Biofuels

December 7, 2009

You know the drill about prophets and homeworlds...

Alright, I guess that’s not very funny.

To be sure, biofuels are not “the” answer to our dependence on fossil fuels. (No alt-energy is, for that matter.) And even though it cannot be implemented on a wide-scale basis, it is a good solution for many individual needs.

“Magic Fuel Buses”

Biofuels are any fuel derived from organic matter. Generally the first thing that comes to mind is cars that smell of french fries because, well, they run on french-fry oil. There’s the story of the “magic fuel bus” from North Carolina, where a high school teacher powers one of the school’s buses with used vegetable oil from local restaurants and the school’s cafeteria.

“But once you break down the grease from the local restaurant, the odor is gone because chemically you have made a different compound called biodiesel,” [science teacher Bob] Smith says.

The classroom isn’t equipped to make large batches of fuel and the entire process can take up to three days, so the district buses can’t run on processed cooking oil alone.  But Mr. Smith and his students have whipped up enough biodiesel to be able to study the effects on the bus engines and the positive effects on the environment.  So far, they say, the news is good.

“There are benefits from it.  There is less odor, less pollution, less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, less global warming and it improves the mileage for the buses,”  [student Mucheng] Yang said.

There’s also the story (provided by a commenter in the introductory “Wilkommen!” post) where one Connecticut man runs his vehicle on all sorts of biomasses. Strapped to the back of his 1989 Ford F150 is a mini-reactor that runs on “wood, leaves, [and] cardboard.”

The technology is called gasification, and it’s been around since the 1800s, when it was used for street lamps and cooking. It even powered some vehicles during World War II, but faded away under oil’s dominance…

Gasification works by heating organic materials to high temperatures without flames. The resulting chemical reactions produce a hydrogen-hydrocarbon gas mixture in vapor form that is almost as potent as gasoline, [inventor Dave] Nichols said…

His pickup truck appears to run like any other and easily reached 40 mph and above on local roads on a recent day, but it has no gas tanks. Nichols says he can get it up to more than 80 mph. The only noticeable difference is a contraption, right behind the cab’s rear window, that takes up some of the back and looks somewhat like a wood stove.

A metal barrel, where the heating occurs, extends just above the cab’s roof. The gas is captured from the barrel and a vacuum system sucks it through piping that runs under the truck to the engine.

Nichols reports his vehicle has gone 10,000 miles gasoline-free, and claims his invention leaves “little or no” carbon footprint.

Big Biofuel

Now, these last two examples are only the small-scale implementations of biofuels. What’s being done on a bigger scale?

One company that specializes in biofuels, Syntroleum, has partnered with Tyson Foods (provider of many a chicken dinner) to build a plant in Louisiana that will utilize 2.3 billion pounds of animal fat as feedstock to produce 75 million gallons of synthetic fuel every year. A great way to reuse so much organic waste, the plant is to be situated near the “Barksdale Air Force base”, so as to provide fuel for various aircraft such as three squadrons of B-52s.

“The B-52 has been the first Air Force jet that has been certified for synthetic fuels,” said Jeff Webster, Sr. VP of renewable products at Tyson, in a conference call.

Funny, I didn’t know they still flew B-52s. At any rate, the construction is still on schedule and the plant is expected to open early next year.

Behold, MS Paint.

Syntroleum is part of the larger ‘rendering’ industry, which puts animal by-products to good use.

With 273 facilities in the United States, the rendering industry processes 60 billion pounds of raw materials a year and generates billions of dollars in revenue. The raw materials include offal, bones and fat, blood and fallen animals… which are the animals that die on the farm or in transport before they can be slaughtered… Collecting expired animals is essential to public health and, at the same time, provides a revenue source by adding value to a waste product.

Nearly half the live weight of the 35 million cattle produced in the united states every year, as well as a large percetage of hog, turkey and chicken production, is used for something other than human food. If the material that doesn’t go into food processing isn’t used somehow, animal production would be extremely wasteful. Rendered products, including edible tallow, lard, refined greases and poultry fat are used to manufacture a myriad of products ranging from pet food to paints and varnishes to biodiesel.

It doesn’t hurt that such materials are cheap.

“It’s real easy,” says Nova Biosource President J.D. McGraw. “The cost of animal fats is about 10 cents a pound cheaper than your virgin soybean and other vegetable oils.”

I’m guessing the dead cattle are even cheaper.

The article mentions Nova Biosource Fuels, Inc., which has its own nifty biofuel-conversion process that utilizes 25+ feedstocks. The company has five or so plants throughout the U.S., and was a candidate for this writer’s mini-investment. Sadly, the company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.  :’(

Biofuels vs. Agrofuels

Of course, it is important to make the distinction between biofuels and ‘agrofuels’. Biofuels are typically produced from organic wastes. Agrofuel, on the other hand, are produced from crops cultivated specifically for use as fuel–a practice which has generated a bit of controversy. An example would be corn grown to be converted into ethanol. It is probably fair to say it is unethical to use large amounts of land to grow fuel that could otherwise be used to provide food. (One also has to wonder how cost-effective it would be.)

Jatropha seeds

But what about soil that is otherwise unsuitable for food crops? One of the more interesting “agrofuels” would be the jatropha seed, a plant which can grow in all sorts of climates (including dry arid regions), and can provide high oil yields that can be converted into biodiesel.

Jatropha saplings

That 2007 BBC article claims that “once dried out and crushed, these poisonous seeds yield oil which can be burned in almost any diesel engine – with no modification.”

Other interesting factoids:

- Grows well on low fertility soils. However increased yields can be obtained using a fertilizer containing small amounts of magnesium, sulphur, and calcium.

- Can be intercropped with many cash crops such as coffee, sugar, fruits and vegetables with the Jatropha offering both fertilizer and protection against livestock. (The jatropha plant is toxic.)

- Needs at least 600mm of rain annually to thrive. However it can survive three years of drought by dropping its leaves.

- Is excellent at preventing soil erosion, and the leaves it drops act as a wonderful soil enriching mulch.

- Yields seeds in the first year after plantation.

- Jatropha trees are productive for 30-40 years.

Jatropha seeds.

A couple other nuggets:

- It can grow almost on any type of soil whether gravelly, sandy or saline and thrives even on the poorest stony soils and rock crevices.

- The tree grows up to a height of 3 meters, which means harvesting is an easy task.

One really interesting part about the jatropha seed is that, according to the BBC article,

jatropha [plants] absorb carbon-dioxide while they are growing, effectively cancelling out the carbon dioxide they release when they burn.

The plant is seen as a way for countries like India to become self-sufficient and less dependent on foreign oil. (Sounds familiar.)

Similarly, some have viewed the jatropha plant as a hot investment for Africa, where “over 50% of [the] land has the right climate for growing Jatropha.”

On the map of Africa the dark areas represent prime Jatropha growing regions in Africa. These areas, comprising over 1,080 million hectares, or 10.8 million square kilometers, are ideal because the average annual rainfall exceeds 800 mm, and the minimum temperature of the coldest month is greater than 2 degrees centigrade.

Unfortunately, the same article points out the fact that:

1) Land in many countries in Africa is not owned but leased. This effectively eliminates land being used as collateral by funders.

2) Start up agriculture projects are generally among the most difficult projects for which to obtain funding.

So… that pretty much kills it for  African jatropha.

It appears I’ve gone way, way over my proposed length of 300-500 words, all in the name of thoroughness. I feel like I’m just not going into enough depth, but 1,475 words is just going to have to cut it.

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