A Short Primer on Biofuels
Posted by jab12004 on November 17, 2008
Having never posted on this or any blog before, I was kind of excited when Evan told me I should write a bit about biofuels. I’ve spent the last few months working on the topic, and for better or worse have often found myself spouting out strange biofuels facts at usually inappropriate times. This seems like a good way to channel what I’ve researched.
The term biofuels has come to mean a lot, but generally it can be applied to anything which can be grown and eventually used as some sort of power. Ethanol, however, remains the most important/significant biofuel used, and hence receives most of the attention.
Currently, there are 2 ways to make Ethanol in the U.S.
Corn ethanol: Most people know what it is and its limitations. One interesting fact… even if we were to put our entire 13.2 billion bushels of corn production to ethanol, it could only replace 16.7% of annual petroleum usage
Cellulosic ethanol: ethanol made from any sort of plant mass, like trees or grass. We currently have the ability to make ethanol from cellulose, but the technology isn’t very advanced and it is costly. Projections show that it could become cost competitive with corn ethanol over the next 5-10 years, but no one is sure when the process will be commercially viable and competitive.
My general feeling is that corn ethanol isn’t any sort of solution, but cellulosic ethanol presents interesting opportunities for the future. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from various native grasses, usually called switchgrass, which present many advantages to corn. Switchgrass does not require large amounts of fertilizer, it can be grown in most areas in the country, and do not destroy the soil like corn.
There are many other statistics which back up why Cellulosic ethanol is the biofuel of the future, but there are some large hurdles that lay between us large scale ethanol usage. These include
1. Currently, ethanol cannot be blended with gasoline before being shipped in pipelines. This means it must be transported by rail, truck and barge to its destination. Pipelines can be used with modification, but that is costly and has only been done once
2. Even if it is possible to get lots ethanol to American drivers, conventional cars can only burn a gasoline/ethanol blend that is 10% ethanol (E10). That means that without building more specialized Flex Fuel Vehicles and distributing E85 (85% ethanol), it will be impossible to replace more than 10% of our gasoline with ethanol.
Needless to say, we are all a long way off from driving around in grass fueled cars.
More to come later on biofuels and the Obama administration.