Category Archives: biofuels

Biofuels don’t just come from corn

Algae ponds in southern California.

The stated purpose of the HR 6 Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was “to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government [emphasis added].”

As part of the effort to increase the production of clean fuels, the act states that by 2022, over 10 percent of US transportation fuel will be replaced by biofuels mainly coming from something besides corn. This is defined as cellulosic ethanol and fuels derived from feedstock other than corn starch, with a specific mention of using algae.

A new study released by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) claims that algae could replace as much as 17 percent of transportation fuel as long as we’re smart about where algae is grown and how much water is used. “Algae has been a hot topic of biofuel discussions recently, but no one has taken such a detailed look at how much America could make – and how much water and land it would require — until now,” said Mark Wigmosta, lead author and a PNNL hydrologist. “This research provides the groundwork and initial estimates needed to better inform renewable energy decisions.”

Wigmosta and his co-authors provide the first in-depth assessment of America’s algal biofuel potential given available land and water. The study also estimated how much water would need to be replaced due to evaporation over 30 years. The team analyzed previously published data to determine how much algae can be grown in open, outdoor ponds of fresh water while using current technologies. Algae can also be grown in salt water and covered ponds. But the authors focused on open, freshwater ponds as a benchmark for this study. Much of today’s commercial algae production is done in open ponds.

The researchers found that 21 billion gallons of algal oil could be grown on land roughly the size of South Carolina, but would require an amount of water equivalent to a quarter of what the country currently uses for irrigated agriculture. However, this usage isn’t that different from most other biofuel sources.

Algae has several advantages over ethanol derived from corn: it can produce over 80 times more oil than corn per hectare a year, it isn’t a widespread food source, and it is a carbon-neutral source because algae consume carbon dioxide. Since algae also consume nitrogen and phosphorous, it could potentially grow in, and help clean, municipal waste water.

“Water is an important consideration when choosing a biofuel source,” Wigmosta said. “And so are many other factors. Algae could be part of the solution to the nation’s energy puzzle — if we’re smart about where we place growth ponds and the technical challenges to achieving commercial-scale algal biofuel production are met.”

Next up for Wigmosta and his colleagues is to examine non-freshwater sources like salt water and waste water. They are also researching greenhouse ponds for use in colder climates, as well as economic considerations for algal biofuel production.

A Brazilian oil carnival?


Inside the Sambadrome during Brazil's Carnival. Image from Wikimedia

My Brazilian friends are recovering from their Rio carnival, which ended on Tuesday. One of these years, I’ve got to go and throw my Dutch, and usually somewhat reserved, self in the energetic mix.

Brazil is not just famous for its carnivalistic energy, but also for its liquid energy. In the Bush years, Brazil was heralded in DC as the big example for ethanol production. The sugarcane ethanol produced in Brazil would not make a great dent in our consumption. At its peak it is just under 0.5 million barrels per day, which is around two-thirds of the daily US ethanol production and under 3% of our total daily consumption. I am no fan of biofuels and would not applaud a growth in this area, not here and not anywhere. Sugarcane plantations in Brazil have driven other crops further into the Amazon leading to deforestation, have led to depletion and erosion of valuable land, and many have been proven to abuse large numbers of poor workers for the benefit of the few, as Father Tiago so passionately describes in his 2007 interview.

But, it is not really ethanol that Brazil is known for in liquid fuel circles. Instead it is its growth in oil and gas production, particularly offshore.  The oil, and gas, production in Brazil is predicted to increase dramatically in the next decades. Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company, is rapidly growing, in Brazil and overseas. In 1999, Petrobas was listed as the 27th largest energy company in the world. This year, it surpassed Chevron and Shell, based on total value (not on annual production) and entered the top 3. This is an incredible growth in just over a decade.

Brazil - The first 100% Brazilian oil platform...

Petrobras' P-51 offshore platform, the first platform built entirely in Brazil. Image via Wikipedia

And Petrobras is hungry to expand further through a five-year investment program of over 200 billion dollars total. This should allow Petrobras to double its production in ten years to over five million barrels of oil per day. Where would it get all this extra oil and gas? The company would tap into the vast pre-salt reserves that have been discovered far offshore and very deep below the ocean floor.  These reserves are very hard to get to as they reside underneath large salt layers or domes. Pre-salt drilling requires much higher pressure than typical offshore oil and the salt layer may shift after drilling. Known for its technological know-how in deep and ultra-deep drilling, the company can probably get to the pre-salt oil, if investors bite. Investors are wary, though, after the BP disaster in the Gulf, and it is not clear if the confidence they have in Petrobras, which is a very well respected company in this field, is high enough to warrant the loans. The tenacious relation that Petrobras has with the Brazilian government doesn’t help. The government now also requires that Petrobras be the lead operator on offshore developments in Brazilian territory. Norway has similar requirements and it has served that country well. The Brazilian government no doubt hopes that revenues will help lift Brazil out of poverty and support its rapid growth.

Despite these uncertainties, there is no doubt that Brazil will be a strong and growing exporter of oil in the years to come. With a dwindling excess capacity in OPEC, and turmoil in the Middle East, this is perhaps not so bad.

A new advance in biofuel technology


An isobutanol molecule. Image via Wikipedia

The Department of Energy announced yesterday that a team of researchers at the Department’s BioEnergy Science Center have successfully produced isobutanol, a fuel that is similar to gasoline, directly from cellulosic material like corn stalks or switchgrass. “This is a perfect example of the promising opportunity we have to create a major new industry – one based on bio-material such as wheat and rice straw, corn stover, lumber wastes, and plants specifically developed for bio-fuel production that require far less fertilizer and other energy inputs,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

The researchers, led by James Liao of the University of California at Los Angeles, were faced with the challenge of chemically dismantling a plant’s cellulose, which has natural defenses against such degradation. To make such bioprocessing possible, Liao and postdoctoral researcher Wendy Higashide of UCLA and Yongchao Li and Yunfeng Yang of Oak Ridge National Laboratory had to develop a strain of Clostridium cellulolyticum, a native cellulose-degrading microbe, that could synthesize isobutanol directly from cellulose. The resulting process, called consolidated bioprocessing, saves costly steps in producing biofuels.

“In nature, no microorganisms have been identified that possess all of the characteristics necessary for the ideal consolidated bioprocessing strain, so we knew we had to genetically engineer a strain for this purpose,” Li said. While there were many possible microbial candidates, the research team ultimately chose Clostridium cellulolyticum, which was originally isolated from decayed grass. The researchers noted that their strategy exploits the host’s natural cellulolytic activity and the amino acid biosynthetic pathway and diverts its intermediates to produce higher alcohol than ethanol.

So why the focus on isobutanol? For starters, it is a better candidate for gasoline replacement than ethanol because its energy density, octane value, and volatility is much closer to gasoline. “Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles,” said Liao. “Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification.”

Don’t expect to see it at your local gas station any time soon, though. The study was a proof of concept study. Nevertheless, it sets the stage for studies that will probably involve genetic manipulation of other consolidated bioprocessing microorganisms. If you want to read more, the paper is titled “Metabolic Engineering of Clostridium Cellulolyticum for Isobutanol Production from Cellulose,” and is available online at

Biofuels and the danger of exploiting the tropics for our liquid fuel thirst

Roz Naylor argued in her interview with us last year that a push for biofuels in the US or Europe may have significant consequences globally. Naturally, countries that rely on food crops that can either be used to generate biofuels, or are being supplanted by biofuels crops, can be negatively affected. Case in point is the so-called tortilla crisis, that is, the highly increased prices for corn after strong support of corn-based ethanol that impact large populations in Mexico and elsewhere for which corn is a staple food.

Tropical land is ideally suited to biomass crops, and many tropical countries have abundant arable lands, low labor costs, lack of environmental restrictions and a great desire to generate income through exports, especially at high oil prices. As a result, a strong demand for biofuels on the global market can easily lead to an increase in biofuel crops planted in the tropics with potentially large environmental consequences, including deforestation. A clear example is the increased acreage of palm oil plantations in Indonesia after the EU mandate for a minimum percentage of biomass derived liquid fuels. As the EU could not supply the biofuels, palm oil imports rose dramatically with a consequent expansion of the palm oil industry into rainforests. In fact, Indonesia’s palm oil production tripled in the 1990s and then double again from 2000 to 2007 as global consumption of ethanol increased by a factor of four, approximately, and biodiesel by a factor of ten.

Biofuel producers often say that new plantations or fields are established on degraded lands or lands that have already been cleared, but this is a controversial issue, and has been shown in several cases to be incorrect. To shed light on this matter, Holly Gibbs, a researcher at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, analyzed detailed satellite images collected between 1980 and 2000 to characterize pathsways of agricultural expansion in the tropics, and quantify the types of land being cleared to make space for the new cropland. Holly’s satellite studies clearly indicated that forests were the primary source for new croplands, whether for fuel, feed or food, during the 1980s and 1990s, and this trend is likely to continue. Although a great and valuable start to claridying the biofuel-deforestation connection, further analysis of more recent satellite images is necessary to find clear and indisputable correlations.

If globally biofuels are to a large extent grown in place of forests, they are certainly not going to do any good to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Cut trees are generally burned, leading to CO2 emissions that are higher than any potential reductions. In an interview with the Stanford Report (Feb 18, 2009 ) Holly Gibbs argues that planting biofuel croplands on degraded land could have an overall positive environmental impact. I am not convinced. This depends a lot on needed use of fertilizers and water availability, to name but two important factors. Also, investments are higher and without stricter regulations and new incentives, such as subsidies degraded lands will not be utilized. Moreover, it is likely better for lowering carbon concentration in the atmosphere to allow the land to return to its original forested state, and absorb carbon while growing.

A worthwhile read, the interview with Holly can be found at…