Media in Trouble: All the news thats UNfit to print!: Biodiesel: Ready for Primetime!

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Friday, August 19, 2005

Biodiesel: Ready for Primetime!

It has been a while since that teleconference with Senator Corzine when I promised to do a bit more detailed research into Biodiesel for the Senator hoping to be Governor. Since the Senator seems a bit lax on laying down the Environmental plan why not use this opportunity to educate him and others on the benefits of biodiesel and why it should be the centerpiece of any smart environmental policy.

First some research. Straight from University of New Hampshire Biodiesel Group, we have excellent prospectus for a biodiesel based energy system in this country. Here are the major points:

First what is biodiesel. It is naturally modified vegetable oil. The source of which can come from any plant matter from algae to corn. The wiki pretty much explains it all:
Biodiesel is an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel made from renewable resources such as vegetable oils or animal fats. Chemically, it comprises a mix of mono-alkyl esters of long chain fatty acids. A lipid transesterification production process is used to convert the base oil to the desired esters and remove free fatty acids. After this processing, unlike straight vegetable oil, biodiesel has combustion properties very similar to those of petroleum diesel, and can replace it in most current uses. However, it is at present most often used as an additive to petroleum diesel, improving the otherwise low lubricity of pure ultra low sulfur petrodiesel fuel. It is one of the possible candidates to replace fossil fuels as the world's primary transport energy source, because it is a renewable fuel that can replace petrodiesel in current engines and can be transported and sold using today's infrastructure. Biodiesel use and production is increasing rapidly, especially in Europe, the United States, and Asia, though in all markets it still makes up a small percentage of fuel sold. A growing number of fuel stations are making biodiesel available to consumers, and a growing number of large transport fleets use some proportion of biodiesel in their fuel.

Biodiesel, with a flash point of 150 °C, is not as readily ignited as petroleum diesel (64 °C) and far less so than the explosively combustible gasoline (-45 °C). Indeed, it is classified as a non-flammable liquid by the OSHA, although it will of course burn if heated to a high enough temperature. This property makes a vehicle fueled by pure biodiesel far safer in an accident.

Biodiesel gels at higher temperatures (around 0 °C) than petroleum diesel, which limits its pure form use in cold climates.

Unlike petrodiesel, biodiesel is biodegradable and non-toxic, and it significantly reduces toxic and other emissions when burned as a fuel. The most common form uses methanol to produce methyl esters, though ethanol can be used to produce an ethyl ester biodiesel. A byproduct of the transesterification process is the production of glycerol.

Currently, biodiesel is generally somewhat more expensive to produce than petroleum diesel, which is often stated as the primary factor keeping it from being in more widespread usage. Economies of scale in biodiesel production, however, as well as the rising cost of petroleum, may reduce, eliminate, or even reverse this cost differential in the future. Current worldwide production of vegetable oil and animal fat, however, is not enough to replace liquid fossil fuel use. Some environmental groups, notably the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), object to the vast amount of farming and the resulting over-fertilization, pesticide use, and land use conversion that would be needed to produce the additional vegetable oil.

This last point is pretty well disputed within the UNH study I highlighted above. While they don't address the Global Energy demand they do address the US energy demand and its replacement with biodiesel.
Per the Department of Energy's statistics, each year the US consumes roughly 60 billion gallons of petroleum diesel and 120 billion gallons of gasoline. First, we need to realize that spark-ignition engines that run on gasoline are generally about 40% less efficient than diesel engines. So, if all spark-ignition engines are gradually replaced with compression-ignition (Diesel) engines for running biodiesel, we wouldn't need 120 billion gallons of biodiesel to replace that 120 billion gallons of gasoline. To be conservative, we will assume that the average gasoline engine is 35% less efficient, so we'd need 35% less diesel fuel to replace that gasoline. That would work out to 78 billion gallons of diesel fuel. Combine that with the 60 billion gallons of diesel already used, for a total of 138 billion gallons. Now, biodiesel is about 5-8% less energy dense than petroleum diesel, but its greater lubricity and more complete combustion offset that somewhat, leading to an overall fuel efficiency about 2% less than petroleum diesel. So, we'd need about 2% more than that 138 billion gallons, or 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel. So, this figure is based on vehicles equivalent to those in use today, but with compression-ignition (Diesel) engines running on biodiesel, rather than a mix of petroleum diesel and gasoline.


National Renewable Energy Laboratory's research showed that one quad (7.5 billion gallons) of biodiesel could be produced from 200,000 hectares of desert land (200,000 hectares is equivalent to 780 square miles, roughly 500,000 acres), if the remaining challenges are solved (as they will be, with several research groups and companies working towards it, including ours at UNH). In the previous section, we found that to replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles. Enough biodiesel to replace all petroleum transportation fuels could be grown in 15,000 square miles, or roughly 12.5 percent of the area of the Sonora desert (note for clarification - I am not advocating putting 15,000 square miles of algae ponds in the Sonora desert. This hypothetical example is used strictly for the purpose of showing the scale of land required). That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres - far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.

So you see we can easily find enough land within the US to farm enough algae to easily convert our fuel source to biodiesel.

There is also the mention of Biodiesel Hybrid vehicles which would make even more of an impact on fuel conservation.

Now for the cost estimates of buidling algae farms for the fuel:
In "The Controlled Eutrophication process: Using Microalgae for CO2 Utilization and Agircultural Fertilizer Recycling"3, the authors estimated a cost per hectare of $40,000 for algal ponds. In their model, the algal ponds would be built around the Salton Sea (in the Sonora desert) feeding off of the agircultural waste streams that normally pollute the Salton Sea with over 10,000 tons of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers each year. The estimate is based on fairly large ponds, 8 hectares in size each. To be conservative (since their estimate is fairly optimistic), we'll arbitrarily increase the cost per hectare by 100% as a margin of safety. That brings the cost per hectare to $80,000. Ponds equivalent to their design could be built around the country, using wastewater streams (human, animal, and agricultural) as feed sources. We found that at NREL's yield rates, 15,000 square miles (3.85 million hectares) of algae ponds would be needed to replace all petroleum transportation fuels with biodiesel. At the cost of $80,000 per hectare, that would work out to roughly $308 billion to build the farms.

The operating costs (including power consumption, labor, chemicals, and fixed capital costs (taxes, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, and return on investment) worked out to $12,000 per hectare. That would equate to $46.2 billion per year for all the algae farms, to yield all the oil feedstock necessary for the entire country. Compare that to the $100-150 billion the US spends each year just on purchasing crude oil from foreign countries, with all of that money leaving the US economy.

Are you still unconvinced about biodiesel and its practicality in today's fuel economy? Well there are states and local governments already implementing biodiesel use.

Take Wassau, Wisconsin. A law just signed encourages school buses to fill up with biodiesel, and soon they will force gas stations to carry ethanol and biodiesel too:
Farmers stand to benefit most from a state law signed Wednesday that encourages more schools to fill their buses with fuels made from crops.

The law will reimburse schools for the difference in cost between environmentally friendly biodiesel and regular diesel fuel. Biodiesel fuel is made from vegetable oil derived from soybeans and other renewable sources.

In addition, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require all gas stations to offer customers a fuel that contains a small amount of ethanol, which can be produced from corn. The fuel would be slightly cheaper than regular unleaded gasoline.

"There could be a lot of positives for us out of this," said Bob Biadasz, 53, of Amherst, who grows 420 acres of corn and 300 acres of soybeans.

"Hopefully there's going to be a stronger market pretty soon for corn, which would dictate a stronger price if it's used in ethanol. And if soybeans are used for biodiesel fuel, that has the potential to create a stronger market for us, too," he said.

ALERT DEMOCRATS! Wisconsin is a RED STATE. Come out with a "biodiesel bill" and you can win over the hearts and minds of midwest red state farmers.

Willie Nelson has started a franchise of biodiesel gas stations including one in Texas.

IOWA, another red state, is building a new biodiesel plant. They already have 3 and two more are underconstruction.

These are all real developments. All rather profitable. For each of their states. The energy bill recently passed by congress falls far short of stimulating domestic biodiesel production:
There is nothing in the energy bill, however, when it comes to encouraging oilseed crop production, although agriculture cooperatives can take advantage of the extension of income tax credits to help pay for a biodiesel plant and crushing facilities. The income tax credits, available until 2008, come to the cooperative through distribution of the B-100 blend and is worth $1 a gallon. An excise tax credit is available in blends at a rate of 1 cent per each percent of blended biodiesel.

Biodiesel is more than just a clean burning, fuel that weans us off of the oil comming from unstable middle east countries. It is a fledgling business with enormous potential for our fuel and agricultural economies. At the same time a transition to biodiesel would easily result in cleaner air and almost a complete reversal of green house gas emisions. Almost all states would benefit from involvement in a biodiesel economy and the reality of growing the proper crops and producing the fuel required to farm those crops solely from biodiesel is within our reach.

Add to that the potential of biodiesel hybrids and we can realize not only our energy crisis, but Rudolph Diesel's dream. After all the engine he designed was built to run on peanut oil not petroleum.