Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So a Friend Asked: When will we have sustainable biofuels?

Sustainable biofuels depends on your definition of sustainable.

If you define sustainable as net-energy positive (more energy in than out) than we are there with even basic corn ethanol. The majority of corn ethanol plants produce more liquid ethanol btu's of energy than they cost all the way back to the farm (meaning every drop of energy from the farmers tractor on). When ethanol is considered a net energy loser is when they don't consider the other products made along side corn (brewers mash, corn oil, and other products sold after ethanol is produced). Also sometimes the cost of transporting ethanol to market by truck will make it a little bit of an energy loser.

For the most part corn ethanol is seeing a 20 to 40% increase in btu's of energy created. This is never talked about though as in the late 70's it was an energy loser and the same old expert from the 70's (a guy named Pimitel) still pimps the old out of date methodology that has been disproven. The national news always interviews this dude as the counter-opinion of the biofuels industry.

Beyond corn ethanol on net energy return you've got a whole host of other sustainable definitions. Is the corn a genetically modified organism? Is it a permaculture or monoculture farming style? How much water does the farming deplete fromt the natural aquifer below the farm? What about fertilizer and pesticide wash off of the field? These are the sticky wickets that cause a debate.

And then beyond this technical jargon filled debate is the Climate Change debate. Namely the CO2 reduction opportunity of a biofuel. If the biofuel can't substantially reduce CO2 emmission in the lifecycle of the fuel some don't consider it "sustainable" though it would be renewable and cleaner than petroleum.

Beyond corn ethanol though there are a slough of other biofuel products. Biodiesel in particular is extremely sustainable under any metric or debate. The only issue is that environmentalists hate soy bean farms (but somehow hippys love soy). But regardless if its soy, canola, or waste fryer grease biodiesel is 70% less CO2 (for its whole lifecycle) and has no real concerning emmissions issues. This metric being the goal post set by California recently in their "Low Carbon Fuels Standard" set to combat green house gases in their state.

I would go into cellulosic ethanol or some of the other advanced biofuels like "gas to liquid diesel" but it might be a little to much for you. It will make you sorry you asked.

Unless of course you want to hear more. Then my wife will thank you for distracting me enough to stop boring the crud out of her with this stuff.

Mark

(NOTE: This was an answer to a Facebook question asked in my profile)

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