Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

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.

4 Responses to “A Short Primer on Biofuels”

  1. dWj said

    “Biofuels” are fuels that were recently alive. Cf. fossil fuels, which were alive a long time ago.

  2. el macho grandissimo said

    Another kind of biofuel is biodiesel (made of things like soybean oil, canola, palm oil, or old french fry grease). It is less conspicuous, but qiite widespread. I would love to have some numbers. Seattle City government uses biodiesel to reduce their carbon footprint. The EU does to. (They’ve been worrying about the GHG emissions and the competition of food for fuel.)

    Here is a passage from the city’s “Climate Protection plan”:
    In 2003, the City adopted a Clean and Green Fleet plan (new 2007 plan just released), setting a goal of using the cleanest fuels and most fuel-efficient vehicles available. As a result, the City reduced fleet use of fossil fuels by 12% compared to 1999 levels, and increased use of biodiesel in the City fleet by 4.5 times since 2003. By the end of 2007, all of the City’s diesel tanks will be filled with B20 or B40. In addition, since 2003, 78% of the

  3. Josh Blonz said

    Biodiesel is another interesting form of biofuel which is currently being used in the U.S. However, it usually gets dwarfed by ethanol for a few reasons. First, we just don’t use much diesel in the country. We seem to have an aversion to diesel cars in the U.S., meaning diesel is mostly used by trucks and buses. This smaller usage can be seen in production statistics where we used only 491 million gallons of Biodiesel in 2007 compared to 6,846 million gallons of ethanol (

    Policy also seems to mirror this. The Renewable Fuel Standard passed in 2007 (more on this to come later) puts a minimum requirement of 31 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022 compared to only 1 billion of biodiesel.

    That being said, biodiesel should not be ignored. Biodiesel is usually made from soy, which is grown in rotation with corn. This means that as we grow more corn, it is possible that more soy will be produced (this however, is not guaranteed). It is also possible that American consumers will start switching to more efficient diesel engines if petroleum prices continue to rise.

  4. el macho grandissimo said

    In addition, the rapid growth of palm oil plantations in Indonesia is displacing natural forests and killing orangutans, according to the Rainforest Action trust and Greenpeace. It’s kind of ironic that Seattleites and Danes use this option to help them feel virtuous.

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