Thursday, 25 May 2006
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by Charles Shaw
It should have been one of the more earth-shattering admissions of the last hundred years when George W. Bush-the former Texas oilman who steadfastly denies that oil ever played a part in our decision to invade Iraq-announced that America was in fact "addicted to oil." Instead, America's response was more akin to hearing one's 55-year old effeminate bachelor uncle come out of the closet to the family at a holiday dinner: everyone knew it already, but no one ever expected him to say it.
However, the evidence was staggering. The United States of America sucks up more than a quarter of the world's annual oil production, and does so by borrowing one billion dollars a day in order to purchase it, somewhere on the order of $250 Billion a year or more. Our Administration is comprised of oil executives, our foreign policy apparatus is inextricably woven into the oil industry, consisting of a reckless approach to petro-diplomacy, where we either engage in oil trade with some of the more brutally repressive regimes on the planet like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, whom we prop up with our military and the infamous "Carter Doctrine," or we actively seek to overthrow those who chose to defy us: Mosaddeq in Iran, Ho Chi Mihn in Vietnam, Saddam Hussein (twice), or presently, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
These policies have bred massive international enmity towards the United States, and created an economic system so dependent on oil that even the slightest interruption to the oil supply has far-reaching ramifications, such as we saw first with the removal of Iraqi oil from the world market, and then the refinery catastrophe in the wake of Katrina and Rita.
And the situation is only getting worse. All oil refineries are at capacity, supply has either peaked or is rapidly approaching the peak, while demand is projected to grow 50% by 2025, spurred by the massive economic growth of developing nations like "Chindia" and Brazil. Consequently, oil prices have increased 500% since 1998 when it was $13 a barrel. And when we consider the very real possibility of another mega-hurricane season, or a terrorist attack on the Saudi refining operation, it becomes excruciatingly obvious that we need to make serious changes and fast, or else we may not be around the pick up the pieces.
So when policy makers in Washington start talking about ending this vicious cycle of dependency, naturally, everyone is paying attention.
Enter BIO 2006, the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), held in Chicago, April 9-12th. Nineteen-thousand attendees converged on the cavernous McCormick Place Convention center to hawk new technologies and wares, connect up with investment opportunities, or pitch their city or state as the perfect destination for the burgeoning Biotech and Life Science sector, which, according to the Department of Commerce, will comprise 18% of the U.S. GDP by 2020, or nearly three trillion dollars. That is one immense piece of pie (GDP projections: Goldman Sachs).
And this year, "Biofuels," or renewable fuels made from plant material, were the center of attention, leading the industry's clarion call for renewed interest and investment. The two main products the industry is promoting are Biodiesel and Ethanol. Biodiesel is derived when organic plant oils are mixed with alcohol. It is thick and resembles vegetable oil, and combusts at a very low temperature. Ethanol is a clear, highly flammable and volatile fuel made of alcohol primarily derived from the fermentation of sugars and starches, and cellulose, a complex carbohydrate, (C6H10O5)n, that is composed of glucose, or sugar, units. Ethanol is primarily being promoted as a replacement for gasoline in automobiles, whereas Biodiesel has a wider industrial applicability.
On the heels of Bush's "addicted to oil" speech, heading into the convention, BIO released a letter to Congress on March 13th requesting full funding for programs authorized in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that would support research and development into ethanol production, support private investment in modern "biorefinery" construction, and provide loan guarantees and market incentives for rapid adoption of cellulosic ethanol motor fuel (made from cellulose). This would all be made possible through the introduction of the newest scintillating - and, of course, controversial - field of Biotechnology, known as industrial, or "White," biotechnology.
EuropaBio, the European equivalent of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is advancing the cause of "White Biotechnology," described as "when industry and nature thrive together." It claims to be able to reduce pollution and waste, decrease the use of energy, raw materials and water, create new materials and biofuels from our waste products, and provide an alternative to many chemical processes. It uses living cells like moulds, yeasts or bacteria, as well as enzymes to produce eco-friendly substances made from renewable raw materials - also known as "biomass" - like plant matter, starch, cellulose, vegetable oils, agricultural waste, old grease, etc.
In the March 13th release, BIO CEO Jim Greenwood said, "Industrial biotechnology is causing a dramatic paradigm shift in transportation fuels that will end our national addiction to oil. We need to rapidly move forward commercializing these technologies for cellulosic ethanol production, which will strengthen our energy and national security."
Some say, cynically, that the timing of it all couldn't have been better. The Biotech sector has been reeling from an effluvia of bad PR. There have been serious problems with the introduction of the first two fields of Biotech, "Green" BioAgriculture, symbolized by the massive global opposition to GMOs and the rapacious, unethical behavior of the Monsanto corporation, and "Red" BioMedical technology, symbolized by the American political furor over cloning and stem-cell research. Last year India announced that since 1997 some 25,000 farmers have committed suicide after being wooed by Monsanto into planting pesticide-resistant Bt Cotton which didn't work, causing the farmers to go bankrupt. Because of this (and if that wasn't enough for the industry to handle), on March 17th of this year, Canadian farmer Percey Schmeiser, whose lawsuit with Monsanto went all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court, got together with NGOs in the EU and filed suit against Monsanto and the BioAgricultural industry at the UN High Commission for Human Rights, alleging that the industry is destroying farmers lives and livelihoods around the world.
Naturally, "White" industrial biotech skeptics and critics abound. But are there the same concerns with these new technologies? And what precisely do they mean when they talk about creating a "BioBased Society?"
The Bio-Based Society
"Through recombinant DNA technology, scientists can use microorganisms in new and exciting ways to manufacture polymers, vitamins, enzymes, or transportation fuel. By harnessing the natural power of enzymes or whole cell systems, and using sugars as feedstock for product manufacture, industrial biotech companies can work with nature to help us move from a petroleum-based economy to a 'bio-based economy'." ? BIO web site
At a Plenary session on Biofuels, former CIA head R. James Woolsey claimed that "Biotechnology will be for the 21st century what physics was to the 20th," unlocking the secret potential of the planet in ways never before imagined, while at the same time rescuing us from the social and environmental perils of the petrochemical system.
"For every billion dollars we shift from foreign oil to domestic biofuels, we can add anywhere from 10-20,000 American jobs," Woolsey said, "and at least half of our gasoline needs can be grown here with cellulose [to make Ethanol]."
Lofty ambitions for sure. But this, at least, has become the new conventional wisdom. In their January 27th issue, Science Magazine published "The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials," a self-described "road map" to "the development of a sustainable industrial society and effective management of greenhouse gas emissions":
"Advances in genetics, biotechnology, process chemistry, and engineering are leading to a new manufacturing concept for converting renewable biomass to valuable fuels and products, generally referred to as the 'biorefinery'. The integration of agroenergy crops and biorefinery manufacturing technologies offers the potential for the development of sustainable biopower and biomaterials that will lead to a new manufacturing paradigm."
Right now, ethanol use very limited, comprising only about 2% of the total amount of transportation fuels used in the U.S. Biodiesel accounts for less than 0.01%. But the U.S. Dept. of Energy has set goals to replace 30% of the liquid petroleum transport fuel with biofuels, and to replace 25% of industrial chemicals with biomass-derived chemicals by 2025. The latter is a critical step towards saving the ecosystem.
Science continues, "this biorefinery vision will contribute to sustainability not only by its inherent dependence on sustainable bio-resources, but also by recycling waste, with the entire process becoming carbon neutral."
And from all quarters has come the call to begin building this infrastructure, to not wait to begin the process of mass transformation. Or, in the words of one European biotech executive, "The Stone Age did not come to an end because of a lack of stones. So too, the Oil Age will not come to an end because of a lack of oil."
Biodiesel vs. Ethanol
Matt Atwood, an organic chemist and the Project Manager for Biodiesel Systems, LLC, one of the Midwest's first biodiesel start-ups located in Madison, WI, says biodiesel needs to happen now.
He explains that the diesel engine is the backbone of the American economy, and diesel is its life blood. It accounts for only 12% of our total fuel consumption, but it transports 70% of the nation's goods to the tune of $6 trillion annually, which amount to about 51% of our GDP. 18 million tons of freight and 14 million people are transported daily by the use of diesel.
This is primarily because diesel engines are much more efficient than gasoline engines. One gallon of diesel is equal to 1.5 of gasoline and 2 gallons of ethanol. Diesel outperforms ethanol 2 to 1, or is about two and a half times more useful in terms of mileage or "work done."
"The creation of the biodiesel industry in the U.S. is imperative. If we don't begin to solve this problem now, there is a very real possibility the U.S. economy might collapse. If we can't get products to market, we're in big trouble. And when you consider how perilous the oil supply is, it becomes excruciatingly obvious that we can give up the gasoline/ethanol, but we cannot give up the diesel. People can adjust on a personal level to gasoline shortages (bikes, car pools, mass transit), but industry and commerce simply cannot."
The first step America needs to take, as elucidated in Winning the Oil Endgame is to increase efficiency in autos, which decreases demand. But Americans have shown that they are not going to drive less, unless oil goes too high, and no one knows how much "too high" is. According to Atwood, increasing efficiency by using hybrid autos is better than bringing new fuels on line in the short term, but even if we go so far as to increase efficiency by 20%, we only stave off demand growth for five years. So, while we work on greater automobile efficiency, we need to be concurrently building the new infrastructure with whatever oil we can manage to save.
But all one needs to do is look at the diesel market in Europe, which Atwood describes as "monstrous," to see its widespread appeal.
"Fifty percent of their autos are diesel powered, as opposed to less than 1% in America, and some get approximately 100 MPG. The diesel market will grow substantially in the U.S. in the coming years because it is a superior fuel to both gasoline and ethanol."
Those who were around in the early 80s will remember that for a few years after the oil shocks of the mid-70s the auto industry went through massive changes, as cars drastically downsized and engineering efforts were focused on increasing fuel efficiency, which became the benchmark by which cars were sold. Back then, the king of the hill was the VW Rabbit Diesel which got 60 miles to the gallon. Biodiesel, as shown in Europe, can easily shatter that.
Atwood also says the introduction of diesel hybrids should take place within the next year or two. Additionally, new lower EPA mandates for sulpher content in auto emissions has led to the introduction of biodiesel as a necessary additive to the commercial diesel supply. This indicates that the changeover process will be slower and more methodical than some have predicted.
"The green Light for the biodiesel industry wasn't turned on until the fall of 2005 when Bush signed the Energy and Transportation bill. It made biodiesel 'blends' the low-cost fuel in the marketplace," said Atwood. Now, the industry is lobbying for the approval of the $120 million from the Department of Energy Biomass and Biorefinery Systems R&D program included in the President's 2007 budget request, which amounts to just over half the authorized level of funds.
A side-by-side taste test
To date, the problems with ethanol are substantially more complex than those of biodiesel. The primary problem with ethanol is that it is already dominated by the corporate establishment, and has been heavily subsidized by the federal government over the last many years to the tune $.51/gallon and almost a trillion dollars. Biodiesel is not subsidized, it is incentivized. Ethanol in the U.S. is a fifteen-year-old industry, and biodiesel is in its infancy, whereas the exact opposite is true in Europe.
Traditional ethanol production facilities cost about $2/per annual production gallon, so a 50 million gallon ethanol plant will cost $100 million to build, sometimes more, as in the case of the Iogen plant in Canada, which cost $300 million for the same capacity. Comparatively, biodiesel production facilities cost about a $1/per annual gallon to build, a savings of 50%.
Additionally, according to a recent study by Cornell University, in terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that corn requires 29 percent more, "switch grass" 45 percent more, and wood biomass 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.
Unfortunately, the Cornell study also claims that energy output to input for biodiesel production is -27 percent for soybean plants and -118 percent for sunflower plants. Not very good numbers.
Still, Atwood contends that those numbers will greatly improve as the infrastructure grows and becomes self-sustaining, and what is most attractive about biodiesel right now is that it "takes this faucet of money being pointed at other nations and points it back into the Midwest at farmers who can be brought into the production process."
While this promises to be a boon to America's cash-strapped farmers, critics of this technology - many of them farmers who were duped into converting their farms to GMOs in the mid-90s - are surfacing with questions, objections, and heartfelt recriminations against the biotech industry, whom they simply don't trust.
Feedstocks and the lingering problem of GMOs
"Feedstocks," or raw material required for an industrial process, is the lifeblood of biodiesel and ethanol. Industrial biotechnology uses plants and biomass as its feedstock.
Biodiesel Systems, LLC's "feedstock," like most of the early startups, will primarily be soy, grown by farmers in the Midwest, which is converted to soy oil that is sold on the commodities market. Because of this trading process, which right now is the only feasible way to obtain the appropriate feedstocks in the necessary quantities, Atwood claims they cannot determine whether the soy oil is organic or transgenic. But since the U.S. has an excess of soy, which makes it cheap to produce, it seems prudent to seize the opportunity to put the excess capacity to work, if it's not going to be used for animal feed or in the commercial food supply.
"I understand the concerns with using GMOs in the biofuel supply, but fundamentally, as a scientist, you have to weigh the benefits against the detriments. Do I have a problem with GMOs being used only as fuel crops? I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives, and nobody really knows the full negatives yet. What we do know is that if we don't get this industry off the ground and quick, there is likely to be much greater problems in the world than dealing with the issue of 'genetic drift'."
At present, feedstocks are the bottleneck for biodiesel production. Europe isn't producing enough to meet their ever-increasing demands, so they import much of it, which has caused widespread outcry. In June of 2005 British journalist George Monbiot published a column titled "Worse than Fossil Fuel: Biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth." In the column, Monbiot cited a September 2004 Friends of the Earth report about the impacts of massive deforestation efforts in Southeast Asia in order to create palm plantations for palm oil used to supplement the European biodiesel feedstock market. The report stated, "In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria."
Atwood believes Monbiot is overstating the case, and insists that the technology is sound, and the promise unprecedented. He points to the five year incentive program of the National Biodiesel Board, which estimates it will add $1 billion to U.S. farm income and create 50,000 new jobs.
Regarding the problems of arable land to be divided between food and fuel production: "We have more arable land than any other country in the world. But the Agricultural Reserve Program limited the amount of farmed land in the nation in order to constrain food prices. If that land was opened up for fuel crops, our supply can be greatly increased."
The Reserve Program began the much-maligned farm subsidies that have caused so many problems in international trade, so by eliminating it, hypothetically, farmers can wean themselves off the subsidy and into profitability, working to produce biomass for biodiesel instead of participating in the government's ethanol program. Critics complain that any more farming will be devastating to the environment.
The Department of Energy estimates U.S. biomass crop potential at around 160 million tons a year, which the say will save us one million barrels of oil a day. Unfortunately, right now, our oil consumption is around 21 million per day. So we're going to have to do much better than that.
This acknowledges that we cannot simply 'grow' our way to diesel independence. To reach our national consumption in diesel we would need twice the arable land we have now, all growing soy. Biodiesel enthusiasts know this and have explored alternative crops other than corn or soy, like jatropha, a non-edible oil seed, which is a dual-use crop that produces both oil for biodiesel and biomass for sustainable industrial processes.
Jatropha can produce 200 gallons of oil per acre planted, compared with 75 gallons of oil per acre of soy planted, and 150 gallons per acre of canola. Moreover, jatropha is grown in arid climes, where the agricultural footprint is small to negligible. Additionally, coconut produces 300 gallons of oil, and palm oil can produce a yield as high as 650 gallons.
But certain people simply aren't convinced. In a March 29th Op/Ed, titled, "Biotech Crops Will Hurt Family Farmers and Worsen the Energy Crisis," John Peck of the National Family Farm Coalition responded to BIO CEO Jim Greenwood's statement that biotechnology will end our national addiction to oil by stating, "nothing could be further from the truth":
"Thanks to Monsanto, farmers are now stuck producing vast quantities of low quality Bt corn that has hardly any market. This unwanted biotech corn must then be dumped ? at taxpayer expense ? into domestic ethanol production, factory livestock farms, or abroad in places like Mexico. There it contaminates indigenous varieties, undercuts peasant farmers, and creates desperate people who have no choice but to cross the border. And in the wake of the Starlink disaster, in which genetically modified corn not intended for human consumption found its way into fast-food tacos and elsewhere, one can only imagine the consumer safety threat posed by fields of high starch low fiber biotech corn, engineered with an ethanol enzyme, growing adjacent to sweet corn across the Midwest."
Peck also points out that the conventional ethanol industry is dominated by factory-farm giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a company with as high a contempt factor as Monsanto, and that many family farmers "have lost their shirts investing in co-op ethanol projects that get gobbled up by ADM when times get tough." Peck and his colleagues are concerned that the millions of dollars Jim Greenwood is asking Congress to approve will end up going right into the pockets of Monsanto and ADM.
So what then is the solution, according to Peck?
"Rather than going to war or trusting in biotech, the Unites States would do much better by investing in comprehensive energy conservation, decentralized energy production, and genuine renewable alternatives such as wind, solar, and Biodiesel. At this point corporate control (or lack thereof) is the major difference between ethanol and biodiesel. Biodiesel is largely being made by farmers themselves around the world with existing oil crops. I suppose if ADM also gets the corner on the global biodiesel market and Monsanto comes up with new GMOs specifically engineered for biodiesel then we'll have to cross that option off our list, as well."
Where is this ship headed?
Experts at the BIO convention pointed to the U.S. as the world's #1 growth market for Ethanol, and they expect to see a series of biorefineries develop in the "corn belt" of America which will produce fuels, natural biodegradable plastics, and food products. ADM has a commercial ethanol plant which is scheduled to come online in 2008, and with congressional approval of the $91 million in energy appropriations, we can expect to see more companies scrambling to get in on the act.
Because of this, we should not expect the present system of corporate control to change much unless efforts are made to create a locally-based, competitive biomass market, and demystify Ethanol. "White biotechnology will require a heavy application of Green biotechnology to become successful," said Steen Riisgaard, CEO of Novozymes, a Bioengineering firm. "And eventually, White will transform into Green when plants are bioengineered to be optimal fuel stocks. This will not please the opponents of GMOs."
But as Biotechnology continues to grow as an industry and the science behind it becomes more sound, it is clear than one can no longer effectively lump all Biotech into one monolithic category. A "principled" objection - which includes resistance to biomedical cures for diseases like cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, and heart disease, as well as renewable fuels and materials - has the potential to backfire into a PR and outreach nightmare. Biofuels may not be the global panacea the corporate PR hacks are promising, but industrial biotechnology has the clear ability to make the world a better place, and we'd be insane to dismiss it outright, without giving it a chance.
As hard as it may be for them to do, the opposition will have to begin to contemplate that the despicable acts of the Monsanto Corporation are not emblematic of the entire field of Biotechnology. Conversely, the Biotech industry needs to understand their opponents. Both will need to work together to solve the oil crisis. The jury is still out on the bio-based economy, but from where most of us are sitting, it can't be any worse than what we have now.
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Michael Briggs, University of New Hampshire, Physics Department
As more evidence comes out daily of the ties between the leaders of petroleum producing countries and terrorists (not to mention the human rights abuses in their own countries), the incentive for finding an alternative to petroleum rises higher and higher. The environmental problems of petroleum have finally been surpassed by the strategic weakness of being dependent on a fuel that can only be purchased from tyrants. The economic strain on our country resulting from the $100-150 billion we spend every year buying oil from other nations, combined with the occasional need to use military might to protect and secure oil reserves our economy depends on just makes matters worse (and using military might for that purpose just adds to the anti-American sentiment that gives rise to terrorism). Clearly, developing alternatives to oil should be one of our nation's highest priorities.
In this paper, I will first examine the possibilities of producing biodiesel on the scale necessary to replace all petroleum transportation fuels in the
I. How much biodiesel?
First, we need to understand exactly how much biodiesel would be needed to replace all petroleum transportation fuels. So, we need to start with how much petroleum is currently used for that purpose. Per the Department of Energy's statistics, each year the
One of the biggest advantages of biodiesel compared to many other alternative transportation fuels is that it can be used in existing diesel engines without modification, and can be blended in at any ratio with petroleum diesel. This completely eliminates the "chicken-and-egg" dilemma that other alternatives have, such as hydrogen powered fuel cells. For hydrogen vehicles, even when (and if) vehicle manufacturers eventually have production stage vehicles ready (which currently cost around $1 million each to make), nobody would buy them unless there was already a wide scale hydrogen fuel production and distribution system in place. But, no companies would be interested in building that wide scale hydrogen fuel production and distribution system until a significant number of fuel cell vehicles are on the road, so that consumers are ready to start using it. With a single hydrogen fuel pump costing roughly $1 million, installing just one at each of the 176,000 fuel stations across the
With biodiesel, since the same engines can run on conventional petroleum diesel, manufacturers can comfortably produce diesel vehicles before biodiesel is available on a wide scale - as some manufacturers already are (the same can be said for flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on ethanol, gasoline, or any blend of the two). As biodiesel production continues to ramp up, it can go into the same fuel distribution infrastructure, just replacing petroleum diesel either wholly (as B100, or 100% biodiesel), or blended in with diesel. Not only does this eliminate the chicken-and-egg problem, making biodiesel a much more feasible alternative than hydrogen, but also eliminates the huge cost of revamping the nationwide fuel distribution infrastructure.
II. Large scale production
There are two steps that would need to be taken for producing biodiesel on a large scale - growing the feedstocks, and processing them into biodiesel. The main issue that is often contested is whether or not we would be able to grow enough crops to provide the vegetable oil (feedstock) for producing the amount of biodiesel that would be required to completely replace petroleum as a transportation fuel. So, that is the main issue that will be addressed here. The point of this article is not to argue that this approach is the only one that makes sense, or that we should ignore other options (there are some other very appealing options as well, and realistically it makes more sense for a combination of options to be used). Rather, the point is merely to look at one option for producing biodiesel, and see if it would be capable of meeting our needs.
One of the important concerns about wide-scale development of biodiesel is if it would displace croplands currently used for food crops. In the
The Office of Fuels Development, a division of the Department of Energy, funded a program from 1978 through 1996 under the National Renewable Energy Laboratory known as the "Aquatic Species Program". The focus of this program was to investigate high-oil algaes that could be grown specifically for the purpose of wide scale biodiesel production1. The research began as a project looking into using quick-growing algae to sequester carbon in CO2 emissions from coal power plants. Noticing that some algae have very high oil content, the project shifted its focus to growing algae for another purpose - producing biodiesel. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content (some well over 50% oil), and extremely fast growth rates. From the results of the Aquatic Species Program2, algae farms would let us supply enough biodiesel to completely replace petroleum as a transportation fuel in the US (as well as its other main use - home heating oil) - but we first have to solve a few of the problems they encountered along the way.
NREL's research focused on the development of algae farms in desert regions, using shallow saltwater pools for growing the algae. Using saltwater eliminates the need for desalination, but could lead to problems as far as salt build-up in bonds. Building the ponds in deserts also leads to problems of high evaporation rates. There are solutions to these problems, but for the purpose of this paper, we will focus instead on the potential such ponds can promise, ignoring for the moment the methods of addressing the solvable challenges remaining when the Aquatic Species Program at NREL ended.
NREL'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
The algae farms would not all need to be built in the same location, of course (and should not for a variety of reasons). The case mentioned above of building it all in the
These projected yields of course depend on a variety of factors, sunlight levels in particular. The yield in
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
These costs are based on the design used by NREL - the simple open-top raceway pond. Various approaches being examined by the research groups focusing on algae biodiesel range from being the same general system, to far more complicated systems. As a result, this cost analysis is very much just a general approximation.
While the work on algae for fuel production done in the 1980s and 1990s focused almost entirely on the simple open pond approach, most groups now working in this field (including our collaboration) have shifted to focusing on the use of proprietary photobioreactors. The primary reason being that most of the problems encountered by prior work (takeover by low oil strains, vulnerability to temperature fluctuations, high evaporation losses, etc.) are primarily a result of using open ponds. Going with enclosed photobioreactors can immediately solve the bulk of the problems encountered by prior research. The obvious drawback though is cost - any photobioreactor design is going to be have a higher capital cost than a simple, open pond. At this point, a key factor in making algal biodiesel a commercial reality is the development of photobioreactors that can offer high yields (optimization of light path, etc.), but be built inexpensively enough to offer a reasonable payback rate (otherwise no company would be interested in building them). Improving processing technologies, and designing an integrated system to tie the algae production into other processes (i.e. wastestream treatment, power plant emissions reduction, etc.), can further improve the economics and payback rate. UNH and our collaborators are currently focusing on these issues, with the goal of making algal biodiesel a commercial reality.
IV. Other issues
To make biodiesel, you need not only the vegetable oil, but an alcohol as well (either ethanol or methanol). The alcohol only constitutes about 10% of the volume of the biodiesel. Among the most land-efficient and energy-efficient methods of producing alcohol is from hydrolysis and fermentation of plant cellulose. In the early days of the automobile, most vehicles ran on biofuels, with Henry Ford himself being a big advocate of alcohol produced from industrial hemp (not to be confused with marijuana). The Department of Energy's "Mustard Project" has focused on the prospect of growing mustard for the dual purposes of biodiesel and organic pesticide production. Their process focused on alternating mustard crops with wheat. One nice effect of this is that the biomass from the mustard (after harvesting the seed ) could be used as the cellulose feedstock for producing alcohol for biodiesel production.
Hydrogen as a fuel has received widespread attention in the media of late, particularly ever since the Bush administration proclaimed that developing a hydrogen economy would clean our air, and free us of oil dependence. There are many problems with using hydrogen as a fuel. The first, and most obvious, is that hydrogen gas is extremely explosive. To store hydrogen at high pressures for as a transportation fuel, it is essential to have tanks that are constructed of rust-proof materials, so that as they age they won't rust and spring leaks. Hydrogen has to be stored at very high pressures to try to make up for its low energy density. Diesel fuel has an energy density of 1,058 kBtu/cu.ft. Biodiesel has an energy density of 950 kBtu/cu.ft, and hydrogen stored at 3,626 psi (250 times atmospheric pressure) only has an energy density of 68 kBtu/cu.ft.4 So, highly pressurized to 250 atmospheres, hydrogen's volumetric energy density is only 7.2% of that of biodiesel. The result being that with similar efficiencies of converting that stored chemical energy into motion (as diesel engines and fuel cells have), a hydrogen vehicle would need a fuel tank roughly 14 times as large to yield the same driving range as a biodiesel powered vehicle. To get a 1,000 mile range, a tractor trailer running on diesel needs to store 168 gallons of diesel fuel. When biodiesel's slightly lower energy density and the greater efficiency of the engine running on biodiesel are taken into account, it would need roughly 175 gallons of biodiesel for the same range. But, to run on hydrogen stored at 250 atmospheres, to get the same range would require 2,360 gallons of hydrogen. Dedicating that much space to fuel storage would drastically reduce how much cargo trucks could carry. Additionally, the cost of the high pressure, corrosion resistant storage tanks to carry that much fuel is astronomical.
There are two main options for producing hydrogen - generating it from water, and extracting it from other fuels. With each case, the energy efficiency is well below 100% (i.e. you have to put more energy into separating the hydrogen than the chemical energy the hydrogen itself has). I will look at each individually, and then analyze the use of hydrogen as a fuel in general. Currently, most hydrogen used industrially is extracted from natural gas through steam reformation. At current usage rates, the
Thus, the focus needs to be on renewable fuels that we cannot run out of. For hydrogen, it is only renewable when it is extracted from biomass, or when the hydrogen is produced by electrolyzing water using renewable energies (wind, solar, etc.). The option of producing it from biomass is not particularly enticing. It can be done through gasification and steam reformation, but with a disappointingly low thermal efficiency. The need to compress or liquify (or bind in another form such as a metal hydride) the hydrogen for transport and storage further reduces the efficiency, and increases the cost. Biomass can be converted to liquid fuels more efficiently, yielding a fuel with far higher energy density, and that can work in existing, affordable vehicles. So, since biomass derived hydrogen is less appealing than liquid biofuels, let's consider the option of producing hydrogen through electrolysis.
VI. Hydrogen electrolyzed from water
The first way to look at a potential transportation fuel is to examine the overall energy efficiency for its production. Ultimately we want to know how much energy you get back for each unit of energy you put into developing the fuel - or the Energy Return on Investment (EROI). The higher the EROI, the better.
When discussing hydrogen as a fuel, people usually take a very simplified approach. When used in a fuel cell, the only by-product of using hydrogen as a fuel is water. However, that completely ignores the issue of where the hydrogen came from in the first place. It is tempting to think that this hydrogen would be produced by electrolyzing water using renewable energy sources, such as wind. To see how realistic this approach is, it is important to analyze the overall energy balance, and henceforth the amount of energy that would need to be produced for the fuel to be used on a wide scale.
A common dream from the environmentalist community is having a solar panel on the roof of a home to electrolyze water, producing hydrogen for a fuel cell vehicle. It's a nice dream, but not particularly realistic. As a real world example, consider Honda's facility in
Why does it require so large an array? Look at the efficiency. Electrolysis systems are around 70% efficient (smaller scale systems are less efficient, large scale industrial ones are higher - 70% is a rough average). That means that for each unit of energy you put in, the amount of recoverable energy in the hydrogen produced is equal to 0.7 units. The hydrogen then needs to be compressed to high pressures for storage in fuel tanks (due to the low energy density, hydrogen has to be stored at high pressures so that vehicles can have a reasonable range). Compressing the hydrogen is roughly 85% efficient, liquefaction considerably lower. I will ignore the cost of transporting hydrogen, the efficiency of which is far lower than transporting biodiesel. Since it is highly unlikely that clean solar or wind power would be used for electrolyzing water to make hydrogen (see the above paragraph), I will assume that it would use coal or natural gas derived electricity (this could also come from burning biomass). Most such power plants operate with efficiencies below 40%, but I will use that very favorable figure.
So, the hydrogen fuel can be produced with an overall efficiency of 23.8% - or an EROI of 0.238. Current generation fuel cells are 40-60% efficient. Assuming a very favorable 60% efficiency, that reduces the overall energy return down to 14.28%. That means that for each unit of energy in the form of fuel burned to make electricity, only 14.28% of it is usable for powering the electric motor in a fuel cell vehicle. Steam reformation of natural gas is a far more likely scenario for hydrogen production, as it can be done with roughly a 66% efficiency. Including compression (85%) and use in a fuel cell (a very favorable 60%, with 45% being more likely), the overall efficiency is then 33.6% (or a fossil energy balance of 0.336). The problem is natural gas is not a renewable resource, and the
The limited range of hydrogen powered vehicles makes them comparable to electric vehicles in many ways. The energy efficiency, however, is completely different. While a hydrogen vehicle would use electricity to electrolyze water to get hydrogen for fuel, an electric vehicle uses electricity to charge batteries.
What is the energy efficiency for producing biodiesel? Based on a report by the US DOE and USDA entitled "Life Cycle Inventory of Biodiesel and Petroleum Diesel for Use in an Urban Bus"5, biodiesel produced from soy has an energy balance of 3.2:1. That means that for each unit of energy put into growing the soybeans and turning the soy oil into biodiesel, we get back 3.2 units of energy in the form of biodiesel. That works out to an energy efficiency of 320% (when only looking at fossil energy input - input from the sun, for example, is not included). The reason for the energy efficiency being greater than 100% is that the growing soybeans turn energy from the sun into chemical energy (oil). Current generation diesel engines are 43% efficient (HCCI diesel engines under development, and heavy duty diesel engines have higher efficiencies approaching 55% (better than fuel cells), but for the moment we'll just use current car-sized diesel engine technology). That 3.2 energy balance is for biodiesel made from soybean oil - a rather inefficient crop for the purpose. Other feedstocks such as algaes can yield substantially higher energy balances, as can using thermochemical processes for processing wastes into biofuels (such as the thermal depolymerization process pioneered by Changing World Technologies). Such approaches can yield EROI values ranging from 5-10, potentially even higher.
The above is a description of the potential algae has to offer. The current state of the technology is not yet capable of achieving yields as high as theoretically possible, and the economics need further improvement. The UNH Biodiesel Group and a few other groups across the country are working on improving the technology for growing algae and processing it into biodiesel. Due to the lack of government funding for this field of work, UNH and its collaborators are seeking private partners to finance the continued development of the technology. For more information contact:
Michael Briggs ;
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Tuesday, 23 May 2006
The signs of a new, brighter energy future are everywhere.
Wind and solar power are the fastest growing electricity sources. NASDAQ just launched a clean energy index. Leading venture capitalists are making big bets on low-carbon energy sources. Auto dealers are carrying more hybrid and flex-fuel vehicles. Forward-looking communities are planning a future around people instead of cars. Farmers, entrepreneurs, investors-they're all planting seeds for a cleaner, more secure energy future.
But they're going too slow. Promising solutions are emerging, but our addiction to fossil fuels is getting worse and it's killing us. War, climate disruption and economic insecurity are among its symptoms.
Now that we can see real pictures of the post-fossil fuel future-since it seems so tantalizingly possible-what can we do to accelerate it?
We can start by squaring up to a simple truth, fossil fuels are very costly. We pay some of the tab at the pump and in our utility bills. But we pay much more in the form of chronic national insecurity due to dependence on oil. We pay in the form of climate disruption-more intense storms, water shortages, ocean sterilization. We pay through the nose, through our lungs and through our declining standing in the world.
The price of oil may cycle down again-after all, suppliers don't want to price us out of our addiction. "Peak oil " may be more like a long ridge, with lots of price volatility to keep us guessing. The people who have the most control of oil prices also have the greatest incentive to discourage investment in alternatives-so don't expect a smooth ride up the price curve. But when the price drops, it's lying.
No matter how energy prices spike or plunge, fossil fuels are exorbitantly expensive. Their impact on our climate alone is an epic heist of the planet's wealth-a hocking of our worldly treasure for a few decades' fix. The geopolitical costs of fossil fuel addiction are literally bleeding us. Whatever is driving oil prices-greed, economics, supply disruption, all of the above-the rising price at the pump is finally communicating some fraction of the truth: fossil fuels are a colossal rip-off.
This truth can set us free. High, truthful fossil fuel prices send a signal to consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs, stop pouring more money into the fossil fuel hole. Put it into things that won't run out-like the sun and the wind and more efficient vehicles and buildings. Put it into transportation choices. Put it into our endless capacity to innovate.
President Bush flirted with the truth when he said we're addicted to oil. But now he proposes to treat our addiction by expanding supply! Democrats have suggested price controls and suspending fuel taxes. Political consultants in both parties feed our leaders the same advice: people don't want to hear the truth of costly fossil fuels. Tell them anything, but not the truth.
One enterprising e-mail campaign proposes that consumers boycott Exxon-Mobil. The theory is that if we don't buy from Exxon, they'll have to lower prices, touching off a price war. An economist quoted on NPR says it won't work. The announcer asked, "Well, what can consumers do about gas prices?" The economist responded, "Drive less."
Won't the truth of high fossil fuel prices fall hardest on those who can least afford it? Yes. That's why we should invest in alternatives that are practical and affordable for everyone. The people who can't afford $3 gas are the same people who pay in blood to defend our access to the next fix. They're the ones who can't move to higher ground when the water rises. If there's one thing they can't afford more than the truth, it's our failure to confront the lie of "cheap" fossil fuels.
We can do something about high fuel prices. We can buy less. We can drive efficient cars and trucks. We can use biofuels-not a free lunch, but an increasingly attractive alternative to petroleum (especially with the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol, made from plant waste instead of corn). We can build communities where people can live, work, shop, and go to school by bike, public transit, or foot. We can build a prosperity that is less about simply producing more and more about community, health and quality of life-which are inversely related to fossil fuel consumption.
Fossil fuels don?t just power our cars-they power the production and transportation of every material good. As consumers, we can decide that being consumers isn't our defining affiliation. We can disenthrall ourselves from Madison Avenue's formulas for profligate consumption: virility is not a function of horsepower; freedom is not driving alone; fun is not proportional to buying stuff.
As citizens, we can elect leaders who tell us the truth. It's hard to overemphasize how critical this is. We can't make a rapid, systemic transition to a clean energy economy at the scale and pace we need as individual consumers. That requires collective purpose and action. It requires a bold, sweeping new policy framework that rises to the scale of the challenge. That framework should include binding limits on global warming pollution, efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances, and renewable energy content requirements for fuels and power-clear, results-oriented policies that send a clear signal for accelerated investment in solutions.
A transition of this scale also requires leaders who can muster the moral authority to call us to a difficult and exciting and absolutely necessary challenge-a challenge that will define our generation in the eyes of our kids and grandkids.
We can keep accepting the lies that sustain our addiction. Or we can hear the truth in high gas prices-and build our future on it.
For almost all its architects, the Iraq invasion has proved lethal. Largely because of Iraq, the Bush presidency is now no more popular than was the Nixon presidency in its darkest days. America's main Iraq allies in Europe, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, have both lost elections to successors who regarded the invasion as wrong. Although Tony Blair did not lose his election last year, as a consequence of Iraq, he is now (except when he visits Australia) damaged goods, with an approval rating no higher than that of George Bush.
The sole exception here is Howard, whose reputation is entirely untarnished by the central supporting role his Government played in the invasion of Iraq. In part this is because of the generic weakness of the Labor Opposition; in part because of the influence of the pro-war Murdoch press; in part because of the successful marginalisation of the critical intelligentsia; and in part because only one Australian soldier has been killed in Iraq. Perhaps most deeply, however, it is because the Howard prime ministership has had a strangely mesmeric quality that, except for local community concerns, has put the national moral conscience to sleep.
From Bush's point of view, Howard is a wonder to behold. It is not merely that he is politically unwounded by Iraq. Over four and a half years he has not uttered one syllable of criticism concerning American strategy in the war on terror. No one could hope for a more blindly loyal ally. Hence, last week's celebratory words and drums and guns.
While Howard was in Washington, centrist political think tank the Brookings Institution published its most recent study of the outcome of the invasion of Iraq. According to this study, since the invasion, between 44,000 and 89,000 Iraqi civilians, perhaps 55,000 Iraqi insurgents, and 2500 members of the invading forces have been killed.
Even though the US has spent or approved the spending of $US435 billion on Iraq (which is 15 times the entire annual Iraqi GDP) - an even larger number of Iraqi children (9 per cent) are suffering from acute malnutrition than was the case before the invasion of March 2003; more than two-thirds of Iraqis still do not have clean water; and residents of Baghdad receive on average fewer than six hours of electricity a day.
Two-thirds of Iraqis feel less secure now than they did before the invasion. Fewer than 1 per cent believe that the occupying forces have improved security. Before the invasion the Baghdad morgue processed fewer than 100 corpses a month. In the first three months of this year, it processed 3427. Iraqis are now losing hope. A year ago, 67 per cent of Iraqis believed that their country was at least heading in the right direction. At present a mere 30 per cent still believe that this is so.
In Washington last week, despite all this, George Bush and John Howard, two architects of the invasion, swapped effusive compliments. According to Howard: "The world needs a president of the United States who has a clear-eyed view of the dangers of terrorism and the courage and determination to see the task through to its conclusion. And in you, sir, the American people have found such a leader and such an individual." According to Bush, Howard had always supported "the liberty agenda". He had always shown "a deep desire for the world to be a peaceful place". He was a man of "courage and conviction", of utmost reliability and honesty. "When he tells you something, you can take it to the bank."
The world now generally acknowledges the injustice and illegality of the invasion and the catastrophe that, even after the appointment of the so-called national unity Government, now confronts Iraq. Are Bush and Howard really unable to see what it is that they have done? I can only speak with confidence of the Prime Minister.
Howard took this country to war on the claim that he knew that Saddam Hussein had a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that posed a terrible danger to the world. This turned out to be entirely false. Howard argued that an invasion to bring about regime change in Iraq could not be justified. When weapons of mass destruction were not discovered, he argued that regime change was precisely the reason we had gone to war. Howard argued that the war would be swiftly concluded and that the people in Iraq would welcome the invading forces as their liberators. Three years after the invasion, the rate of insurgency is steadily increasing; 82 per cent of Iraqis are strongly opposed to the presence in their country of occupying forces; the country is descending into unspeakably brutal Shiite-Sunni civil war; very many tens of thousands of people who would be alive today, were it not for the invasion, now lie dead.
Even if Howard continued to defend his actions strenuously, if he at least was anxious or agitated about this state of affairs, I would be able to feel for him some respect. What unnerves me is the calmness of his demeanour, the apparent near-entire absence in him of a troubled conscience or the kind of self-scrutiny that might lead him eventually to remorse. Howard is one of the most nimble but also one of the most morally complacent politicians I have ever observed.
Howard rightly asks us to contemplate the pain of the families of the 3000 innocent people who were murdered on September 11. Does he, do we, feel nothing for the families of the tens of thousands of Iraqis whose lives have been lost in the killings and the murders that have occurred since the invasion of Iraq, for whose involvement in which our Prime Minister was honoured, in Washington last week, with a black-tie dinner and a 19-gun salute?
Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University and chairman of the editorial board of The Monthly magazine.