By Charlotte Helston
Using plant and animal biomass to fuel vehicles may sound like a new concept, but the technology dates back as far as the 1820s, when American inventor Samuel Morey used ethanol and turpentine to power an internal combustion engine.
Invented, forgotten and revived by necessity, so goes the story of biofuels. It was in response to soaring oil prices that countries like Brazil and the United States launched fuel ethanol programs to avoid importing oil. Other countries like China, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and European countries, Germany chief among them, embarked on similar programs. In recent decades the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have encouraged an expanding biofuels industry, concentrated mainly in Brazil, the US, Europe, and Canada.
It is generally agreed that
The outlook for biofuels is complex. With current practices, and corn dominating as a feedstock for ethanol, biofuel technology can be extremely destructive to humans and the environment. Measures to address the
Biofuels are derived from
The term biofuel encompasses solid biomass, liquid fuels and biogases. The following section offers a description of how various materials are used in the three main types of biofuels: ethanol, biodiesel and biogas. Let's begin with ethanol.
Similar to the process of winemaking, ethanol production involves the
Ethanol is primarily used as transport fuel in vehicles. A blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline is known as E10, or
E85, a ratio of 85% ethanol to 15% gasoline, pushes the blend even further and is rapidly becoming a major player in the alternative fuel marketplace of the United States. This ethanol heavy fuel can only be used in
The use of
It is also possible to use ethanol for cooking as a replacement for wood, charcoal, propane, or as a substitute for lighting fuels, such as kerosene.
Biodiesel is a non-toxic, biodegradable, and renewable fuel converted from oils (such as canola and soy oils, animal fats, recycled cooking oils and restaurant waste grease). Research is underway to determine if the oils from algae could be used for the development of biodiesel.
Developed from animal and or plant biomass with a lifecycle of a few years, biodiesel reduces emissions of harmful greenhouse gases, smog and acid-rain causing particles emissions, and carcinogens.
Biogas is mostly methane (natural gas) and carbon dioxide. The required methane can be taken from landfill gas, sewage sludge gas, corn silage or liquid manure.
The main ingredient for biogas production is called the feedstock, and may include manure, sewage sludge or food waste. The feedstock is then pre-processed in some way, either by simply mixing to create a homogenous substance, or with complex processes (like hydrolysis and micronyzation) to maximize the production of biogas. The prepared feedstock is then introduced to
1m3 of biogas has approximately 5-7.5 kWh/m3 which is equivalent to:
- 0.5 kg Diesel, Kerosene (approx. 12 kWh/kg)
- 1.3 kg Wood (approx. 4.5 kWh/kg)
- 1.2 kg Cow dung (approx. 5 kWh/kg dry matter)
- 1.3 kg Plant residues (approx. 4.5 kWh/kg d.m.)
- 0.7 kg Hard coal (approx. 8.5 kWh/kg)
- 1.1 m3 City gas (approx. 5.3 kWh/m3)
- 0.24 m3 Propane (approx. 25 kWh/m3)
Biogas in Canada has a wide range of potential applications, at sites like landfills, municipal wastewater treatment facilities, and farm-based operations, as well as in municipal solid waste (MSW) digestion, the pulp and paper industry, and the food and beverage industry.
First generation biofuels are produced with conventional technologies and conventional feedstocks such as seeds, grains or whole plants that are also food sources. First generation feedstocks include: corn, sugarcane, wheat and other grains.
Second generation biofuels offer the possibility of using non-food sources as feedstocks. Such materials include: waste biomass, the stalks of wheat, corn stover, wood, and special energy crops like
Third generation biofuels are the newest category of biofuels. The most significant feedstock for this type is algae. Algae is cultivated for the production of triglycerides to produce biodiesel, in much the same way as biodiesel is produced with second generation feedstocks.
Second and third generation biofuels are also called advanced, or next-generation biofuels.
First generation feedstocks are generally best cultivated in agricultural regions where there's an abundant supply of water.
Biofuel feedstocks, particularly corn for ethanol, require large amounts of land. One report claims that "U.S. gasoline consumption was 134 billion gallons in 2003. It would take more than 546 million acres of U.S. farmland to replace all of our current gasoline use with corn ethanol."
Land for biofuel production is expected to come from the conversion of forests into agricultural land.
Globally, the dominant biofuel is ethanol, followed by biodiesel. Biogas is emerging as significant as well, particularly in Europe. In 2010, 85 billion litres of ethanol and 15 billion litres of biodiesel were produced globally. Collectively, this made biofuel production worth 13.3% of the world energy mix; accounting for almost three times more energy than all of the other renewable energies combined.
Fuel ethanol production is concentrated in Brazil, where it is concocted from cane sugar, and in the US where it is made primarily from corn. Together, the US and Brazil account for nearly 90% of global ethanol production.
Approximately 15% of global corn production, or 5.7% of total global grain production is devoted to ethanol production. Around 10% of global vegetable oil production is destined for biodiesel production.
As the demand for crops like corn and canola increases, pressure is increased upon an already stressed sector -- food production. With feedstocks doubling as food crops, the risk for competition between food and fuel has become a contentious ethical dilemma.
After a period of massive reductions in real grain prices (53% between 1975/76 and 2000/01) a 2007/08 spike startled countries around the world. From January 2004 to May 2008, the global price of wheat shot up 108%, rice 224%, corn 88% and soybeans 53%.
The timing of the spike certainly coincided with an expansion in ethanol production, though other factors, such as hoarding, export bans and panic buying by governments, must be considered in the prognosis as well.
For this reason, biofuels from non-food sources have gained much attention in the past several years. Second and third generation biofuels use feedstocks such as algae and waste biomass, thereby eliminating reliance on food crops. Unfortunately, the easiest feedstocks to convert are still the ones we eat. Non-food sources demand energy-intensive processing, and opponents of biofuel expansion claim they use more energy than they put out.
In 2010, Canada's production was 1.83 billion litres of fuel ethanol and 110 million litres of biodiesel.
With the creation of the ecoENERGY for Biofuels Technology Initiative, the Government of Canada has committed to expanding the production and use of cleaner renewable biofuels including ethanol and biodiesel. A four-pronged biofuels strategy has been initiated which includes:
- Reducing the greenhouse gas (GHS) emissions resulting from fuel use
- Subsidizing greater production of biofuels ($1.5 billion over 9 years)
- Accelerating the commercialization of new biofuel technologies
- Providing new market opportunities for agricultural producers and rural communities
Canadian ethanol is derived mainly from corn, but also from wheat in Western Canada. Ethanol production competes with the livestock industry for the millions of tonnes of Canadian corn produced annually. In 2006, 7% of the 9 million tonnes of corn produced went to ethanol production; with most of the remainder becoming livestock feed.
Despite having the raw resources for ethanol production, the priority on livestock feed and export leaves Canada importing biofuels. Canada imported 100 million litres of ethanol from the United States in 2006.
Canada is seen as a prime location for cellulosic feedstock production, with its vast forest and agricultural resources. At present, Ottawa hosts the only cellulosic demonstration plant in Canada, though more are anticipated. $500 million came from the government of Canada to support the Next-Generation Biofuels Fund, which will focus efforts on large-scale demonstration projects for next-generation biofuels.
The aims of the Next-Generation Biofuels Fund as provided by Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) and the Federal Government are:
- To facilitate the establishment of first-of-kind, large scale demonstrations facilities for the production of next-generation biofuels and co-products in Canada
- Improve the sustainable development impacts arising from the production and use of biofuels in Canada
Encourage retention and growth of technology expertise and innovation capacity for the production of next-generation biofuels in Canada
Biodiesel is made mostly from used cooking oil and animal fats that would otherwise go to waste. Biodiesel is also produced from sources such as canola, Canada's dominant vegetable oil.
E5, a blend of 5% ethanol, is sold in Ontario, E7.5 in Saskatchewan, and E8.5 in Manitoba. The
British Columbia has an abundance of natural biomass resources, including sawmill residues, mountain pine beetle affected timber, logging debris, and agricultural and municipal wastes. To enhance B.C.'s leadership role and help meet the province's electricity needs for clean, renewable power, the Department of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources initiated a new Bioenergy Strategy. The strategy sets ambitious goals for the adoption of cellulosic feedstocks for electricity production.
B.C.'s several biomass power plants can be found on our Electricity Sources Map.
The British Columbia
By 2020, it aims for the province's biofuel production to meet 50 per cent or more of the province's renewable fuel requirements, in support of general goals to reduce transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions. Another goal is to develop at least 10 community energy projects that convert local biomass into energy.
Biofuel development is being accelerated through mandates, subsidies, and favourable trade policies across the globe. Canada is enforcing a new mandate for an average of 5% ethanol in gasoline sold since late 2010. A mandate for an average of 2% biodiesel content in diesel distillates was implemented on July 1, 2011.
The cheapest ethanol production is in Brazil, where a combination of readily available resources and cheap labour makes prices of about $0.20 per litre possible.
Cellulosic feedstocks like switchgrass are poised to take off if technology can streamline the conversion process. However, a study by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University concluded that farmers would not be willing to shift to dedicated cellulosic crops unless they offered net returns comparable to that of corn.
The biodiesel industry has lagged behind ethanol due to the high cost of vegetable-based oils for feedstocks. When combined with the relatively low price of petroleum diesel the biodiesel industry has another large hurdle to overcome. Feedstocks alone can account for 70% of the manufacturing costs, which has historically rendered it more expensive than petro-diesel--in some cases costing twice as much.
In the 2004 budget, the Province of British Columbia amended the Alternative Motor Fuel Tax Act, allowing the biodiesel portion of a biodiesel blend to be exempt from the provincial motor fuel tax. Although biodiesel is not yet being manufactured commercially in BC, it has one of the largest markets for biodiesel in the country.
The production of biofuels motivates a large number of jobs in the agricultural sector, the agro-industrial sector (concerned with distillation and processing of by-products), the commercialization of new market commodities, and in new product manufacture. It is predicted that this range of employment would drive up incomes, especially in rural areas.
The anticipated rise of
The production of biofuels has two things in common with the production of food: demand for land and water. Food and fuel are two things humans consume a lot of. Both can be seen as necessities, though we have had many types of fuels throughout human history. As the global population continues to grow, we face a growing demand for both food and fuel. At the same time we need to limit the emissions of the pollutants known to drive climate change. The world's consumption of food and fuel is inextricably linked to our environmental problems and solutions. Biofuels present an opportunity to address the epochal challenge of
Growing demand from biofuel producers has been proven to affect the price of associated grains, especially corn.
- No competition with food supply
- Productive use of otherwise wasted material
- Potential avoidance of long-distance transport resulting from the diversity of potential feedstocks and the possibility of constructing
biorefineriesclose to market
- Diversity of crops strengthens resilience
Cellulosic biomass, as the name implies, is full of cellulose. Cellulose is fibrous and cannot be directly fermented. Instead, manufacturers must first break it down into usable molecules. A study conducted in 2000 found that production costs increased by 70% when ethanol production was switched from corn to cellulosic biomass.
An answer to this oft asked question is complex. The subject is controversial, and even scientific research to analyze energy input and output is often charged with bias.
A study referenced by Julio de Castro reported an energy balance of 8.3 for sugarcane based ethanol, meaning that for every unit of fossil fuels used, 8.3 units of cane ethanol are produced.
Switchgrass, the biological poster child of cellulosic feedstocks, was reported in a 2007 study to exhibit an energy balance of 5.4.
The emission of greenhouse gases from ethanol production and ethanol usage are interlinked with the debate on EROI, the energy balances. The results are controversial and highly variable due to differences in calculation methods.
Ethanol contains carbon, thus, combustion of the fuel unavoidably emits carbon dioxide. That accounts for the actual burning of ethanol, but its production is responsible for emissions as well. The use of nitrogen based fertilizers, and the running of farm equipment and transport vehicles contribute to the overall fuel-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.
Where biofuels that use plant materials, like corn, save on emissions, it is in their growth stage. Photosynthesis, the process by which plants transform the sun's light into energy, requires the absorption of carbon dioxide. Thus, the growth cycle of the feedstocks can serve as a
Ethanol is a practical alternative energy source that can be used in vehicles right now and which both lowers total GHG emissions and combats smog. If Canadians are going to succeed in mitigating climate change, we are going to have to develop transportation fuels that don't generate large GHG emissions. Ethanol is one solution where the technology to produce it is immediately available.
One study, cited by Yacobucci, stated overall fuel-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from corn based E10 are about 1% lower than gasoline.
The emissions reductions of going to a B100 biodiesel are quite drastic with the exception of an increase in the emissions of NOx. The changes in emissions (from B20 to B100) are summarized by the National Biodiesel Board to be:
- Unburned Hydrocarbons: (HC) - 67% reduction 14% reduction
- Carbon Monoxide (CO) - 48% reduction 10% reduction
- Particulate Matter (PM) - 47% reduction 10% reduction
- Sulphur (SOx) - 100% reduction 20% reduction
- Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) - 10% increase 2% increase
Natural Resources Canada says biodiesel can reduce emissions by up to 60%.
Integration of the entire biofuel pathway
A common theme amidst all the disagreement on emissions and energy balances, is that, as the Worldwatch Institute says, "The viability of biofuels as low-carbon replacements for oil depends less upon the amount of energy required in production, than upon the type of energy used."
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