Can One B Solve Three Big E’s?

August 22, 2012
The three most expensive, time-consuming and pervasive problems the United States faces today are a polluted Environment, a declining Economy, and vast Energy needs. Engineering Biofuels in the United States may be the sole solution that would fix all three of these problems. But can biofuels truly fix the environment, the economy, and energy needs?

Biofuels are fuels from biomass, which is a renewable source. Biofuels include: bioethanol from corn, sugar cane, or sugar beets, biodiesel from vegetable oils or animal fats, biogas which is methane, solid biofuels like wood, grass, sawdust, and last but not least advanced biofuels. Advanced biofuels include developing biofuels that are produced from sustainable feedstock, meaning feedstock that is sustainably available, and leads to relatively less loss of biodiversity and land. These advanced, or sometimes called second generation, biofuels include algae fuel, biohydrogen, and cellulosic ethanol, amongst others. First generation biofuels such as ethanol are from food crops, whereas second generation biofuels are from non-food crops.

Proponents of biofuel research advocate that biofuels consume carbon dioxide, helping to balance environmental gases. Plus, the biofuels industry is expanding, and “continuing growth will require an expanded workforce that is skilled in a range of disciplines, from chemical and biochemical engineering to agricultural science, microbiology, and genetics” (17). Thus, biofuels can provide an unprecedented amount of jobs to a needy economy. Also, by cultivating fuels at home in the United States, we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and improve our economic state. Perhaps most significantly, however, is the fact that biofuels come from renewable feedstock, such as corn, algae, wood, and other plants, whereas the current crude oil in use today comes from an obviously depleting reserve.

Bioethanol is ethanol produced by sugar fermentation from a variety of crops that have sugar, including corn, sugar beets, grasses, sawdust, and sugar cane. Bioethanol is sometimes used alone to replace crude oil, but is more often blended with petrol and “the most common blend is 10% ethanol and 90% petrol” (1). In the United States, around 40 percent of gasoline has the ethanol additive (4). By using bioethanol, the rural economy also benefits because it has to cultivate the necessary plants. Most importantly, bioethanol is biodegradable, reduces the greenhouse emissions released, and can be used easily in the current road transport petroleum fuel system (1). In the United States, bioethanol is mostly produced from corn, however, in other countries, bioethanol is mostly produced from sugar cane.

Ofcourse, there are a multitude of environmental concerns with ubiquitous use of this energy panacea. “It takes 4,000 gallons of fresh water per acre per day to replace evaporation in a cornfield. Each acre requires about 130 pounds of nitrogen and 55 pounds of phosphorous. That produces a lot of runoff” (2). Thus, because of widespread corn fields necessary for bioethanol production, much more water is necessary and many more fertilizers runoff into freshwater ecosystems. These fertilizers, which contain the criminal nitrogen and phosphorous elements, cause a huge imbalance in the ecosystem. “A 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that ‘nitrogen leading from fertilized cornfields in the Mississippi- Atchafalaya River system is a primary cause of the bottom-water hypoxia that develops on the continental shelf of the northern Gulf of Mexico each summer’” (2). Hypoxia is oxygen depletion, which causes a loss of biodiversity and life in affected areas, and seems to be directly triggered by nitrogen runoffs from such cornfields. Although water loss and diversity loss seem to be detrimental impacts, the truth is that these losses are all relative. Raising corn for ethanol extraction does not require any more water or fertilizer than raising corn for industrial and agricultural purposes, thus bioethanol is still environmentally affordable because fertilizer and water would be used anyway.

However, a larger debate over bioethanol is called the “food vs. fuel” debate, in which “proponents argue biofuels replace food crops, therefore causing food shortages” (3). Bioethanol is the main biofuel which uses food crops and thus is the main biofuel that is subjected to debate. However, Steve Rosvold, President of KRM Business Solutions, points out that “Most crops used for biofuels production in the U.S. aren’t for human consumption, and their alternative use is as animal feed. Biofuels reduces the demand (and price) of oil which encourages further world trade and actually more food” (3). Moreover, the actual subspecies of corn used for ethanol extraction is the same subspecies used for animal feed, not for human consumption. These arguments undermine the “food vs. fuel” debate and prove that we can have both. Plus, scientists are currently attempting to engineer a ‘cellulosic ethanol’ that is derived from trees and other non-food crops. Yet there is one argument that stands indisputable: the heavy and extensive corn refining process released a lot of carbon dioxide, refuting the whole purpose of biofuels in the first place! All in all, bioethanol is an easily applicable solution, but it still has some drawbacks.

Advanced biofuels include fuels made from algae, and using algae as feedstock is one of the hottest solutions right now for many reasons. Algae, or sometimes cyanobacteria, just require sunlight, seawater, and carbon dioxide, all of which are readily available and sustainable. The idea is to genetically engineer and select an algae strain that produces algae oil, and this idea was first proposed by Craig J. Venter who started the six-year old company Synthetic Genomics. Exxon Mobil invested 600 million dollars in Synthetic Genomics, and Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at Exxon Mobil, states that “ ‘Oil from algae hold significant potential as economically viable, low-emission transportation fuels and could become a critical new energy source’” (4). Basically, algae are engineered to use energy from the sun to pump out alkanes or hydrocarbons, which is called oil and can be refined to be directly placed in our cars. Countless companies are already using algae to produce crude oil, including Solazyme, Origin Oil, Aurora Algae, Aquaflow, Aquatic Energy, Amerys, Joule Unlimited and Saphhire Energy. Jason Pyle from Sapphire Energy states that “‘Commercial production of crude oil from algae is the most obvious and most economical possible way to substitute petroleum’” (4). Pyles states this because algae require no farmland (unlike corn), require little fertilizer, uptake carbon dioxide, require no fresh water, are harmless if spilled, and maintain balance in the environment. Plus “a hectare of sunny desert covered with algae vats can yields almost eight times as much biofuels per unit of biomass in a year than corn grown for energy purposes,” (4). David Johnson, the CEO of Aquatic Energy, explains the algae-oil cultivation process: “The green waters continue to churn 24 hours a day. Every few days they harvest several inches off the top of the ponds and begin the de-watering process. The algae goes through a series of tanks to separate the water. It’s then put through a belt press machine and dryer before being filtered to oil” (10).

Each algae fuel company grows algae in a different way, however, and Solazyme, unlike other companies, feeds its algae the more expensive sugar water. Solazyme partnered with Bunge Global Innovation, and “in a Brazilian plant, Solazyme feeds sugar cane thick juice to algae and produces oil on-site” (6). The costlier sugar cane juice fosters algae growth faster than seawater, and Solazyme has already shipped 283,000 gallons of algae-based jet fuel for the United States Navy. In fact, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy have combined forces with the Navy, and will spend 510 million dollars during the next three years “to advance drop-in biofuels for aviation and marine applications to power the military” (7). Drop- in biofuels are fuels that can be directly used in the current engines, as “the cost to produce a new airline jet engine costs hundreds of millions of dollars, so the aviation industry is keen to find a renewable fuel that works with existing equipment” (8).
Using algae for fuel does seem like the optimum solution, but there are still a couple of problems. It is extremely beneficial to the environment when algae uptake carbon dioxide; however, many companies, specifically Joule Unlimited, report that at their plants, the algae need a lot more carbon dioxide than what is provided in the air. Several companies are looking into redirect the carbon dioxide emissions from factories to their plants. Moreover, harvesting algae is much more difficult and requires more energy than most individuals realize, and random natural algae can overpopulate the ponds necessary for survival of the artificially created algae (11). Interestingly, one company called Sapphire Energy must also ensure that algae’s natural predators, shrimp, do not contaminate the algae ponds (4). However, algae have minute problems compared to other feedstock for other biofuels. Many opponents to algae oil say that such algal ponds would take up much space, but according to the United States Department of Energy, if algae fuel replaces all of the petroleum fuel used in the U.S., it would only require 0.42% of land on the U.S. map (5).

One company, called BioProcess Algae, which has joined Green Plain Renewable Energy, is trying to get the best of both biofuels: corn ethanol and algae oil. In the world’s first algae-ethanol plant, the carbon dioxide released from the refining process of corn is pumped into algal ponds. Thus, “for every unit of algal biomass produced, two units of carbon dioxide are absorbed into the growth process” (12). Thus this plant produces ethanol from corn, eliminates the carbon dioxide emissions from this production, and can later use algae to produce oil. This solution is remarkably innovative, and despite its developmental status, it may prove to be a large piece of a huge energy crisis puzzle.

While one company is combining two known profitable biofuels into one plant, other companies are hunting for novel answers. Dr. Willie Smits started Tapergie, a company that advocates Arenga pinnata, a small sugar palm, that “ can provide a ‘waste-free system that produces a premium organic sugar as well as the fuel, alcohol, ethanol, providing food products and jobs to villagers while it helps preserve the existing rainforest” (13). Not only will Tapergie help find an alternative biofuels, it will employ 6,000 local palm tappers in the remote islands of Sulawesi. Yet the problem is that Arenga cannot be farmed on an industrial level, since it grows best in the rainforest, and cultivating ethanol from these palms is quite intricate and time-consuming. Another unique company is called Harvest Power, and its technology converts waste, ranging from food scraps to yard trimmings, to biogas by using microorganisms that are naturally occurring. This biogas can “be burned to produce electricity, cleaned to create natural gas, or further processed into compressed natural gas fuel” (14). Harvest Power recently hauled in 51.7 million dollars, and is led by Al Gore’s Investment firm.

Halfway across the globe, in India, Sea6 Energy is investigating seaweed as a possible biofuel. Instead of looking at the usual microalgae, which they say “would take many years to develop”, Sea6 Energy researchers are studying macroalgae, or seaweed (16). Seaweed is grown across the globe, stores high-energy nutrients from the ocean, is highly productive, and is relatively low priced. However, Sea6 Energy is still in early stages, trying to improve seaweed-to-fuel conversion technology.

In Houston, Texas, Accelergy Corp. is exploring “clean coal technologies”, which may seem like a paradox but involves converting “coal and coal waste into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel” (16). Accelergy is using the 1.3 million dollar state grant to construct a facility costing around 5.5 million dollars that will mine clean coal. “ ‘Our plan is to demonstrate a very novel technology that would enable us to use the coal in Pennsylvania to replace foreign oil,’” said Fiato, an executive at Accelergy. Like Sea6 Energy, Accelergy is still a young, unexperienced company but has a bright idea.

So, returning back to the initial question, “Can one B solve three big E’s?” or in other words, do biofuels hold the key for improving the environment, stimulating the economy, and helping the energy crisis? The answer is yes, because there is an expansive variety of applicable, innovative biofuels that hold such promise. In the future, the energy that powers our world won’t be limited to just one source, but will be derived from corn, algae, sugar palms, food scraps, seaweed, and possibly even coal! And will there be one, sole biofuel that outcompetes the others? Well, that’s only for the market to tell.





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