Forget Biofuel. Is Bioelectricity the Next Big Thing?

By Eliza Strickland | May 8, 2009 11:14 am

switchgrassThe fast growing plant switchgrass has been heralded as the next generation of biofuel stock: Unlike fertilizer-dependent corn, researchers say it’s highly efficient to grow the grass and process it into ethanol. But a new study suggests that there’s an even better use for switchgrass and other plants. Rather than turning them into ethanol to fill the gas tanks of cars, plants should be burned in power plants to generate “bioelectricity,” which can power electric cars.

Using a sophisticated computer analysis, researchers found that a small sport utility vehicle could do 9,000 highway miles (14,484 km) on the energy produced from an acre of switchgrass converted into ethanol. But converting that biomass into electricity allowed a battery-powered SUV to get 14,000 miles (22,531 km) on the highway…. “One of the driving factors that lead to this result is that the electric motor is much more efficient than the internal combustion engine,” said the lead author of the study, Elliott Campbell [Reuters].

In the study, published in Science, researchers note another advantage that bioelectricity has over biofuel. The carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that use switchgrass or other plants as fuel could theoretically be captured and stored, since the emissions come from a few smokestacks. But the carbon dioxide emissions created from burning biofuel can’t be easily captured, since they come out of every car tailpipe on the road. Biomass, even though it releases CO2 when burned, overall produces less carbon dioxide than do fossil fuels because plants grown to replenish the resource are assumed to reabsorb those emissions. Capture those combustion emissions instead and sequester them underground, and it would “result in a carbon-negative energy source that removes CO2 from the atmosphere” [Technology Review], the study’s authors wrote.

A bioelectric future for transportation would require a wide-spread adoption of electric cars, which are still very far from the automobile showrooms. But Campbell says that this is the perfect moment to make decisions about how to keep people moving in the 21st century, before all the ethanol plants and pipelines are built. “We now have the opportunity to develop new technology for future transportation infrastructure…. If that infrastructure has a big renewable energy component, we need to understand what the most efficient energy source is” [Mercury News], he says.

Related Content:
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80beats: Backlash Over Biofuels Builds in Europe
DISCOVER: The Second Coming of Biofuels
DISCOVER: Life After Oil dives into the ethanol debate

Image: flickr / Doctor Swan

  • p

    Has anyone else ever heard of cannabis?

    I’ve heard it has flowers on it that, when properly cured, can have a very satisfying intoxicating effect. While that’s not for everyone (strange) it also interesting to note is capable of growing more than 30 feet in a single season. It can be made into fuel as well. Is rich in fiber which can be used for paper, cloth, and plastic; as well as having edible seeds which are rich in fiber, protein, and omega 3-6-9’s. It cleans the air (as any plant does) and is easily renewable (unlike trees).

    How many other uses does switchgrass have? Not to be facetious.

  • Nick

    Yo P, look up hemp. Grows just like cannabis, but you’d have to smoke an acre to get high, and you’d get sick and pass out due to lack of oxygen first.

    But then again, there is a 6 billion dollar marijuana industry in California. It’s high time we taxed that sh*t [pun not really intended but what the heck].

    Also, hemp rope is the best marine rope in the world. Ask any sailor.

    The main reasons hemp and marijuana are illegal is the paper barons of the early 20th century and Texan xenophobia regarding migrant Mexican workers.

    Both marijuana and hemp could be used as a switchgrass substitute AND have many other beneficial effects (in fact, low doses of THC from the marijuana plant have been reported to help alzheimers of all things. in actual scientific studies, not just “my grandma smoked herself so silly she forgot she had alzheimers”) – too bad they’re both illegal.

    South Dakotan farmers have been petitioning the government to grow hemp because it’s resistant to the diseases that are killing off their other crops (and thus their way of life), but so far the .gov has said no, continue barely scraping by, going into debt and otherwise failing as farmers, despite the many industrial uses of hemp and thus our money getting wasted on hemp imports rather than helping out our own struggling farmers.

  • Nick

    Whoops, I almost forgot to add: Thank SCIENCE someone has done this study. Making plants into fuel to run in an engine that runs off EXPLOSIONS is a bad idea. Engines that run off explosions are a bad idea (caveat – they were great during their time but the electric engine has been a proven concept for quite some time now), they’re dirty, inefficient, and CONSTANTLY wearing down due to the corrosive fluids we need to put in them.

    And no matter how “clean” biofuel may be on paper, I dare anyone, I mean TRIPLE-DOG DARE anyone to inhale fr9m tailpipe of a biofuel car for a breath or two.

    What? No takers? Hmph! I’ll suck on the tailpipe of an electri- oh wait it doesn’t have one.

  • p

    It was a PR move in the early 20th century that supplanted the cannabis/hemp industry. It may very well be the single most versatile plant in the world, yet for the most part it is illegal.

    Has anyone here heard of the external combustion engine?

  • Tom

    There are bio-organisms that can take carbon waste with small current and create methane. thats an 80% recycleable for carbon waste that cant be done via ethanol based cars.

    Besides…ethanol was never meant to be anything other than a replacement for MTBE which poisoned the ground water.

    Still…the future is definitely NOT in ethanol or biofuels.
    Still the future is not in electric cars until batteries can store enough energy for a 700 mile trip.
    The future is in hybrids and plug ins like the Chevy Volt.

    The future is in ulta efficient small engines whether diesel or gas/ethanol and we are talking motorcycle engines to 4 cylinders that get 100mpg…as backups until batteries can reach that 500-700 range on a charge the way a tank of fuel can.

  • Jo

    @Tom: 700 mile trip?! My current car gets a little more than HALF that on a full tank of gasoline. Why would I expect an electric to get me twice as far to consider it practical? And most people don’t drive long distances every day — it’s the puttering around to and from work that many electrics are quite capable of dealing with NOW.

  • p

    one word: teleportation.

  • Matt Tarditti

    @P: An External Combustion (EC) engine is where you roll a car down a hill, which makes the pistons in the EC comparment compress the CO2-rich atmosphere so much that it turns into fuel.

    @Tom: Exactly how far up your rear end did you have to reach to get a figure of 700 miles?

  • p

    @ Matt- if you want to learn anything else about external combustion.

  • Dan

    @P: Hey, you should check out a book called The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer. It provides a detailed history of Hemp as well as some very inspiring thoughts about it’s place in the future. It wasn’t the paper barons of the 20’s, so much as the chemical giants DOW and DuPont. All of their manufacturing tech was centered around petroleum. Hemp can do virtually anything oil can do, only cleaner and cheaper. The other major problem was Cotton and it’s support industries for the same reasons. And at this stage we also have the oil barons.

  • Diesel

    Jo and Matt, my 2002 DIESEL Excursion (8000 lb car, pulling a 2000 lb trailer) gets between 600 and 800 miles per tank! Oh, and since most of the cars talked about here seat 2 adults and two children – let’s compare that to a typical Excursion that comfortably seats 8 adults. So we are getting about 1400 miles per tank per set of four people compared to your tiny fuel efficient cars.

    8 people at 20 mpg = 160 mpgpp (miles per gallon per persons)
    3 people (two adults plus two children) at 50 mpg = 150 mpgpp

    Sure, I’d like a regenerative electric vehicle for around town, seating two adults and two children and groceries. But how much is that going to cost to purchase – and it MUST be a second car. Power outages prevent travel beyond, say 100 miles – assuming new technology and a fully charged car. If need be, I can travel 880 miles on a full tank. Do you think I have a good chance at getting to a diesel station that has power? 880 miles??? You bet I do.

    Experience a Katrina (I did) or a major ice storm (no power for 9 days – I did), or tornadoes that knock out power for 2-3 days (I do every other year) or a rolling power outage (like what happened in the NE – I didn’t) and you still want to tell me that the answer is a battery powered plug in car? No way. Put a diesel generator in there, use an electric transmission – and yes, you have a winning solution.

    Read up on bio-diesel producing algae from human and animal waste. Great solutions are just around the corner.

  • Warren Heath

    Forget Biofuel. Average of 985 gals of precious water, which is seriously being depleted from groundwater and aquifers, per ONE GALLON OF ETHANOL. As much as 2100 gals per gal in some areas. Serious erosion and rapid depletion of topsoil. Rapid use of Oil-based fertilizers. Any accurate energy input study shows at absolute best ZERO GAIN in replacing fossil fuel energy. Pollution of river delta regions with agricultural run-off – the Ocean Dead Zones. And a secret, leaked World Bank Report concluded those Agro-fuels caused a 75% increase in Food Prices. And that has spurred further destructive effects – such as a rapid increase in deforestation in the Amazon – as hungry people try to grow expensive food – one of the highest GHG emissions regions on the planet.

    What this study neglects to mention, is that 1 acre of the best Biofuels (with the exception of Algae – the only good Biofuel), burnt in a ICE vehicle. can be replaced by 100 sq.ft. of Solar PV, fixed tilt, average USA location, used to power a comparable electric vehicle. And that means put the Solar PV up once and your good for 30-40 yrs, rather than for the 1 acre of land – seeding, irrigating, weeding, harvesting, transporting, processing and shipping by tanker truck – EVERY YEAR. And I haven’t included any of the large energy inputs of doing all that work – EVERY YEAR! With Corn Ethanol – according to Pimentel – that would boost it up to more like 11 acres of land – to replace 100 sq. ft of Solar PV. Agro-fuels are Wacky, Nutty – a Crime Against Humanity.

  • Vocal Citizen

    Check out that site. Gasoline vs. Hemp biofuel comparisons regarding carbon emissions, environmental concerns, toxicity, domestic and renewable hemp vs. foreign oil, etc.

    It’s quite impressive, considering Rudolf Diesel designed his engine to run on hemp fuel way back in 1897. Funny how 112 years later, we haven’t come up with anything as safe and effective? I mean, something has to be the best, right? Why not a non-toxic plant that grows anywhere like a weed; which is renewable, eco-friendly, inexpensive, requires no pesticides, and boasts more than 10,000 other uses?

    Cannabis. Hemp. Marijuana. Call it what you like: I say plant oceans of the stuff and let’s produce our own hemp fiber, medicine, food, textiles, hemp gasoline… hell, you can partially BUILD a car with compressed hemp composite. The next time you whistle at a Dodge Viper, you’re watching hemp look goooood…

    Mark my words – eventually, the economic and environmental situation in this country will get bad enough that our elected leaders will have no choice but to accept that Cannabis Sativa DOES possess the solution to many of our current issues. What’s pathetic is before Marijuana Prohibition in the 1930s, humankind used this plant for thousands of years, depending on its myriad benefits. Our great-great grandparents were smarter and kinder to the planet than us!

  • yomi ige

    nobody has mentioned the bamboo the most promising bioelectricity feedstock in the world.
    look and search bamboo is not only the generationnext it will subsist for a very long term
    Take up this challenge and check it out today

  • Susana Green Grass

    Awesome post. I study one thing more challenging on differently blogs everyday. It’ll always be stimulating to learn content from different writers and apply a little bit something from their store. I’d want to use some with the content on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll provide you with a link in your web blog. Thanks for sharing.

  • Eco-Social

    Bamboo and hemp are my top two ‘most promising’ for biomass fuels. I am putting my money in UCO recyclables. Bio-Diesel from recycled cooking oil.

    I think the best solution to our energy needs is to incorporate as many different alternative energy choices as possible. Recycle and Reuse!!


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