The Carboydrate Economy: BioFuel

SoyBean Powered Bus1

Manure, restaurant grease, tree trimmings, rice straw are all great examples of “one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure. Once thought of as intractable, problematic wastes, they are suddenly the basis for huge new markets as raw materials for electricity and fuel. Soybeans, rapeseed oil, and other crops suddenly are much more than food – they can run cars and buses.

They are called “Biofuels” – electricity and fuel that is generated from plant matter. The two most common types in the U.S. are bioethanol and biodiesel. Biodiesel is a clean burning fuel made from domestically produced renewable fats and oils – most commonly soybean oil. It has similar fuel economy and performance as conventional petroleum diesel. Ethanol is now the third-largest use for corn after animal feed and exports.

Tests show its use results in a 90% reduction in air toxins, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Rather than contributing to the waste stream and pollution, energy crops open a new market for agriculture, conserve soil, and reduce global warming.

Bioenergy is less expensive than other renewable energy sources and can be delivered through the present energy infrastructure. You can pump liquid bioenergy into your car at the “gas” station as easily as oil. Using renewable energy sources to meet our needs reduces our dependence on foreign oil and non-renewable resources in general.

Los Angeles International Airport, for example, has embarked on a six-month pilot program that turns its food waste into electricity. Instead of shipping 7,800 tons of food waste to landfills each year, it will be shipped to a plant where the waste will be converted into methane and carbon dioxide. The methane will then be piped to a power plant and burned to generate electricity.

The Clinton Administration recognized the importance of this emerging industry. Under the $300 Million Bioenergy Program, the USDA makes cash payments to bioenergy companies that use corn, soybeans and other commodities as feedstocks to produce ethanol, biodiesel or other biofuels. Biofuels continue to receive support in President Bush’s national energy plan.

Now, MTBE is being phased out as a fuel additive nationwide – what will replace it to oxygenate fuels? David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, sees opportunity for biofuels in California’s energy crisis. Between the states’ corn acreage, fruit waste, and organic wastes (tree trimmings, yard waste, rice straw) enough ethanol can be produced locally to completely replace MTBE.

Morris says, “Five years from now there could be one or two biorefineries in every California county, producing not only ethanol but higher value biochemicals.” He points to his home state of Minnesota, where 10 percent of all transportation fuel is produced in-state from agricultural crops. There are 14 biorefineries in Minnesota, 10 of them are owned by farmers themselves. “As a result a significant amount of the money spent at the pump in Minneapolis stays in the state and benefits rural and farming communities directly.”

In May, the first two U.S. public biodiesel filling stations opened – in San Francisco, California and Sparks, Nevada outside Reno. Over 80 major fleets nationwide run on biodiesel – government fleets, transit agencies, national parks or school bus fleets all of which have their own private fueling stations. Although anyone can buy biodiesel from a fuel distributor, having it at a public pump opens the market for the public. Although it can be blended with petroleum diesel at any level – most fleets use a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel. The City of St. Louis and Cedar Rapids, Iowa recently announced all their city buses will begin running on biodiesel made from soy beans (a leading cash crop there).

Burning food for fuel isn’t new – Rudolph Diesel used peanut oil to power engines a century ago – its become much more practical with high fuel prices and low crop prices. Truck exhaust even has a familiar, friendly odor – of french fries!

They are already a hit in Europe. Since 1996, the Swedish eco-community, Trollhattan, has been powering its 12 buses on a mix of municipal waste and waste from a nearby fish processing plant. The wastes are mixed at the local sewage treatment plant, producing biofuel (95 per cent methane) that is pumped through a 3 km pipeline to the bus station. A full tank gets a bus through its daily route – about 300 km. The 50,000 person community recently opened a public filling station in anticipation of private car owners and fleets getting involved.

Learn More:

The Carbohydrate Economy Clearinghouse: [sorry this link is no longer available]
Read about ethanol as an alternative to MTBE: “The MTBE Crisis and the Future of Renewable Fuels”
and “Does Ethanol Use Result in More Air Pollution?”

USDA Biofuels: [sorry this link is no longer available]

U.S. DOE’s National Biofuels Program: [sorry this link is no longer available]

Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Network (EREN): [sorry this link is no longer available]

British Biogen: UK biomass industry trade association. See their maps of current projects in the UK. [sorry this link is no longer available]

Canadian Renewable Fuels Association: [sorry this link is no longer available]

American Bioenergy Association: [sorry this link is no longer available]

5th international Biomass Conference of the Americas: 9/17-9/21[sorry this link is no longer available]

Trollhattan, Sweden:
Contact Ann-Cathrin Erlandsson and Ronald Svensson, Trollh?an municipality, From Manna: [sorry this link is no longer available]

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