Archive for the ‘biofuels’ Category

Jatropha: Outsourcing For Biodiesel Production

The oil crop jatropha (Jatropha curcas) has suffered a spate of recent adverse reportage. First a research report concluded that it utilized a rather large 20,000 liters of water to produce a liter of biodiesel. This compares unfavorably with 14,000 liters for the biodiesel crops rapeseed and soybean. However, jatropha produces about four times more biodiesel per hectare of land than soybean and does not hold food-fuel issues that soybean would. The report assailed the much-bandied ability of jatropha to thrive on marginal soils, one of two main planks (the other being its high oil yield) on which its allure for biodiesel production rests. Then the oil major BP reportedly opted out of its joint venture with D1 on biodiesel production with jatropha as feedstock.

Water is a major factor in large-scale agriculture so when questions arose about jatropha’s water utility, various investors such as BP began to reconsider their investment.

In a previous post, l argued that when crops were grown in their natural environment, natural resources utility may be of little concern. For the palm oil plantations of the equatorial regions of West Africa and Southeast Asia for example, irrigation is of little concern as they have ample supply of water (rainfall) and sunshine. The same is applicable for jatropha. To argue then that these crops are “water hogs”, questioning their suitability for biodiesel production even when they are grown in their natural environment is misleading, if not untenable.

The quest to grow oil and other crops in their natural environment may have informed the spate of recent outsourcing contracts. An article in a recent issue of Economist detailed the outsourcing of crops by countries with natural resources constraints. Saudi Arabia, for example having become self-sufficient in wheat, had to abandon the grain fields due to severe drawdown in the associated aquifer beneath the Arabian sands. The country resorted to outsourcing – growing the crops in other mainly developing countries and repatriating a greater portion of the harvest. Then came South Korea and the oil-thirsty China. The latter, prompted by dewatering of areas like the North China Plain, reportedly acquired African acreages for jatropha cultivation in addition to the world’s largest oil palm acreage, which it intends to use for biodiesel production. The alternative would be to develop seed varieties that would be viable in consumer countries.

The risk may not be much different from that associated with importation of oil and gas from politically unstable or volatile regions. In this regard, for example the United States is currently increasing its supply of oil from Africa at the expense of the volatile Middle East suppliers. Some European Union countries are also evaluating supply prospects from the West African province to ameliorate the perennial problems with Russian gas supplies.

The success of these outsourcing contracts will depend more on political than agricultural considerations.


A Test Run For Cellulosic Ethanol

Royal Dutch Shell recently began selling gasoline blended with cellulosic ethanol for a 30-day period. The E10 (1o% ethanol, 90% gasoline) fuel currently available only at its designated service station in Ottawa, Ontario in Canada was made in association with Iogen as a pilot program.
Cellulosic ethanol is a second-generation ethanol production technology which uses plant biomass as feedstock. The four main groups of plant biomass are, wood residues, tall woody grasses, agricultural residues and municipal paper wastes. The Shell-Iogen biofuel was made from agricultural residues (wheat straw).

There are potential benefits to the use of agricultural residues such as wheat straw in the production of biofuels. For example, there is the freedom from food-fuels crises (the wheat grains are used for food while the residual straw is used for ethanol production) which plagued the corn-based program. It optimizes crop acreage (the same acreage is used simultaneously for both food and fuel) and utilizes in the main, existing crop and acreage infrastructure. Depending on the type of residue, it can be used for auxiliary power generation (as is the case with sugarcane bagasse in Brazil).

Ethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass (tall, fast-growing woody grasses) like miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), also holds potential benefits. These include very high ethanol productivity (see Table 1), viability on marginal soils (and so does not compete for acreage with food crops or use much resources such as water and fertilizer) and auxiliary power generation.

Inherent problems associated with corn-based ethanol in the United states had led to the proclamation by a strident opposition that bioethanol technology, especially for use in the liquid fuels transportation industry was a failure. On the contrary, Brazil with a sugarcane-based program has been a model of excellence and even with recent crude oil discoveries which rival the North Sea in size and importance, has vowed to retain her ethanol program.

The production economics for various cellulosic ethanol feedstock need to be evaluated. For example, production from a feedstock of agricultural residues has the advantage of utilizing already existing infrastructure (crop, acreage, etc) but the yield may be less than that from lignocellulosic feedstock, for which infrastructure is currently less well developed.

Success of the U.S. biofuels program will depend largely on the viability of advanced biofuels (those utilising cellulosic feedstock among others). Not a few therefore, will be evaluating with keen interest, the Shell-Iogen test run.

Jatropha And Water Utility

A recent research report detailed the water utility for 12 energy crops and concluded that the oil crop jatropha (Jatropha curcas) utilized about 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 liter of biodiesel, compared to 14,000 liters for rapeseed and soybean. The implication being that its much-acclaimed ability to thrive on marginal soils is incorrect. The report conceded that while the data for other crops were obtained from countries around the world, those for jatropha were obtained from India, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Brazil. It also admitted that jatropha can indeed thrive on arid soil but that its oil yield would then be low.
Jatropha may indeed be a “water hog” as has been attributed but the limited data for such attribute in comparison with the other crops may render that report inconclusive. The use of water resources varies quite substantially around the world and as such applying utility data for 5 countries in the assessment of any crop, may not reflect the true global utility values for that crop.

Table 1 shows the biodiesel yield for common crops. While jatropha does have high biodiesel productivity, its value is certainly not the highest.

Palm oil, from the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) for example, yields about four times as much biodiesel per hectare of cultivated land than jatropha and that does not include the added yield from the palm kernel. A crop of oil palm trees also has the advantage of extended productivity sometimes for decades.

The oil yield from some oil palm varieties has benefited from cross-breeding over the years. For example, in West Africa, the thick-shelled Dura variety has been crossed with the shell-less Pisifera variety to produce the Tenera, which has much larger pulp and smaller kernels, hence optimizing yield. The Tenera has now become the breeding and planting standard.
Such modification (for such qualities as improved yield, hardiness and climatic adaptation for example) is common agricultural practice and has been used in food and other crops such as wheat, soybeans, rice, sugarcane, etc. If indeed jatropha were a water hog, it would certainly benefit from such “tweaking” to produce “less thirsty” varieties for growth in regions where water resource utility is of concern.

One further note on crop resource utility: When crops are grown in their natural environment, natural resources utility may be of little concern. The oil palm for example thrives in the main, in the equatorial regions (with their ample rainfall and sunshine) of West Africa and Southeast Asia. For the vast oil palm plantations in these regions therefore, irrigation or water utility concerns do not arise, even if the oil palm were a monster of a water hog.

The Bioelectricity And Bioethanol Synergy

The global race for alternative energy solutions has been quite keen as is expected of cutting-edge technologies. So rapid is the evolution that barely a week goes by without a technological update. Second generation bioethanol programs for example use lignocellulosic biomass such as miscanthus and switchgrass for feedstock; but just as these programs were making progress, a report was published last week by researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, Merced. The report indicated that burning such feedstock to produce electricity for battery-powered vehicles was more energy efficient than using the same in producing ethanol for traditional internal combustion engines. Specifically, it held that across a wide range of lignocellulosic biomass feedstock and vehicle classes, bioelectricity produced on average, 81% more transportation kilometers and 108% more emissions offsets than bioethanol per unit area cropland. According to the report, ethanol produced from an acre of switchgrass can power a small-sized SUV a distance of about 9,000 highway miles (14,484 kilometers) compared to about 14,000 (22,531 kilometers) for bioelectricity, which also substantially avoids more greenhouse gas emissions.

A note or two just before celebrating battery-powered automobiles. Only a tiny fraction of vehicles in the United States for example are battery-powered. The infrastructure (recharging stations etc) is not well established. Forecasts for the proportion of hybrid electric vehicles by the year 2015 are in the 10% range with an even smaller value for battery-powered ones. Appropriate pricing for these may also not have been settled. The process of substituting current internal combustion-engine vehicles with electric ones will therefore be slow and protracted if indeed plausible.

There is however a measure which will utilize the synergies between bioelectricity and bioethanol in a lignocellulosic energy program.
The process of ethanol production from biomass such as miscanthus or switchgrass involves fermentation to produce the solution which is then distilled to obtain ethanol. In Brazil, widely acclaimed as the model of ethanol excellence, ethanol is produced from sugarcane. The milling residue known as bagasse is burnt to produce auxiliary power just like in the afore-mentioned report. For most of these ethanol milling plants, the power so-generated is sufficient to power the whole production process with a lot to spare. The excess power is sold to utilities with proceeds in the millions of United States dollars. Two points are worthy of note here. The first is that the power is generated from the residue of the ethanol production process, that means after ethanol milling. The second is that even then, the said power is in excess of production requirements. In Brazil, synergies between ethanol and sugar (both products of the sugarcane feedstock) have sustained the milling plants.

The same crop of switchgrass for example can therefore be used for production of both ethanol (for blending with gasoline in traditional internal combustion engines) and electricity (for charging battery-powered vehicles). The inherent synergies would deliver on two key pillars of current energy policy thrust, more efficient and reliable energy source as well as greater greenhouse gas offsets. That the electricity-powered engine is more efficient than its internal combustion counterpart is not in doubt but due to the current impassioned and implacably polarized ethanol-gasoline arguments it would be necessary to add that the United States Department of Agriculture has determined that ethanol has 81% greater energy efficiency than gasoline.

When other countries’ automobile companies were improving on fuel efficiency and emissions standards, those of the United States, with brazen state support skimped. Today, the same US automobile companies are teetering on the brink of collapse while the Toyotas and Hondas even with the current recession are better off. There is no current evidence that bioelectricity or bioethanol will replace gasoline any time soon, as the fuel for automobile transportation. However, in the current energy quest, this process will provide for a much-desired, cleaner, efficient and more reliable addition to the transportation energy mix.


Notes On Bioethanol Programs In The United States

Analyses of corn-based ethanol programs have gained impassioned and largely polarized currency in the United States. The clamor of a strident opposition is up against an unfazed army of proponents. The media is awash with opinions rooted in these poles but when l read comments like the “folly of ethanol” or the great “failure of ethanol fuel”, l cringe at the commentators’ perhaps exculpatory ignorance. The US corn-based ethanol program has obviously failed in its initial objectives but to say that bioethanol programs as a whole have failed is like saying that democracy as a form of government has failed, just because some countries in the Americas, Asia, Africa and even Europe have failed in their attempts at it.

Feedstock is a critical factor in any bioethanol program; the US corn-based ethanol program was ipso facto doomed from onset. The other factors are production process and land.
Corn is a principal staple in food and agricultural processes and the US is the largest producer. Figure 1 shows the global utilization of cereals for ethanol production for the years 2004 to 2009. In the case of the US, corn constituted more than 95% by weight of cereals (corn and sorghum) used.

Clearly, more than three quarters of all cereals utilized for ethanol production was by the US. A 2008 report by the World Bank blamed in the main, the diversion of these grains to ethanol production for the large drawdown in global grain inventories and the associated price increases. The rising corn prices only served to increase the cost of ethanol production much like, to use Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo’s allusion to a waning moon, a moribund lapidiary on his own unnoticed grave. The necessary process of converting corn starch to sugar before fermentation also added to the already high cost of corn ethanol production; and with the precipitous fall in oil prices corn-based ethanol production became largely uneconomical. Some production plants became bankrupt. One such case is the much-bandied purchase by the oil refiner Valero, of eight of the failed VeraSun’s plants. This may well be more of a consolidation by Valero. The company was active in recent refining consolidation. But there is more. Corn has poor ethanol productivity compared to, for example miscanthus, the tall woody grass. Table 1 shows the ethanol productivity values for selected crops. Miscanthus has almost five times the productivity of corn. This means that on a given parcel of land, one can obtain

about 5 times more ethanol using miscanthus as crop than if corn were used. Perhaps the lack of infrastructure for miscanthus informed the initial use of corn for feedstock, a decision that has proved uninformed.
And then there is the issue of energy balance, the ratio of energy yield to energy input. Sugarcane for example has almost eight times the energy balance of corn and this is quite significant.

The significance of a proper choice of feedstock is evident in the Brazilian ethanol program. With sugarcane as feedstock the program has become a model of excellence. First, sugarcane is not a food crop per se and as such does not bear those fuel-food conflicts associated with corn. It also has great market synergies in its products, sugar and ethanol. Sugarcane milling plants also use the milling residue known as bagasse to generate power which for many plants is in excess of production requirements. The excess power is sold to utilities with proceeds in the millions of dollars.
Table 2 compares key features on Brazilian and US ethanol programs. In just about all the categories Brazil is superior.

Brazil shows a lower cost of production, much higher energy balance, greater ethanol penetration, zero subsidy from Government, higher greenhouse gas reduction among others. Gasoline blend ratios in Brazil now range from E25 to E100 (0% gasoline) and all service stations are ethanol stations.
It is estimated that using corn ethanol to offset 20% of gasoline use in the US will require 25% of current US cropland, while using miscanthus will require only 9%. Brazil has surpassed that mark using only 1% of arable land and that is due mainly to the choice of feedstock, sugarcane.

Next generation bioethanol programs use lignocellulosic biomass like miscanthus for feedstock. Such feedstock not only have much higher ethanol productivity but can grow on marginal soils; this means that they do not take up food crop acreage and will use less resources such as water and fertilizer. In addition they do not bear those fuel-food conflicts since they are not food crops. The milling residue, as in the case of sugarcane can also be used for power generation.

There is an interesting comparison between the energy balance values of ethanol and gasoline. The finished energy yield values for fossil fuels used in ethanol and gasoline production are 1.34 and 0.74 respectively. Ethanol then has an energy yield 81% (1.34/0.74) greater than that of gasoline. From production to utilization therefore, ethanol is a more efficient fuel than gasoline.

The goal of bioethanol is not to replace gasoline (nor is there any evidence it will happen any time soon) but to bring in regimes of cleaner, global environment with efficient, reliable and well-priced energy sources especially in the transportation sector. Brazil, even with its ethanol success is not planning to do away with fossil fuels. On the contrary, recent oil discoveries in the Campos and Tupi fields may bring it up to the group of the world’s top 10 oil producers.The Brazilian ethanol production is said to be profitable down to a crude oil price of US$30 per barrel. With oil prices hovering about US$50 per barrel, there is ample room for profitability.
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