Biofuel Development: Creation and Controversy

by Justin Dargin

abstract in italiano


Contrary to conventional wisdom, biofuels are not a newly invented form of transportation fuel; biofuels have been around since the first days of the automobile. German born Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the Diesel engine, designed his original engine to run on biofuels. At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, he demonstrated his engine by the use of peanut oil. American Henry Ford originally invented the Model T to run on hemp-derived biofuel. Further, Nicolas August Otto, of German extraction, invented his internal combustion engine to run on corn-based ethanol.
However, with large scale petroleum discoveries in the late 19th century, petroleum, which was both cheap and plentiful, became the logical choice of fuel. Petroleum dominance had begun, and the question of biofuels for transportation use was largely ignored until the oil shocks of 1970s.

Biofuel, as the name implies, is made from plants ,or plant waste; essentially, it is stored solar power. Although biofuels have been along for some time, we are still at the first generation of development in terms of ethanol; utilizing fermentation of corn starch or sugar, rather than the more abundant lignocelluloses raw material, from the hard material of the plant.

As illustrated in Figure 1, since 2002, global growth in ethanol production has nearly doubled. Although, as will be explored below, there are several promising prospects to make the evolutionary leap to the next level, to be able to develop an inexpensive method to develop cellulosic ethanol.

The first generation biofuels can be categorized into three broad categories below:

Vegetable oil: Many vegetable oils have similar fuel properties as diesel fuel. However, one of the problems is that it is much more viscous (thicker) than conventional diesel fuel or biofuel and without an engine conversion, damage can occur over long term use.

Biodiesel: This is the most common form of biofuel utilized in Europe. It is a vegetable oil based fuel that can run in unmodified diesel engines. It is usually made from soy or canola oil, but can also be made from waste oil that has been used in the cooking process (after it has been filtered).

Bioalcohol: This is alcohol obtained from biological sources, most commonly used to produce ethanol, but less commonly propanol and butanol. Biobutanol is claimed by its promoters to provide a direct replacement for gasoline. Bioalcohol is produced by the fermentation process of microorganisms and enzymes from starches, sugars, or cellulosic matter. Sugar cane based ethanol is very popular as fuel in Brazil, while corn-based ethanol is gaining in popularity in the United States.

The EU joined the biofuel rush head-on; encouraged by new subsidies to develop biofuels, farmers have traded in their traditional cash crops to grow lucrative biofuels. Many Italian farmers have set aside their durum wheat, which was used to make high quality pasta, to raise rapeseed for production of rapeseed oil, a precursor for biodiesel.
In March 2007, the European Commission attempted to offset what it viewed as the disappointing growth of the EU biofuels industry. However, the EU interest in biofuels must be viewed in context, the interest in biofuels evolved because the EU imports the majority of its petroleum from the international market, thus biofuel strategy is also energy security. But as in the US, biofuel growth is primarily government driven.
The EU promulgated Directive 2003/30EC (the biofuels directive), which mandated member states to incorporate biofuels in 5.75% of road fuel sales by 2010, and 10% by 2020. The EU focuses on biodiesel because most of its transportation needs are currently met by traditional diesel.

However, many of the member states were so far from the projected goals that the EU instituted incentives and subsidies to increase the tempo of production. The crops utilized for biofuels are now some of the most profitable crops for EU farmers.
As an additional boon, EU farmers are allowed to plant biofuels on land that EU law previously required that they leave fallow to prevent an oversupply of food. The upward pressure on food prices, including grain that resulted from the headlong rush into the biofuel market caused some to question the sudden incorporation of biofuels in the fuel mix.
However, EU politicians insist that they have learned from the excesses in the US market, where farmers rushed to plant corn in order to profit from government subsidies. These leaders affirmed that the ten-percent target would provide the optimum measured growth, while avoiding undue impact on those lower income persons who could not cope with higher prices. Currently, biofuels account for one-percent of the EU’s transportation fuel.

However, there are already signs that companies may have over invested in this rediscovered energy source. Figure 2 shows the sharp increases in biofuel production in the three leading biofuel production centres, Germany, France and Italy. Overzealous biofuel plant production has already taken its toll in Germany where the biofuel sector is running at half capacity. The problem has also hit the UK, where the biofuel industry is at half capacity and is trimming production.In Germany the cause of under capacity has largely been caused by the termination of the tax rebate, when the government created a new E0.09 per litre tax on biofuels.

The German authorities stated that the new tax was due to revenue loss. With the imposition of the new tax, sales and production have fallen about thirty-percent. It is estimated that the EU may have to import up to a third of its ten-percent requirement: the resultant irony is that it may increase greenhouse gas emissions by shipping it from Malaysia or Indonesia. The significant decrease in production may illustrate the price elasticity of biofuels when compared to standard fossil fuels. This elasticity may leave biofuels uncompetitive in the competitive market environment. The German example should serve as a good illustration for the rest of the EU.
In contrast to the US, where politicians remain bullish about biofuels, the EU has experienced escalating calls for a moratorium and the issuance of a biofuel directive. In the UK the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO), enforces the EU biofuel requirement by mandating that by 2010 five-percent of all transport fuels be composed of sustainable renewable sources. Beginning on April 1st, 2008, 2.5 percent of UK transportation fuel must be composed of biofuels. However, UK chief environmental scientist Professor Robert Watson has publicly called for a delay in implementation of the RTFO, because he had significant concerns about the ‘sustainability’ of certain biofuels.
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said that in the face of certain suggestive evidence that particular types of biofuel may cause increased food prices and rainforest destruction, it may be better to miss the target, than achieve it by harming the environment. He explained that, because the potential environmental harm loomed larger than initially thought, the EU must proceed cautiously in reaching its mandates. Commissioner Dimas promised that the EU would launch a certification scheme to mitigate the amount of biofuels used from palm oil, as its cultivation has been faulted for the major destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest. There have been allegations that the EU policy is defective and ill-informed, and should be replaced with a carbon mitigation scheme, combined with fuel efficiency regulations. This, it is argued, would allow all stakeholders to develop more environmental friendly schemes, with less overall cost.

As stated above, the US interest in biofuels began with the birth of the automobile, but waned until the first and second oil shocks of the 1970s. Whereas the EU is a significant user of biodiesel fuel, the US utilizes mainly corn-based ethanol (see Table 1). But biodiesel was the fastest growing biofuel in 2005. Yet, most biofuels in the US are mixed with fossil fuels, because the majority of cars in the US can operate on fuel mixes comprising up to ten-percent ethanol, with no engine modifications necessary. American car manufacturers have begun to produce E85 cars that run on a mix of eightyfive-percent ethanol, and the rest fossil fuel.
In 2007, Portland, Oregon, became the first city that required all gasoline sold within city limits to contain ten-percent ethanol, but other cities will likely follow suit. The US and Brazil together produce ninety-percent of the global production of ethanol, while Brazil’s sugar cane-based ethanol accounts for about forty-percent of that nation’s non diesel transportation fuel.

Yet, in 2006, the US surpassed Brazil to become the world’s number one producer of ethanol. The US Congress effectively gave birth to the American biofuel industry when it promulgated the renewable fuel standard as a provision of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPA 2005). This program foresees a doubling of the 2004 biofuel production levels by 2012, to supplement the nation’s transportation fuel with a domestically produced renewable fuel source.
Since passage of the EPA 2005, ethanol use in the USA expanded to where it is currently over two-percent of total fuel used. Ethanol production is predicted to soar over the next several years, because the EPA 2005 set a renewable fuel standard requiring the production of 7.5 billion gallons of annual domestic biofuel production by 2012. Ethanol use is more heavily concentrated in the Midwestern grain producing states, but is becoming more widespread over the entire country. Between the years 2000-2005 ethanol use nearly doubled, to where it drivers consumed nearly 4 billion gallons yearly.
However, there is increasing concern about the sustainability of ethanol. The carbon footprint,measured in CO2 discharge from fossil fuel, to transport ethanol (since it can’t be transported in pipeline), and in harvesting it, contributes a not insignificant amount of green house gases into the atmosphere, which is downgrading ethanol as product with a positive ‘green’ status.

A further concern has been that the US Congress, in favouring corn-based ethanol in the Renewable Fuel Standard Program, yielded to special interests rather than to science. There is vocal criticism that in a large multiclimate country as the US, the best biofuel policy would encourage feed stocks that are best suited for that particular region’s climate, such as corn in the Midwestern states, forest waste and paper in the Northeast, Northwest and Georgia, and sugarcane in the Southern states. And if cellulosic ethanol takes off, the large urban metropolises could utilize garbage. But when corn was anointed as the fuel of choice, it appeared that political pressure from farm producing states and lobbyists was the culprit. And as ‘green’ as corn-based ethanol may be, it is not without its shortcomings.

There is a sweeping debate as to whether corn-based ethanol provides more energy per gallon when compared to its production, when factoring the fuel needed to grow and harvest it and transport it by truck or rail. Some energy experts say it does, up to twentysix-percent more energy than the fossil fuel required to produce it, while others respond that it has a net loss, that it requires 1.2 gallons of fossil fuel to produce one gallon of corn based ethanol.
Ethanol, which is too corrosive to be transported in the nation’s pipelines, must be moved by rail or truck, hardly the most efficient manner. And by 2010, it is estimated that the US will have reached the optimum amount of corn that can be earmarked for ethanol production, without sacrificing food production. Further, the focus on corn based ethanol is expected to accelerate the growth of monoculture cultivation and threaten biodiversity. Faced with these questions, many in the US advocate more study, and suggest that to make corn-based ethanol a small portion of the national renewable fuel mix is the best path.

While global attention has rightly focused on ways to mitigate green house gas emissions, new contradictions have appeared
based on the environmental degradation that first generation biofuel production causes in the ecosphere. There is a growing
chorus of environmentalists who fear that both ethanol and biodiesel can trigger major environmental problems, such as
deforestation of the rainforest (which reduces carbon dioxide sinks), freshwater depletion, and soil and ground water damage through increased use of harmful fertilizers and pesticides.

Discharges from biofuel plants
Alleged environmental discharges from biofuel plants have become a worrying trend in some Midwestern US states. While in Iowa, which leads the US in biofuel production, has experienced several major spills from biodiesel plants in local streams that have killed significant numbers of aquatic life. While biodiesel is considered nontoxic and biodegradable, the oil and glycerine content can deplete the oxygen content of water and suffocate the wildlife. To birds, a biodiesel spill is just as hazardous as a petroleum spill.

The EU, concerned about deforestation caused by clear cutting of forests for biofuel production, has proposed a draft law to ban imports of biofuels grown on certain types of land, such as forests, wetlands and grasslands, to achieve a certain level of greenhouse gas savings.
This ban would principally affect environmentally devastating plants as palm oil, which the EU imports from southeast Asia, but may also impact a few biofuel plants in South America as soy, wheat, and sugar beets. It has been alleged that the increased production of palm oil in Southeast Asia, has drained and deforested its peat lands, and in the process, contributed approximately eight-percent of global greenhouse gas emission.
The UK Royal Society report suggested that the best option for the EU would be to set emissions reductions targets, rather than to mandate renewable fuels.

Food versus fuel
The food-versus-fuel debate has gripped the world’s attention with the rapid growth of biofuels. It is believed that the increased biofuel production, fueled in a large part by government subsidies, tax rebates and fuel mixture targets, will end the era of ‘cheap food’. It is predicted that as first generation biofuel use grows, there will be an increasing battle between arable land set aside for food production, and that set aside for biofuel cultivation. The extra demand for grain to make biofuels has already been the suspected culprit behind the rise on certain food prices globally. And although global biofuel production has tripled since 2000, it still accounts for less than three-percent of the total global transportation fuel use.
Heightened food prices are already on the march. Ten-per-cent of the world’s sugar harvest is used for ethanol production, and the price of sugar has since doubled; the price of palm oil has increased fifteen-percent from the past year, with further increases expected. The predicted tidal wave increase in global foodstuffs herald a structural shift in food prices, and is expected to ripple throughout the global economy. The costs for soybeans and other crops, and products like tortillas, have increased significantly. The next round of increases could be meat and poultry (animals fed with corn meal), and soft drinks (made with corn syrup).

Given the questions that have been raised about the first generation biofuels, many alternative fuel enthusiasts have been placing their hopes on the development of second generation fuels. Utilizing advanced methods in chemistry and genetic engineering, they hope to mitigate some of the more obvious problems associated with traditional biofuels.
The problems with traditional biofuel are not insurmountable, but provide pause. For instance, the grain needed to fill a twenty-five (96.4 litres) gallon fuel tank on a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) with pure ethanol (450 pounds of corn), could conceivably feed one person for an entire year. The grain necessary to fill the same fuel tank every two weeks over a year, could feed up to twenty-six people.

The Rise of Cellulosic Ethanol
Because of the potential societal and ecological costs of first generation biofuels, increasing attention has been paid to cellulosic ethanol as a possible panacea. Cellulosic ethanol has not been commercially viable due to technical hurdles. The most significant is that it requires genetic engineering of the most suitable enzymes for cellulosic breakdown. A Swiss biotechnology firm, Syngenta, is researching genetically engineered maize that could potentially convert itself into ethanol by force of a particular enzyme. Other biotechnology firms are genetically engineering trees that potentially could produce less of the lignin which gives tree the hard structure to stand up, but that are difficult to break down.
Since cellulose is the main ingredient of plants, it is quite plentiful, which means that cellulosic ethanol is able to beneficially utilize the entire plant for ethanol production. Further, since cellulosic ethanol utilizes either biomass waste or the inedible material of plants (wood, straw and hard, fibrous material), it does not compete directly with food cultivation as does traditional ethanol. Even land which is not productive for food, may yield cellulose producing plants, such as switch grass.

What is the cost?
However, the cost of producing cellulose ethanol is quite prohibitive. According to the US Department of Energy cellulosic ethanol costs approximately $1.30 per liter to produce (see Figure 3), approximately twice as much as corn-based ethanol. The cellulosic enzymes necessary to break down the plant matter cost thirty to fifty cents (US) per gallon (3.78 liters), compared to the three cents (US) per gallon of corn. If cellulosic ethanol is to displace corn ethanol and become a viable alternative, it must overcome these significant cost barriers.

Biobutanol - The Saviour?
Biobutanol is produced from biomass, but has the same chemical properties as the butanol produced from petroleum. Environmentalists and energy experts tend to consider this product a superior fuel to ethanol because it is less corrosive and has a higher energy value. The production process of biobutanol is nearly identical to that of corn-based ethanol, because it relies on fermentation of a food crop to produce a fuel. The biobutanol fermentation process can use corn, corn byproducts, grass, leaves, agricultural waste and biomass. While corn-based ethanol is approximately seventy-percent as efficient as gasoline, biobutanol is almost at parity, and requires no engine modifications. A drawback is that it offers nearly zero compatibility for diesel engines.
Further, biobutanol does not absorb water as corn-based ethanol does. Therefore instead of it being necessary to separately ship and mix with gasoline (as ethanol) close to the gas station, biobutanol may be mixed at the refinery and transported within the existing petroleum infrastructure. And compared to ethanol it has a lower evaporative rate.
However, these windfalls can be expected if and when a commercially viable (meaning inexpensive) enzyme can be found. While biobutanol nearly solves the energy efficiency problem of corn-based ethanol, it does not solve the food versus fuel debate. Until the industry finds a viable enzyme to convert cellulosic matter, it widespread use will be a mere abstractions. Biobutanol is, in a sense, riding the coattails of cellulosic ethanol. When a viable enzyme is found for producing cellulosic ethanol, then biobutanol will become the more viable.

The global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been the primary driver behind the interest in biofuels. Biofuels are cleaner burning than fossil fuels and pump less carbon dioxide in the air. However, its sustainable status is being questioned, because significant issues have arisen over suggestive evidence that the race to secure biofuels can lead to rapid deforestation, a rise in food prices, environmental violations resulting from dumping, and a loss of biodiversity as land is switched to monoculture harvesting. Many of the most outspoken proponents have paused. Further, the intense government involvement in biofuel production by subsidization and tariffs, could potentially leave it open to challenges under the WTO system for unfair trade subsidies and trade barriers.
It seems apparent that other methods are needed to determine the best coordinated response to the threat of climate change, and the research and development necessary for a viable second generation biofuel utilizing cellulosic technology appears to be poised to help. In the race to save the environment, it is essential we do not harm it.