Will These 4 Biofuels Be Bonanzas or Busts?

By Eliza Strickland | October 8, 2009 6:32 pm

biofuelsCompanies and governments all over the world are racing to find cleaner, greener fuels to end our society’s addiction to oil and cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But in the rush and tumult of new developments and optimistic predictions, it’s hard to separate the hype from real hope. So a recent series of articles from Nature News feels like a public service, as the articles investigate the scientific and economic state of affairs for four different kinds of biofuels.

The first article focused on the weedy plant jatropha, which was initially hailed as a biofuel wonder plant because it can survive in poor soil and harsh conditions, and because of its extremely oily seeds. But recently, investments in jatropha projects have fallen off dramatically. Environmental scientist Robert Bailis says that “over the past three years, the investment got way ahead of the plant science.” … Early investors are now realizing the plant’s limitations. Jatropha can live in very dry conditions, but doesn’t necessarily yield a lot of seeds. The plant takes three years or more to reach maturity, requiring care along the way. And jatropha seedlings are often not well-suited to the climate in which they are planted [Nature News].

Now, companies are regrouping and going back to basic science; they’re crossbreeding plants to create strains that mature faster or have higher oil yields, and are seeking out the habitats most suited for jatropha plantations. The plant may well have a role to play in the future energy mix, but it’s no botanical cure-all.

Investments in algae-based biofuels, on the other hand, are booming. Corporations like ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical are partnering with biofuel companies on algae projects, and one company, Solazyme, will soon begin producing commercial quantities of algal fuel for the U.S. Navy. Algae’s photosynthetic cells produce an oily goo, including various oils and ethanol, that can be converted into advanced biofuels…. Algae have several key traits that make them a desirable energy source. They can be grown on non-agricultural land in a fraction of the area required by conventional oil crops such as maize (corn), soybean and palm. In addition, algae capture carbon dioxide and can thrive in domestic waste water or salt water [Nature News]. The big hurdle companies now face is scaling up their operations, and finding out whether processes that work in the lab also function on massive, commercial level.

Cellulosic ethanol, meanwhile, was expected to already be a dominant part of the biofuel market by now. Cellulosic ethanol — a biofuel that can be produced from agricultural residue, grasses and municipal waste — was touted as superior to maize (corn) ethanol because it produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and does not compete with food-supply needs [Nature News]. But the economic downturn thwarted numerous companies that were just about to build their first processing plants, and investors have been scared off by cheaper oil prices, which makes ethanol less competitive. Companies are now experimenting with ways to bring down the cost of ethanol production, and boosters say that when the economy improves, those plants will finally get built.

Finally, Nature News looked at a dark horse in the biofuels race: transforming woodchips and other biomass not into ethanol, but into an exact replica of today’s gasoline in a process called “biomass-to-liquid.” Many see promise because, unlike other biofuels, this product would blend smoothly into today’s petrol-driven infrastructure…. The technologies required are known but need refinement: they rely on breaking down biomass, such as sugar molecules, which can then be handled in conventional refineries to produce petrol, diesel or jet fuel. But the catalysts needed to convert the biomass to useful hydrocarbons are still being developed [Nature News]. This technology in its infancy, but with oil companies like Chevron sniffing around, it may be one to watch.

Related Content:
80beats: Could Exxon Go Green? Oil Giant Invests in Algae Biofuel Research
80beats: Jatropha: Not a Miracle Biofuel Crop After All?
80beats: Forget Biofuel. Is Bioelectricity the Next Big Thing?
DISCOVER: Can Botanical Tweaking Turn Jatropha Into a Biofuel Wonder Plant?
DISCOVER: The Second Coming of Biofuels
DISCOVER: Life After Oil dives into the ethanol debate

Image: flickr / jurvetson

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Feature
  • annie avery

    can you say HEMP!!!!!!!??????????????????????? crickey!

  • http://www.alternativefuelscorp.com michael hepworth

    If I’m not mistaken, the process you are referring to for converting biomass to synthetic fuels was invented in 1923 by two German scientists; Karl Fischer and Hans Tropsch. It was based on coal as the feedstock primarily because of the scale required. South Africa currently produces 30% of its fuel requirements using this process as it has no oil.

    Recent developments out of a South African university, have resulted in a biomass to liquids process which can be profitable at a much smaller scale, which is good for biomass. The biggest problem with biomass, is that it is expensive to harvest and transport, so will only work with very small scale plants and these are difficult to make any money on.

    There is another option and that is to include municipal solid waste as a supplement to biomass or to use MSW alone. Its free, there’s plenty of it and no one likes landfill. However at present few people recognize MSW as a distributed energy resource.

    Every year North Americans send about 1.3 billion tons of MSW to landfill. Each ton can yield approximately 1.7 barrels of ultra-clean green synthetic fuels that can be seamlessly blended with existing fossil fuels. This is one of the truly scalable options we have for substituting fossil fuels.

    You can learn more about the process at http://abillionbarrels.blogspot.com

  • Jimbo

    Research into greener fuel methods is a good idea, but I feel that many are missing the point. Even though we may have other cheap sources of liquid fuel for vehicles, the problem remains that we will be burning the fuel and releasing CO2. If we use ethanol, then the emmissions of CO2 will be greater than gasoline because ethanol burns ~20% less efficiently. If the move to ‘greener’ sources of fuel is to reduce CO2 emmissions, then this is the wrong move. Perhaps if biomass fermentation was to be used to fuel electric generators to power electric cars and the exhaust from the generators was scrubbed to remove the CO2, then we have a ‘greener’ method than simply burning something else than gasoline. Please chip in to the discussion!

  • ECSL


    burning fuel obtained through these methods means that we return to the atmosphere the CO2 extracted to produce them (then re-extract from the atmosphere it to create more fuel), so they’re carbon-neutral.

    The problem with fossil fuels is that the first stage of the cycle (extracting CO2 from the atmosphere) occurred a long time ago, and we’re returning it now, which is not carbon-neutral over a human time scale.

  • Arturo Velez

    Great info! Thanks!
    The big issue with biomass is that even though there’s still ennough, the logistics are tough! We should produce high yield energy crops. Like agave.
    One hectare of agave annually produces 500+ tonnes of biomass -by year 3 after the plantation is established-, yielding 3X more sugars than sugarcane in Brazil, 4X more cellulose than fast-growing eucalyptus and 5X more dry biomass than GMO poplar tree.

    The cost of production of one tonne of dry biomass is around thirty US dollars.

    Agave thrives on marginal land in semiarid and temperate climates, even on saline or acidic soils and steep hills, requires no watering nor fertilizing, is very prolific and easy to cultivate.

    Tens of biofuels and value-added bioproducts can be derived from agave: methanol. ethanol, biocoal, biodiesel, biojet fuel, H2, inulin, biopolymers, bioplastics, phenols, acids, detergent, pressed boards, geotextiles, fructose syrup, concrete additive, healthy sweeteners… making it the perfect feedstock for a biorefinery where electricity, biofuels and bioproducts are produced.

    Agave will play an important role in the bioeconomy of the XXI Century.


  • vince

    Here’s a suggestion,

    Why not give up on corn based ethanol and just buy ethanol from tropical countries that can produce it more efficiently. Sugarcane is much much more efficiant than corn. But this will never happen because politics (lobbyists) trumps good science anytime


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