"Homeland Security begins with homeland fuels"
ETC Green is dedicated to helping the world develop the best Green Energy opportunities. Over the past 9 years we have built working relationships with hundreds of land owners and businesses in the southwest U.S., Poland, Hungary, South America, Mexico, India, Africa, China, Malaysia and Canada. Our site surveys and projects encompass nearly 1,400,000 acres of privately owned and over 2,000,000 acres of Federal lands. While the majority of our projects are in the state of Nevada, we also have projects in Utah, Montana, California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Alabama, Texas, New Mexico, Oregon, Mexico, China, India, Poland, Hungary, Africa, South American nations and Canada.
We read literally dozens of articles and reports on the negative aspects of biofuels most every day. Most are written by the media though some are coming out of educational institutes and the national labs. Many if not most are grouping together radically different sources and processing technologies of biofuels where the downside of one source is being presented generically to represent all others. Even environmentalists have lost proper perspective.
Throughout this website, the following definitions will be used; while there are still discussions on classification, most organizations now recognize 1st Generation Feedstock for biofuels to be corn, soy, switchgrass, etc.. Basically, those crops that have historically been used for both ethanol and biodiesel over past decades. The 2nd Generation Feedstocks are by definition, non-food crops that will grow on land where food crops will not. These include jatropha, tallow and maringa for subtropical climates and xantree for colder climates. Some organizations classify micro algae as a 2nd Generation Feedstocks (we have done the same for efficiency in communication) and some are now referring to micro algae as the 3rd Generation Feedstock. Also, it is important to understand that while there are biomass and bio-oil sourced synthetic fuels available from a growing number of labs, the cost of these fuels are still significantly higher than the production costs of ethanol and biodiesel.
While the general public will likely never take the time to understand the details of the variables related to biofuels, legislative decision makers must be committed to this task. The following is a high level review to identify basic concepts.
Jatropha orchard yields (400 gallons/acre/yr in arid climates up through 1,400 gallons/acre/yr in subtropic climates in controlled, ideal conditions) are well documented by universities and experienced orchard growers. The media, however, chose to focus on hundreds of 3rd world nation farmers who planted orchards in arid climates and did not install irrigation systems, did not apply fertilizer or have access to mechanical harvesters. So $M’s of investment funds were lost and from this example, many declared that jatropha was not a viable solution. Today hundreds of large multi-national corporations are invested in jatropha and xantree because they make good economic sense when properly managed.
The issue of inconsistent biodiesel quality produced from animal fat and waste vegetable oil does not carry over to biodiesel sourced directly from most plant feedstocks. The low volume CO2 processing of soybeans has no relationship to the high volume CO2 processing of other sources such as xantree orchards. The large land mass and energy requirements to produce biofuels from soy and corn (1st Generation feedstock) are not representative of 2nd Generation feedstock source crops – 1st to 2nd generation feedstock yields are typically a factor of 10 or more. It is ridiculous to suggest that the decision to clear land with ground fires made by some South American biofuels production firm is a reasonable argument against the production of biodiesel.
Just because several micro algae research companies have failed in recent years is not a definitive justification to suggest that biofuels from micro algae will never be viable. Consider that bio-oils from micro algae is a proven technology and economically viable industry today – millions of gallons of micro algae sourced bio-oils are produced and used by various industries. Biodiesel sourced from micro algae is also a proven technology, but is not cost competitive against petroleum today. Keep in mind that we now have the technologies and resources to generate many times the total annual volume of petroleum extracted from the ground via micro algae. With economies by scale, most researchers in the industry are projecting that micro algae sourced biodiesel will be produced at near an $80 barrel equivalent within 10 years. Frankly, it does not matter if the price of micro algae sourced biodiesel drops to what we consider “affordable” as the price of petroleum will generally continue to rise due to natural depletion and resource protectionism. At some point in the future, the majority of all vehicles (ground, sea and air) in the world will be powered by biodiesel.
The amount of water needed to produce high oil yields from jatropha and other source crops is another common issue cited, but cycling water molecules for biofuel production is radically more sustainable than cycling petroleum molecules or depleting minerals for EV’s and hybrids. While 15,000 gallons of water might be pumped via an underground drip irrigation system into a xantree to generate 1 gallon of biodiesel, the vast majority of this water is never absorbed by the tree and returns to the watershed to be recycled so there is no real-world loss. Common agricultural engineering methods include responsible hydrology strategies which are basic components of Industrial Metabolism.
We are bound by the laws of physics, yet the above examples change the equations radically. Engineers in the business are most interested in the EROEI and Net energy (gain) measure the same quality of an energy source or sink in numerically different ways. Net energy describes the amounts, while EROEI measures the ratio or efficiency of the process. They are related simply by…
For example given a process with an EROEI of 5, expending 1 unit of energy yields a net energy gain of 4 units (1:5). The break-even point happens with an EROEI of 1 or a net energy gain of 0 (1:1).
It is common sense that a higher energy return is desirable as it results in a higher standard of living. A society will generally exploit the highest available EROEI energy sources first, as these provide the most energy for the least resources. With non-renewable sources, progressively lower EROEI sources are then used as the higher return sources are exhausted.
Historically, when petroleum production was originally initiated in the 1800’s, it took on average one barrel of petroleum to find, extract, and process about 100 barrels of petroleum or 1:100. That ratio has declined steadily over the last century to about three barrels gained for one barrel used in the U.S. 1:3 (and about 1:10 currently in Saudi Arabia). Currently the EROEI of wind energy in North America and Europe is about 1:18 which has driven its adoption. Please note in the chart to the right that wind is a sustainable energy source while natural gas, at large scale, is a fossil fuel with finite volume and will likely become far less attractive (lower EROEI by factors) over the coming years as anti-fracking legislation becomes the law of the land in the U.S. as it is already in virtually every other industrialized nation. Also of note is our EROEI ratio syntax format – we prefer the common sense: I/O-Chronological representation rather than the reverse Polish notation. We also have embraced the ISO 8601 standard as our official datestamp format.
Biodiesel from soy offers only a 1:5 ratio while biodiesel from xantree offers a 1:24 ratio. This can be realized by taking the standard 1:5 from soy sourced biodiesel based on 50 gallons/acre/year and comparing it to 850 gallons/acre/year for xantree. Subtropical crops such as jatropha, tallow and moringa are lower, but still viable in the 1:6 range. Jatropha, tallow and moringa are succulents while willow and xantree are hardwood trees. The willow grows much faster than the xantree, however, the xantree nut provides high return in energy based on the combined oil and biochar production.
It should be considered that when using automated harvesting and highly automated processing, an increased volume of biomass material does not significantly contribute to energy consumption relative to land mass. Also, ponder the energy savings of orchard sourced feedstock in that xantree, for example, offers a “plant once, harvest for 100 years” model where soy requires planting each year. Typically a farmer will till, plant, fertilize and harvest each acre of soy annually – so 4 passes on heavy farm equipment per season. Xantrees requires a single pass of an automated harvester annually – nutrients and minerals are delivered through the sub-surface drip irrigation system.
For ethanol, a USDA study showed that for an energy input of 77,228 BTUs, an energy output (when co-products were included) 98,333 BTUs were generated. The EROEI is then 98,333/77,228, or 1:1.27. This 1:1.3 energy return from corn ethanol is a ridiculous waste of prime U.S. farm land where not only does the farmer till, plant, fertilize and harvest each acre of corn annually – again typically 4 passes per season, but ethanol production requires 100% volume distillation which is an incredibly high energy process in itself – this is considered parasitic production energy. Standard biodiesel Trans Esterification is a comparatively low energy process though most biodiesel “recipes” call for 9% methanol which does require distillation.
|1:10.0||Petroleum – Conventional|
|1:8.0||Petroleum – Exploration|
|1:5.0||Petroleum – Shale|
|1:3.0||Petroleum – Tar sands|
|1:1.9||Solar flat panels|
Note: We receive a great deal of communication regarding the 1:10 for nuclear power. This ratio has been researched in-depth. Most U.S. tax payers are unaware that the DoE spent $3.2B in 2012 to manage the nuclear waste material from the Manhattan Project (WWII – 1942-1946). Projections suggest the U.S. will continue to pay billions of dollars per year for the next 50-100 years before we might have what can be considered a low-energy management solution for this need.
There are also a series of articles currently in the media from a university graduate student suggesting the CO2 footprint for micro algae sourced biofuels is much higher than previously believed. We are at a loss to understand why a Green Energy project such as biofuel from micro algae would create a new fossil fuel dependency rather than to use wind, solar, geothermal, or even a Rankine Cycle from the heat of the coal or natural gas power plant that the micro algae is using as the CO2 source. The media needs more due diligence to weed out these false or uninformed articles regardless of the source institute’s reputation or individual’s credentials.
Another frustrating aspect of the biofuels business maturation is that market support organizations and industry associations are typically funded by the regional agricultural industry and local, regional or federal governments. So if a particular crop is not viable in that region (say Nebraska, USA), the local biofuels association will not spend research funding or staff time evaluating a solution that will not directly benefit that local economy. This issue is seriously effecting the balance of “biofuels reality” as people are not taking the time to understand the specific biofuel source and regional issues.
The solution is to educate and motivate regional agricultural industries, associations and government agencies to understand the variables and to support viable solutions in operations where crops and processing will be successful. While at the same time, we must face the reality and stop trying to grow biofuel crops that require long term government funding to compensate for a lack of economic viability. There are 43 million acres of prime US farmland now dedicated to ethanol production and 22 million acres of soy dedicated to biodiesel production. Add in the canola, safflower and other 1st gen feedstock sources and the total is near 80 million acres. All of these are 1st generation feedstocks and need to be returned to food production ASAP.
Biodiesel sourced from 2nd generation feedstock is a solid and almost immediate solution to a large percentage of our transportation fuel needs. Plant 80 million acres of 2nd gen feedstock orchards and the US dependency on foreign petroleum ceases and the price of petroleum will drop radically.
There is, however, a great deal of noise to filter through to understand the issues and opportunities. Daimler, Toyota, GM, Ford and hundreds of other companies and dozens of nations’ governments including the U.S. DOE have completed their research studies and have invested in the best, immediate solution – biodiesel from high-yield 2nd generation feedstocks, Jatropha, Xantree, Moringa and a short list of others today, and micro algae in the near future.