Perspectives: End Point

Views on Alternative Fuels Differ

Are biofuels a boon or a black hole for chemical engineering?

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

A special issue of Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining focusing on the role of biomass in the United States’ energy future concludes that cellulosic biofuels offer similar, if not lower costs, and very large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum-derived fuels.

The journal hopes that the issue’s content, which includes a comparative analysis of more than a dozen mature technology biomass refining scenarios, will make a major contribution to the ongoing debate on the future potential of biofuels in the USA.

Professor Lee Lynd from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., is co-author of five of the eight papers in the special issue.

“We conclude that mature biomass refining is highly competitive with the fuels currently available, based on all the factors considered,” he says. “The most promising class of processes we analyzed combined the biological fermentation of carbohydrates to fuels with advanced technologies that thermochemically convert process residues to electrical power and, or, additional liquid fuels. One of our important findings, which contradicts conventional wisdom, is that similar greenhouse gas emission reductions on a per ton biomass basis are anticipated for the production of liquid fuels and electricity via mature technology.”

The researchers also found that the mature cellulosic biofuel technologies analyzed potentially can provide efficiencies on a par with petroleum-based fuels; require modest volumes of process water; and achieve production costs consistent with gasoline when oil prices are at about $30 a barrel.

Three of the papers are available on the journal’s Web site (http://www.interscience.wiley.com/biofpr). “By making key papers in this series free we hope that this special issue of the journal will provide greater understanding of the exciting possibilities that biofuels can offer and help policy makers to make informed choices," concludes Lynd.

Meanwhile, in Ghana attention is now focused on two species of tree. Jatropha curcas and Azadirachta indica, also known as neem, have seeds with high oil content. Researchers at Kansas State University (KSU), Manhattan, Kansas, believe the oil will be of particular help in Ghana, which suffers with a short rainy season, desertification, and constant fuel shortages.

Neem seeds were selected following a study by KSU Biology Division scientists, with funding by its African Studies Center. The two trees would be cultivated specifically for biodiesel production on land that is unsuitable for growing food.

Wayne Yuan, KSU assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, has offered his biodiesel reactor design and conversion expertise when funding becomes available for a proposed biodiesel extraction plant in Ghana. More about the potential for neem seed oil as a biofuel can be found at www.k-state.edu/africanstudies/2009symposium/.

However, doubts remain about the efficacy of biofuels. In the April issue of Conservation Biology , a study finds that biofuels could hasten climate change. Headed by research scientist Finn Danielsen, the study says that it will take more than 75 years for carbon emissions saved through the use of biofuels to compensate for carbon lost when biofuel plantations are established on forestlands. If the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would take more than 600 years to achieve.

Conversion of forest to oil palm — a growing source of biofuel — also results in significant impoverishment of both plant and animal communities, says the study. Other tropical crops suitable for biofuel use, like soybean, sugar cane and jatropha, are all likely to have similar impacts on climate and biodiversity, it claims.

“The EU and the U.S. should only import and subsidize biofuel from guaranteed sustainable productions and only from countries which can demonstrate that their forests are sustainably managed,” says Danielsen.

And Friends of the Earth (FoE), London, published a report on April 15, which suggests that biofuels could have doubled carbon dioxide emissions of fossil fuels they replace — equivalent to putting 500,000 extra cars on the road.

Conservative estimates show U.K. mandates for additional biofuels, that came into effect in April 2008, could have caused 1.3 million metric tons of extra carbon dioxide emissions, according to the group. The new figures come on the day the U.K. government increased the amount of biofuels in petrol (gasoline) and diesel from 2.5 to 3.3%.

“Until ministers can do their sums properly and prove that growing crops for fuel actually cuts carbon, the government should stop biofuels being added to U.K. petrol and diesel. Trying to cut emissions by adding biofuels to petrol is like trying to cut down on beer by lacing your pints with vodka,” observes Andy Atkins, the group’s executive director.

For an update on biofeedstocks, see http://www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2009/094.html.


Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

More from this perspective...

Title

Ionic Solvents Win British Accolade

Materials stem from industry/academic research partnership.

04/15/2013

Interest in Molecular Sieve Films Grows

Chemical engineers overcome membrane boundary defect hurdle.

08/11/2009

Industry goes for the gold

Olympics showcase some of chemical engineering’s best efforts

08/27/2008

Industry Fosters Environmental Progress

A variety of efforts aim to significantly improve plant performance.

02/05/2009

Heat Transfer, Entropy Pose Problems

Inquiry-based activities can help overcome undergraduate engineering students’ misconceptions

01/21/2010

He's As Good As Gold

Chemical engineer lands U.K.'s top engineering award.

06/24/2010

Gulf Faces Lasting Impact From Spill

Study points to serious long-term effects on fish from Deepwater Horizon disaster.

10/11/2011

Groups Work to Counter the Counterfeiters

Companies pitch in to foil fake pharmaceuticals.

10/13/2009

Global Biofuel Efforts Expand

Korean researchers introduce novel method that uses bacteria to produce gasoline.

10/21/2013

Gas extraction promises safety and economic pluses

Swiss scientists work on recovering methane from African lake

03/14/2008

Faulty Economics Threaten Biofuel R&D

Studies are challenging how emissions from bioenergy production are calculated.

07/30/2012

European Union Chemicals Output Stalls

Critics blame energy policies for lag in Europe’s chemical industry growth.

03/19/2014

Engineers Give Silver a Healthier Future

Modern technology enhances the metal’s age-old role in fighting infection

10/10/2008

Energy Policies Threaten U.K. Chemical Industry

Government plans call for a 60% reduction in emissions by 2030.

06/21/2011

End Point: What's the CATCH?

Program aims to hook future talent for the chemical industry

05/23/2008

End Point: Can process engineers tame volcanoes?

Macro-scale chemical engineering seeks to contain lava flow

06/26/2008

EU Vote Sparks Competitive Concerns

New emission rules put coal-fired installations at a considerable disadvantage.

01/18/2011

EU Carbon Trading Gets Hacked

Cyber criminals view emission allowances as a gold mine.

02/08/2011

Drying Whets Lignite's Prospects

Novel process enables more efficient combustion and lower emissions.

09/13/2011

Dow Chemical, Eastman, Eli Lilly and AkzoNobel Incite Innovation

Companies are relying on a variety of strategies to foster creativity

11/11/2013