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, unless rainforests are better protected, warn scientists in the most comprehensive review of the subject to date.

Lead author, Emily Fitzherbert from the Zoological Society of London and University of East Anglia said: "There has been much debate over the role of palm oil production in tropical deforestation and its impacts on biodiversity. We wanted to put the discussion on a firm scientific footing."

Palm oil, used in food, cosmetics, biofuels and other products, is now the world's leading vegetable oil. It is derived from the fruit of the oil palm, grown on more than 50,000-square miles of moist, tropical lowland areas, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia. These areas, once covered in tropical rainforest, the globe's richest wildlife habitat on land, are also home to some of the most threatened species on earth.

The review, published today in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, singles out deforestation associated with plantation development as by far the biggest ecological impact, but finds that the links between the two are often much more complex than portrayed in the popular press.

Growing palm oil demand threatens to wipe out yet more of the dwindling rainforests.

Within countries, oil palm is usually grown in a few productive areas, but it looks set to spread further. Demand is increasing rapidly and 'its potential as a future agent of deforestation is enormous', the study says.

Most of the suitable land left is within the last remaining large areas of tropical rainforest in Central Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Where oil palm has replaced tropical forest the impact on wildlife depends on what species survive in the new oil palm habitat.

The study confirmed that oil palm is a poor substitute habitat for the majority of tropical forest species, particularly forest specialists and those of conservation concern.

The coming of Peak Oil will boost the demand for biomass energy and speed the destruction of rainforests and other habitats. We need more environmentally friendly energy sources to replace dwindling fossil fuels.

By Randall Parker    2008 September 15 11:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2008 August 09 Saturday
Cellulose Biofuels Conversion For Diesel?

We hear a lot about the bright prospects for cellulosic ethanol. But a group at UC Davis thinks they've found a cheap way to turn cellulose into furan-based organic liquids.

Mark Mascal and Edward B. Nikitin at the University of California, Davis (USA) have now developed an interesting new method for the direct conversion of cellulose into furan-based biofuels. As they report in the journal Angewandte Chemie, their simple, inexpensive process delivers furanic compounds in yields never achieved before.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is viewed as the ultimate carbon source of the future. It is most efficiently "harvested" by plants via photosynthesis. Currently, biofuel producers primarily use starch, which is broken down to form sugars that are then fermented to give ethanol. Cellulose is however the most common form of photosynthetically fixed carbon. The problem is that the degradation of cellulose into its individual sugar components, which could then be fermented, is a slow and expensive process. "Another problem is that the carbon economy of glucose fermentation is poor," explains Mascal, "for every 10 g of ethanol produced, you also release 9.6 g CO2."

Could we avoid the breakdown of cellulose and fermentation? Mascal and Nikitin demonstrate that we can indeed. They have developed a simple process for the conversion of cellulose directly into "furanics", which are furan-based organic liquids. Furans are molecules whose basic unit is an aromatic ring made of one oxygen and four carbon atoms. The main product the researchers obtain under the conditions they have been developing is 5-chloromethylfurfural (CMF).

One of the compounds produced by this process might work in diesel fuel blends.

CMF and ethanol can be combined to give ethoxymethylfufural (EMF), and CMF reacts with hydrogen to give 5-methylfurfural. Both of these compounds are suitable as fuels. EMF has previously been investigated and found to be of interest in mixtures with diesel by Avantium Technologies, a spin-off of Shell.

"Our method appears to be the most efficient conversion of cellulose into simple, hydrophobic, organic compounds described to date," says Mascal. "It also surpasses the carbon yields of glucose and sucrose fermentation. Furanics could be established as both the automotive energy source and chemical starting material of the future."

If this works then it could shift the biomass advantage against ethanol. That would make government ethanol fuel mandates in the United States even dumber than they already are.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 09 10:38 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2008 August 03 Sunday
Miscanthus Seen As Superior To Corn For Ethanol

My fear with biomass energy is that we will find plants that can convert sunlight to usable energy so efficiently that biomass energy can compete on cost but not efficiently enough to limit use of land for energy to a very small area. Well, miscanthus looks like it will help make the nightmare scenario cost effective. Miscanthus beats corn and switchgrass for biomass production.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In the largest field trial of its kind in the United States, researchers have determined that the giant perennial grass Miscanthus x giganteus outperforms current biofuels sources – by a lot. Using Miscanthus as a feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S. could significantly reduce the acreage dedicated to biofuels while meeting government biofuels production goals, the researchers report.

The new findings, from researchers at the University of Illinois, appear this month in the journal Global Change Biology.

If these researchers are correct then half of US agricultural acreage could supply all current US liquid fuels needs.

Using corn or switchgrass to produce enough ethanol to offset 20 percent of gasoline use – a current White House goal – would take 25 percent of current U.S. cropland out of food production, the researchers report. Getting the same amount of ethanol from Miscanthus would require only 9.3 percent of current agricultural acreage. (View a narrated slideshow about Miscanthus research.)

That is bad news. Why? Because there is the rest of the world with Asian demand on a course that will send it far past current US liquid fuel demand. A way to make cost competitive liquid fuel from agriculture will pull much more land around the world into biomass energy production. That cuts into land available for all the other species of critters on this planet.

Miscanthus might displace corn for use in ethanol production.

“What we’ve found with Miscanthus is that the amount of biomass generated each year would allow us to produce about 2 1/2 times the amount of ethanol we can produce per acre of corn,” said crop sciences professor Stephen P. Long, who led the study. Long is the deputy director of the BP-sponsored Energy Biosciences Institute, a multi-year, multi-institutional initiative aimed at finding low-carbon or carbon-neutral alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. Long is an affiliate of the U. of I.’s Institute for Genomic Biology. He also is the editor of Global Change Biology.

In trials across Illinois, switchgrass, a perennial grass which, like Miscanthus, requires fewer chemical and mechanical inputs than corn, produced only about as much ethanol feedstock per acre as corn, Long said.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to grow switchgrass because the yields we obtained were actually equal to the best yields that had been obtained elsewhere with switchgrass,” he said. Corn yields in Illinois are also among the best in the nation.

The world's population is around 6.7 billion today and headed for 9.3 billion or maybe 9.1 billion by 2050. Crop demand will grow for a few reasons:

  • Population growth.
  • Buying power growth for meat due to Asian industrialization.
  • Demand for biomass energy crops.

Advances in agricultural biotechnology will boost yields. But dwindling supplies of oil and natural gas will drive up input costs. Also, population growth will reduce land available for farming as more land gets converted into residential and commercial building usage. A big global push for population control would help reduce the severity of this problem.

By Randall Parker    2008 August 03 06:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (30)
2008 July 23 Wednesday
Energy Prices Drive Up Crop Planting Costs

Rising energy costs drive up food prices in two ways. First off, higher fossil fuels prices raise fertilizer costs, chemical costs, and tractor operation costs. Plus, higher gasoline costs raise the prices people will pay for ethanol from corn. The rising production costs of corn and soybeans put a high and rising floor on food prices even before biomass energy is considered.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Soaring energy prices will yield sharp increases for corn and soybean production next year, cutting into farmers’ profits and stretching already high food costs, according to a new University of Illinois study.

Costs to get crops in the ground will jump by about a third in 2009, fueled by fertilizer prices expected to surge 82 percent for corn and 117 percent for soybeans, said Gary Schnitkey, an agricultural economist who conducts the annual survey of input costs.

Fertilizer – the biggest non-land expense for corn and soybean farmers – is tethered to the same cost spiral that has driven steep gasoline and heating price increases over the last few years, said Schnitkey, a professor of agriculture and consumer economics.

“Roughly 80 percent of the cost of producing nitrogen fertilizer is natural gas, so as natural gas costs have gone up so have the costs of those inputs,” he said. “Phosphorus and potassium are mined, and as energy costs increase, mining costs increase.”

What I want to know: At what price of natural gas will wind electricity become a cheaper source of energy to make nitrogen fertilizer? That price will put a ceiling on fertilizer costs. When solar photovoltaics and solar concentrators for electric generation fall below the costs of wind turbines (and that seems inevitable) the ceiling for fertilizer prices will go even lower. But how expensive will food get before natural gas-based fertilizer reaches a price where electrically driven nitrogen reduction becomes competitive? Seems an important question for those who plan on eating in the future.

The break-even price for corn will rise to almost $4 per bushel.

The study projects non-land production costs for corn will total $529 an acre next year, up 36 percent from 2008 and nearly 85 percent higher than the average of $286 per acre from 2003 to 2007. At $321 an acre, soybean input costs are projected to rise 34 percent from 2008 and more than 78 percent from the 2003-2007 average of $180 an acre.

Schnitkey says the per-acre costs are based on high-producing farmland in Central Illinois, but corn and soybean farmers across the country will see similar increases.

Assuming cash-rent fees of $200 an acre, the study projects a break-even price of $3.82 a bushel for corn in Central Illinois, based on an average yield of 191 bushels an acre. Soybeans would break even at $9.65 a bushel, based on yields of 54 bushels per acre.

As recently as 2004 farmer production cost for corn was $2.46 per bushel and the production cost for soybeans was $6.49 per bushel. That soy break-even price of almost $10 contrasts with November 2001 when soy sold for just $4.33 per bushel. Production costs are now more than double that price. Back in 2003 corn was around $2.10 to $2.35 per bushel. Corn production costs are almost double that price.

By Randall Parker    2008 July 23 10:36 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2008 May 26 Monday
Tad Patzek Interview On Biomass Energy Problems

The Oil Drum: Canada has an interesting interview with Tad Patzek, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, about biomass energy sources. Patzek publishes research on the energy return on energy invested for biomass ethanol sources. In this latest interview many topics are covered. The most interesting to me was Patzek's view that biomass energy isn't sustainable because it drains the soil of minerals.

Ben: So, we have identified that the largest energy input is the actual industrial process. People are moving away from natural gas to coal power now because the price of natural gas is too volatile. What if we started burning biomass instead of coal because biomass, some types of biomass such as pelletized switchgrass for instance has a fairly good energy balance, does it not, when you burn it.

Tad Patzek: Right. So here we are running into another problem. The thing about agricultural production is that it requires a substrate. Plants need soil to grow on and that soil needs to be protected from the elements, wind and rain being the most important ones. So a prairie system with switchgrass let us say protects the soil very well because the soil is covered with plants all the time. Prairie in fact is a very good example of a system, which is enormously efficient and whose net productivity, that is, net mass production is zero. That is, everything that the prairie produces is recycled in it. The bison, the buffalo eat the grass. The coyotes and the lions, mountain lions, eat the buffalo, and the wolves and everybody dies on the prairie and their bodies are recycled and so it goes on, the nutrients, and in fact the prairie gets flooded every now and then from the rivers, which bring other nutrients and so it goes on, the nutrients are resupplited. Now we come, we the humans come into that system and we say, “Okay, grass, we are going to cut you every year, year after year. Remove everything that we cut and burn it elsewhere.” Unfortunately, when you do so not only do you remove carbon, but you remove nutrients with the grass and these nutrients are gradually depleted from the soil and of course the whole system stops producing. There is a fundamental problem with removing all biomass from an ecosystem because that ecosystem stops functioning and in order for you to make it function, you have to resupply it back with the nutrients and that of course takes an enormous amount of fossil fuels. So we are back to square one.

Using cellulosic technology to extract energy from plant matter such as switch grass will be even worse for the soil than corn ethanol in this view because a larger percentage of the plant matter will get removed during harvesting. The concentration of minerals in corn kernels (which are mostly starch) is lower than the concentration of minerals in corn stalks or in grasses.

Patzek sees a similar problem with use of sugarcane in Brazil to produce biomass energy. Such farming will deplete the soil faster because more of the plant will get removed from the farm for processing.

Tad Patzek: Sugarcane has another feature that differentiates it from corn. It actually coexists with a bacterium, Rhizobium bacterium, to some extent, which sequestered nitrogen. So sugarcane needs less nitrogen fertilizer than corn. Also, it grows year around not 100 days per year as corn does in the United States. There are differences in the yield. Also, sugarcane in the past centuries was grown organically with no fertilizers and basically what was taken out of the plantation in the end was the sugar juice, the carbon, in terms of sugar, but the rest of it and some fiber from the bagasse, but the rest of it would be returned back to the plantation as malt and as fertilizer and that would actually allow these plantations to go on for three centuries in some places.

Ben: Okay.

Tad Patzek: In Asia and in South America, so very good so far. Now, we are now doing it slightly differently. Now, in order for us to drive the process with sugarcane only, we need to use the entire plant, that is, the bagasse, the leaves and everything else and essentially bury them in the ethanol plants. So now we are removing all biomass from the fields. Of course, that puts us in the quandary that no we will have to be replacing the nutrients just as we do with corn. In Brazil, this is not being done to the same extent yet. So they are essentially depleting the soil and unfortunately they will have to do more and more fertilization as they go on with the system.

My expectation is that very low cost photovoltaics will eventually make an acre of desert capable of producing electrical energy from photovoltaics much more cheaply than an acre of farm land will produce biomass energy. But the electricity won't be as convenient to store and use as are liquid fuels. Better batteries will improve the usefulness of electricity in transportation. But liquid fuels will still provide advantages - especially for longer trips. So even with super cheap photovoltaics I still expect some political demand and economic demand for biomass liquid energy, enough to do a lot of environmental damage.

I think government support for biomass energy is a measure of both the corruption and relative stupidity of our elected officials. That, in turn, is evidence of two problems. First off, the average voter isn't bright. Second, the average voter has little incentive to be well informed about what elected officials believe and do.

By Randall Parker    2008 May 26 05:05 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2008 April 14 Monday
Biomass Energy Versus Food Crops

Some (though not all) political leaders in Europe acknowledge that biomass energy means that cars will eat human food.

European lawmakers seem anxious to brake the biofuel bandwagon. On Thursday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called on G-8 countries "urgently to examine the impact on food prices of different kinds and production methods of biofuels, and ensure that their use is responsible and sustainable." France's agriculture minister has promised to unveil proposals at next week's European Union agriculture council that will ensure "absolute priority must be given to agricultural production for food" over biofuels. Germany's environment minister Sigmar Gabriel said this month that he was considering canceling laws requiring a minimum of 10% of petrol be plant-sourced by next year, and 17% by 2020.

Just because some European politicians have finally decided to ride the clue train on biomass energy and food does not mean we should expect to see a decrease in demand for crops to create liquid transportation fuels. Oh no. As food prices rise the pressure to reduce biomass energy subsidies might lead to some subsidies cuts. But rising energy prices will make crops more useful as energy sources even at higher price points for the crops.

I expect the biomass energy problem to get worse due to advances in technology that lower the costs of converting food crops to energy. Even the development of technology to exploit non-food crop biomass energy sources such as switch grass will increase the demand for crop land to grow biomass for energy and therefore will cause a shift of crop land away from food and toward energy.

The demand for biomass energy is just one of the causes of very high grain prices. Industrialization raises living standards and the more affluent people want more meat which takes more grain to grow.

First, there's the march of the meat-eating Chinese - the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories' worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains.

Second, there's the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a lot of BTUs go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and transporting farm products to consumers.

Population growth is another cause of rising food prices. Over population is the energy and food problem we most ought to do something about.

If you haven't been following agricultural commodity prices the rates of price increases have been very fast.

In fact, in just the past year a number of commodities crucial to food manufacturers have soared to record-breaking prices, with wheat up 107 percent, soybeans 65 percent and corn 61 percent.

This past year's price increases come on the heels of substantial price increases in the previous few years. Corn at $6 a bushel and wheat at $12 a bushel are shocking after corn sold for $1.76 per bushel in 2001.

The impact of rising food prices is felt most in the poorest countries because the poorest spend over half their income for food.

The effect is far more pronounced in developing countries, where 50-60 per cent of income goes on food, compared with 10-20 per cent in the developed world.

Several Asian countries have imposed controls on rice exports. Its price jumped 40 per cent in three days recently, when India and Vietnam banned exports, an FAO official said.

Asian countries which ban crop exports will improve food availability within their borders. But most of the shifts of crops into biomass energy are going to occur in countries which have large food surpluses such as the United States and Brazil. The Brazilians are going to ramp up a big biomass energy industry as long as it is profitable. That leaves less and higher priced crops available for export to countries where people are hungry. High energy prices cause reductions in exported crops.

Brazilian Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes attempts to deny the obvious by claiming that biofuels do not compete with food crops.

In Brazil, ``biofuels do not compete with food crops,'' Stephanes said today in a Bloomberg Television interview. ``That isn't the case in other parts of the world.''

Assorted countries are restricting wheat exports too.

Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter, is reportedly flirting with the idea of doing the same, even as its farmers toil to plant a third crop of rice this year, one more than usual. Wheat, too, has seen the scythe of political maneuvering: Last week, Russia extended for 60 days a ban on wheat exports. China and Argentina have adopted restrictions; in Pakistan, where farmers have just begun to harvest the annual wheat crop, officials yesterday said the country most likely will fall millions of acres below the expected goal, prompting the government to dispatch soldiers to guard grain elevators.

I think this presages what is going to happen with oil exports. As oil production starts declining over the entire world many countries that now export oil will cut back on exports in order to satisfy domestic demand. Therefore oil importing countries will be hit harder than you might expect just from looking at total oil production numbers.

The poorest people (who parenthetically need to have a lot fewer babies) are also experiencing a much higher inflation rate than people who shop in grocery stores is developed industrial countries. The people who shop in stores are paying prices that include a lot of processing costs. So when the price of a bushel of corn doubles and doubles again the price of Corn Chex might go up by tens of a percent at most. But for poor Third World town dwellers who buy raw corn kernels or wheat kernels the increase in price they see is more like the bushel price increase. Ditto if they buy raw wheat kernels or rice kernels.

Food prices have started increasing quite dramatically.

At $1.32, the average price of a loaf of bread has increased 32 percent since January 2005. In the last year alone, the average price of carton of eggs has increased almost 50 percent.

Even though corn has soared to around $6 per bushel versus $2 per bushel just a few years ago.

The market is expecting a bullish crop report. Farmers are expected to plant 7 million or 8 million acres less corn because of high fertilizer costs. Soybean makes its own nitrogen and doesn't require fertilizer. If the report confirms this number, well use more corn than we produce next crop year. And as a result, new all-time high prices will be justified.

High fertilizer prices could potentially reduce fertilizer use and therefore reduce yield per acre. More land will get put into production though. So expect a reduction in wildlife habitats.

By Randall Parker    2008 April 14 12:09 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (31)
2008 February 24 Sunday
Solazyme Algae Biodiesel

Solazyme is pursuing an unusual process for using algae to produce liquid fuels including biodiesel. In the Solazyme approach they keep the algae in the dark and feed it sugar.

The new process combines genetically modified strains of algae with an uncommon approach to growing algae to reduce the cost of making fuel. Rather than growing algae in ponds or enclosed in plastic tubes that are exposed to the sun, as other companies are trying to do, Solazyme grows the organisms in the dark, inside huge stainless-steel containers. The company's researchers feed algae sugar, which the organisms then convert into various types of oil. The oil can be extracted and further processed to make a range of fuels, including diesel and jet fuel, as well as other products.

The company uses different strains of algae to produce different types of oil. Some algae produce triglycerides such as those produced by soybeans and other oil-rich crops. Others produce a mix of hydrocarbons similar to light crude petroleum.

I am very interested in algae biodiesel because I think it might turn out as the best approach for doing biomass energy. But most other research groups pursuing algae biodiesel are using photosynthesis where the algae get their energy from being exposed to sunlight. Can the Solazyme approach work better?

Solazyme's approach is supposed to let them use cellulose. So trees, switchgrass and other non-grain crops which can produce more biomass per acre can serve as food sources for the algae. Solazyme avoids the need to build ponds with glass or plastic coverings on a massive scale.

Estimates for how much biodiesel can be produced using the pond approach run into the thousands of gallons per acre per year (one figure: 4000 gallons). One big problem with these approaches is the cost of physical plant structure over many acres. If instead an acre is used to grow switchgrass or trees how many gallons of biodiesel can the Solazyme approach produce?

If anyone can point to some good sources of information on the viability of algae biodiesel please post in the comments.

By Randall Parker    2008 February 24 11:13 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2008 February 20 Wednesday
Big Corn Ethanol Industry Even Without Subsidies

The corn ethanol industry would be only a third smaller without government subsidies.

One of the most dramatic aspects of the ethanol "revolution" is a ballooning percentage of corn crops being made into ethanol, which prior to 2004 had always been lower than 10 percent. This year, for the first time, ethanol replaced exports to become the second largest use of the grain behind that of domestic animal feed. With a fixed subsidy in effect, the amount of corn used for ethanol increases from 12 percent for $40 oil to 52 percent for $120 oil, the model predicts. With the renewable fuel standard, the ethanol share is quite stable, ranging from 44 percent for $40 oil to 47 percent for $120 oil, Tyner said. With the fixed subsidy in effect, ethanol production ranges from 3.3 billion gallons a year at $40 oil to 17.6 billion gallons with $120 oil, according to Tyner. The variable and no-subsidy policies yield 6.5 billion gallons at $80 oil and 12.7 billion for $120 oil.

As the price of oil goes up the price of corn will follow. The rise in the price of corn will pull up prices of other grains as farmers shift their fields to corn and they produce less of other grains. Peak Oil means high food prices.

By Randall Parker    2008 February 20 09:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2008 February 07 Thursday
Studies Find Most Biomass Energy Increases Carbon Dioxide Emissions

The clearing of lands for biomass energy crops releases so much carbon dioxide that it takes many decades to cut the CO2 by as much as the land clearance originally released.

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

The Wall Street Journal quotes a figure of 93 years to get a payback for US grassland converted to corn ethanol.

But corn ethanol is far from the worst offender. Conversion of Indonesian peatlands to palm oil biodiesel takes 423 years to pay off.

The conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up the greatest carbon debt which would require 423 years to pay off. The production of soybeans in the Amazon, which would not "pay for itself" in renewable soy biodiesel for 319 years.

The shifting of US croplands into biomass energy causes lands in other parts of the world to shift into crop production. (this is called stating the obvious but with a scientific study to make the obvious harder to deny)

Searchinger's study focused on the global ripple effect of changing the use of farmland. U.S. farmers have been replacing soybean fields with cornfields to meet the rising demand for ethanol, lowering the world supply of soybeans and driving up their price.

As a result, farmers in Brazil are clearing rain forest to plant soybeans, he said.

His model estimated that devoting 12.8 million hectares of cornfields in the U.S. for ethanol production would bring 10.8 million hectares of additional land into cultivation throughout the world, including 2.8 million hectares in Brazil and 2.3 million hectares in China and India -- much of it forests and grasslands.

This demonstrates the foolishness of European Union rules to prevent import of biodiesel from high ecological value converted lands. Such bans just shift the biomass energy production onto other lands while shifting food production from those other lands onto the lands that otherwise would have produced biomass energy crops. The only way to prevent habitat destruction from biomass energy is to use little land for biomass energy crops.

People who want less ecological damage have a few alternatives staring at them: First, promote wider birth control use. Babies never conceived will never use land for biomass energy or for food to eat. Second, support energy sources that use small land footprints per amount of energy produced. Nuclear energy best fits the bill.

But if biofuels become large net producers of energy then they'll drastically increase in popularity regardless of their CO2 emissions effects.

A new analysis shows that the energy balance of biodiesel is a positive ratio of 3.5-to-1. For every unit of fossil energy needed to produce the fuel over its life cycle, the return is 3.5 units of energy, according to new research conducted at the University of Idaho in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The announcement of the increase—up from 3.2—was made today (6th February) at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in Orlando.

The yield of soybeans per acre keeps rising while energy inputs are not rising. So the ratio of energy out to energy in keeps rising.

The researchers found national soybean yield data from 1975 to 2006 shows that the yield has increased at the rate of 0.6 bushels per acre per year. Yet, the fertilizer application rate has essentially remained the same and the herbicide application rate has declined to one-fifth of its rate in 2000. Reduced herbicide applications have the added benefit of requiring less diesel for field spraying.

At the processing level, technology improvements at soybean crushing facilities led to 55 percent less energy needed than what was reported in the NREL study.

The best option I can see coming up for biomass energy is biodiesel algae. The algae approach might allow thousands of gallons of diesel to be produced per acre per year. But it is not clear when algae biodiesel will become cost effective. Maybe sooner than we think once oil production declines send oil prices into the stratosphere.

By Randall Parker    2008 February 07 10:14 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2008 January 27 Sunday
Lester Brown Sees Higher Food Prices Due To Biomass Energy

Higher oil prices are driving up food prices.

We are witnessing the beginning of one of the great tragedies of history. The United States, in a misguided effort to reduce its oil insecurity by converting grain into fuel for cars, is generating global food insecurity on a scale never seen before.

The world is facing the most severe food price inflation in history as grain and soybean prices climb to all-time highs. Wheat trading on the Chicago Board of Trade on December 17th breached the $10 per bushel level for the first time ever. In mid-January, corn was trading over $5 per bushel, close to its historic high. And on January 11th, soybeans traded at $13.42 per bushel, the highest price ever recorded. All these prices are double those of a year or two ago.

As a result, prices of food products made directly from these commodities such as bread, pasta, and tortillas, and those made indirectly, such as pork, poultry, beef, milk, and eggs, are everywhere on the rise. In Mexico, corn meal prices are up 60 percent. In Pakistan, flour prices have doubled. China is facing rampant food price inflation, some of the worst in decades.

In industrial countries, the higher processing and marketing share of food costs has softened the blow, but even so, prices of food staples are climbing. By late 2007, the U.S. price of a loaf of whole wheat bread was 12 percent higher than a year earlier, milk was up 29 percent, and eggs were up 36 percent. In Italy, pasta prices were up 20 percent.

Here's the most interesting part: Oil at $100 per barrel will up ethanol demand to the point that corn goes to $7 per bushel.

A University of Illinois economics team calculates that with oil at $50 a barrel, it is profitable—with the ethanol subsidy of 51¢ a gallon (equal to $1.43 per bushel of corn)—to convert corn into ethanol as long as the price is below $4 a bushel. But with oil at $100 a barrel, distillers can pay more than $7 a bushel for corn and still break even. If oil climbs to $140, distillers can pay $10 a bushel for corn—double the early 2008 price of $5 per bushel.

We are going to find out much corn production can go up.

6 years ago corn was only $2.18 per bushel.

By 2012, the U.S. goal is to produce 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year, meaning U.S. annual corn production must rise 22 percent from about 10.9 billion bushels to 13.5 billion bushels to meet the demand.

Corn prices are at their highest level since the drought of 1995, jumping from around $2.18 per bushel in 2002 to $4.78 per bushel this week.

Peak Oil is going to push up the price of food. Though I'm beginning to seriously wonder whether algae biodiesel could provide a way to avoid that. How fast can the technology for algae biodiesel be developed? Can algae biodiesel some day really scale up to thousands of gallons of biodiesel per acre? Any of my regular readers know much about it?

By Randall Parker    2008 January 27 09:59 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2008 January 07 Monday
Will Biofuels Demand Cause Mass Starvation?

Over at The Oil Drum (one of my favorite blogs btw) Stuart Staniford takes a hard look at biomass energy and argues most of the world's agricultural production might end up going to produce biofuels as billions starve.

Many people are aware that food-based biofuel production has had an influence on food prices. Many people also know that US ethanol production is growing rapidly and now using a noticeable fraction of the total corn supply. However, I'm going to argue that the situation in the near term is potentially more serious than is generally realized.

I will use a mixture of existing data, analysis of biofuel profitability, and simple modeling of biofuel production as an infection or diffusion process affecting the food supply, to demonstrate that there are reasonably plausible scenarios for biofuel production growth to cause mass starvation of the global poor, and that this could happen fairly quickly - quite possibly within five years, and certainly well within the life of the existing policy regimes. It doesn't have to be this way, but unless we start doing things differently soon, the risks are significant.

What, governments around the world are capable of pursuing policies that could lead to this outcome? Yes, pretty much. Though they'll probably back off some once news clips of starvation in assorted locations become frequent enough that people in developed countries start feeling queasy about what is going on. On the other hand, once world oil production starts declining people in the more developed countries might become so focused on their own problems that they just won't care. Ditto for China too.

The article is quite lengthy and I'm only going to excerpt a few smaller pieces of it. If you have an interest in how biomass energy puts food and energy in direct competition with each other then click through and read the whole thing.

Staniford's essay isn't perfect. For example, I don't think that modeling the spread of ethanol production facilities as analogous to disease spread makes sense. But he brings up a lot of useful information about costs and trends in biomass energy production in the United States and the rest of the world. One of his useful observations is that the trend in world biomass facilities construction lags US trends by a few years. This suggests total world demand for grains for biomass energy production will grow substantially in the next few years. Though US demand for grain has pushed up world grain costs and therefore reduced the profitability of biomass energy facilities in the rest of the world. So I question the continuation of this trend.

Let's just pause a moment and figure out how much food we are talking about when we discuss bushels of corn, or gallons of ethanol. A bushel of corn is 56 lb (or 25.4kg) of corn. At about 8000 btu/lb we get 113120 kCal/bushel. Given the average human diet globally contains 2800 kCal/day (see figure below), 1 bushel represents 40 days worth of calories for a person (if that person eat only corn!). Thus at current conversion efficiencies of about 2.8 gal/bushel, the corn in a gallon of ethanol represents a shade over two weeks worth of food (again, all corn). A 15 gallon fuel tank of ethanol is thus 7 months worth of corn calories for one person. Of course, the American corn crop is mainly fed to animals, and after conversion to meat, eggs, or dairy at efficiencies in the range of 1/10 - 1/3, the 15 gallon tank of ethanol is more like 1-2 months worth of food calories for a person.

Note how an increase in demand for meat (as is happening in China and other rapidly developing countries) reduces the amount of grain available for direct human consumption. The grain gets fed to cattle, pigs, chickens and the like. Therefore the poorest humans can't buy it.

Staniford's rough cut calculation has another quadrupling of food prices causing most of the human populace to go hungry.

Here the value for the lower-income 2/3 of the world's population is about +0.7. What this means is that a 10% reduction in income has about the same effect on food consumption as a 10% increase in food prices. This suggests that we can use the global income distribution (shown above) to roughly estimate the impact of a doubling or quadrupling of food prices. We noted earlier that according to the UN about 800 million people are unable to meet minimal dietary energy requirements. That is 12% of the world population. On the income distribution (one graph back), the 12% mark corresponds to $1020/year in income (shown as the lowermost green dot). By looking at the $2040 level (36% of the global population - second green dot up), and the $4080 level (61% of the global population - third green dot up), we can estimate that a doubling in food prices over 2000 levels might bring 30% or so of the global population below the level of minimal dietary energy requirements, and a quadrupling of food prices over 2000 levels might bring 60% or so of the global population into that situation.

These estimates should be regarded as quite uncertain. Still, it seems hard to make a case that food price increases will cause a cessation of biofuel profitability before a significant fraction of the global population is in serious trouble. The poor will not be able to bid up food prices by factors of two and four and keep eating. In contrast, the quadrupling of global oil prices, and tripling of US gasoline prices, over the last five years has had very minimal impact on driving behavior by the middle classes.

The core problem is that gasoline price elasticity in the US is about -0.05, versus the -0.7 price elasticity for food consumption by poor consumers. This makes clear who is going to win the bidding war for food versus biofuels in a free market.

The longer term price elasticity of gasoline demand is a lot higher than the number he references. People don't buy new cars very often and so when their preferences for more efficient vehicles change that change in preferences takes a while to translate into changes in fuel efficiency. Similarly, car companies need years to adjust their product mixes. Also, people do not move very often and so when they decide they ought to live closer to work in order to cut commuting costs again the effects of their decisions do not show up immediately.

Down in the comments Staniford says the price elasticity of meat in developed countries is lower than the price elasticity of grain in poorer countries. This sounds right and has some interesting consequences: As the buying power of Chinese consumers rises a larger fraction of the world's populace demands meat and develops greater price inelastic demand for meat. So the price of grain can go much higher due to demand for livestock feed just as it is going higher due to demand for biomass energy.

Industrialization of part of the world causes starvation in other parts. We can see from the current oil prices and grain prices what to expect from the coming decline in world oil production. Higher oil prices will increase demand for biomass ethanol. That increased demand will raise the price of ethanol in lock step with the price of oil. The higher price of ethanol will cause further bidding up of corn prices to shift grain away from human and animal consumption toward vehicle consumption. Higher prices of oil mean higher prices for corn, wheat, soy, and other grains. It is as simple as that.

Some of the improvements in biomass processing efficiency actually make this problem worse. By reducing the use of non-corn inputs to corn ethanol production these improvements make ethanol production profitable at even higher corn prices. So more corn gets shifted to ethanol production. Yes folks, advances in technologies sometimes make problems worse, not better.

So what should we do about this? I have some suggestions:

  • Develop programs to reduce birth rates in poor countries. Babies not born now are people who won't starve once world oil production starts declining.
  • End subsidies of biomass energy. Hard to do when the recent winners (and most of the losers) of the Iowa caucuses enthusiastically support those subsidies.
  • Develop nuclear, wind, and solar energy. We need to switch to these energy sources and not to biomass energy.
  • Develop great batteries so that cars can run off of electricity.
  • Try harder to protect habitats. The demand for land to grow biomass crops means destruction of rain forests and other habitats. Also, hungry rapidly growing populations in Africa will kill elephants and other critters. Though population growth makes mass extinctions inevitable anyway.

Hey, isn't the future supposed to be Panglossian? Am I letting down my readers by not being sufficiently optimistic?

By Randall Parker    2008 January 07 11:57 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2007 December 12 Wednesday
Genetically Engineered Organisms To Convert Cellulose To Diesel

MIT's Technology Review has placed David Berry of biotech energy start-up LS9 on a list of top 35 innovators for 2007 for an on-going attempt to genetically engineer organisms to feed on plant cellulose and produce gasoline or diesel fuel.

Berry took the lead in designing a system that allowed LS9 researchers to alter the metabolic machinery of ­microorganisms, turning them into living hydrocarbon refineries. He began with biochemical pathways that microbes use to convert ­glucose into energy-storing molecules called fatty acids. Working with LS9 scientists, he then plucked genes from various other organisms to create a system of metabolic modules that can be inserted into microbes; in different combinations, these modules induce the microbes to produce what are, for all practical purposes, the equivalents of crude oil, diesel, gasoline, or hydrocarbon-based in­dustrial chemicals.


Nonetheless, LS9 has no products so far and many ­hurdles to surmount. Berry's system, for example, is designed to exploit glucose-based feedstocks such as cellulose. Berry says he is "agnostic" about what source of cellulose might drive the LS9 system on an industrial scale; he lists switchgrass, wood chips, poplar trees, and Miscanthus, a tall grass similar to sugarcane, as potential sources of biomass. But a cost-­effective and efficient source of cellulose is one of the more significant bottlenecks in the production of any biofuel.

Producing gasoline or diesel has a lot of advantages over producing ethanol. Unlike ethanol both gasoline and diesel can be transported via pipelines. They also let you go much further between fill-ups than ethanol. So a reader asked whether this approach can work. I can't say for sure but the question should be considered in parts:

1) Can they genetically engineer the sorts of organisms that they want to genetically engineer to perform the way they want those organisms to perform?

2) Will the resulting process be cost competitive?

3) If they manage to create a cost competitive process will the result be a good thing?

I'm much more optimistic on the first point than on the second point. Worse, I'm more optimistic on the second point than on the third.

On the first point: Sure, with enough genetic engineering talent and time you can modify organisms to eat cellulose and produce diesel. Will this particular crew succeed? Hard to know.

But if they succeed in the genetic engineering task will the resulting fuel be cheap enough? They have going for them the rising cost of corn driven by both corn ethanol subsidies and rising world demand for food. But their approach starts with an inefficiency: They first grow plants to produce cellulose. Therefore some of the initial plant energy gets lost as they feed the cellulose to genetically engineered organisms. The conversion from cellulose to diesel fuel will have some inefficiency associated with it. Will the conversion process cost more than half the cellulose energy?

A larger fraction of the sun's energy would get converted to diesel fuel if they geneticallly engineered organisms to convert the sun's energy directly into diesel fuel rather than first into cellulose. But that approach would raise costs since then plants would need to be grown in elaborate diesel fuel collection systems. Far easier to harvest existing trees, bushes, and grasses to get cellulose.

That depends on the cost of the cellulosic material, the efficiency of the conversion of it into less oxidized hydrocarbons (out with the oxygens and in with the hydrogens), and the cost of vats and other equipment.

How much of the existing biomass out there in nature eill get diverted to this purpose? The human footprint is already much too big and growing. The other species are already too squeezed.

I'm skeptical of this approach because it seems inefficient. Plants are inefficient converters of sunlight into chemical energy. Then there's an additional step of harvesting the plants, transporting them to vats, and then using the cellulose to feed microorganisms where part of the energy gets lost running the metabolism of these plants.

Most estimates I've come across on the efficiency of conversion of light energy into chemical energy by plants end up with a conversion efficiency of 1% or less. Keep in mind that most photons are at frequencies that plant chloroplasts can't use. Plus, seasonal plants aren't even alive part of the year to absorb photons and convert them into chemical energy. According to this report sugarcane is the most efficient converter of light energy into chemical energy.

Tropical grasses that are C4 plants include sugarcane, maize, and crabgrass. In terms of photosynthetic efficiency, cultivated fields of sugarcane represent the pinnacle of light-harvesting efficiency. Approximately 8% of the incident light energy on a sugarcane field appears as chemical energy in the form of CO2 fixed into carbohydrate. This efficiency compares dramatically with the estimated photosynthetic efficiency of 0.2% for uncultivated plant areas. Research on photorespiration is actively pursued in hopes of enhancing the efficiency of agriculture by controlling this wasteful process. Only 1% of the 230,000 different plant species known are C4 plants; most are in hot climates.

Since the conversion efficiency into chemical cellulose energy is so low in the first place the harvesting, transportation and conversion of cellulose to diesel or gasoline makes a low initial efficiency even lower by the time the final usable chemical product comes out of the conversion process. That means if we shift to biomass energy to push our vehicles around more land must get shifted to provide energy for humans.

By Randall Parker    2007 December 12 10:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2007 December 06 Thursday
Biomass Energy Push Making Diets Less Healthy?

Want another argument against biomass energy? It will make vegetables more expensive. Lower calorie foods such as vegetables are generally healthier and yet their prices are rising most rapidly.

As food prices rise, the costs of lower-calorie foods are rising the fastest, according to a University of Washington study appearing in the December issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. As the prices of fresh fruit and vegetables and other low-calorie foods have jumped nearly 20 percent in the past two years, the UW researchers say, a nutritious diet may be moving out of the reach of some American consumers.

UW researchers Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition, and Dr. Pablo Monsivais, a research fellow in the center, studied food prices at grocery stores around the Seattle area in 2004. They found that the foods which are less energy-dense -- generally fresh fruits and vegetables -- are much more expensive per calorie than energy-dense foods -- such as those high in refined grains, added sugars, and added fats.

When the researchers surveyed prices again in 2006, the found that the disparity in food prices only worsened with time. Lower-calorie foods jumped in price by about 19.5 percent in that two-year period, while the prices of very calorie-rich foods stayed stable or even dropped slightly, the researchers found. The general rate of food price inflation in the United States was about 5 percent during that period, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"That the cost of healthful foods is outpacing inflation is a major problem," said Drewnowski. "The gap between what we say people should eat and what they can afford is becoming unacceptably wide. If grains, sugars and fats are the only affordable foods left, how are we to handle the obesity epidemic""

The demand for land to grow grains will squeeze out the growth of vegetables. Industrializing Asians and affluent people driving big SUVs are both pushing up the costs of fruits and vegetables. This is happening both due to rising affluence and the big push for corn ethanol and other biomass sources of energy.

World cereal and energy prices are linked according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

World cereal and energy prices are becoming increasingly linked. Since 2000, the prices of wheat and petroleum have tripled, while the prices of corn and rice have almost doubled (Figure 6). The impact of cereal price increases on food-insecure and poor households is already quite dramatic. For every 1-percent increase in the price of food, food consumption expenditure in developing countries decreases by 0.75 percent (Regmi et al. 2001). Faced with higher prices, the poor switch to foods that have lower nutritional value and lack important micronutrients.

Birds and lions and tigers and bears (oh my) are all getting squeezed out of habitats by population growth, industrialization, oil reserves depletion, and the push for biomass energy. We have too many people, worsening resource limitations, and politicians who are compounding the problem with dumb energy policies aimed at raising incomes of farmers first and foremost. We need fewer babies, more nuclear power, and some breakthroughs in the cost of photovoltaics.

By Randall Parker    2007 December 06 12:07 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2007 November 11 Sunday
Rising Palm Oil Demand Destroying Rainforests

A new Greenpeace report Cooking The Climate highlights the huge amount of carbon dioxide getting released into the atmosphere as a result of rainforest destruction. Destruction of rain forests for palm oil plantation production is a major cause of carbon dioxide emissions.

Greenpeace investigations centred on the tiny Indonesian province of Riau on the island of Sumatra which contains 25 per cent of Indonesia's palm oil plantations. Its peat swamps and forests are among the world's most concentrated carbon stores.

They contain an estimated 14.6bn tonnes of carbon and their destruction would release the equivalent of total global greenhouse gas emissions for a year.

Greenpeace claims the burning of Indonesia's peatlands and forests releases 1.8bn tonnes of greenhouse gases annually - equal to four per cent of the global total - even though it occupies 0.1 per cent of the land on Earth.

Note that the push for biomass energy from Brazil and other equatorial countries is leading to huge CO2 emissions as forests get ripped down and burned. A lot of this is happening to feed a growing population of humans. Also, Asian industrialization is increasing the amount of spending money people have for food and so Chinese, Indians, and others are spending more on types of foods (e.g. meats) that require more land usage to produce. This increases food imports by these countries and forest destruction by food exporters.

Making a bad trend even worse, some Westerners who pose as environmentalists are promoting biomass energy usage. Well, because of the CO2 released by rainforest clearing equatorial region biomass production expansion causes a net boost in CO2 emissions. So people who worry about global warming and therefore advocate biodiesel are not just wiping out species (and I'm not trying to belittle the importance of this problem). They are increasing atmospheric concentrations of a gas whose rise they view as a big problem.

Fossil fuels burning attracts a lot of attention for its effect on global temperatures. But Greenpeace says that forest destruction is also very important for global climate warming.

About three million hectares (7.5 million acres) of these peatland forests are earmarked for conversion to palm oil plantations over the next decade, Greenpeace said. This "climate bomb" is ticking loudly in the run-up to December's United Nations' climate change meeting in Bali, which is expected to debate forests' role in accelerating -- and slowing -- climate change, said Sue Connor, Greenpeace International Forests Campaigner.

"(If the Riau peatlands are cleared) it would wipe out any chance we have of keeping the temperature increase below two degrees Celsius," she said, referring to a threshold given by the UN's climate panel. Palm oil is used in anything from body lotions and toothpaste to chocolate bars, crisps and as a component of biofuels, such as biodiesel.

I am more concerned about the destruction of habitats and species. My guess is that CO2 emissions will peak some time in the next 20 years and then decline as fossil fuels reserves depletion causes fossil fuels extraction to decline. This will happen first for oil, then natural gas, and eventually even coal.

Don't go getting happy at the taste of a KitKat bar.

Indonesia — If, as you read this, you're tucking into a KitKat or dipping into a tube of Pringles, you might be interested to know that these products contain palm oil that is linked to the destruction of forests and peatlands in Indonesia. As our new report "How the palm oil industry is cooking the climate" shows, it's a recipe for disaster.

The manufacturers of these products - Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever - are sourcing their palm oil from suppliers who aren't picky about where they site their plantations. As the volunteers at the Forest Defenders Camp in Sumatra have seen, this includes tearing up areas of pristine forest then draining and burning the peatlands.

Continued rapid Asian industrialization, population growth in the less developed countries, and growing use of palm oil for biofuels all are feeding the continued destruction of the rainforests. The rainforest trees are getting cut down for wood. Crops are being planted in cleared out areas for human food, animal feed, fiber for textiles, and biomass energy.

Industrialization, population growth, and a misguided attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are not the only forces driving this trend. Rising energy demand is colliding with the world oil production plateau (and a decline that could start any year now). The oil production plateau and decline are going to increase the destruction of rainforests for a few reasons:

  • The demand for biomass energy will rise as the price of oil rises. Huge areas of land will get shifted into sugar cane and other biomass energy crops.
  • Yield per acre will stagnate and decline as the cost of fertilizer (made from fossil fuels) rises. So more acres will be put into production to compensate.
  • Rising costs of pumping water will reduce the amount of water available for irrigation and therefore reduce yield per acre and therefore increase land usage for farming. Increased demand for water for hydroelectric power might exert a similar effect.

Borneo is also getting cleared for crop production.

I am staying at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the middle of the largest surviving area of primary forest in Sabah. Today, palm-oil plantations cover most of north Borneo, and lorries laden with hardwood trundle in convoys from other remnants of jungle. But the Sabah state government has decreed a 30-year ban on logging from 2008, and in the Danum Valley, 175 square miles of lowland rainforest have been designated a protected reserve.

Brazil's rainforests are also getting cleared for crop production.

While the mention of Amazon destruction usually conjures up images of vast stretches of felled and burned rainforest trees, cattle ranches, and vast soybean farms, some of the biggest threats to the Amazon rainforest are barely perceptible from above. Selective logging -- which opens up the forest canopy and allows winds and sunlight to dry leaf litter on the forest floor -- and 6-inch high "surface" fires are turning parts of the Amazon into a tinderbox, putting the world's largest rainforest at risk of ever-more severe forest fires. At the same time, market-driven hunting is impoverishing some areas of seed dispersers and predators, making it more difficult for forests to recover. Climate change -- and its forecast impacts on the Amazon basin -- further looms large over the horizon.

In order to at least slow habitat destruction we need to accelerate the development of non-fossil fuels and non-biomass energy sources. Nuclear power and not biomass energy is a friend of the environment.

We also need to try ways to slow population growth in the less developed countries. The projected rise of the human population to 9 billion people is going to be a multi-decade environmental disaster in slow motion.

By Randall Parker    2007 November 11 02:12 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2007 September 22 Saturday
Biomass Energy Boosts Nitrous Oxide Greenhouse Gas Production

The net effect of the creating liquid biofuels using current technologies is to boost global warming.

Growing and burning many biofuels may actually raise rather than lower greenhouse gas emissions, a new study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen has shown.1 The findings come in the wake of a recent OECD report, which warned nations not to rush headlong into growing energy crops because they cause food shortages and damage biodiversity.

Crutzen and colleagues have calculated that growing some of the most commonly used biofuel crops releases around twice the amount of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) than previously thought - wiping out any benefits from not using fossil fuels and, worse, probably contributing to global warming. The work appears in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and is currently subject to open review.

'The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuel are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto,' Keith Smith, a co-author on the paper from the University of Edinburgh, told Chemistry World. 'What we are saying is that [growing many biofuels] is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse.'

Biodiesel and corn ethanol both suffer from the same problem. Good, two stupid government programs to kill off.

Crutzen, famous for his work on nitrogen oxides and the ozone layer, declined to comment before the paper is officially published. But the paper suggests that microbes convert much more of the nitrogen in fertiliser to N2O than previously thought - 3 to 5 per cent or twice the widely accepted figure of 2 per cent used by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

For rapeseed biodiesel, which accounts for about 80 per cent of the biofuel production in Europe, the relative warming due to N2O emissions is estimated at 1 to 1.7 times larger than the quasi-cooling effect due to saved fossil CO2 emissions. For corn bioethanol, dominant in the US, the figure is 0.9 to 1.5. Only cane sugar bioethanol - with a relative warming of 0.5 to 0.9 - looks like a viable alternative to conventional fuels.

Some previous estimates had suggested that biofuels could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 per cent.2

So unfortunately bioethanol advocates in Europe can still rationalize incentives that encourage Brazilians to tear down rain forests to plant more sugar cane for ethanol.

From the abstract:

When the extra N2O emission from biofuel production is calculated in "CO2-equivalent" global warming terms, and compared with the quasi-cooling effect of "saving" emissions of fossil fuel derived CO2, the outcome is that the production of commonly used biofuels, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from corn (maize), can contribute as much or more to global warming by N2O emissions than cooling by fossil fuel savings. Crops with less N demand, such as grasses and woody coppice species have more favourable climate impacts. This analysis only considers the conversion of biomass to biofuel. It does not take into account the use of fossil fuel on the farms and for fertilizer and pesticide production, but it also neglects the production of useful co-products. Both factors partially compensate each other. This needs to be analyzed in a full life cycle assessment.

Biomass energy is not the answer. Biomass energy is probably not even part of the answer. We need to move to a more electrified economy. The billions of dollars of US taxpayer subsidies for corn ethanol would be better spent on moving to nuclear, wind, and solar power.

The federal government heavily subsidizes corn growers and ethanol producers. Rolling Stone reporter Jeff Goodell observed in the July 24 issue that ethanol receives more than 200 tax breaks and at least $5.5 billion in subsidies per year.

According to Goodell, ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of the nation's gasoline consumption, but it consumes 20 percent of the entire U.S. corn crop. The Energy Information Administration reported that "Ethanol relies heavily on Federal and State subsidies to remain economically viable as a gasoline blending component."

Some in the US Congress want to ramp up the subsidies for ethanol and other biofuels and produce 6 times more by 2022.

Congress is about to decide whether to give fast-growing biofuels a new supercharger by requiring that the nation use 36 billion gallons yearly by 2022 — 15 billion gallons from corn.

That is six times what is used today. Next in the schedule: The Senate and the House appoint members to decide whether the Senate-passed, 36 billion-gallon mandate survives.

Bio energy subsidies are huge and growing.

If extended through 2022, as the Senate bill provides, the ethanol subsidies will cost taxpayers an estimated $131 billion, according to the Tax Foundation. Subsidies under the Lugar-Harkin measure would cost as much as $205 billion over the next 15 years.

$205 billion is a lot of money to waste.

The madness for biomass energy is international and shows how foolish elite crowds can be together.

The European Union has announced that it wants to replace 10 percent of its transport fuel with biofuels by 2020. China is aiming for a 15 percent share. The United States is already on track to exceed Congress' 2005 goal of doubling the amount of ethanol used in motor fuels to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. In his State of the Union speech in January, President George W. Bush set a new goal of 35 billion gallons of biofuels by 2017. In June, the Senate raised it to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Of that, Congress said that 15 billion gallons should come from corn and 21 billion from advanced biofuels that are nowhere near commercial production.

Just because lots of governments decide some path is a good idea doesn't mean they all aren't being stupid.

By Randall Parker    2007 September 22 10:43 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2007 August 18 Saturday
Biomass Energy Will Boost Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Switching to biofuels will accelerate the rise in CO2 emissions.

Increasing production of biofuels to combat climate change will release between two and nine times more carbon gases over the next 30 years than fossil fuels, according to the first comprehensive analysis of emissions from biofuels.

Does that sound counter-intuitive? Stop and think about where the land would come from to grow biomass crops: Places that are now forests. Those forest contain large quantities of carbon dioxide. The clearing of forests to turn them into biomass energy croplands releases so much CO2 that it takes several decades for the resulting reduction in fossil fuels use to cancel out the effects of CO2 release by destroyed forests.

What is more, environmentalists have expressed concerns that the growing political backing that biofuel is enjoying will mean forests will be chopped down to make room for biofuel crops such as maize and sugarcane. "When you do this, you immediately release between 100 and 200 tonnes of carbon [per hectare]," says Renton Righelato of the World Land Trust, UK, a conservation agency that seeks to preserve rainforests.

Greenie supporters of biofuels are helping to destroy massive amounts of rain forests.

"Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia among others have huge deforestation programmes to supply the world biofuel market", says the study's co-author Dominick Spracklen from Leeds University.

According to an article in the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, Brazil aims to supply 30% of the world's ethanol market by 2025. Last year it reclassified 200 million hectares as "degraded land" to release it for biofuel crop. Presently, it is growing crops such as sugar cane on land the size of Britain and the Benelux countries combined.

By 2025 the Brazilian government intends to expand that area fivefold to meet 10% of the world's petrol requirement. And last year it reclassified 200 million hectares as "degraded land" to release for crop cultivation.

I can see one way around this problem: Bury the biomass material in a sealed underground cavern. That way the CO2 from the destroyed forest won't make it into the atmosphere. Though that approach would still drastically shrink habitats available to all the species currently living in rain forests. Another alternative: Only grow biomass energy crops in areas which are currently barren with little plant life. Those areas tend to lack water. So how to irrigate? How about nuclear energy to drive massive desalination plants and to pump the water inland to deserts? Then deserts could bloom with plant life.

Destruction of rain forests to create land for biomass energy crops such as sugar cane ought to strike environmentalists as a bad idea before even considering effects on CO2 emissions. Yet so far the chorus against biomass energy is pretty quiet as compared to the chorus against CO2 emissions as a cause of climate change.

Near as I can tell the real oil reserves and natural gas reserves remaining are so low that world CO2 emissions are headed for a fall within a couple of decades. So the destruction of the rain forests to grow energy crops to displace fossil fuels isn't necessary in the first place. The fight against global warming is the wrong battle. Instead we should think a lot more on how to shift to wind, solar, and nuclear power as replacements for fossil fuels that aren't even going to exist to burn. The biggest challenge is how to make electric power more usable in transportation.

Update: Current carbon trading schemes will even accelerate deforestation.

New research indicates that slowing tropical deforestation may play a much larger role in mitigating climate change than previously believed [1,2]. Carbon emissions from tropical deforestation are expected to increase atmospheric CO2 concentration by between 29 and 129 ppm within 100 years, much more than previously estimated [3]. The parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are considering policy approaches and incentives for reducing emissions from deforestation (RED) in developing countries [4–6] that are timely, in light of these recent research findings. The leading proposals would enable trading of carbon saved by reducing tropical deforestation, just as carbon is currently traded from reducing industrial emissions. The state of these discussions suggests that a key group of countries are at risk of being omitted from a new framework—those with high forest cover and low rates of deforestation (HFLD).

Developing countries can be classified into four categories defined by two axes: remaining forest cover and deforestation rate (Figure 1). The HFLD countries in Quadrant IV harbor 18% of tropical forest carbon. Since current proposals would award carbon credits to countries based on their reductions of emissions from a recent historical reference rate [4], HFLD countries could be left with little potential for RED credits. Nor would they have the potential for reforestation credits under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism that the countries in Quadrant II have. Without the opportunity to sell carbon credits, HFLD countries would be deprived of a major incentive to maintain low deforestation rates. Since drivers of deforestation are mobile, deforestation reduced elsewhere could shift to HFLD countries, constituting a significant setback to stabilizing global concentrations of greenhouse gases at the lowest possible levels.

The development of cellulosic technologies to generate ethanol from cellulose will also accelerate deforestation by increasing the demand for wood cellulose.

By Randall Parker    2007 August 18 11:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2007 August 12 Sunday
Biomass Energy Requires Too Much Land Area

Over at The Oil Drum Professor Cutler Cleveland has an essay "Energy Transitions Past and Future that is well worth the time to read. One of the points he makes is about biomass energy and the amount of land needed for biomass to displace oil:

The low energy and power density of most renewable alternatives collides with a second global environmental imperative: human use of the Earth's plant life for food, fiber, wood and fuelwood. Satellite measurements have been used to calculate the annual net primary production (NPP)—the net amount of solar energy converted to plant organic matter through photosynthesis—on land, and then combined with models to estimate the annual percentage of NPP humans consume (Figure 12). Humans in sparsely populated areas, like the Amazon, consume a very small percentage of locally generated NPP. Large urban areas consume 300 times more than the local area produced. North Americans use almost 24 percent of the region's NPP. On a global scale, humans annually require 20 percent of global NPP.

Human appropriation of NPP, apart from leaving less for other species to use, alters the composition of the atmosphere, levels of biodiversity, energy flows within food webs, and the provision of important ecosystem services. There is strong evidence from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and other research that our use of NPP has seriously compromised many of the planet's basic ecosystem services. Replacing energy-dense liquid fuels from crude oil with less energy dense biomass fuels will require 1,000- to 10,000-fold increase in land area relative to the existing energy infrastructure, and thus place additional significant pressure on the planet's life support systems.

Note that the current human use of global NPP is only going to go up as populations expand and more affluent populations use more land for plant crops, livestock, and also for biomass energy and wood for structures.

The already extensive harnessing of biomass to produce useful products for humans strikes me as a strong argument against biomass energy. The only compelling argument for biomass is the ability to produce liquid fuels from biomass suitable for use in vehicles. But we can develop ways to use more electricity in transportation including better batteries and methods to make synthetic liquid fuels.

By Randall Parker    2007 August 12 11:44 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2007 August 09 Thursday
Cellulose Competitive With Corn For Ethanol Production?

The rising cost of corn might have pushed the cost of corn ethanol up to the cost of cellulosic ethanol.

Two researchers working at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University set out to compare the capital and operating costs of generating fuel from starch and cellulose-containing materials.

They showed that the capital costs for 150 million gallon gasoline equivalent capacity range from around $111 million for a conventional grain ethanol plant to $854 million for an advanced (Fischer Tropsch) plant. The difference in the final cost of the fuel, however, was less severe, being $1.74 for grain ethanol when corn costs $3.00 per bushel and $1.80 for cellulosic biofuel when biomass costs $50 per ton.

The authors compared biochemical and thermochemical approaches to biofuels. They showed that both have much higher capital costs than conventional grain ethanol plants, but that neither had a significant cost advantage over the other.

The assumption of $3 for a bushel of corn seems low given that a bushel of corn for December 2007 delivery is above $3.50 at the time of this writing. However, $50 as the price of a ton of biomass material seems realistic:

Biomass Program analysts estimate that 512 million dry tons of biomass equivalent to 8.09 quads of primary energy could initially be available at less than $50/dry ton delivered (Walsh et al. 2000, 2003, Ugarte et al. 2003). Of this, 36.8 million dry tons (0.63 Quads) of urban wood wastes were available in 1999. In the wood, paper, and forestry industrial sectors, they estimate that 90.5 million dry tons (1.5 Quads) of primary mill residues were available in 1999 and 45 million dry tons (0.76 Quads) of forest residues were available at a delivered price of less than $50/dry ton. An estimated 150.7 million dry tons (2.3 Quads) of agricultural residues (corn stover and wheat straw) would be available annually. A joint U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy evaluation of the potential to produce biomass energy crops (Ugarte et al. 2003) estimated 188 million dry tons (2.9 Quads) of biomass could be available annually at delivered prices of less than $50/dry ton by the year 2008. A county-level database of potential energy crop resources is available at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a county-level database of multiple resources will be available soon. State-level information can also be obtained at the EERE website.

Once cellulosic technologies mature to the point that costs drop then the demand for biomass ethanol will rise. What I wonder: Will this increase or decrease the demand for land to make ethanol? On the one hand ethanol yield per acre will rise. On the other hand, lower prices will cause demand for ethanol to displace more gasoline. That might boost the demand for ethanol so much that land usage for biomass ethanol will rise. The ability to use more types of land to grow various biomass ethanol feedstock plants could allow biomass ethanol agriculture to grow far beyond the lands currently used to grow corn.

I do not want to see more habitats shifted into biomass energy production. I'd rather we develop better battery technologies so we can switch from gasoline to electric power rather than to ethanol.

By Randall Parker    2007 August 09 10:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2007 August 07 Tuesday
Corn Ethanol Driving Up Prices Of Farm Lands

The idea that biomass energy can become a substantial source of new energy production is based on the assumption that plenty of land is available to shift into agricultural uses. Well, land prices seem like a good test of this idea. If the United States had a large amount of surplus land suitable for expansion of corn ethanol or soy biodiesel production then the prices of farm land wouldn't be going up so much.

In central Illinois, prime farmland is selling for about $5,000 an acre on average, up from just over $3,000 an acre five years ago, a study showed. In Nebraska, meanwhile, land values rose 17 percent in the first quarter of this year over the same time last year, the swiftest such gain in more than a quarter century, said Jason R. Henderson, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.

A federal-government analysis of farm real estate values released Friday showed record average-per-acre values across the country. The analysis said property prices averaged $2,160 an acre at the start of 2007, up 14 percent from a year earlier.

We aren't getting much useful energy out of biomass energy and the cost of farm lands is already going up a lot. That suggests we don't have enough farm lands to really scale up biomass energy production - at least not with corn ethanol. Now, maybe other types of land which can't grow corn could get used for biomass energy production using other types of plants. For example, cellulosic technologies applied to miscanthus or switchgrass plants might so expand the range of usable lands and yield per acre enough to make contribution from biomass energy substantial. Of course, if that comes to pass then less land will be available for wild plants and animals.

By Randall Parker    2007 August 07 09:41 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2007 July 07 Saturday
Biomass Energy To Drive Up Food Prices In Next 10 Years

Big food price increases are coming in the next 10 years.

The study predicts prices will rise by between 20% and 50% by 2016.

"Growing use of cereals, sugar, oilseeds and vegetable oils to satisfy the needs of a rapidly increasing biofuel industry is one of the main drivers in the outlook," said the report, which was co-written by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The OECD-FAO report sees the use of agricultural products to make fossil fuel substitutes as the biggest long term cause of increased food prices.

The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2007-2016 says temporary factors such as droughts in wheat-growing regions and low stocks explain in large measure the recent hikes in farm commodity prices.  But when the focus turns to the longer term, structural changes are underway which could well maintain relatively high nominal prices for many agricultural products over the coming decade.

Reduced crop surpluses and a decline in export subsidies are also contributing to these long-term changes in markets. But more important is the growing use of cereals, sugar, oilseed and vegetable oils to produce the fossil fuel substitutes, ethanol and bio-diesel. This is underpinning crop prices and, indirectly through higher animal feed costs, also the prices for livestock products.

My guess is this report probably understates the scale of the problem because they are probably still assuming that oil production can keep up with growing demand.

Peter Brabeck, chairman of Nestle, which is the world's largest food company, told the Financial Times that he sees an extended period of high food prices due to the industrialization of India and China, world population growth, and the use of agriculture to make biomass energy.

Peter Brabeck, chairman of the world’s largest food company, said rises in food prices reflected not only temporary factors but also long-term and structural changes in supply and demand.

“They will have a long-lasting impact on food prices,” he told the Financial Times during a visit to China.

The US. Bureau of Labor Statistics also sees rising food prices.

"We are going to see grocery store prices show one of the most rapid increases in the last 15 years or so," said Patrick Jackman, an economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects food prices to go up another 4 percent this year. The average increase over the past decade has been 2.5 percent.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says food prices are going up 50% faster than the overall rate of inflation.

The Consumer Price Index for all food has increased 3.9 percent — about 50 percent more than the 2.6 percent rate of inflation — since a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Egg prices have taken the greatest jump, and have increased 2.9 percent in May and 29.6 percent since May 2006. Milk prices are 7.5 percent above levels a year ago and have jumped 2.2 percent in May. Overall, dairy prices have increased 3.5 percent in the past year and increased 0.8 percent between April and May. Poultry prices are up 0.8 percent in May and 5.7 percent for the year. Pork prices jumped 3.2 percent in May, and 3.9 percent in a year. Beef prices are up 5.8 percent over last year

If you think you've seen big increases in food prices in the last 3 months you are correct.

Retail food prices jumped 5% over the past three months. Tom Thieding with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation says the 20 items in their monthly Market Basket Survey cost $50.33 at the end of June compared to $47.85 at the end of March.

The more developed countries could do themselves and the Third World a big favor if they made a much bigger effort to get birth control tools into the hands of the poor people all over the world. A more rapid rate of decrease of Third World fertility would reduce the demand for food and fuel and also reduce the strain on habitats and other species.

We could reduce ecological footprints of developed country populations by a number of methods and in the process lower food and fuel prices. First off, make bigger efforts to systematically implement measures that increase fuel efficiency. See the McKinsey & Company study from May 2007: Curbing Global Energy Demand Growth: The Energy Productivity Opportunity.

Second, we could accelerate the development of battery technologies that will enable a shift away from liquid fuels for transportation. Reduce the demand and justification for bioethanol and biodiesel by powering cars with electricity from nuclear, wind, and solar power.

Third, adopt policies that will accelerate the technological development of nuclear and solar power to lower their costs and enable them to displace fossil fuels and biomass fuels.

By Randall Parker    2007 July 07 04:02 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2007 May 16 Wednesday
Ethanol Demand Decreases Corn For Animal Feed

Regular readers know that I think biomass energy is a bad idea that shows just how ignorant or morally corrupt our elites can be. Please excuse me if I'm boring you with repetition. But repetition doesn't just breed acceptance of lies. Repetition also breeds the acceptance of the truth. US government subsidies of biomass energy are decreasing the amount of corn available to feed livestock.

The surging biofuel industry will use 27% of this year's American corn crop, challenging farmers' ability to meet food demands, the US government says.

How to think about this? We are feeding over a quarter of our corn to our cars. Our cars are becoming corn hogs. Imagine we all rode horses and fed them corn. What we are doing is like that. But we ride mechanical horses (hence the term "horsepower") and with car computers that provide driving assists (e.g. anti-lock braking, traction control, and electronic stabilization control) those mechanical horses are well on their way toward becoming robotic horses. Cars are robotic horses that consume a lot more energy and hence more land.

Even with the projected, record 12.46 billion-bushel crop this year, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says national corn stockpiles will run low going into the next crop year, when voracious ethanol demand will rise again.

In its first projections of this year's crops, the USDA says ethanol is already boosting crop prices, and will reduce the amount the amount of corn used to feed livestock in the coming year by 3%.

Note that the US population is growing, not shrinking. So the demand for meat will rise even as the amount of corn available to feed livestock shrinks.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) sees many harms from the rapid increase in use of corn as an energy source.

"Consumers have already seen an increase in the cost of food, as corn traditionally used for livestock feed and processed food is increasingly used for fuel.

In fact, the price of corn has nearly doubled in the last nine months.

"In addition to its inflationary impact, there are many unintended, but nonetheless important, consequences of an ambitious corn ethanol strategy.

"For example, a 35 billion gallon ethanol mandate will require a substantial increase in the use of fossil fuels for corn and ethanol processing and transportation, as well as an additional fifteen million acres devoted to corn crops, which will encroach on agriculturally-marginal and environmentally- sensitive land.

Some people are under the mistaken impression that the United States has such huge amounts of unused space that a massive ramping up of agriculture to produce biomass energy won't impose substantial environmental costs. But the amount of land available for farming shrinks as the population grows and suburbs around cities expand outward.

How about world hunger?

"An aggressive ethanol mandate will also require the U.S. to significantly reduce its corn exports to ensure an adequate supply of corn for food and fuel.

"Such a reduction will result in a decrease in the amount of food available overseas, which in turn will have a negative affect on world hunger.

But biomass ethanol is green. Hunger? Encroachment on wildlife areas? Okay, but corn plants have a green color. End of argument. Shut down your neocortex. Suppress any thoughts that begin with "But". Corn stalks are plants that sop up the goodness of solar energy They aren't humans. How can the grocery companies oppose something that politicians running in primaries in Iowa find to be the best thing since Mazola corn oil spread on sliced bread?

The GMA wants an end to the US government subsidy for ethanol. I agree (my neocortex refuses to shut down).

"In addition, GMA supports a broad-based approach to alternative fuels that includes the increased use of cellulosic ethanol, the elimination of the fifty-four cents per gallon tariff on ethanol imports and the expiration of the taxpayer-funded fifty-one cents per gallon ethanol subsidy.

But elimination of the ethanol tariff will just speed the deforestation of the Amazon. I wonder what greenies are thinking when I see some of them interviewed on TV extolling Brazil's production of ethanol as an example of morally virtuous behavior. What about the rain forests?

In a 12 month period ending August 2004 Brazil's rainforests shrunk by an area the size of Massachusetts.

Government officials acknowledge that loggers, ranchers and farmers gobbled up 10,088 square miles of Amazon rain forest in the 12-month period ending last August, an area about the size of Massachusetts.

Strains of soy developed for Brazil are enhancing the attractiveness of soy as a crop for Brazilian farmers. So is the increased use of soy to make biodiesel. What's the result? Destruction of Amazon rainforests.

But, to the horror of environmental activists, soybeans are claiming increasingly bigger swaths of rainforest to make way for plantations, adding to the inroads by ranching. The Amazon lost some 10,000 square miles of forest cover last year alone -- 40 percent more than the year before.

In Querencia, cowboy-hatted ranchers recently transplanted from Brazil's prosperous south rub shoulders with Amazon Indians as streams of tractor-trailers kick up dust hauling fertilizer in and huge tree trunks out. Nowhere is the doubled-edge thrust of soybeans more apparent than in this dusty boom town on the rainforest's southern edge.

"The farmers are cutting down everything to make way for soy and that's good business for me," said Ivo de Lima, a lumber man who moved here recently.

The shift of US acreage way from soy toward corn for ethanol increases demand for soy from Brazil which increases the destruction of the Amazon rain forests. So the US corn ethanol subsidy increases the rate of destruction of the world's rainforests.

By Randall Parker    2007 May 16 10:39 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2007 April 08 Sunday
Biomass Energy Sources Compared On Greenhouse Gases

A recent study attempts to measure the net changes in greenhouse gas emissions from using different forms of biomass energy.

The study, "Net greenhouse gas flux of bioenergy cropping systems using Daycent", was completed by Paul Adler (United State Department of Agriculture - USDA), Stephen Del Grosso (USDA and Colorado State University), and William Parton (Colorado State University). Results appear in the April issue of Ecological Applications.

"Biofuels have a great potential to reduce our dependence on gasoline and diesel fuel," says Parton. "We have performed a unique analysis of the net biofuel greenhouse emissions from major biofuel cropping systems by combining ecosystem computer model data with estimates of the amount of fossil fuels used to grow and produce crop biofuels."

Adler, Del Grosso and Parton used the Daycent biogeochemistry model, developed by Parton and Del Grosso to asses greenhouse gas fluxes and biomass yields for corn, soybean, alfalfa, hybrid poplar, reed canary grass and switchgrass.

I am guessing they are assuming the development of cheap and scalable methods to do biomass processing using cellulosic technologies. That seems a safe bet.

How could ethanol or electricity made from switchgrass and poplar reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100%? By keeping some of the carbon anchored in roots after the surface biomass gets harvested?

The results of the study showed that when compared with gasoline and diesel, ethanol and biodiesel from corn and soybean rotations reduced greenhouse gas emissions by almost 40 percent, reed canarygrass by 85 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by about 115 percent for switchgrass and hybrid poplar. Both switchgrass and hybrid poplar offset the largest amounts of fossil fuels reduced emissions compared to other biofuel crops and offset two times as much fossil fuels if they are used for electricity generation via biomass gasification.

On second thought: If the poplar gets burned in order to generate heat to generate electricity this creates the possibility of carbon sequestration. If the carbon dioxide from burned poplar trees gets captured and sequestered then the net effect would be to pull carbon out of the atmosphere! Such a process would go beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative. Using such an approach on a large scale to generate electricity the amount of carbon in the atmosphere would gradually go down.

Biomass energy production produces oxides of nitrogen.

Study results showed that nitrogen (N2O) emission resulting from production of the biofuel crops is the largest greenhouse gas source, while displaced fossil is the largest greenhouse gas sink followed by soil carbon sequestration.

Leave aside for the moment that the global climate computer models are huge simplifications of reality with huge errors in their predictions. Never mind that assorted confidently stated projections of future world temperatures are therefore not real science if by science we mean the ability to predict. Leave all that skepticism aside for the moment for the skepticism cuts both ways. While it is true that we do not know for a certainty that we are warming the planet we also do not know for a certainty that we aren't. All we know is that we are pumping up the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and that gas does - all else equal - cause warming. Therefore the possibility exists that we really are warming the planet. Those who can handle the state of uncertainty have to admit that, well, we don't know if we face a big problem or not.

Having said all that, here's my most important point: We might eventually find that we really are going to heat up the planet by several degrees Fahreneit or Celsius and that doing so will cause what most of us will decide is morally unacceptable damage to some peoples (e.g. Pacific islanders and Bangladeshis who'd get flooded by rising sea levels due to melting ice). In spite of the obvious benefits to humans living in northern Russia and other cold places we might decide we want to stop global warming. In that case it is good to know we could always shift to using poplar tree biomass to generate electricity with carbon sequestration and then use electricity for most transportation needs. Then we could pull down the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and (since by the assumptions in this scenario CO2 really does heat the planet) cause as much cooling as we want to cause.

Mind you, we'd still probably need to generate most electricity using nuclear, wind, and solar power. Otherwise too much land surface would get used for poplar forests and switchgrass fields. But we could use some land areas for forests in order to do large scale atmospheric carbon extraction and help pay for these CO2 extraction operations by using the poplar to generate electricity.

While hype over the threat of global warming has recently taken the pattern of a crescendo leading up to the release of the latest IPCC report my own thinking is heading in the direction of worrying less about it. Why? In a nutshell: We are going to have the technological tools to stop and reverse it if necessary. Gregory Benford sees a cheap way to cool the planet. Should the need arise we could use his proposal as a temporary measure to cheaply buy time while we ramp up poplar forests to extract CO2. We'd still use nuclear, wind, and solar photovoltaics to provide most of our energy.

Technologies for biomass gasification, photovoltaics, batteries, nuclear power, and other needed elements will all get much cheaper. In a few decades time the potential problem of global warming will become solvable for an affordable price and pieces of the solution will become popular anyway because they'll become cheaper ways to get energy.

By Randall Parker    2007 April 08 12:41 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2007 March 18 Sunday
Catalyst Emulates Plant Photosynthesis Step

Some German scientists have developed a method that emulates the first step plants use to convert carbon from carbon dioxide into hydrocarbon.

"Breaking open the very stable bonds in CO2 is one of the biggest challenges in synthetic chemistry," says Frederic Goettmann, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany. "But plants have been doing it for millions of years."

Synthetic emulation of plant photosynthesis could some day produce gasoline or other liquid hydrocarbons for transportation and also for use in the chemical industry to make plastics and synthetic fibers for textiles.

In an attempt to emulate this natural process, Goettmann and colleagues Arne Thomas and Markus Antonietti developed their own nitrogen-based catalyst that can produce carbamates. The graphite-like compound is made from flat layers of carbon and nitrogen atoms arranged in hexagons.

I'd love to see a catalyst like this integrated with photovoltaics. Imagine a dynamically configurable system that could send the electricity out to meet immediate demand when electric demand is high but which switches to making, say, gasoline when demand for electricity is low.

By Randall Parker    2007 March 18 08:25 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2007 February 03 Saturday
Purdue Portable Waste Biomass Energy Converter

A portable "tactical biorefinery" designed for big military units on the go converts waste matter into energy.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A group of scientists have created a portable refinery that efficiently converts food, paper and plastic trash into electricity. The machine, designed for the U.S. military, would allow soldiers in the field to convert waste into power and could have widespread civilian applications in the future.

"This is a very promising technology," said Michael Ladisch, the professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University who leads the project. "In a very short time it should be ready for use in the military, and I think it could be used outside the military shortly thereafter."

The "tactical biorefinery" processes several kinds of waste at once, which it converts into fuel via two parallel processes. The system then burns the different fuels in a diesel engine to power a generator. Ladisch said the machine's ability to burn multiple fuels at once, along with its mobility, make it unique.

Roughly the size a small moving van, the biorefinery could alleviate the expense and potential danger associated with transporting waste and fuel. Also, by eliminating garbage remnants - known in the military as a unit's "signature" - it could protect the unit's security by destroying clues that such refuse could provide to enemies.

It has a favorable ratio of energy inputs to energy outputs. But that does not tell us what fraction of the energy in the waste material gets converted into electric energy.

Researchers tested the first tactical biorefinery prototype in November and found that it produced approximately 90 percent more energy than it consumed, said Jerry Warner, founder of Defense Life Sciences LLC, a private company working with Purdue researchers on the project. He said the results were better than expected.

The U.S. Army subsequently commissioned the biorefinery upon completion of a functional prototype, and the machine is being considered for future Army development.

It reduces waste volume by a ratio of 30 to 1. But the article provides no indication of production costs. It starts up running on diesel fuel until its processing apparatus starts producing burnable fuel. At that point the fuel it produces powers continued processing to make more fuel. But most of the fuel produced is usable for other purposes.

If the refinery can be made cheaply enough it could provide supplementary power for a number of uses.

The refinery also could provide supplementary power for factories, restaurants or stores, Ladisch said.

"At any place with a fair amount of food and scrap waste the biorefinery could help reduce electricity costs, and you might even be able to produce some surplus energy to put back on the electrical grid," he said.

Much of the fuel the system combusts is carbon-neutral, said Nathan Mosier, a Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering involved in the project.

So what would this unit cost to mass produce and operate? If the waste was free from trash collection then what would the cost be per kilowatt-hour? A much larger unit would probably have lower labor costs per kwh. Also, the portability could be sacrificed for lower operating costs.

By Randall Parker    2007 February 03 02:29 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2007 February 02 Friday
Palm Oil For Biomass Energy Wrecking Rainforests

The New York Times reports that Dutch and other European environmental organizations are shocked to find their support for biomass energy is wrecking rainforests and producing lots of carbon dioxide pollution.

AMSTERDAM, Jan. 25 — Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption of “sustainable energy,” achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to use biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia.

Next time you hear confident policy recommendations from environmental groups just remember that some of them are still stupid enough to see biomass energy as a boon to the environment. The mind boggles. Politicians who see biomass as a way to simultaneously appeal to greenies and farmers are only to happy to provide tax subsidies for habitat destruction.

To be fair, not all environmentalists are lame on biomass. Lester Brown keeps warning that biomass has big downsides and he argues that biomass will raise the price of food for poor people. Making energy demand, food demand, and wildlife all compete for the same land means 2 out of 3 lose. The article reports on other environmental organizations that are skeptical about biomass energy.

Bye bye rain forests.

Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there.

Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Indonesia is pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the name of sustainable energy.

Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world’s third-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, according to a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands.

“It was shocking and totally smashed all the good reasons we initially went into palm oil,” said Alex Kaat, a spokesman for Wetlands, a conservation group.

They saw good reasons for tearing down rainforests. Good reasons. If only it didn't result in lots of CO2 release it was otherwise a good idea from the get go? Hello?

The amount of energy gotten per acre by using an acre for biomass is much less (by over an order of magnitude as compared to if the same acre contains solar panels). Plants have a low efficiency for converting sunlight to chemical energy. Therefore biomass uses a much bigger surface footprint than photovoltaics. Surface footprint size ought to be an important consideration when choosing energy sources. Minimize land use - unless you happen to dislike rain forests and other wildlife areas.

Scientists and engineers can further improve the conversion efficiency of photovoltaics. So when photovoltaics become cheap enough their land needs will be even lower as compared to biomass. Plus, in areas which have real winters when the fields do not grow crops photovoltaics can still capture many photons and use them to get electrons flowing. Even better, photovoltaics can get placed in deserts and other areas which have less biomass per acre. Therefore photovoltaics can cover less of areas that naturally have lots of plant matter.

Geothermal and nuclear power both have even lower land area footprints per amount of energy generated than photovoltaics. But some areas used by photovoltaics can be existing human-used surfaces such as the outer surfaces of houses and commercial buildings. Plus, areas with strong winds and lots of sunlight can have both wind towers and photovoltaics.

The appeal of biomass energy is that is it something that can be ramped up quickly. As long as it remains a fairly minor source of energy it won't cause too much damage. But encouraging biomass energy production in rainforest areas is nutty. Growing populations, industrialization, rising demand for wood for housing, rising demand for areas to build housing, and rising demand for food are already causing lots of habitat destruction. Why make it worse?

Holland is using palm oil to burn for electricity. How dumb. Electricity is the easiest energy to produce without emitting carbon dioxide. Build nuclear power plants. Drill for geothermal. Put up wind mills (though they have their limits). Or require full carbon sequestration of coal burned for electric power. To the extent that biomass does get used for energy the best use is as liquid fuels for transportation. Vehicles are the hardest things to make carbon neutral. If carbon dioxide emissions reduction is the goal then reserve liquid biomass for transportation and use nuclear, geothermal, wind, and eventually photovoltaics for electricity. For solid biomass (e.g. wood chips) use it in limited amounts to burn for building heat.

Rather than look for quick fixes to reduce fossil fuels in the short term we'd be better off if we shifted all the money getting wasted on biomass energy subsidy toward energy research into photovoltaics, battery, nuclear, geothermal and other non-fossil fuel energy technologies. That doesn't provide instant gratification. But it'll solve our energy problems in the medium to long term by providing us with energy sources that are both cleaner and cheaper than fossil fuels.

By Randall Parker    2007 February 02 09:56 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2007 January 27 Saturday
Ethanol Demand Driving Up Corn Prices

The demand for corn to produce ethanol is driving up the price of tortillas in Mexico and creating a political problem.

Mexico is in the grip of the worst tortilla crisis in its modern history. Dramatically rising international corn prices, spurred by demand for the grain-based fuel ethanol, have led to expensive tortillas. That, in turn, has led to lower sales for vendors such as Rosales and angry protests by consumers.

The uproar is exposing this country's outsize dependence on tortillas in its diet -- especially among the poor -- and testing the acumen of the new president, Felipe Calderón. It is also raising questions about the powerful businesses that dominate the Mexican corn market and are suspected by some lawmakers and regulators of unfair speculation and monopoly practices.

Tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer.

Biomass energy puts more affluent car drivers in competition with poor food buyers for the same fields of land. Biomass energy also increases the amount of competition between farmers and wildlife for the same fields of land. The poor people and the wildlife lose in such competitions.

Higher corn prices will eventually translate into higher prices for other basic foods. Why? Farmers will plant less of other crops and more of corn. Plus, people will shift away from eating corn and toward eating other foods.

Ethanol producers are getting squeezed by higher corn prices and lower gasoline prices.

Corn prices, 75 percent of the cost of ethanol production, have doubled in the past six months, to more than $4 a bushel. At the same time, the price of ethanol has followed the price of gasoline downward.

Absent a rescue from Capitol Hill, the glut is going to get worse. AgResource's Basse estimates the blending demand for ethanol at 10 billion gallons, 7 percent of the 150 billion gallons of blended fuel burned each year. Current nationwide ethanol capacity is 5.4 billion gallons. But 6.1 billion gallons' worth of capacity is now under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. That would push supply right past demand and destroy ethanol prices. Unless mandates are tightened. At the moment the motor fuel industry is meeting environmental minimums and exceeding the energy independence ones.

Under present law the independence minimum comes to 4.7 billion gallons of ethanol this year and 7.5 billion in 2012. But now the Bush Administration is considering boosting this mandate to 60 billion gallons by 2030.

Such a huge increase in ethanol production will raise food costs even if we shift to using switchgrass with cellulosic technology to make ethanol. Lots of land will get shifted into switchgrass production and away from food crop production in that case.

Corn has more than doubled in price.

NEW YORK - The economic viability of ethanol as an alternative to petrol has been thrown into question as the oil price fell below US$50 a barrel yesterday for the first time in nearly two years, while the price of corn - the main ingredient in the new fuel - surged to a new 10-year high.


After a decade of trading between US$2 and US$3 per bushel, corn was trading yesterday at US$4.09 a bushel.

Some ethanol plants extract as much as 2.8 gallons of ethanol per bushel. So a doubling of corn prices adds at least 71 cents to the cost of a gallon of ethanol. The only way ethanol can get produced is with a large taypayer-funded subsidy. You subsidize the production of ethanol and as a result you pay more for ham, chicken, steak, corn muffins, and tortillas. Plus, the demand for corn causes farmers to shift away from wheat, soy, and other crops to grow more corn. So you pay more for the other grains as well.

Calves headed to feedlots cost $200 more each due to the doubling of corn prices.

Corn prices have gone from $2 to $4 per bushel. Ranchers say that's costing them about $200 dollars a head for calves headed to the feedlots. Even worse, cattleraisers are bracing for even higher prices.

That $200 is just at the stage of calves. As the calves continue to get fed the costs from higher corn prices continue to add up even higher.

The biggest chicken producer says we may pay more for meats this year due to the use of corn for ethanol production.

Tyson has warned rising corn prices could mean consumers will have to pay more for chicken, beef and pork this year. The price of corn, which is used as animal feed, has been skyrocketing as demand has increased for ethanol, an alternative source of fuel to gasoline.

Chickens cost 6 cents more per lb wholesale due to ethanol.

"We estimate that ethanol demand has already increased the price of chicken by six cents per pound wholesale," said William P. Roenigk, senior vice president and chief economist for NCC. "If government continues to push corn out of livestock and poultry feed and into the energy supply, the cost of producing food will only increase."

The retail price increase is higher, but how much higher? 10 cents per lb total perhaps?

Ethanol gets a 51 cents per gallon subsidy in the United States. If that subsidy remains in place then the yearly cost of that subsidy could rise to over $17 billion per year by 2017.

Production of ethanol is currently subsidized by the federal government through a tax credit of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol added by fuel blenders. In his State of the Union message, President Bush called for an increase in the production of renewable and alternative fuels from 7.5 billion gallons to 35 billion gallons by 2017. He also proposed $2 billion in loans for the development of fuel from sources other than corn, such as switchgrass or other "cellulosic" sources.

Some of the post commenters argue against government spending on energy research in photovoltaics, batteries, and other areas. Well, we are spending billions per year on ethanol production subsidies. I'd rather spend on research that will lower costs than on use of technologies that are expensive. Politicians are going to spend big money on energy policy. I'd rather they spend in ways that will lower costs and reduce environmental impacts.

Corn ethanol is driving up the costs of raising pigs.

Greg Boerboom raises 37,000 pigs a year on his farm in Marshall, Minn. Those hogs eat a lot of corn—10 bushels each from weaning to sale. In past years he has bought feed for about $2 a bushel. But since late summer, average corn prices have leapt to nearly $4 a bushel. To reduce feed costs, he sells his pigs before they reach the normal 275 pounds, and keeps them warmer so they don't devour more food fighting off the cold. Still, Boerboom hopes just to break even. "It's been a pretty tight squeeze on pork producers," he says. "The next eight months will be really tough."

That is only $20 extra per pig or less than 10 cents per lb.

Recently Lester Brown and colleagues at the Earth Policy Institute counted up all the ethanol plants in operation, under construction, getting expanded, and in planning. They discovered a much larger scaling up of ethanol production than has previously been measured by other organizations.

According to the EPI compilation, the 116 plants in production on December 31, 2006, were using 53 million tons of grain per year, while the 79 plants under construction—mostly larger facilities—will use 51 million tons of grain when they come online. Expansions of 11 existing plants will use another 8 million tons of grain (1 ton of corn = 39.4 bushels = 110 gallons of ethanol).

In addition, easily 200 ethanol plants were in the planning stage at the end of 2006. If these translate into construction starts between January 1 and June 30, 2007, at the same rate that plants did during the final six months of 2006, then an additional 3 billion gallons of capacity requiring 27 million more tons of grain will likely come online by September 1, 2008, the start of the 2008 harvest year. This raises the corn needed for distilleries to 139 million tons, half the 2008 harvest projected by USDA. This would yield nearly 15 billion gallons of ethanol, satisfying 6 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs. (And this estimate does not include any plants started after June 30, 2007, that would be finished in time to draw on the 2008 harvest.)

I think the rising cost of corn combined with the declining cost of oil may prevent many of those planning stage ethanol plants from ever getting built. A removal of the subsidy for ethanol production would reduce food prices and save money. We'd be better off spending the tax dollars on developing new energy technologies that have less environmental impact than biomass.

By Randall Parker    2007 January 27 11:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2007 January 20 Saturday
Plasma Converts Wastes To Energy

How about an energy technology that will reduce the need for landfills while replacing as much as a quarter of the gasoline burned in the United States?

The technology, developed originally by researchers at MIT and at Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL), in Richland, WA, doesn't incinerate refuse, so it doesn't produce the pollutants that have historically plagued efforts to convert waste into energy. Instead, the technology vaporizes organic materials to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, a mixture called synthesis gas, or syngas, that can be used to synthesize a wide variety of fuels and chemicals. The technology has been further developed and commercialized by a spinoff called Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET), also based in Richland, WA. In addition to processing municipal waste, the technology can be used to create ethanol out of agricultural biomass waste, providing a potentially less expensive way to make ethanol than current corn-based plants.

If you go to the IET company history page you'll find the base technology was originally developed using US Department of Energy research funds. The DOE wanted a way to better process nuclear wastes. But the scientists involved in the work recognized they could adapt the technology to process a larger range of wastes and produce energy as a result. I point all this out for the benefit of my orthodox libertarian readers who repeatedly argue that government funded research can't solve our energy problems.

There is enough municipal and industrial waste produced in the United States for the system to replace as much as a quarter of the gasoline used in this country, says Daniel Cohn, a cofounder of IET and a senior research scientist at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

But can the process make ethanol at a lower cost than use of corn? IET thinks their process will cost 95 cents per gallon of ethanol or lower. Since ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline you have to multiply by 1.5 to get the equivalent cost per gasoline gallon.

IET has a big cost advantage over corn ethanol plants: They would get paid to take the waste they'll use as inputs to their plants. How much of an advantage would depend on how much they get paid for the waste. If their plants could be designed to fit in densely populated areas (think a borough of New York City) then in heavily urban areas they'd save on hauling costs to take the trash to more distant landfills. In rural areas their plants would tend to be further away than the nearest dump. So their technology strikes me as better suited for the most densely populated areas.

IET has not yet decided how best to use the carbon monoxide and hydrogen their process produces. They need a cost effective system with a catalyst that'll bind the hydrogen to the carbon to produce liquid hydrocarbons. Can they get their costs low enough to do that?

Since they have hydrogen as an intermediate product with the right catalyst they might be able to produce a carbon-based liquid fuel that is more reduced (has more hydrogen) than ethanol does. That'd make the fuel more like gasoline and reduce the frequency of gasoline station stops by a third as compared to ethanol.

By Randall Parker    2007 January 20 12:35 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2006 December 09 Saturday
Bioengineered Yeast Tolerates Higher Ethanol For Biomass Energy Use

Some MIT researchers have developed a yeast strain that can continue to produce ethanol up to a much higher concentration of ethanol.

The work by MIT chemical-engineering professor Gregory Stephanopoulos and his colleagues focuses on the second part of this process: fermenting sugars to make ethanol. The yeast strain they made can tolerate ethanol concentrations as high as 18 percent--almost double the concentration that regular yeast can handle without quickly dying. In addition, the new strain makes about 20 percent more ethanol by processing more of the glucose, and it speeds up fermentation by 70 percent.

The research was done on a lab strain of yeast and still would need to be repeated on an industrial strain to be useful in a production environment. This capability, added to an industrial yeast strain, offers a couple of advantages. First, it reduces the capital cost of sugar fermentation to produce ethanol because the same sized fermenting tank can produce more yeast in the same amount of time. Second, the energy cost of separating ethanol from water at the end of the fermentation is lowered because the final solution has more ethanol and less water.

These researchers also want to genetically engineer the yeast to break down cellulose into simple sugars. Then yeast could perform the two biggest steps in making ethanol from biomass.

I think these results also raise the more distant prospect of highly automated home biomass ethanol fermenters. Take your bush, tree, and lawn cuttings, dump them into a home fermenter with genetically engineered organisms, and out comes ethanol for your car. Nanotech materials serving as catalysts might even some day replace the yeast.

I can also imagine an ethanol production system with nanotech membranes to produce ethanol that automatically shoves each ethanol molecule into a separate pure ethanol partition on the other side of the membrane from the sugars.

Ethanol is less than ideal as a liquid fuel because it has much less energy per gallon than gasoline. A bioengineered microorganism that produced non-oxygenated hydrocarbons from sugars would be even more attractive.

By Randall Parker    2006 December 09 02:10 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2006 December 07 Thursday
Monocultures Not Best Choices For Biomass Energy

University of Minnesota researchers say that monoculture agriculture is not the best way to produce biomass energy.

Diverse mixtures of native prairie plant species have emerged as a leader in the quest to identify the best source of biomass for producing sustainable, bio-based fuel to replace petroleum.

A new study led by David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, shows that mixtures of native perennial grasses and other flowering plants provide more usable energy per acre than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel and are far better for the environment. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the University of Minnesota Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

"Biofuels made from high-diversity mixtures of prairie plants can reduce global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even when grown on infertile soils, they can provide a substantial portion of global energy needs, and leave fertile land for food production," Tilman said.

The findings are published in the Dec. 8, 2006, issue of the journal Science.

Mixtures of plant species work better on land that is less than ideal.

The is study based on 10 years of research at Minnesota's Cedar Creek Natural History Area, one of 26 NSF long-term ecological research (LTER) sites. It shows that degraded agricultural land planted with diverse mixtures of prairie grasses and other flowering plants produces 238 percent more bioenergy on average than the same land planted with various single prairie plant species, including switchgrass.

One of the problems I have with the corn biomass ethanol approach is that the land which is not currently used to grow corn is far worse for that purpose than the land which still is used to grow corn. These researchers, by looking at what works best on poorer quality land, are looking for ways to make biomass energy production scale.

"This study highlights very clearly the additional benefits of taking a less-intensive management approach and maintaining higher biodiversity in the process," said Henry Gholz, NSF LTER program director. "It establishes a new baseline for evaluating the use of land for biofuel production."

Tilman and his colleagues estimate that fuel made from this prairie biomass would yield 51 percent more energy per acre than ethanol from corn grown on fertile land. Prairie plants require little energy to grow and all parts of the plant above ground are usable.

Fuels made from prairie biomass are "carbon negative," which means that producing and using them actually reduces the amount of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. Prairie plants store more carbon in their roots and soil than is released by the fossil fuels needed to grow and convert them into biofuels. Using prairie biomass to make fuel would lead to the long-term removal and storage of from 1.2 to 1.8 U.S. tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year. This net removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide could continue for about 100 years, the researchers estimate.

In contrast, corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel are "carbon positive," meaning they add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, although less than fossil fuels.

These researchers do not see switchgrass as the great biomass hope that others portray it to be.

Switchgrass, which is being developed as a perennial bioenergy crop, was one of 16 species in the study. When grown by itself in poor soil, it did not perform better than other single species and gave less than a third of the bioenergy of high-diversity plots.

"Switchgrass is very productive when it's grown like corn in fertile soil with lots of fertilizer, pesticide and energy inputs, but this approach doesn't yield as much energy gain as mixed species in poor soil nor does it have the same environmental benefits," said paper co-author Jason Hill, also of the University of Minnesota.

So far monocultures have been the only way biomass energy has been produced. Therefore these researchers are arguing for quite a departure from current practice.

To date, all biofuels, including cutting-edge nonfood energy crops such as switchgrass, elephant grass, hybrid poplar and hybrid willow, are produced as monocultures grown primarily in fertile soils.

But the amount of energy they expect to get from using mixed prairie grasses on less than ideal land is still far from enough to replace all uses of oil. Worse yet, the world demand for energy is going to keep going up.

The researchers estimate that growing mixed prairie grasses on all of the world's degraded land could produce enough bioenergy to replace 13 percent of global petroleum consumption and 19 percent of global electricity consumption.

My guess is they are assuming future cellulosic technologies to extract the energy out of the grasses. So a shift toward prairie grass for energy isn't practical yet.

My main objection to biomass remains that land pushed into production to produce energy is land not available to serve as habitat for a wide assortment of species. Want to see more animals go extinct? Promote biomass. The land footprint of nuclear power is far smaller and even photovoltaics would use a much smaller footprint to produce the same amount of energy as biomass.

Update: See the extensive debate at The Oil Drum on this research. Some of the posters throw doubt on the use of marginal lands with the argument that the biomass yield per acre will be so low that this will cause high harvesting costs per amount of energy gained.

Lower yield per acre also translates into far more acres used to produce energy. This cuts more heavily into habitats and threatens species. We need to move to nuclear, photovoltaics, and even wind power. Damage to habitats from biomass energy will cancel out any benefits from reduced CO2 emissions.

By Randall Parker    2006 December 07 11:31 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2006 November 18 Saturday
Ethanol From Wood Chips As Cheap As Corn Ethanol?

MIT's Technology Review reports a company is going to build a demonstration plant for a technology which they claim will produce ethanol from wood chips as cheaply as ethanol from corn.

Experimental methods for converting wood chips and grass into ethanol will soon be tested at production scale. Mascoma Corporation, based in Cambridge, MA, is building demonstration facilities that will have the capacity to produce about one-half to two million gallons of ethanol a year from waste biomass. The startup recently received $30 million in venture-capital money, which is fueling its scale-up plans.

Mascoma is genetically engineering microorganisms to do part of the work to convert wood into simple sugars. They say at the current state of their technology their production cost will be similar to that of corn ethanol. They expect further development of their technology will cut their ethanol production cost in half.

Corn ethanol does not scale. Whereas some experts think wood ethanol could scale all the way to a total replacement for gasoline.

Corn grain, the current source of ethanol in the United States, requires large amounts of land and energy to produce. This, along with the demand for corn as food, limits the total amount of ethanol that can be produced from corn to about 15 billion gallons a year--about three times what is currently produced. If the fuel is to supplant a sizable fraction of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline consumed each year in the United States, ethanol producers will need to turn to biomass such as wood chips and switchgrass. These resources are cheaper and potentially much more abundant, and they can be converted to ethanol much more efficiently than corn can because they require less energy to grow (see "Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol").

Since ethanol has less energy per gallon than gasoline that potential 15 billion gallons of ethanol amounts to only 10 billion gallons of gasoline or one fourteenth of current US gasoline consumption. Since demand is rising it represents an even smaller fraction of future demand and does not address demand for diesel, aircraft fuel, and other uses of fossil fuels.

Biomass from wood and other sources might be able to replace all gasoline in the United States.

Indeed, ethanol from such sources could replace "a very large fraction" of the gasoline currently used for vehicles, says Gregory Stephanopoulos, professor of chemical engineering at MIT. He says some experts estimate that with gains in efficiency and high yields of ethanol, all the gasoline for transportation could be replaced; the most conservative estimates say that about 20 percent could be replaced.

As I read the continuing series of reports on advances in biomass technology I'm starting to get a sense that the people who are fighting to prevent global warming are fighting yesterday's battle. Biomass energy is going to drop so far in price that ethanol will replace most of the current uses of gasoline and diesel fuel. If that happens then environmentalists will need to start worrying about how much of the world's landmass will get shifted into production to produce biomass for energy.

My guess is that wood biomass will be less disruptive for animals and insects. Trees take years to grow. So once planted the area they occupy will provide habitat for species that can migrate in. But I'd like to see analyses on the likely effects of large scale tree biomass energy from people with expertise on habitats. Will even savannahs get planted with trees and will a large number of types of habitats become monocultures that support a smaller range of plants and animals?

Harvard environmental studies professor Michael McElroy argues the United States does not have enough land to scale up ethanol production all that much.

Some 73.4 million acres of land were harvested for corn in the United States in 2004—23 percent of the nation’s total cultivated land area. Anticipating the demand for additional corn for ethanol, the futures market currently projects a 25 percent increase in the price of a bushel of corn for 2007. How will farmers respond to this incentive? There are two possible options. One is to increase the total planted area. The second is to favor corn over alternative crops, such as soybeans. But soybeans are already in short supply globally, and there are plans to use them as a source of biodiesel fuel as well. And if we opt to expand the total cultivated area, we will have to open up much less productive acreage for cultivation, with presumably higher applications of fertilizer and additional reliance on irrigation. Neither option is attractive in terms of either economics or the implications for environmental quality. At a minimum, we should expect higher prices for the production of either ethanol, or food, or both (corn and soybeans are essential components of animal feed in the United States).

I've done rough calculations in previous posts where I figured out how much land mass it would take to grow enough corn to replace all oil and natural gas in used in the United States. The rough estimate was well over a third of the US land mass assuming that production yield on the additional acres would be as high as the 160 bushels typically seen on existing corn acres and under cultivation in the United States. But of course the additional acres would have far lower productivity. Plus, the pesticide run-off, the additional demands for irrigation water, and other problems with scaling up makes corn ethanol completely impractical as a major source of energy.

Some existing ethanol production plants get 2.6 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. I've seen claims that some plants get 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel and an announcement for a technology that might boost the ratio to 2.8 gallons per bushel. Multiply by two thirds to get the energy equivalent for gallons of gasoline.

Suppose we imagine a future technology that'll extract 3 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. That's like 2 gallons of gasoline. Then an acre would produce 2 gallons times 160 bushels or 320 gallons of gasoline equivalent energy. But there's an unresolved controversy as to how much energy input is needed to produce the bushels of corn in the first place. Some fraction of the ethanol output would need to be fed back into agricultural production to make the corn. So the net energy yield per acre of corn is probably far less than the equivalent of 320 gallons of gasoline per acre and might even be less than 100 gallons.

Now consider the 140 or so billion gallons of gasoline that the United States consumes per year. At 100 gallons per acre we are talking 1.4 billion acres to produce enough corn to make enough ethanol to replace gasoline. But the United States contains only 2.3 billion acres and some of that is desert and in Alaska and in areas where there's not enough water for farming. You'll find arguments for scaling up biomass production in sunnier Brazil where farms could operate all year round. But aren't the rain forests in Brazil already getting cut down too fast for other purposes?

Trying thinking about what ethanol means for a place like India which has 10 times the population density of the United States. An industrializing India that joins a worldwide move to biomass energy would put such a large fraction of its land under cultivation that you can just plain forget about the survival of any rare big cat or primate species outside of zoos. Fuggedaboutit. The way FuturePundit sees it biomass energy is a bigger threat to wildlife in the 21st century than is global warming. We ought to be thinking about how to accelerate nuclear power and photovoltaics as ways to save wildlife habitats and slow the rate of extinction of species.

By Randall Parker    2006 November 18 03:38 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (15)
2006 November 13 Monday
Ethanol Prices Fall As Glut Expected

Large profit margins are driving a fast build-up of ethanol production capability and prices are falling.

Ethanol prices have already fallen by half since peaking at $4.23 a gallon on the Chicago spot market in June. And for Mid-Missouri, which sells its ethanol on mostly long-term contracts, the price has fallen to $1.60 a gallon, from a peak of $2.68, while corn has recently surged to more than $3 a bushel.

Outside investors are pestering farmers to sell out now so they can take part in the ethanol boom with existing plants — before the ethanol market might turn sour. With dozens of new plants coming online next year, the wait to start construction of a new one is three years, said Ron Fagen, chief executive of Fagen Inc., the country’s biggest builder of ethanol plants.

Production costs are still above current prices. Even if the price of oil continues to drop ethanol has a floor on its demand due to its use as an oxygenator fuel additive to decrease car emissions.

Ethanol plant construction and operation costs will fall as newer cheaper methods of converting biomass to ethanol get developed. So I expect a continued increase in the demand for ethanol.

I continue to think that environmentalists who are excited about ethanol haven't thought it all the way through. India has about ten times the population density of the United States. Imagine India industrializing and going to biomass as a major energy form. The people have already cut far more into the ecosystem just to farm for food and build housing and roads. Industrialization will allow them to grow more per acre. But with such a huge population to get a large amount of energy per person from biomass would require wiping out all natural areas and replacing them with farms.

Rand Corporation analysts say biomass might well supply 25% of conventional energy in the United States by 2025.

WASHINGTON -- A new Rand Corp. study showing the falling costs of ethanol, wind power and other forms of renewable energy predicts such sources could furnish as much as 25% of the U.S.'s conventional energy by 2025 at little or no additional expense.

A second renewable-energy report soon to be released by the National Academy of Sciences suggests wood chips may become a plentiful source of ethanol and electricity for industrial nations because their forested areas are expanding, led by the U.S. and China.

Yes, biomass energy is cheap and going to get cheaper. That's why its production is going to soar.

The Rand analysts think biomass energy is cheaper than regulatory approaches for the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Rand researchers modeled more than 1,500 economic scenarios and found that in most cases, increasing the use of renewable fuels -- which don't enlarge the atmosphere's carbon-dioxide buildup -- would be cheaper than federal regulations forcing the reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions, about a third of which come from vehicles.

My environmentalist argument for accelerated research into photovoltaics, batteries, and nuclear power is that we need them in order to prevent most of the planet from getting converted into massive biomass energy farms.

By Randall Parker    2006 November 13 11:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2006 September 19 Tuesday
Ethanol Demand Driving Farmers From Wheat To Corn

Energy biomass technologies are creating a competition between energy and food as uses of grain crops.

“It is getting harder and harder for American farmers to say they feed the world,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research group based in Washington. “Instead, they feed S.U.V.’s.”

The decline of wheat and the broad relandscaping of America’s farmland have come about for several reasons. Better seed technology has given corn and soybeans a widening edge over wheat, and more favorable subsidies have encouraged farmers to abandon wheat. Changing consumer tastes and food packaging advancements have slowed American wheat demand.

But the growing biofuels industry is creating the strongest drag on wheat lately, as corn and soybeans are increasingly favored for their use in ethanol and biodiesel.

Fears of genetically engineered foods in major export markets have kept US farmers from shifting to genetically engineered wheat. So seed suppliers invest less in genetic engineering of new wheat strains. Whereas corn is used more for animal feed and so consumer fears of genetically modified food crops do not have as much impact. Therefore the gap between corn and wheat production costs gradually shifts in favor of corn.

Corn needs more energy and water inputs.

Corn yields are rising faster than wheat yields.

American corn yields rose by 30 percent from 1995 to 2005, while wheat yields grew by only 17 percent. In recent years corn has pulled further ahead, with an annual growth rate in yield that is four times that of wheat.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, argues that the increasing demand for biomass to make ethanol and biodiesel will bring the demand for energy into competition with the demand for food.

With so many distilleries being built, livestock producers fear there may not be enough corn to feed animals, possibly leading to shortages in milk, eggs, beef, pork and poultry. And because the United States supplies 70 percent of world corn exports, importing countries — such as Egypt, Japan and Mexico — should be worried, too.

In agricultural terms, our appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable: The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol would feed one person for a full year. If the United States converted its entire grain harvest into ethanol, it would satisfy less than 16 percent of its auto fuel needs.

Since I see the growth of demand for biomass ethanol and biodiesel as inevitable I tend toward favoring even more rapid development of biomass energy technologies. Sufficient advances in genetic engineering and chemical plant engineering to make ethanol and biodiesel might reduce the amount of land diverted to produce biomass energy.

Though I'd much rather see a bigger push to accelerate the development of photovoltaics and nuclear power as alternatives to turning huge amounts of land into energy production farms. Photovoltaics and nuclear power would use much less land to produce the same amount of usable energy.

By Randall Parker    2006 September 19 11:01 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
Process Cuts Corn To Ethanol Conversion Cost

A new process promises to cut the cost of producing ethanol from corn.

A Purdue University team led by professor Li-fu Chen and research assistant Qin Xu, both from the Purdue food science department, discovered a new method to create ethanol from corn. The method also produces biodegradable byproducts that could be safely eaten.

Existing methods of corn-to-ethanol conversion produce as much as 2.6 gallons of ethanol per bushel. The new Chen-Xu method produces 2.85 gallons for a 9.6% improvement. But this method also reduces energy use in the conversion process and produces less waste.

The Chen-Xu Method produces about 2.85 gallons of ethanol for every bushel of corn processed. That output is slightly higher than current methods, but the same process that creates the ethanol also creates other marketable products. Chen said the method also meets federal Clean Air Act standards, eliminating costs that other methods incur in meeting environmental regulations.

"One of the common methods of manufacturing ethanol, called dry milling, is often the cause of air pollutants by drying and storage of DDG, a byproduct of the process," Chen said. "Another method - wet milling - produces an odor because it requires the input of sulfur dioxide. The Chen-Xu Method eliminates both issues, and the only odor comes from the smell of the corn and yeast fermentation."

Using a machine originally designed to make plastics, the Chen-Xu Method grinds corn kernels and liquefies starch with high temperatures. The water input required by wet milling is reduced by 90 percent, Chen said. Wastewater output is cut by 95 percent, and electricity use is reduced by 47 percent.

"The total operating cost of a Chen-Xu Method ethanol plant should be much less than that of a wet-milling plant, and total equipment investment is less than half," Chen said. "And with proper planning and management, total equipment investment should be less than that of a dry-milling plant."

Lower capital costs, lower operating costs, more ethanol output for with less corn, less electricity, less waste. What's not to like?

Biomass energy technologies are going to keep dropping in cost and increasing in net energy efficiency. Gasoline currently costs more to make than ethanol even after adjusting for the lower energy content of a gallon of ethanol as compared to a gallon of gasoline. The price of oil may drop further. But the cost of converting biomass to ethanol will continue to drop in the coming years.

By Randall Parker    2006 September 19 10:05 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2006 August 20 Sunday
Brazil Gets 40 Percent Of Gas Vehicle Fuel From Ethanol

Even adjusted for ethanol's lower energy content per gallon ethanol is cheaper than gasoline in Brazil.

Pull up to most service stations in this country of 185 million people and you will find fuel pumps offering three choices: ethanol, gasoline or premium gasoline. The labels are slightly misleading: The gasoline varieties are blends that contain at least 20 percent ethanol. The ethanol is usually significantly cheaper -- 53 cents per liter (about $2 per gallon), compared with about 99 cents per liter for gasoline ($3.74 per gallon) in Sao Paulo this past week.

Note that ethanol contains less energy per liter or gallon. So you need a third or a half more ethanol to drive the same distance as you can with pure gasoline. But the Brazilian gasoline has already been diluted with ethanol and therefore already takes you a shorter distance than pure gasoline. So the 53 cents per liter price for pure ethanol is much cheaper per mile or kilometer driven than the 99 cents per liter gasoline/ethanol blend. Mind you, in the United States, ethanol is much more expensive and costs more than gasoline per mile travelled.

Ethanol from sugar cane has replaced 40% of gasoline in Brazil. (but see the post update at the bottom for why this is less impressive than it sounds - in a word "diesel").

Ethanol is not solely responsible for Brazil's newfound energy independence -- domestic oil exploration has exploded in recent years -- but it has replaced about 40 percent of the country's gasoline consumption, according to Caio Carvalhal, an analyst with Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Rio de Janeiro.

The Brazilian sugar cane industry funded development of cheaper ways to convert sugar cane into ethanol. The government eliminated subsidies for ethanol back in the 1980s.

Through it all, the Center for Sugarcane Technology in Sao Paulo state -- a research facility created in the early 1970s and funded by the sugar industry -- continued working to improve efficiency in ethanol production by tinkering with almost everything from the genetic structure of sugar cane varieties to the industrial components of extraction. By the time oil prices began to steadily rise in the early years of this decade, ethanol producers had reduced production costs of a liter of ethanol from about 60 cents to about 20 cents.

By contrast, the US sugar cane industry funds lobbyists to keep the US government blocking Brazilian sugar from the US market. They argue this saves US jobs. But lots (all?) of the field hands are brought in from Caribbean islands. Money provides plenty of incentive for people to deceive and use government for their benefit and the expense of others. But I digress.

You might be thinking "Hey, why not just import Brazilian ethanol and lower our cost of vehicle fuel while at the same time reducing net carbon release into the atmosphere?" Hah! When large sums of money are involved lobbyists Archer Daniels Midland and the corn farmers have got you beat. A large tariff on Brazilian ethanol makes it much more expensive in the United States.

President Bush suggested earlier this year eliminating a tariff of 54 cents per gallon of Brazilian ethanol, but corn growers and their congressional allies have stymied that idea.

I feel compelled to digress again into trade politics but only because I have a really great idea for Brazil. My advice to the Brazilians: Stop letting any of your models come to the US and pose in Victoria's Secret catalogs until the US government agrees to let in Brazilian sugar and sugar cane ethanol. American citizens might tolerate having to pay more for Breyers than Dreyers in order to get sugar rather than corn syrup as ice cream flavoring. But American men will only find the backbone they need to stand up to the corn farmers and ADM when they find out that the farmers are preventing them from looking at Gisele Bündchen, Michelle Alves, Shirley Mallmann, Isabeli Fontana, Fernanda Tavares, and Ana Beatriz Barros.

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is about 20% cheaper than US corn ethanol to manufacture. I'm surprised that the difference in price is so small.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report last month that concluded sugar is not economically feasible for a domestic ethanol industry under current conditions.

The cost of producing a gallon of ethanol from sugarcane would be $2.40 while Brazil makes it for 81 cents, the report said. U.S. corn-based ethanol costs about $1.03 per gallon to make, it said.

The price quoted for Brazilian ethanol is in gallons. The 81 cents for a gallon is lower than the about $2 per gallon quoted in the first article above. But part of that difference is due to the cost of distribution and retail sales. Perhaps there's a tax on it as well.

The demand for ethanol as an oxygenator fuel additive to lower pollution emissions has driven the price of ethanol in the US far above the manufacturing cost.

Considering that in the past three months the price of ethanol has jumped 54 percent to $3.67 a gallon -- more than double what it costs to manufacture -- companies that produce ethanol are enjoying an enormous profit, at the expense of the American consumer and taxpayer. Archer Daniels Midland, the Illinois-based conglomerate that controls nearly one-fourth of the ethanol market, will earn an estimated $1.3 billion from ethanol alone during the current fiscal year. No wonder ethanol companies are hot investments on Wall Street.

Does pure ethanol really cost that much at wholesale? If so, even with a tariff Brazilian sugar cane ethanol should be cheaper than the market price for US corn ethanol. Does anyone know what is going on behind these figures?

A Chevrolet Silverado gets only three quarters as many miles per gallon when running on ethanol.

So I'll save money if I use ethanol?

Actually, no. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, which means mileage is lower. In city driving, for example, the base model Chevy Silverado pickup truck gets 16 miles per gallon of gasoline, but just 12 miles per gallon of ethanol.

Here is a nice web page explaining how to compare ethanol to gasoline when looking at prices. Ethanol has another cost though: You have to stop and get gasoline more often. Time is money. Ethanol costs you more in time.

US farmers face one big problem competing with Brazilian ethanol: Brazil gets more sunshine than the United States. On the other hand, Brazil's sugar cane ethanol cost advantage is not that large. The development of cellulosic technologies to extract all the energy out of the cellulose portion of plants would cut US ethanol costs substantially. However, it would do the same to sugar cane.

Question: Is the currently unusable cellulose fraction of a corn plant larger than the currently unusable fraction of a sugar cane? If so, then cellulosic technology will reduce Brazil's ethanol manufacturing cost advantage.

Another question: How much rain forest will get cut down as Brazil expands ethanol production?

In 2005 the United States used 9.125 million barrels of gasoline per day At 42 gallons per barrel that is 383.25 million gallons per day and times 365.25 days per year that is 139.982 billion gallons per year. To replace that with biomass energy would require perhaps 210 billion gallons of ethanol. Let us put that into perspective. The optimistic view is for ethanol production to expand to meet the demand for about 7% of the gasoline vehicle liquid fuel market.

If oil prices remain high, then U.S. fuel consumption of ethanol could at least double from the 2005 level of four billion gallons. But industry executives like Archer Daniels Chief Executive Patricia Woertz have set their sights even higher. Last week, in announcing the company's record earnings for its June 2006 fiscal year, Woertz said ethanol demand could triple.

"It looks like it has room to grow to 14 billion or 15 billion [gallons per year]," she said, "which is a full 10% blend in the gasoline pool in the United States." Unfortunately, before ethanol refiners can reach that goal, they might reach the limits of the country's corn supply. America's entire corn crop would satisfy just 12% of gasoline consumption, leaving no corn to feed livestock and humans. So there just won't be enough corn for corn ethanol to grow from a fuel additive into a large-scale substitute for fossil fuel. Crop years vary, too.

In 2006 5 billion gallons of ethanol will be produced in the United States.

There are 101 ethanol production plants in the nation, producing 5 billion gallons of ethanol per year, Siekman said.

Thirty-three plants to produce another 2 billion gallons are in the works in various areas throughout the country, Siekman said.

The 5 billion gallons represents about 2 and a half percent of the energy used to propel gasoline-burning vehicles (as distinct from diesel powered vehicles). We need cellulosic technologies to allow ethanol to displace most gasoline from the market. I'm guessing we'll see cellulosic technologies move into ethanol production in the next 10 years. Oil prices are so high that lots of groups have plenty of incentives to solve the problems for how to release the energy in cellulose.

High oil prices are going to continue to drive a shift to alternatives. For transportation ethanol looks to be the alternative that can ramp up most quickly. As better battery technologies come out hybrids will grow as well. Eventually when batteries improve enough pluggable hybrids will set the stage where ethanol will compete with wall socket electricity to power vehicles. Therefore the use of gasoline looks set to peak before oil production peaks.

Update: The American Petroleum Institute argues that the biggest cause of Brazil's energy independence is an increase in domestic oil production.

The U.S. is producing slightly more ethanol than Brazil, however gasoline demand in Brazil is only 4.28 billion gallons compared to the U.S. where gasoline demand is 140 billion gallons (23 times that in Brazil). The U.S. can't build an ethanol market based on sugarcane. Nor can the U.S. ramp up corn-based ethanol in the same way Brazil increased ethanol use with sugarcane. Brazil energy independence is due to increased crude oil production - not ethanol.


How did Brazil achieve energy independence? Not with ethanol but by increasing crude oil production. Brazil’s increase in crude oil production over the 2004 to 2005 period was 9 times larger than its increase in ethanol production over the same time period, and was 4 times larger over the 2000 to 2005 period. Clearly, it has been Brazil’s increased crude production, particularly over the 2004 to 2005 time frame, which has been the dominant factor in pushing Brazil towards energy independence.

Robert Rapier also says the ethanol success of Brazil is very much exaggerated.

On the production side, in 2005 Brazil produced 627 million barrels of oil, for an annual per capita oil production of 3.4 barrels per person. The U.S. produced 2.5 billion barrels of oil in 2005, for an annual per capita oil production of 8.4 barrels per person. The annual shortfall between oil consumption and oil production in Brazil was 0.2 barrels per person in 2005. In the U.S., the shortfall between consumption and production was much larger at 16.9 barrels per person.

The question then arises: “Just how much did widespread use of ethanol in Brazil contribute toward their energy independence?” The answer is: “Not much”. In 2005, Brazil produced 4.8 billion gallons of ethanol, or 114 million barrels. However, a barrel of ethanol contains approximately 3.5 million BTUs, and a barrel of oil contains approximately 6 million BTUs. Therefore, 114 million barrels of ethanol only displaced 67 million barrels of oil, around 10% of Brazil’s oil consumption. In other words, Brazil’s energy independence miracle was 10% ethanol and 90% domestic crude oil production. Brazil did not farm their way to energy independence.

Over on his R Squared blog Rapier says that diesel is used for half of all vehicle fuels in Brazil.

According to a March 2006 presentation by the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, the actual breakdown of vehicle fuels in Brazil at the present time (by volume) is 53.9% diesel, 26.2% gasoline, 17% ethanol and 2.9% natural gas.

17% is a lot less than 40%. Also, that is 17% of a small total amount of fuel and a small per capita use of fuel as compared to the United States.

Thanks to The Ergosphere's Engineer-Poet for alerting me to the relatively large role that diesel plays in Brazil for vehicle fuel.

Update II: Engineer-Poet makes an argument on why ethanol from biomass is a bad idea. I happen to agree that biomass energy has big downsides. But my guess is that coming advances in cellulosic technology will so lower the cost of biomass ethanol that ethanol usage will increase greatly in the next 10 years. I do not treat that as a happy prospect. Large scale biomass energy production will cause humanity to compete (too successfully) with nature and take habitat away from other species. Since I'm fond of other species I'm not happy about that. I'd much prefer we use nuclear, solar, and other energy sources that use much smaller ecological footprints.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 20 01:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (55)
2006 August 08 Tuesday
Ethanol Seen As Cheaper Than Gasoline

An article in the Christian Science Monitor claims that ethanol cost less than half the price of gasoline to produce.

The economics make sense. Middle East tensions and other factors have pushed the oil price higher: In June it averaged $65 a barrel. At that price, it cost $2.20 to produce a gallon of gasoline - about $1.56 for the oil itself and 64 cents for refining costs, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

By contrast, it costs just under $1 to produce a gallon of ethanol at current corn prices of about $2 a bushel, Professor Gallagher estimates. That means ethanol would continue to be profitable even if oil prices drop dramatically and corn prices increase, he says.

But a straight across dollars per gallon comparison between gasoline and ethanol is not a simple apples to apples comparison because ethanol has about two thirds the BTUs of energy per gallon of gasoline. Ethanol at $1 per gallon is therefore about equal to $1.50 per gallon gasoline. This makes it less convenient since it produces lower miles per gallon. Still, $1.50 per gallon is still less than $2.20 per gallon. But this suggests that as corn demand rises and corn prices rise the price gap may narrow - unless oil prices go higher still.

Getting back to the original article, corn ethanol does not scale.

But ethanol made from corn faces a supply problem. Even if the entire US corn crop were devoted to producing E85 (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline), it would supply only about 12 percent of US needs, studies say.

More land can (and probably will) get put into production to grow corn. But the land currently in production can produce higher yields at lower cost than the additional land available for growing corn. Plus, we will pay in higher costs for corn and meat for food.

Biodiesel from soy and animal fats similarly hits scaling problems. The use of plant cellulose to create ethanol will eventually boost ethanol per acre of crops. Maybe that'll be able to scale far enough to replace most gasoline. But better batteries to enable fully electric cars looks much more attractive to me:

Using electricity to power vehicles is so efficient and cheap that, even if the juice flows from a mix of power plants including coal-fired boilers, it would still pollute less on a national basis than using gasoline, say Greene and others who have studied the issue.

Driving 20 to 40 miles a day on electricity stored in a modern lithium ion battery would be like driving on gasoline costing just 75 cents per gallon, Luft says.

We won't all have to walk to work in the future.

Elon Musk of Tesla Motors says that electricity generated from natural gas to charge car batteries delivers far greater efficiency of energy input to miles moved than even hybrid vehicles.

The H-System combined cycle generator from General Electric is 60% efficient in turning natural gas into electricity (Combined cycle is where the natural gas is burned to generate electricity and then the waste heat is used to create steam that powers a second generator). Natural gas recovery is 97.5% efficient, processing is also 97.5% efficient and then transmission efficiency over the electric grid is 92% on average. This gives us a well-to-electric-outlet efficiency of 97.5% x 97.5% x 60% x 92% = 52.5%.

Despite a body shape, tires and gearing aimed at high performance rather than peak efficiency, the Roadster requires 0.4 MJ per kilometer or, stated another way, will travel 2.53 km per mega-joule of electricity. The full cycle charge and discharge efficiency of the Tesla Roadster is 86%, which means that for every 100 MJ of electricity used to charge the battery, about 86 MJ reaches the motor.

Bringing the math together, we get the final figure of merit of 2.53 km/MJ x 86% x 52.5% = 1.14 km/MJ. Now let's now compare that to the Prius and a few other options normally considered energy efficient.

The fully considered well-to-wheel efficiency of a gasoline-powered car is equal to the energy content of gasoline (34.3 MJ/liter) plus the refinement & transportation losses (18.3%), multiplied by the miles per gallon or km per liter. The Prius at an EPA rated 55 mpg therefore has an energy efficiency of 0.56 km/MJ. This is actually an excellent number compared with a "normal" car like the Toyota Camry at 0.28 km/MJ.

The Tesla Roadster is not an apples-to-apples comparison to the Prius or Camry for passenger space, trunk space, or general comfort. On the other hand, it accelerates like a bat out of hell. But even if a fully electric full sized car had half of the efficiency of the Roadster it'd still

The Tesla Roadster weights 1140 kg (2508 lb). By contrast, the Toyota Prius weights 1325 kg (2921 lb). That is only 16% more. Though the Prius loses some efficiency as compared to the Roadster due to more wind drag. Still, when much lighter batteries become available if a pure electric Prius-like vehicle can get built with the same weight as the existing Prius then the effective fuel efficiency (using Musk's calculations above) could easily exceed the Prius's by 50% or more. Rumours about a 94 mpg Prius with lithium batteries by 2008 suggest that pure electric cars will have to compete against much tougher hybrid competition. High efficiency hybrids will be more convenient than pure electric cars, especially for road trips where long recharge time would slow travel.

Cellulosic technology will drive down the cost of biomass liquid fuels. Battery advances will both make hybrids more efficient and eventually enable the manufacture of high energy efficiency mass market electric vehicles. Pure electric vehicles will allow coal, nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and wave electricity to all compete to power vehicles. Given the increased competition and higher energy efficiency from these coming developments I expect the fuel cost per mile travelled to drop in coming years. Even if the price of oil continues to climb the price of oil will matter less for ground transportation.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 08 06:30 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (26)
2006 July 31 Monday
Corn Price Rise Coming Due To Use For Ethanol

The growing use of corn to produce ethanol is expected to drive up the price of corn by about 25% within a single year.

Fresh signs of ethanol's new economic impact are expected soon. After languishing for years, corn prices are projected to rise about 25 percent from around $2.00 a bushel currently to $2.45 a bushel this next crop year, reports the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). But as ethanol demand for corn kicks in, prices could go much higher in the future depending on gasoline prices. Meat and grocery prices could eventually rise as well, some analysts say.

"Ethanol has had huge impact on corn markets," says Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota researcher and coauthor of a study on ethanol's environmental impact published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Science last month. "Competition between food and fuel is growing, along with the environmental consequences as more ethanol facilities are built," the study says.

The drive to produce food-based biofuels is misplaced, because even if all US corn and soybeans were used, they "would meet only 11 percent of gasoline demand and 8.7 percent of diesel demand. There is a great need for renewable energy supplies that do not cause significant environmental harm and do not compete with food supply," the study says.

The rising use of biomass for energy production is going to put food buyers in direct competition with car drivers for the same agricultural output.

The price of meat will rise as a result.

One key impact is that the price of feed corn for cattle, pork, and poultry could rise 60 to 70 percent over the next two years, although meat and other grocery items may not see significant price gains for up to four years, Wisner says.

So will the price of popcorn, corn tortillas, and corn muffins for that matter.

The rise in demand for corn to produce ethanol might be short lived. The development of cellulosic technology will eventually enable bushes, trees, and most notably perennial switchgrass to be used to produce ethanol.

Clearly, there's a great deal of potential energy to be tapped. A study at Argonne National Laboratory estimates that a gallon of ethanol produced from kernels of corn in today's processes provides about 20,000 BTUs more energy than the energy that went into making it. The study projects that using cellulose from switchgrass would triple that net gain, to about 60,000 BTUs per gallon, mostly because little fossil fuel would be used in farming the grass. But costs need to come down to make this practical.

It was this "cellulosic" ethanol that President Bush spoke about when he proposed adding $150 million to next year's federal budget for research into using switchgrass. Raab says switchgrass is appealing; for one thing, an acre of land can produce four times the mass of switchgrass as of corn. And switchgrass is far hardier and easier to grow than corn. "The energy balance for ethanol from switchgrass is tremendously better," he says. "It doesn't require all the fertilizer, all the irrigation, all the energy intensity that corn does."

Switchgrass has many environmental advantages over corn as an energy source.

Perennial grasses, such as switchgrass, and other forage crops are promising feedstocks for ethanol production. "Environmentally switchgrass has some large benefits and the potential for productivity increases," says John Sheehan of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The perennial grass has a deep root system, anchoring soils to prevent erosion and helping to build soil fertility. "As a native species, switchgrass is better adapted to our climate and soils," adds Nathanael Criers, NRDC Senior Policy Analyst. "It uses water efficiently, does not need a lot of fertilizers or pesticides and absorbs both more efficiently."

Switchgrass already produces much more energy per acre. Our problem is we need cheaper and more efficient ways to break down the cellulose sugar polymers that contain the sugar which can be converted into ethanol. Once the cellulosic technologies mature then breeding programs could more than double switchgrass yield per acre and further widen its advantages over corn.

"The key to producing enough ethanol is switchgrass," says Greene. Switchgrass shows great potential for improving yields, offers environmental benefits and can be grown in diverse areas across the country. Current average yields are five dry tons per acre. Crop experts have concluded standard breeding techniques, applied progressively and consistently, could more than double the yield of switchgrass. Yield improvements predicted by the report of 12.4 dry tons per acre are in keeping with results from breeding programs with crops such as corn and other grasses. The innovations discussed have a net effect of reducing the total land required to grow switchgrass to an estimated 114 million acres. Sufficient switchgrass could be grown on this acreage to produce 165 billion gallons of ethanol by 2050, which is equivalent to 108 billion gallons of gasoline. The next logical question is how do we integrate switchgrass production into our agricultural systems. The answer lies with the ability to produce animal protein from switchgrass. "If we have cost-effective agricultural policy, farmers will rethink what they plant," says Lynch "For example, we are using 70 million acres to grow soybeans for animal feed. You can grow more animal feed protein per acre with switchgrass. If there were a demand for biomass feedstocks to produce ethanol and other biofuels, farmers would be able to increase their profits by growing one crop producing two high value products."

To put that equivalent of 108 billion gallons of gasoline in perspective: The United States consumes over 320 million gallons of gasoline per day or about 117 billion gallons per year. So in theory 114 million acres of land (about a third of an acre per person) could produce enough switchgrass to power all cars in the United States. To put the land needed into perspective, US farmers plant about 74 million acres of soybeans, 81 million acres of corn, 14 million acres of cotton, and 59 million acres of wheat. So planting 114 million acres for switchgrass is not impossible by any means.

The United States is 2.3 billion acres total with 442 million or 19.5% used by crops. If 114 million acres were devoted to switchgrass for ethanol that would increase crop land usage by about a quarter.

If switchgrass becomes a really cheap way to produce biomass energy then that doesn't prevent a rise in the price for corn. Some of the tens of millions of acres that will get put into production for switchgrass will be land that otherwise would have been planted in corn, wheat, soy, and other crops used to feed humans and livestock.

My standard rant on biomass: The development of cheap photovoltaics would allow land that is not used for food crops to produce energy. Much of the surfaces that will be covered by cheap photovoltaics will be already existing buildings and other structures built by humans. Biomass energy competes with wild plants and animals for use of the same land. Photovoltacs (and nuclear power for that matter) leaves more of nature in the natural state.

Some Americans look at the US, see huge amounts of wide open spaces, and conclude that expanded planting of crops will have little impact. But the development of cheap cellulosic technologies will also create demand for expanded planting in parts of the world far more densely populated and already suffering from shrinking natural areas. Think of India for example and imagine large chunks of its land shifted into biomass energy production.

My guess is that the cellulosic technology problems will get solved and we will witness a huge shift toward use of switchgrass to produce ethanol.

By Randall Parker    2006 July 31 10:47 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2006 July 13 Thursday
Soy Better Than Corn For Biomass Energy

Soy for biodiesel is better than corn for ethanol but even soy has a very limited role to play as an energy source.

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (7/10/2006) -- The first comprehensive analysis of the full life cycles of soybean biodiesel and corn grain ethanol shows that biodiesel has much less of an impact on the environment and a much higher net energy benefit than corn ethanol, but that neither can do much to meet U.S. energy demand.

The study, which was funded in part by the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, was conducted by researchers in the university’s College of Biological Sciences and College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The study will be published online July 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers tracked all the energy used for growing corn and soybeans and converting the crops into biofuels. They also looked at how much fertilizer and pesticide corn and soybeans required and how much greenhouse gases and nitrogen, phosphorus, and pesticide pollutants each released into the environment.

“Quantifying the benefits and costs of biofuels throughout their life cycles allows us not only to make sound choices today but also to identify better biofuels for the future,” said Jason Hill, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of ecology, evolution, and behavior and the department of applied economics and lead author of the study.

The study showed that both corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel produce more energy than is needed to grow the crops and convert them into biofuels. This finding refutes other studies claiming that these biofuels require more energy to produce than they provide. The amount of energy each returns differs greatly, however. Soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than is used to produce it, while corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25 percent more energy.

Still, the researchers caution that neither biofuel can come close to meeting the growing demand for alternatives to petroleum. Dedicating all current U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12 percent of gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand. Meanwhile, global population growth and increasingly affluent societies will increase demand for corn and soybeans for food.

The authors showed that the environmental impacts of the two biofuels also differ. Soybean biodiesel produces 41 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel fuel whereas corn grain ethanol produces 12 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Soybeans have another environmental advantage over corn because they require much less nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, which get into groundwater, streams, rivers and oceans. These agricultural chemicals pollute drinking water, and nitrogen decreases biodiversity in global ecosystems. Nitrogen fertilizer, mainly from corn, causes the 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico.

Advances in biotechnology will continue to increase crop yields and increase energy efficiency of agriculture. But total demand for energy will rise quite rapidly. Still, biomass's prospectives will improve when cellulosic technology matures to allow use of all of a plant for production of energy. Yet, even then I expect biomass to play only a minor role in providing energy.

Development of cheaper and higher efficiency photovoltaic materials seems like a better long term prospect than biomass for several reasons. First off, photovoltaics can provide energy all year rather than just during the growing season. Second, photovoltaics will provide energy even during droughts. Third, photovoltaics allow energy to be generated closer to where it gets used. When used to cover a building (e.g. with photovoltaic tiles) photovoltaics generate electricity where it gets used. Fourth, photovoltaics reduce the need for use of additional land to generate more energy. Photovoltaics on buildings and other human structures do not cover more ground than those structures already cover. Fifth, photovoltaics can get placed where few plants will grow (e.g. deserts) and therefore again won't compete as much with wildlife as agriculture does. Sixth, even when plants are growing their efficiency for turning light into chemical energy is lower than what photovoltaics wll achieve in the future.

We should accelerate photovoltaics research and development. Ditto nuclear research. Ditto batteries research (though already plug-in hybrid cars are coming).

In spite of lame government policies with regard to solar power Technology Review reports many signs that solar is starting to take off.

The announcement last month that Palo Alto, CA-based Nanosolar had raised $100 million to finance a new solar-cell factory based on an inexpensive process, similar to that used to print newspapers, and that it will make enough cells to produce 430 megawatts of power annually, is just one sign that new types of solar power are emerging as a viable alternative energy source (see "Large-Scale, Cheap Solar Electricity").

While Nanosolar's new factory capacity, equivalent to one-quarter of the total global solar capacity last year, is unprecedented for a new technology, it's just part of equally impressive overall growth in the solar industry. For the last several years, solar cell production has been doubling every two years, and indicators suggest this will not slow soon, says industry analyst Michael Rogol, managing director of Photon Consulting in Aachen, Germany.

The price of oil just exceeded $78 per barrel. The high cost of oil is doing more to accelerate development of new energy technologies than all government energy policies together. If biomass can make the grade high oil prices mean we'll find out.

By Randall Parker    2006 July 13 11:08 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (18)
2006 May 16 Tuesday
Venture Capitalist Vinod Khosla Promotes Biofuels

Sun Microsystems co-founder and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla argued in a speech at Stanford that the United States should put taxes in place to assure that oil prices will not fall so as to provide incentives to develop alternatives.

During his speech, titled "Biofuels—Think Outside the Barrel," at the Schwab Center to about 100 energy scholars, economists and policymakers, Khosla outlined three "action items" for switching to biofuels:

  • 70 percent of all new automobiles should be flex-fuel vehicles, giving drivers the option of gasoline or ethanol;
  • 10 percent of gas stations in the United States should distribute ethanol to "achieve criticality";
  • Create a tax on cheap oil to stabilize oil prices in the unlikely event they should fall below $40 a barrel. (Oil is currently $72 a barrel.)

"I don't think oil will ever [fall to] $40 a barrel until an alternative appears," Khosla said. "If an alternative appears, we will see the manipulation of oil prices to drive alternatives out of business. This [tax] is to assure Wall Street that [it] will not be subject to oil price manipulation by Saudi Arabia."

Biofuels might become cost effective once scientists and engineers make cellulosic technologies work. Cheap cellulosic technologies would allow the breakdown of the sugars in complete plants. Switchback grass and other grasses could yield several times more energy per acre than corn. However, I have doubts about biomass even if done much more efficiently than corn. Cheap photovoltaics combined with cheap lightweight batteries would make use of much smaller land areas and also allow use of lands which support little vegetation. Plus, photovoltaics wouldn't use water or cause run-off of fertilizers and pesticides into creeks and rivers.

By Randall Parker    2006 May 16 09:27 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2006 April 14 Friday
Acreage For Corn Dropping Due To High Energy Costs

Corn for ethanol is touted in some circles as a solution to high energy costs. As long time readers know, FuturePundit is mighty skeptical about corn ethanol and thinks it is a boondoggle. Green Car Congress reports that high energy costs are causing less corn to be planted in the United States.

The rising costs of fuel and fertilizer are leading US farmers to switch from corn to less input-intensive crops such as soybeans in 2006, according to the Prospective Plantings report recently released by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Dry conditions also contributed to lower corn planting intentions in the southern Great Plains.

Farmers plan to plant 78 million acres of corn in 2006, down 5% from 2005. They intend to plant a record-high 76.9 million acres of soybeans, up 7%.

Anyone see a problem here? This shift is happening in spite of government interventions through subsidies and regulations to increase the production of ethanol from corn. In spite of the US government's support for corn ethanol the rising cost of fossil fuels energy is causing farmers to shift away from producing corn. Hardly a reason to be bullish about corn ethanol, is it? The rising use of corn to make ethanol for transportation energy is going to drive up the cost of corn for animal and human feed. The decline in corn production is going to drive up the cost of corn ethanol too.

Large scale grain crop biomass as a way to supply a large fraction of transportation fuel is a bad idea. It makes Archer Daniels Midland and some corn farmers happy. It also makes some of the more ignorant greenies happy. But we do not have enough land to make corn a major source of energy. The government subsidies spent on corn ethanol would be better spent on research into photovoltaics, batteries, nuclear molten salt reactors, and other technonologies which can help produce replacements for fossil fuels.

Development of genetically engineered corn that can bind nitrogen would probably reduce or reverse the shift of farmers toward soybeans. High natural gas prices have driven up nitrogen fertilizer costs and soy's ability to fix nitrogen makes it a better crop in the face of high natural gas prices. But if biomass is to have a much larger energy future my guess is that future lies with the development of technologies for breaking down cellulose combined with grasses which produce more energy per acre.

If we really have entered the Hubbert "Peak Oil" era then we need to get more hard headed about what can replace oil. Corn is not the solution or even on a top 10 list of solutions.

By Randall Parker    2006 April 14 11:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (16)
2006 March 25 Saturday
Coal Corn Ethanol Plants Seen As Emerging Trend

Long time readers know I'm not a fan of biomass energy. Well, here's yet another reason to be underwhelmed by the prospect of corn ethanol. Can you say "Defeating the purpose"? Sure!

Late last year in Goldfield, Iowa, a refinery began pumping out a stream of ethanol, which supporters call the clean, renewable fuel of the future.

There's just one twist: The plant is burning 300 tons of coal a day to turn corn into ethanol - the first US plant of its kind to use coal instead of cleaner natural gas.

An hour south of Goldfield, another coal-fired ethanol plant is under construction in Nevada, Iowa. At least three other such refineries are being built in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

The trend, which is expected to continue, has left even some ethanol boosters scratching their heads. Should coal become a standard for 30 to 40 ethanol plants under construction - and 150 others on the drawing boards - it would undermine the environmental reasoning for switching to ethanol in the first place, environmentalists say.

US natural gas production is declining. Coal is a much cheaper source of heat energy - at least in the United States. But burning the coal will release particulates, mercury, and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Even if you are thrilled at the prospect of a warm Antarctica for your own ocean front house (with way more coastline than Florida currently has) the other pollutants are not good. Plus, the corn takes more land for agriculture.

Bottom line: federal corn ethanol subsidies are now going to increase carbon dioxide emissions as well as assorted pollutants. Your tax dollars at work. The article reports that even some existing plants may switch from natural gas to coal since the money savings from the switch are so large.

Recently Dan Kammen and Alex Farrell at UC Berkeley claimed that a switch to corn ethanol would slightly reduce greenhouse gas production.

Despite the uncertainty, it appears that ethanol made from corn is a little better - maybe 10 or 15 percent - than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas production, he said.

"The people who are saying ethanol is bad are just plain wrong," he said. "But it isn't a huge victory - you wouldn't go out and rebuild our economy around corn-based ethanol."

Just plain wrong? I think he spoke too soon. My guess is these guys used an assumption of natural gas to run the corn ethanol plants. With coal producing maybe twice as much carbon dioxide (according to the first article above) corn ethanol is probably worse than gasoline for net carbon dioxide emissions. Though the Christian Science Monitor article suggests the Berkeley people did consider coal for making corn. So maybe the press release leaves out an important qualifier that was in the original paper.

But I agree with the Berkeley guys that when cellulosic technologies are perfected (and venture capital money is funding efforts along those lines) then switchback grass might be able to provide ethanol with much less carbon dioxide emitted by the processing plants.

The transition would be worth it, the authors point out, if the ethanol is produced not from corn but from woody, fibrous plants: cellulose.

"Ethanol can be, if it's made the right way with cellulosic technology, a really good fuel for the United States," said Farrell, an assistant professor of energy and resources. "At the moment, cellulosic technology is just too expensive. If that changes - and the technology is developing rapidly - then we might see cellulosic technology enter the commercial market within five years."

Cellulosic technology refers to the use of bacteria to convert the hard, fibrous content of plants - cellulose and lignin - into starches that can be fermented by other bacteria to produce ethanol. Farrell said that two good sources of fibrous plant material are switchgrass and willow trees, though any material, from farm waste to specially grown crops or trees, would work. One estimate is that there are a billion tons of currently unused waste available for ethanol production in the United States.

Any analysis of biomass energy ought to build into it the assumption that the plant operators will use coal. Either that or they have to show that the biomass itself can provide any heat energy needed to operate the plant and do so at a competitive price.

Also see my previous posts (and knowledgeable contributors in the comments sections of these posts): Corn Ethanol Production Expands In United States, Corn Stoves For Home Heat Are Hot On US Market, High Fossil Fuels Prices Drive People To Wood Pellet Stoves, Biofuels Regulations Destroying Rainforests, Brazil Shifting Toward Ethanol For Car Fuel.

By Randall Parker    2006 March 25 04:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
2006 February 18 Saturday
Corn Ethanol Production Expands In United States

Many corn ethanol plants are under construction and being expanded.

There are 34 new plants under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry trade group in the District. Eight of the 95 existing plants are expanding. And 150 more new plants or expansions are in the planning stages.

The ethanol market is a product of politics. The US federal government is the cause of the increased demand for ethanol.

The ethanol industry also is being boosted by requirements in federal energy legislation approved last year that requires an increasing amount of the additive to be used.

Ethanol's subsidy from the US federal government might be about $0.75 per gallon.

Some studies peg the federal ethanol subsidy to producers at $3 billion per year.

The United States last year consumed an estimated 4 billion gallons of ethanol, compared with 140 billion gallons of gasoline.

In spite of federal subsidies and the high price of oil the E85 fuel (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) costs more per gallon and carries cars fewer miles.

Plus, stations charge more for E85 than gasoline, even though it carries cars fewer miles.

Corn as the great liquid fuel alternative still doesn't seem convincing to me.

The price of natural gas in the United States has fallen in the last couple of months.

The March natural gas contract gained 6.8¢ to $7.13/MMbtu after falling for more than a week to a 7-month low.

To put that in perspective the spot price of natural gas hit a peak of over $15/MMbtu in late 2005. But natural gas was about a dollar cheaper a year ago than it is today. Note that in many areas of the world where natural gas is produced it is much cheaper. The US would have lower natural gas prices if it had more liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals. But local opposition to LNG terminals keeps US prices well above world market prices. Declining US production and delays in LNG terminal construction strike me as reasons to expect continued high natural gas prices.

So how does this lower price for natural gas affect natural gas's competitiveness with corn? Corn is around $2 per bushel though it might drop lower.

The projected 2005/06 price range for corn is $1.60 to $2.00 per bushel, down 5 cents on each end from last month, compared with $2.06 for 2004/05.

Dennis Buffington's Energy Strategies website puts the useful energy in corn at 6,808 BTU per pound and 56 pounds per bushel. So from that one would expect 147 pounds of corn to be the equivalent energy of 1 million BTU of natural gas. But Buffington also states that 170 pounds of corn has energy equivalent to 1 million BTU of natural gas. My guess is he might be accounting for burning efficiency.

Taking the 170 pounds of corn figure for 1 million BTUs and dividing by 56 pounds per bushel times $2 per bushel one gets $6.07 per million BTUs (MMbtu) for corn. Natural gas at $7.13 is not that much more expensive. But if corn fell to $1.60 per bushel then it would cost $4.86/MMbtu.

Corn as a heat source is a lot more compelling if your only fossil fuel alternative is oil. A gallon of #2 heating oil (basically diesel) has the energy equivalent of 22 pounds of corn. So a $2 bushel of corn has the heat content of 2.55 gallons of heating oil.

Corn production costs will fall in the future as agricultural technology advances. But what will happen to natural gas prices? Corn's price probably has less upside risk. For someone choosing a heating energy source for a new building if the choice is between natural gas and corn if one can build the corn feeder to be large enough to allow infrequent corn deliveries the corn might be the more economic choice.

But can corn make much of a dent in satisfying US energy needs? In the comments section of a previous post I estimated that if yield per acre could be maintained then it would take 36% of the US land mass to produce enough energy from corn to replace US consumption of oil and natural gas. That rough calculation ignored energy conversion losses to make ethanol. The calculation ignored the fact that corn can not grow with as high a yield per acre in the areas where it is not grown. In some areas it can't be grown at all (e.g. where would the water come from?). Plus, what about nature? Massive biomass production would destroy large areas of habitats. Corn for biomass energy can not scale up become a big energy source.

My take on corn: For individuals looking to switch away from expensive heating oil if you can solve the corn delivery problem to your satisfaction then corn heat will cost less. Comparing corn to natural gas as a heat source the choice is less clear.

At the level of national energy policy corn has at best a small role to play. Corn for liquid transportation fuel is a politically driven mistake. If corn must be used for political reasons then better to promote it as a heat source.

My fear with corn is that biotechnology will so lower the cost of corn production that a big shift from natural gas to corn will result in large scale habitat destruction as more land gets shifted to corn production. I'd prefer cost breakthroughs in nuclear and solar energy as more environmentally agreeable energy solutions.

Once all planned corn ethanol facilities are built in Nebraska those facilities will use half of Nebraska's corn crop.

Cassman told the Nebraska Ethanol Board that, when considering the 11 ethanol plants in production, seven plants that will be producing by 2007, and five plants that are in the planning stages, 1.31 billion gallons of ethanol could be produced in Nebraska.

That scale of production would use 580 million bushels of corn, which is only 50 percent of Nebraska's total corn crop, Cassman said.

580 million bushels of corn will be used to produce 1.31 billion gallons of ethanol. That's a ratio of 2.26 gallons per bushel. Scale that up to the entire 11 billion bushel per year US corn crop and dedicate it all to ethanol and the result would be only 24.85 billion gallons of ethanol. But ethanol has only 67.5% as much energy per gallon as gasoline. So all the US corn production diverted to ethanol would yield the equivalent of only 16.77 billion gallons of gasoline as compared to the 140 billion gallons consumed per year. But corn production uses energy. So the picture for corn ethanol is even worse once energy inputs are considered.

Out of about 11 billion bushels of corn grown in the United States per year Nebraska grows over 11 percent of it.

The 2005 Nebraska corn crop is the second-largest on record, according to the release. It was 1.27 billion bushels.

So about 6 percent of US corn production is going to toward ethanol production in Nebraska alone.

Update: A UC Berkeley group took a harder look at energy inputs and outputs for corn ethanol and found a small environmental benefit from switching to corn ethanol.

Dan Kammen and Alex Farrell of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, with their students Rich Plevin, Brian Turner and Andy Jones along with Michael O'Hare, a professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy, deconstructed six separate high-profile studies of ethanol. They assessed the studies' assumptions and then reanalyzed each after correcting errors, inconsistencies and outdated information regarding the amount of energy used to grow corn and make ethanol, and the energy output in the form of fuel and corn byproducts.

Once these changes were made in the six studies, each yielded the same conclusion about energy: Producing ethanol from corn uses much less petroleum than producing gasoline. However, the UC Berkeley researchers point out that there is still great uncertainty about greenhouse gas emissions and that other environmental effects like soil erosion are not yet quantified.

The UC Berkeley team has made its model, the Energy and Resources Group Biofuels Meta Model (EBAMM), available to the public on its Web site.

"It is better to use various inputs to grow corn and make ethanol and use that in your cars than it is to use the gasoline and fossil fuels directly," said Kammen, who is co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment and UC Berkeley's Class of 1935 Distinguished Chair of Energy.

Despite the uncertainty, it appears that ethanol made from corn is a little better - maybe 10 or 15 percent - than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas production, he said.

"The people who are saying ethanol is bad are just plain wrong," he said. "But it isn't a huge victory - you wouldn't go out and rebuild our economy around corn-based ethanol."

But they are defining "benefit" as greenhouse gas emissions reduction and the benefit is small. How about the effects of putting much larger areas under till for farming? Also, the benefit is small. That suggests the net energy gain is small.

The UC Berkeley researchers think the ticket to making biomass more competitive is to develop better ways to convert cellulose sugar polymers into simpler sugars which could then be used to produce ethanol.

The transition would be worth it, the authors point out, if the ethanol is produced not from corn but from woody, fibrous plants: cellulose.

"Ethanol can be, if it's made the right way with cellulosic technology, a really good fuel for the United States," said Farrell, an assistant professor of energy and resources. "At the moment, cellulosic technology is just too expensive. If that changes - and the technology is developing rapidly - then we might see cellulosic technology enter the commercial market within five years."

Some grasses produce over 3 times as much energy per acre as corn. In theory producing ethanol from such grasses could be far more favorable in terms of both the ratio of energy out to energy in and also in terms of the size of the amount of land needed.

Still, I remain unethusiastic even for greatly improved biomass. If one really wants to reduce greenhouse gases then nuclear, solar, and wind energy are clearly the ways to go. They each would require far less land area than biomass. But all 3 are in need of technological advances for cost reductions. We also need far better battery technology since all 3 deliver energy as electricity.

By Randall Parker    2006 February 18 12:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (28)
2006 January 21 Saturday
Corn Stoves For Home Heat Are Hot On US Market

All of the corn stove makers are sold out with long waiting times and sales volumes have more than doubled in the last year to about 150,000 stoves a year according to one report. Why the big demand for corn heating? Corn is a much cheaper source of heat than wood, natural gas, oil, or propane.

Why all the sudden hullabaloo? Simple – nothing costs less to burn at this point than corn, which sells for about $2 per bushel. According to figures provided by Even Temp, maker of the St. Croix line of stoves, the cost per therm for 100,000 British thermal units is 42 cents. The same per therm cost for natural gas is $1.40 and $2.60 for propane (LP). Wood is 64 cents per therm.

And Dennis Buffington, a professor of engineering at Penn State University, provided these figures in a recent Wall Street Journal story about corn stoves: For 1 million BTUs of heat, it takes $16.47 in natural gas, $33.80 in propane and a mere $8.75 for corn.

Check out Buffington's neat web site on corn as a heat energy source.

Corn heat costs about the same as coal heat but with far less pollution. (same article here)

It would cost about $130 worth of corn to heat a 2,000-square-foot home in Colorado for a month during the winter with a corn-burning stove, according to figures provided by Dennis Buffington, a professor at Penn State University who has studied corn-burning stoves for seven years.

In comparison, it would cost about $125 a month using a coal stove and $247 for natural gas.

Corn stove sales might rise by a factor of 5 from 2004 to 2006.

About 65,000 corn stoves were sold domestically last year, estimated Mike Haefner, president of Minnesota-based American Energy Systems. He expects a jump to about 150,000 this year, and at least 350,000 in 2006. Even with a retail price of $1,600 to $3,000, the stoves often pay for themselves within a year or two.

Unless you have a really cheap source of wood (e.g. your own forest) corn seems a better choice. Wood pellets are in short supply and wood pellet prices have more than doubled.

Retailers, meanwhile, have been struggling to find any pellets for sale. But those that have a supply should ration their sale to no more than 10, 50 or 40-pound bags per customer, the CPB is recommending. The cost per bag has risen from $3 to between $7 and $10.

The demand for pellet stoves increased dramatically following the severe price increases forecast this winter for natural gas, heating oil and propane.

You can burn corn in some wood stoves. But corn leaves behind a sugary residue which is difficult to clean from wood stoves.

When corn is burned it leaves behind a substance from the sugars it contains that when cooled is very hard and stays in the burner. These clinkers, as they are called, must be regularly cleaned out of the stove. Some special corn stoves are designed to automatically clear clinkers, Koval said.

Shelled corn contains about 7000 Btu (British thermal units) per pound at 15 percent moisture, or about 392,000 Btu per 56-pound bushel. That rating is about the same for wood pellets.

Actually, Dennis Buffington says corn has 6,800 BTUs per pound and wood 8,200 BTUs per lb. So for heating wood is worth about 20% more per pound than corn.

There are hassles to operating a corn burning stove.

Yet owning one of these stoves is not like owning a gas furnace, Doubek said. "You've got to be a handy person to own a pellet stove."

The fire pot must be emptied daily, the ash tray about once a week. There's dealing with the 40-pound bags of pellets or corn to keep the fuel bin full, and the stove requires an annual disassembly and cleaning of the heat exchanger, combustion fan, and other parts exposed to sooty smoke.

With better designs that hassle factor looks reducible. Big feeder bins could reduce the frequency of refueling to once a seaon. Also, the waste ought to automatically get moved into a fairly large sized container that could get taken out a lot less often.

Mary-Sue Halliburton, in an excellent survey of corn stoves, points out that if corn stoves were upgraded to do co-generation of electricity they could power their own fans and also run household appliances. I agree with her that there's still plenty of room for innovation to make corn stoves better values.

How about making a corn hot water heater also produce steam for a small electric turbine? Corn hot water heaters already exist. Here's a corn boiler water heater that comes with a 14 bushel storage bin to reduce the frequency of reloads.

Local costs of corn vary quite a bit by region but for some corn is incredibly cheap.

"It's beautiful," exclaims Mr. Hallman, a retired mailman. He went on the warpath in 2000, turning off his gas furnace after paying a $400 monthly heating bill. After that, he struggled to heat his house with a wood stove. "I had to bring in wheelbarrows full (wood), clean out ashes, soot and creosote," he recalls. "Those days are over. This burns absolutely clean."

Corn warmth also comes cheap. Mr. Hallman pays an area farmer $1.60 a bushel to fill the back of his pickup truck with dried kernel corn. He unloads it into a plywood bin in his garage. Every morning he pours a couple of pails into a hopper on top of his furnace, which burns a little less than a bushel a day. He figures his new monthly heating bill will be less than $60.

To put that $1.60 per bushel in perspective consider that 1 gallon of #2 fuel oil has about the same amount of heat as 22 lb of corn. But there are 56 lbs in a bushel of corn. 56/22 is equivalent to 2.55 gallons of fuel oil per bushel. Of course, the fuel oil is going to cost you over $2 per gallon and possibly a lot more (as of this writing oil prices are headed up near $70 per barrel). So the oil equivalent is probably $5 or $6 or about 3 or 4 times more expensive. If you can get corn for $1.60 per bushel you are getting a great heat energy deal.

Seeing how cheap corn is as a heating source I've been wondering why utilities aren't trying to use it to generate electricity. So I did some poking around and came up with one utility that is attempting to use corn stalks and other biomass to generate electricity. Cedar Falls Utilities of Iowa is experimenting with corn stalks and other biomass to run an old coal electric generator.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Chunks of coal lay on the fringes of a 450-ton mountain of cubed biomass -- a symbol of transition as this eastern Iowa city enters a new age of electricity.

The cell phone-sized cubes -- comprised of corn stalks, switchgrass and oat hulls -- are crammed into a pole building and will be burned next month to show whether biomass can partially replace coal as a source for Cedar Falls' power.

If successful, Cedar Falls Utilities plans to convert one of its two coal-fired generators into a biomass facility, providing nearly a quarter of the city's electricity through environment-friendly means.

They are experimenting with a 16 megawatt steam turbine which they burn coal in for peak loads.

CFU has burned small quantities of biomass in recent months, said CFU Engineering Projects Manager David Rusley. "We needed to run a more extended test burn to move the project forward," he said. "The difficulty has been finding sufficient quantity of biomass in a form we can use in our boiler. After looking at many alternatives, we decided to manufacture the fuel we need."

Ultimately, the Utility's goal is to fuel one of its local generating units exclusively with biomass. Known as Streeter No. 6, the unit is a 16 megawatt (MW) steam turbine, powered by a boiler that typically burns stoker coal (small chunks of coal up to 1.25" in diameter).

"If we can convert Streeter No. 6 to biomass, nearly a quarter of the electric load in Cedar Falls could be met with biofuels grown in Iowa," said CFU General Manager Jim Krieg.

CFU is motivated to experiment with this old coal burner because new emissions regulations require an expensive upgrade if they are to continue burning coal and that upgrade is not cost effective. CFU thinks they can burn corn cob pellets with no major changes and eliminate the need for coal emissions reduction equipment.

CFU found it could burn the corn cob pellets without any major changes, only adjusting the oxygen composition in the stoker.

The biomass testing not only serves as a way to further CFU's endeavors into renewable fuels, but it could give Unit 6 new life. Federal emission standards will require $1.6 million in environmental upgrades.

"We can't justify that investment if we are only using the unit a few days each year to burn coal," said CFU General Manager Jim Krieg. "If we can burn a biomass fuel, we'd like to turn it into a base load unit that operates continuously."

I commend the Cedar Falls Utilities board of directors for their attitude about costs.

"The board's goal is to get to 10 percent renewable energy in Cedar Falls, but they want to do it without raising costs to customers," Zeman said.

Alliant Energy looks like it might also try to generate electricity from biomass.

The test comes as more utilities are exploring fossil fuel alternatives. Alliant Energy is also a partner with Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development and the U.S. Department of Energy on a biomass project in Chillicothe, near Ottumwa.

Corn for heat sure looks like a comer on the energy scene. While the US government has served Archer Daniels Midlands and the farm lobby by funding dubious corn ethanol production a far more cost effective use of corn for heating is taking off with little government intervention. I suspect there's a lesson in that.

By Randall Parker    2006 January 21 08:03 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (41)
2005 October 07 Friday
Brazil Shifting Toward Ethanol For Car Fuel

Fueling cars with a mix of gasoline and alcohol from sugar cane is becoming the norm in Brazil.

Alcohol made from sugar cane is becoming the fuel of choice in Brazil, and other countries - so much so that global sugar prices hit a seven-year high this week.

Faced with the high sugar price signal Brazilian farmers will plant sugar cane on more acres. If ethanol usage grows by orders of magnitude then sugar cane acreage could do likewise. Will this end up cutting into rain forests? I'd like to know how many acres of Brazlian land would be needed to shift all cars now operating from oil to ethanol. Currently Brazil makes about 400 million tonnes of sugar per year. Anyone know the ratio between tonnes of sugar and gallons of ethanol produced from it?

Ethanol from Brazilian sugar is cheaper per mile than gasoline. The market alone is enough to drive the shift toward more alcohol fuel usage.

Unlike hybrids sold in the US, for example, flex cars sold in Brazil don't cost any more than traditional models. In fact, some models are only available with flex engines now. Ethanol engines use 25 percent more ethanol per mile than gasoline. But ethanol (the alcohol produced by fermenting sugar) usually sells at somewhere between a third to half of the price of gas. Even people who were reluctant to take the plunge and buy a flex say they have been won over by the savings.

Does Brazil tax the gasoline component of mixed fuels more than the ethanol component? Is this shift driven by the real pre-tax cost of both these fuels?

Sugar traders are bullish on sugar prices due to high oil prices.

Raw sugar futures have surged by a third to almost 12 cents per lb this year, having stood at 9.04 cents at the end of 2004.

"Definitely, we're going to 12 cents," said Marius Sonnen of sugar trader Sonnen and Co. Inc. in the United States. "As long as oil prices are this high, the Brazilians will convert more cane into ethanol. I don't see any end in sight to this rally."

Note that import restrictions erected from domestic sugar producers keep the price of sugar much higher in the United States. Therefore the cost of ethanol made from sugar is much higher in the United States and US taxpayers have to pay subsidies for ethanol production.

The US sugar industry simultaneously gets restrictions on imports that drive up the price of sugar in the US market plus subsidies for conversion of sugar to alcohol since costly protected domestic sugar is too expensive to compete.

Countries such as Brazil have embraced sugar-based ethanol, which accounts for 40 percent of the fuel Brazilians pump into their gas tanks. But sugar is less expensive in that country than in the United States, where critics contend import quotas artificially raise sugar prices. The industry should not get both trade protections and a subsidy to make sugar-ethanol competitive, critics said.

Brazil could conceivably end up exporting ethanol made from Brazilian sugar. Many US candy factories have moved to Canada and other countries in order to get cheaper sources of sugar. The candy isn't subjected to import restrictions analogous to those on raw sugar. The United States might end up importing ethanol made from foreign sugar as well.

By Randall Parker    2005 October 07 11:32 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (46)
2005 July 07 Thursday
Corn Ethanol And Biodiesel Net Energy Losers

David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek have once again analyzed plants as ethanol energy sources and found the energy cost of growth and processing outweighs the energy produced.

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis.

Another group of researchers found sugarcane ethanol in Brazil to be a net producer of usable energy whereas corn ethanol in the United States provided only a small net benefit.

A new study of the carbon dioxide emissions, cropland area requirements, and other environmental consequences of growing corn and sugarcane to produce fuel ethanol indicates that the "direct and indirect environmental impacts of growing, harvesting, and converting biomass to ethanol far exceed any value in developing this energy resource on a large scale." The study, published in the July 2005 issue of BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), uses the “ecological footprint” concept to assess needs for ethanol production from sugarcane, now widespread in Brazil, and from corn, which is increasing in the United States.

In Brazil, ethanol from fermentation of sugarcane is used pure or blended with gasoline to yield gasohol, which contains 24 percent ethanol. In the United States, ethanol made from corn, production of which is heavily subsidized, is used in an 85 percent ethanol mixture called E85. In 2003, ethanol-blended gasoline accounted for more than 10 percent of gasoline sales in the United States.

The authors of the study assessed the energy required to produce the crops and to manufacture and distribute the resulting fuels. In the United States, ethanol yielded only about 10 percent more energy than was required to produce it; in Brazil, where a different process is used, ethanol yielded 3.7 times more energy than was used to produce it. The researchers, Marcelo E. Dias de Oliveira, Burton E. Vaughan, and Edward J. Rykiel, Jr., also weighed effects of fuel ethanol use on carbon dioxide emissions, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and water and air pollution, assuming vehicles representative of each country. Specialized software was used to analyze the sensitivity of the conclusions to diverse assumptions in the analysis.

Dias de Oliveira and colleagues then looked at some consequences of moving to greater fuel ethanol use. The results were unfavorable to fuel ethanol in either country. In Brazil, reducing the rate of deforestation seemed likely to be more effective for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In the United States, reliance on ethanol to fuel the automobile fleet would require enormous, unachievable areas of corn agriculture, and the environmental impacts would outweigh its benefits. "Ethanol cannot alleviate the United States’ dependence on petroleum," Dias de Oliveira and colleagues conclude. They argue for the development of multiple alternatives to fossil fuels. Ethanol may, however, still be useful in regions or cities with critical pollution problems, they write, and to make use of agricultural wastes.

My guess is that Pimental and Patzek have more accurate results because they have accounted for more factors. They've repeatedly published on this topic and have refined their model. So they are probably closer to the truth at this point. However, this is just a guess on my part.

I continue to be skeptical of biomass as a major source of energy to replace oil. While crops grown for biomass purposes may not measure up it is possible that waste biomass from sewage, residential green waste, and other sources might eventually become usable as sources of net energy.

The future development of more energy efficient means for converting biomass materials into liquid hydrocarbons combined with advances in agricultural technologies might eventually make crops net energy producers. But increased demand for crop land, water, and pesticides for energy producing crops will bring environmental costs. We'd be better off advancing technologies for nuclear, solar photovoltaics, and batteries so that we can reduce our use of liquid fuels for transportation.

By Randall Parker    2005 July 07 06:04 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (51)
2005 June 15 Wednesday
Big Improvement In Biomass Energy Generation In Lab

Biodiesel takes another step closer to practicality.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison have shown that it is possible to convert biomass materials like corn into fuel that could be used in diesel engines in a way that automatically separates the fuel from water. "This is a new process to produce liquid fuels from biomass," said James Dumesic, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin.

The main advantage of this process is the reduction of energy needed to convert the biomass materials into a usable form.

The alkane fuel contains 90 percent of the energy of the glucose and hydrogen that the reaction begins with, said Dumesic. "Thus burning the alkane fuel would give you 90 percent of the energy compared to burning the glucose and the hydrogen."

The advantage of the researchers' process is that when alkanes are produced they spontaneously separate from water, said Dumesic. "In contrast to our process... ethanol must be separated from water by an energy-intensive distillation step," he said. "For our process, no energy is required to separate the alkane products from water."

This boosts the overall energy efficiency of the fuel. The ratio of energy derived from ethanol to the energy required to produce it is 1.1 to 1. The researchers' process has an estimated ratio of 2.2 to 1, according to Dumesic.

Note that the energy efficiency of current methods to create ethanol from corn is disputed. The 1.1 units of energy out per 1 unit of energy in to grow, harvest, and convert to ethanol for existing processes might be overly optimistic and so Dumesic's improvement might not yield 2.2 to 1 energy production efficiency. Tad Patzek at UC Berkeley and David Pimentel at Cornell University claim corn ethanol is not a net producer of energy while Mike Graboski at Colorado School of Mines claims it is. Who is right? I don't know. But I am unenthused by an energy source that will increase the demand for agricultural lands and water for farming to produce non-food products since plants are very inefficient at converting light to useful energy as compared to photovoltaic cells. Photovoltaic cells can produce the same amount of energy using much less land. See that last link for my arguments.

The process is not yet ready for practical use. But Dumesic thinks he can improve the process. Environmentalists ought to worry that Dumesic and other researchers will succeed in making biomass commercially viable. If that happens before wind, solar, and nuclear become more competitive suddenly much more land the world over will be shifted into agricultural usage at the expensive of the wilderness and of the creatures which live in the wilderness. Environmentalists ought to shift their focus away from opposing green house gas emissions and instead focus on efforts to develop better substitutes for fossil fuels. Environmentalists really ought to lobby much harder for photovoltaics research. I'd also ask them to lobby for fourth generation nuclear power plants but I suspect for most of them that is still a bridge too far.

My own preferences for fossil fuels substitutes are nuclear and solar. After those two I'd prefer wind over biomass. If it must be wind then I'd prefer offshore wind far enough from the coastline that it is not visible from land.

Update: To clarify one point: I am not opposed to all biomass energy technologies. For example, biomass technologies that can extract energy out of sewage or trash could reduce the cost of waste disposal, reduce the amount of pollution, reduce the growth rate of landfills, and provide energy. Development of such technologies strikes me as a big win. But what I'm at the very least unexcited about are technologies that will increase the demand for tillable land.

A fair degree of overlap exists between technologies that extract energy out of municipal waste and technologies that extract energy out crops. So advances in waste energy extraction are also advances in crop energy extraction. Though technologies that extract energy out of trash and other wastes likely will become cost effective well before those same technologies achieve profitability in agriculture. Why? Because in agriculture the fields have to be tilled, fertilized, planted, watered, harvested, and then transported to processing centers. Each of those steps cost money and cost energy too. Whereas trash and sewage already are collected and concentrated at trash dumps and sewage plants.

Also check out over on Green Car Congress Co-Production of Ethanol and Electricity from Waste about BRI's method of converting waste to ethanol and electricity and also the post New Revenue Stream for Corn-Ethanol Producers: Biodiesel. Plus, check out The Ergosphere for E-P's June biomass roundup. E-P does some calculations on conversion efficiency of the BRI ethanol/electricity conversion process and compares it to Changing World Technology's thermal depolymerization process.

I've had emails from people suggesting I post on CWT's technology. I was skeptical because I saw the collection of biomatter of sufficient quality as too expensive to make a large dent in total energy needs. Once the fairly small number of turkey, chicken, and like processing plants got the CWT technology installed other sources of raw biomass materials would be much more expensive. Well, it turns out that even in a Carthage Missouri ConAgra Butterball turkey plant the CWT technology is not ready for prime and produces energy that costs twice as much as it is sold for.

It turns out that process of cooking turkey guts, feathers, feces and other waste gives off a horrible stench.

“It's rotten,” said Beth Longstaff, a resident who was shopping at Wal-Mart recently. “You can't get away from it. It's like something out of a horror movie.”

The turkey oil is much more expensive to produce than projected — the cost of a barrel is double what it sells for.


Appel told The Kansas City Star recently that he doubts the process can be financially successful in the United States for several years. His company, Changing World Technology, has put on hold plans to build more plants in Colorado, Alabama and Nevada.

Instead, he is considering a deal to build a plant in Ireland, where costs would be considerably less, and where a recent news article predicted a plant should be operating by next year. Appel also is negotiating with officials in Italy and Germany.

But he has to solve the smell problem too.

By Randall Parker    2005 June 15 01:55 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2005 April 25 Monday
US Government Report Sees Big Potential For Biomass Energy

30% of transportation fuel could be extracted from farms and forests.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., April 21, 2005 — Relief from soaring prices at the gas pump could come in the form of corncobs, cornstalks, switchgrass and other types of biomass, according to a joint feasibility study for the departments of Agriculture and Energy.

The recently completed Oak Ridge National Laboratory report outlines a national strategy in which 1 billion dry tons of biomass – any organic matter that is available on a renewable or recurring basis – would displace 30 percent of the nation's petroleum consumption for transportation. Supplying more than 3 percent of the nation's energy, biomass already has surpassed hydropower as the largest domestic source of renewable energy, and researchers believe much potential remains.

"Our report answers several key questions," said Bob Perlack, a member of ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division and a co-author of the report. "We wanted to know how large a role biomass could play, whether the United States has the land resources and whether such a plan would be economically viable."

Looking at just forestland and agricultural land, the two largest potential biomass sources, the study found potential exceeding 1.3 billion dry tons per year. That amount is enough to produce biofuels to meet more than one-third of the current demand for transportation fuels, according to the report.

Such an amount, which would represent a six-fold increase in production from the amount of biomass produced today, could be achieved with only relatively modest changes in land use and agricultural and forestry practices.

"One of the main points of the report is that the United States can produce nearly 1 billion dry tons of biomass annually from agricultural lands and still continue to meet food, feed and export demands," said Robin Graham, leader for Ecosystem and Plant Sciences in ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division.

The benefits of an increased focus on biomass include increased energy security as the U.S. would become less dependent on foreign oil, a potential 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and an improved rural economic picture.

They are expecting about three quarters of the biomass to come from agricultural lands. But will the processing to this biomass material consume more energy than it will produce? Biomass crops have to be planted (though some biomass will be in the form of left over stalks of corn and other grain crops). Then the biomass has to be collected and transported to processing sites. The processing sites use energy as well. Future technological advances will lower processing costs and processing sites will become more energy efficient. But transportation energy costs will remain a bigger problem. Perhaps mini-processing plants that can be set up on farms will eventually reduce some of the transportation costs.

You can read the full text of the report (PDF format). I'm not excerpting from it because the authors of the report set its security properties to disallow copying selected sections of text. Given that this document is made by the US government at taxpayer expense for free distribution the logic of this choice escapes me.

As an example of advances being made in biomass conversion a team of researchers have developed a way to use bacteria to produce hydrogen out of biomass.

Using a new electrically-assisted microbial fuel cell (MFC) that does not require oxygen, Penn State environmental engineers and a scientist at Ion Power Inc. have developed the first process that enables bacteria to coax four times as much hydrogen directly out of biomass than can be generated typically by fermentation alone.

Dr. Bruce Logan, the Kappe professor of environmental engineering and an inventor of the MFC, says, "This MFC process is not limited to using only carbohydrate-based biomass for hydrogen production like conventional fermentation processes. We can theoretically use our MFC to obtain high yields of hydrogen from any biodegradable, dissolved, organic matter -- human, agricultural or industrial wastewater, for example -- and simultaneously clean the wastewater.

"While there is likely insufficient waste biomass to sustain a global hydrogen economy, this form of renewable energy production may help offset the substantial costs of wastewater treatment as well as provide a contribution to nations able to harness hydrogen as an energy source," Logan notes.

The new approach is described in a paper, "Electrochemically Assisted Microbial Production of Hydrogen from Acetate," released online currently and scheduled for a future issue of Environmental Science and Technology. The authors are Dr. Hong Liu, postdoctoral researcher in environmental engineering; Dr. Stephen Grot, president and founder of Ion Power, Inc.; and Logan. Grot, a former Penn State student, suggested the idea of modifying an MFC to generate hydrogen.

In their paper, the researchers explain that hydrogen production by bacterial fermentation is currently limited by the "fermentation barrier" -- the fact that bacteria, without a power boost, can only convert carbohydrates to a limited amount of hydrogen and a mixture of "dead end" fermentation end products such as acetic and butyric acids.

However, giving the bacteria a small assist with a tiny amount of electricity -- about 0.25 volts or a small fraction of the voltage needed to run a typical 6 volt cell phone -- they can leap over the fermentation barrier and convert a "dead end" fermentation product, acetic acid, into carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Logan notes, "Basically, we use the same microbial fuel cell we developed to clean wastewater and produce electricity. However, to produce hydrogen, we keep oxygen out of the MFC and add a small amount of power into the system."

The conversion of existing sewage processing facilities into biomass energy extractor operations holds more promise because the cost of waste processing is already being paid.

Whether genetically engineered bacteria or inorganic catalysts turn out to be more efficient approaches for biomass conversion remains to be seen. But I'd prefer solar photovoltaics over biomass so that humans do not compete as much with other species for use of the land.

Also see my previous post "Is Corn Ethanol A Good Energy Source?" which includes a report of another recent advance in methods to more efficiently convert biomass materials into useful fuels.

By Randall Parker    2005 April 25 12:22 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (24)
2005 April 17 Sunday
Is Corn Ethanol A Good Energy Source?

Mike Millikin of Green Car Congress reports on arguments about whether corn ethanol is a net producer of energy, of general harm to the environment, and of CO2 emissions.

To that list, on the con side, I would add a paper by Tad W Patzek. Patzek, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who had earlier authored a paper with Pimentel, one of the energy critics of ethanol, has recently updated (24 March 2005) a paper, Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle.

It’s an interesting and detailed paper, and in it he reviews and corrects the assumptions and calculations of both primary pro- and con- ethanol factions (including some of his earlier work), while making new calculations of his own. His conclusion is that corn ethanol is a net loss to the environment and in energy, and a net contributor of CO2. Nor is he particularly keen on biomass-based ethanol, as a paper published earlier this year (with Pimentel) details. Patzek would prefer the research money (and crop subsidies) flowing to ethanol and corn production go instead to solar and hybrid research.

Corn ethanol research is funded because the farmers are a powerful lobby, not because it makes sense to grow corn for energy. Though maybe some day a way will be found to take the left-over cornstalks and convert them into ethanol for less energy than it takes to do the conversion.

Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu argues for biomass using cellulose.

The US already subsidizes farmers to grow corn to turn into ethanol, but $7bn in the past decade has been wasted because the process isn’t carbon-neutral. “From the point of view of the environment,” explains Chu, “it would be better if we just burnt oil.”

“But carbon-neutral energy sources are achievable. A world population of 9 billion, the predicted peak in population, could be fed with less than one third of the planet”s cultivable land area. Some of the rest could be dedicated to growing crops for energy. But the majority of all plant matter is cellulose—a solid, low-grade fuel about as futuristic as burning wood. If scientists can convert cellulose into liquid fuels like ethanol, the world’s energy supply and storage problems could both be solved at a stroke.“

Mike Milliken also reports on efforts to drive down the materials cost for corn ethanol conversion by development of cheaper enzymes.

Regarding the reference to a paper by Tad W Patzek with David Pimentel of Cornell University on whether corn ethanol is a net producer of energy: This debate has been raging for years. Michael Graboski of the Colorado School of Mines has taken the opposing position that corn ethanol is a net source of energy. I have not read their papers and can not comment on the question of which side is right. But be aware that it is not a settled question and that some sharp engineering minds think corn ethanol is both bad for the environment and a net energy drain.

Biomass has some other big downsides. The most obvious is that if it is produced by growing crops for biomass then it will increase the demand for cultivable farm land and water. In industrialized countries increases in productivity of farms have been decreasing the amount of land and water needed for farming. While some of that freed up land gets used for building residential and business areas a significant portion of farmland in the United States has reverted to nature. But biomass could easily reverse that trend in the United and speed the already problematic encroachment of human habitats on nature worldwide.

Cost effective biomass would also make food crops compete with fuel crops for cultivable land. This could have the effect of driving up food prices. This would be especially problematic in the poorest countries.

By contrast solar panels do not need cultivable land. When photovoltaics and other solar energy collection devices become cheap enough for widespread use most solar collectors will be attached to buildings and given enough advances in materials science photovoltaics could be built into roof shingles and siding. Solar panels that are installed on land can just as easily be placed in a desert that supports relatively less wildlife. The solar panels will not need to be watered or sprayed with insecticides. Therefore they will not deplete water tables, lead to the build-up of salt in soil, or cause pollution in the form of agricultural run-off.

Wind energy is similar to solar energy in that lends itself to dual uses of land. Wind towers can be build over food crop farm fields since the shadow that a tower would cast would move during the day and crop plants near towers would still get the bulk of the light that they would get in absence of the towers. But not all towers will be built on farmed lands. Operators of wind towers will tend to want to build them in mountainous areas with high winds and along shorelines and thereby ruin some beautiful scenic vistas.

By Randall Parker    2005 April 17 12:40 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2003 September 09 Tuesday
Brookhaven Scientists Investigate Artificial Photosynthesis Step

Scientists at the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory are investigating metal catalysts that use energy absorbed from photons to convert carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

NEW YORK, NY — Scientists studying the conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) to carbon monoxide (CO) — a crucial step in transforming CO2 to useful organic compounds such as methanol — are trying to mimic what plants do when they convert CO2 and water to carbohydrates and oxygen in the presence of chlorophyll and sunlight. Such “artificial photosynthesis” could produce inexpensive fuels and raw materials for the chemical industry from renewable solar energy. But achieving this goal is no simple task.

“Nature has found a way to do this over eons,” says Etsuko Fujita, a chemist at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. “It’s very complicated chemistry.”

Nature uses chlorophyll as a light absorber and electron-transfer agent. However, chlorophyll does not directly react with CO2. If you take it out of the plant and place it in an artificial system, it decomposes rather quickly, resulting in only a small amount of CO production.

So Fujita and others trying to mimic photosynthesis have turned to artificial catalysts made from robust transition metal complexes such as rhenium complexes. These catalysts absorb solar energy and transfer electrons to CO2, releasing CO. But until now, no one had explained how these processes work in detail. By studying these reactions over very short and long timescales (ranging from 10-8 seconds to hours), Fujita and her colleagues at Brookhaven have discovered an important intermediate step. A most intriguing result is the involvement of two energetic metal complexes to activate one CO2 molecule. Without CO2, the complexes dimerize much more slowly than expected.

The Brookhaven scientists’ work, incorporating a combined experimental and theoretical approach, may help to explain why the reaction proceeds so slowly, which may ultimately contribute to the design of more efficient catalysts.

This work is nowhere near ready for practical application. But in my view this is a direction of research that attracts too little attention. As an energy storage form hydrogen has problems. Liquid hydrocarbon fuels have a lot of advantages. They are fairly compact and existing infrastructure can distribute them. Plus, almost all the vehicles on the road can burn liquid hydrocarbons. A technology that could cheaply convert photon energy from sunlight into liquid hydrocarbons by using the energy to fix CO2 and water into hydrocarbons would be very useful.

By Randall Parker    2003 September 09 08:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2003 June 26 Thursday
Low Cost Biomass Hydrogen Catalyst Discovered

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison have discovered a much lower cost catalyst for producing hydrogen from organic matter.

MADISON – It is thousands of times less expensive than platinum and works nearly as well.

Writing this week in the journal Science (June 27) University of Wisconsin-Madison chemical and biological engineers report the discovery of a nickel-tin catalyst that can replace the precious metal platinum in a new, environmentally sustainable, greenhouse-gas-neutral, low-temperature process for making hydrogen fuel from plants.

The new catalyst, together with a second innovation that purifies hydrogen for use in hydrogen fuel cells, offers new opportunities toward the transition of a world economy based on fossil fuels to one based on hydrogen produced from renewable resources.

James Dumesic, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, and graduate students George Huber and John Shabaker describe testing more than 300 materials to find a nickel-tin-aluminum combination that reacts with biomass-derived oxygenated hydrocarbons to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide without producing large amounts of unwanted methane.

"Platinum is very effective but it's also very expensive," says Dumesic. "It's also problematic for large-scale power production because platinum is already in demand for use as anode and cathode materials in hydrogen fuel cells. We knew nickel was very active, but it allowed reaction to continue beyond hydrogen producing methane. We found that adding tin to what's known as a Raney-Nickel catalyst decreased the rate of methane formation without compromising the rate of hydrogen production."

Dumesic, research scientist Randy Cortright (now at Virent Energy Systems) and graduate student Rupali Davda first reported the catalytic reforming process for hydrogen production in the Aug. 29, 2002 issue of the journal Nature.

The simple, single-step process employs temperature, pressure and a catalyst to convert hydrocarbons such as glucose, the same energy source used by most plants and animals, into hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and gaseous alkanes with hydrogen constituting 50 percent of the products. More refined molecules such as ethylene glycol and methanol are almost completely converted to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Because plants grown as fuel crops absorb the carbon dioxide released by the system, the process is greenhouse-gas neutral.

Platinum is too expensive.

The precious metal platinum (Pt) is well known to be an excellent catalyst in a number of chemical reactions. It is one component in a car's catalytic converter, for example, that helps remove toxins from automobile exhaust. Yet, platinum is rare and very expensive, costing more than $17 per gram (about $8,000 per pound).

Catalytic platinum (Pt) and nickel (Ni) stand out from other metals (such as copper or iron) because they process reaction molecules much faster. But pure nickel, unlike platinum, recombines the hydrogen product with carbon atoms to make methane, a common greenhouse gas. Dumesic and his colleagues tested over 300 catalysts to find one that could compete with platinum and perform in the APR process. Using a specially designed reactor that can test 48 samples at one time, the team finally found a match in a modified version of what researchers call a Raneynickel catalyst, named after Murray Raney, who first patented the alloy in 1927.

Raney-nickel is a porous catalyst made of about 90 percent nickel (Ni) and 10 percent aluminum (Al). While Raney-nickel proved somewhat effective at separating hydrogen from biomass-derived molecules, the researchers improved the material's effectiveness by adding more tin (Sn), which stops the production of methane and instead generates more hydrogen. Relative to other catalysts, the Raney-NiSn can perform for long time periods (at least 48 hours) and at lower temperatures (roughly 225 degrees Celsius).

According to Dumesic, a substitute for platinum catalysts is essential for the success of hydrogen technology. "We had to find a substitute for platinum in our APR process for production of hydrogen, since platinum is rare and also employed in the anode and cathode materials of hydrogen fuel cells to be used in products such as cars or portable computers," he said.

While this is an important advance by itself it does not make biomass a viable major energy source. The problem with growing crops for biomass is that it takes energy to make and transport the fertilizer, run tractors, run irrigation equipment, harvest, transport, and so on. It remains to be seen whether there is a crop that will yield enough biomass energy to make it worthwhile.

This catalyst may be useful on smaller scales in places where there is already a great amount of biomass waste being produced. For instance, the processing of existing crops produces biomass waste. Equipment to convert that biomass waste into useful hydrogen energy could be installed next to agricultural product processing facilities if this new catalyst turns out to work well in industrial use. Still, all the existing biomass waste is not sufficient as an energy source to replace much of the currently consumed fossil fuels.

Other enabling technologies such as fuel cells need to mature ot make hydrogen a more useful energy source once it has been produced. Those advances will come with time. What strikes me as less certain is whether biomass will ever become a major energy source for producing hydrogen. Plants have to be planted, tended, harvested, and processed. They are vulnerable to insects and droughts. They do not convert most of the light that hits them into stored chemical energy.

There are competing approaches that may be cheaper in the longer run. Advances in nanotechnology will eventually yield photovoltaic materials that will be cheap to produce. Then the electricity from the photovoltaics will could be used to run hydrolysis reactions to produce hydrogen from water. Also, some materials may be found that can absorb light to drive a direct catalysis reaction to produce hydrogen from water without first producing electricity. Such materials would probably be more efficient than plants at converting sunlight to energy and would even be able to do so all year around (albeit at lower rates during the shorter days of the year).

Update: Some Tufts researchers have also recently discovered a way to reduce the amount of precious metals used as catalysts to make hydrogen.

"A lot of people have spent a lot of time studying the properties of gold and platinum nanoparticles that are used to catalyze the reaction of carbon monoxide with water to make hydrogen and carbon dioxide," said Maria Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Tufts and the lead researcher of the project. "We find that for this reaction over a cerium oxide catalyst carrying the gold or platinum, metal nanoparticles are not important. Only a tiny amount of the precious metal in non metallic form is needed to create the active catalyst. Our finding will help researchers find a cost-effective way to produce clean energy from fuel cells in the near future"

She and her two colleagues, doctoral student Qi Fu and research professor Howard Saltsburg, were funded by a $300,000 three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, and have filed a provisional patent for their research. Their cutting-edge work in catalytic fuel processing to generate hydrogen for fuel cell applications is one of the major undertakings at Tufts' Science and Technology Center at the University's Medford campus.

The Tufts researchers' article is based on the "water-gas shift" reaction they use to make hydrogen from water and carbon monoxide over cerium oxide loaded with gold or platinum. Typically, a loading of 1-10 weight percent of gold or other precious metals is used to make an effective catalyst. But the Tufts team discovered that, after stripping the gold with a cyanide solution, the catalyst was just as active with a slight amount of the gold remaining – one-tenth the normal amount used.

According to Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, "This finding is significant because it shows that metallic nanoparticles are mere 'spectator species' for some reactions, such as the water-gas shift. The phenomenon may be more general, since we show that it also holds for platinum and may also hold true for other metals and metal oxide supports, such as titanium and iron oxide."

She adds, "It opens the way for new catalyst designs so more hydrogen can be produced with less precious metal. This can pave the way for cost-effective clean energy production from fuel cells in the near future."

By Randall Parker    2003 June 26 05:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
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