Biofuels Supplement

News and Trends

U.S. Department of Energy Invests $385M for Six Cellulosic Ethanol Plants

Although many experts have indicated that the production of ethanol from cellulosic plant biomass is the way of the future, the technology has never gone completely to full-scale commercialization.  However, the recent announcement of the United States Department of Energy to invest $386M for ethanol biorefineries in the next four years may signal the start of bringing commercialized cellulosic ethanol production at the forefront of the biofuels market.  Six biorefineries have been identified.  According to Department of Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, “these biorefineries will play a critical role in helping to bring cellulosic ethanol to market, and teaching us how we can produce it in a more cost effective manner”.  Non-food biomass sources are considered for use as raw materials for the proposed plants, including (1) agricultural residues (wheat straw, corn stover), (2) industrial plant wastes (saw dust, paper) and (3) cellulosic energy crops (switch grass).  Relative to corn-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol is said to have a higher net energy with lower emissions of greenhouse gases.

Biofuels Primer  Outlines Prospects and Problems of Liquid Biofuels

In the 2007 February 20 issue of Current Biology, Stanford University Professor, Chris Somerville, outlines the prospects and problems in the recent trend toward increasing reliance on liquid biofuels.  Some of his findings are summarized below:

(1)  Corn and cane ethanol:  the production technology is reported to be mature.  Studies have shown that cane ethanol has an energy output ratio of 8 (energy units produced for every energy unit consumed for its production). Life cycle studies on corn ethanol have also shown that it produces only 25% more energy than is consumed (considered not high).  As such, corn ethanol is seen only as a “transition technology” while more cost effective and energy efficient technologies (like cellulose ethanol) are in development.  Corn ethanol is not seen as a long term strategy for sustainably meeting energy needs.

(2)  Biodiesel: the common raw materials for biodiesel production are annual oilseeds, soybean, palm, and canola.  Although studies have shown that biodiesel has a better net energy output ratio than corn ethanol, it is not seen as a “significant component of fuel in the US or elsewhere in the developed world”.  Some issues involved are: small oil yield per acre (relative to amount of biomass), and competition with its use as a component in the human diet.  However, in developing countries, several tropical plants have been found to be potential raw materials for biodiesel production:  oil palm, Babbasu palm, Jatropha.

(3)  Cellulose ethanol:  the common raw materials are cellulose from plant biomass. The biological route of production involves biochemical or microbiological breakdown of cellulose to component sugars, followed by fermentation to ethanol.  Presently, there are still no large scale plants for commercial cellulose ethanol production.  Many process components in the technology are reportedly not yet ready for commercial production.  Despite the present bottlenecks, cellulose is still expected to become a significant component in transportation fuels in the future.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Cassava is Feedstock for Vietnam’s First BioEthanol Plant

Recognizing the need to reduce fuel imports and reduce environmental pollution, Vietnam (through the Petroleum Services and Tourism Company (Petrosetco) has signed a joint venture with Itochu Corporation, Japan,  to construct it’s first bioethanol plant.  The plant is expected to have an annual ethanol production of 100 million liters using sliced cassava as the raw material.  The facility will be located in Hiep Phuoc industrial zone, and completion of the construction is expected by 2009.

Cassava is a starchy root crop widely used in Southeast Asia.  Thailand and China are also reported to be utilizing cassava on an industrial scale for ethanol production.

Thailand Undertakes Contract Farming Agreements for Small Farmers to Increase Cassava Hectarage for Ethanol Production

The Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry of Thailand has initiated activities to encourage smallholder farmers in the north and northeastern areas to grow more cassava, in a move to boost incomes and food security, and to promote bioethanol as an alternative transport fuel.  According to Anan Phusitthikul, secretary general of the Ministry's Agricultural Land Reform Office, agreements have been made with three private firms to make guaranteed purchases of the cassava produced by the farmers and use the material for ethanol production.  About 64,000 hectares of farmland in six provinces are expected to be initially committed at the start of the program.  A demand of two million tons of cassava per year is estimated as the three firms start ethanol production in 2008.

Biofuels Processing

“Hybrid H2-CAR Process” Proposed for Biomass Conversion into Sustainable Biofuel

Scientists from Purdue University in the United States have proposed a process for producing liquid hydrocarbon fuels from biomass.  The process, featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online (14 March 2007), involves the co-feeding of biomass, oxygen and hydrogen in a gasifier, and subsequent conversion of the product gases into liquid hydrocarbon fuel.  Professor Rakesh Agrawal says that the process can produce three times the volume of biofuels from the same quantity of biomass.  Although further research is needed to realize large scale processing, the scientists estimate that the technology could “provide sustainable supply to meet the needs of the entire U.S. transportation sector.

Biofuels Policy and Economics

Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST)  Report Identifies Issues and Impacts of Grain- Based Ethanol Production

The commentary titled, “Convergence of Agriculture and Energy: Implications for Research and Policy” analyzes research and policy issues arising from the utilization of biofuels as a national strategy for energy independence.  Focus is on key issues related to corn ethanol production in the United States in the next 5 to 10 years.  Among the highlights of the report: (1) the cost of corn and price of boiler fuel are the major factors driving ethanol cost, (2) additional land planted with corn will come from areas from decreased acreage of other crops such as soybean and wheat, (3) grain-to-ethanol conversion efficiencies may be accomplished by improved ethanol plant design, or application of molecular biology techniques to improve corn grain characteristics suitable for ethanol production, (4) protection of soil and environmental quality must be ensured with the need for increased corn production, and (5) revitalization and economic development of rural communities is one beneficial consequence in the construction of ethanol plants.

Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Panelists Present Suggestions for Energy Development in China

A panel of scientists from the Chinese National Academy of Sciences has advised on medium and long term development strategies for alternative energy sources in China within the next five years. Some of their action plans are: (1) continuous promotion of industrialization production of ethanol and diesel from biomass, (2) vigorous research and development in liquefaction technologies, “providing demonstration plants with an annual production capacity of one million tons” to realize industrial application, (3) encouragement in development of cellulose ethanol technology and “fast-growing energy-rich plants in desert and desolate areas that can provide biomass for bio-ethanol and bio-diesel manufacturing”.

The report also stresses the need for well planned phases in the implementation of strategies to develop energy-efficient technologies: (1) support should be geared toward research for pilot plant studies, (2) “initial work for industrial application should be done on selective basis”, (3) major decisions for large scale applications must be done only after a full and careful verification, and (4) national research programs should be coordinated under a centralized leadership and management.