by John Brian Shannon
Originally published at BiofuelCentral.org
New biofuel technologies are allowing commercially viable transportation fuel production from switchgrass, non-edible grains and fruits, from certain trees, and recently from the ‘stover’ or ‘dross’ of certain crops (stalks, roots, leaves, bark, nutshells, husks) and algae.
Algae is the new player on the block and once it is supercharged with common industrial waste gases (like CO2) it becomes an exceptionally pure and clean burning biofuel with no negative waste stream.
But some may feel that biofuels have little future due to dramatically falling oil prices and the improved fuel mileage of today’s cars
However, that’s not the case…
“China recently set aside an area the size of England to produce jatropha and other non-food plants for biodiesel.
India has up to 60 million hectares of non-arable land available to produce jatropha, and intends to replace 20 percent of diesel fuels with jatropha-based biodiesel.
In Brazil and Africa, there are significant programs underway dedicated to producing non-food crops jatropha and castor for biodiesel.” — Will Thurmond in his book, Biodiesel 2020
Three generations of biofuel are already on the market or are undergoing commercial testing as of 2014
- 1st-generation biofuels are made from processed food crops such as corn, sugar cane and sugar beets
- 2nd-generation biofuels are made from non-food crops such as camelina, jatropha, millettia and switchgrass, which can grow in semi-arid regions
- 3rd-generation biofuels are made from algae + enzymes, or organic waste materials such as cardboard, stover, other biomass, or from waste gases and waste liquids from industry.
3rd-generation biofuels show the most promise and are progressing well along their production trials timeline — while 1st-generation biofuels still have major environmental and minor economic obstacles to overcome.
Meanwhile, 2nd-generation biofuel production is booming in many developing countries and investors are making excellent returns.
The global biofuel industry is entering a rapid phase of development
Total global biofuel production is projected to reach 66.3 billion gallons per year (BGPY) by 2022, and bio-ethanol is expected to hit 51.1 BGPY compared to biodiesel’s 16.2 BGPY.
According to a recent report from Navigant Research, worldwide revenue from biofuels for road transportation will grow from $166.5 billion annually in 2014 to $337.8 billion by 2022.
“Over the last 10 years, growth in the biofuels sector has been driven by the increase in ethanol production capacity in the United States and Brazil, and in biodiesel in Europe. Today, the industry is on the verge of entering a new phase of development focused on advanced and drop-in biofuels.” — Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant Research
“Given the scale of development to date and the crystallization of interests… widespread biofuels commercialization is no longer a question of if, but when.” — Biofuels Markets and Technologies report by Pike Research
A note about sugarcane
The following is true whether sugarcane is being harvested to produce table sugar or is being harvested to produce bio-ethanol
When sugarcane is harvested (every 5 1/2 months) the leaves, roots, etc. (also known as the ‘stover’ or ‘dross’ by farmers) is left on the ground and burned.
Millions of hectares of sugarcane fields go up in smoke, twice per year.
The people who can afford to leave the area during the twice-yearly burning are certain to leave as the unpleasant black smoke pervades those regions for up to two weeks, at two different times of the calendar year. Each year, a total of one month’s growing season is lost as the fields are burned.
This common practice releases millions of tonnes of CO2 and other gases (some toxic) into the atmosphere, causing a net loss for Earth’s atmosphere.
But even as burning millions of hectares of sugarcane fields measurably worsens the air quality of the Earth — hundreds of miles away from the twice-yearly burning in cities like São Paulo, Brazil for example (population 11.3 million) the urban air quality is dramatically improved year-round as a result of using bio-ethanol in the city’s millions of cars.
New technology to the rescue
Some foresighted bio-ethanol producers in Brazil are harvesting the sugarcane stover and processing it into biodiesel or bio-ethanol (depending on the enzyme used) in cellulosic biofuel reactors specially made for conversion of plant stover.
Total biofuel yields from stover are slightly lower than normal sugarcane biofuel production. But many farmers find stover biofuel produces fuel for farm use and they burn it to produce both heat and electricity to power the biofuel factory (during the twice-yearly biofuel or table sugar production run) and nearby homes (all year).
The Brazilian government is assisting farmers and thereby helping the Earth’s atmosphere by providing seed money and a mild subsidy to sugarcane farmers (regardless if the sugarcane is ultimately grown to produce table sugar or biofuel) to allow them to economically harvest and process millions of tons of stover, instead of burning it in the fields.
Properly targeted policies now, can have maximum impact on the promising economic and environmental future of biofuel.