Fuels for our future

conventional produce
Courtesy morguefile


By Nancy F. Parks

At the turn of the 20th century, the diesel engine ran on peanut oil and the Model T ran on ethanol. A century later, we’re again looking to biofuels to power our future.

Although biofuels currently make up only 1% of the world’s liquid fuel market, that number is expected to skyrocket in the next few years. Currently, ethanol, from either corn or sugarcane, is king of the biofuel market. From 2000 to 2005, ethanol production jumped 19 percent to 36.5 billion liters and is now 90% of the world’s total biofuel production. Biodiesel from plant oils increased 60% in the same period. 

Unfortunately, the use of biofuels from corn and sugar is already affecting world food markets, disproportionately burdening farmers and the poor. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported a slump in world grain supplies. Coupled with an increased demand for biofuel, that slump resulted in a substantial increase in food prices. In central Pennsylvania, corn livestock feed has doubled in price. The price of sugar also doubled from 2004 to 2006 after Brazil’s began producing ethanol from sugarcane. Considering that U.S. consumers use 140 billion gallons of gasoline annually and that the total production of ethanol is only 4.8 billion gallons, this stress on world food markets seems a bad tradeoff .

A better solution is ethanol from cellulosic biomass, made from wood chips, switchgrass plant fiber, sugar cane, corn stalk residue, and agricultural waste. A hotter, more-efficient burning fuel, cellulosic biomass could be made at home or close to home, and would not require food crops, long distance transportation, or huge bio-refineries.

A biofuels primer

Corn ethanol
Corn ethanol is typically mixed with gasoline. Because ethanol has a higher rate of evaporation and would increase ozone smog in American cities, the Sierra Club successfully opposed President Clinton’s recommended 70% ethanol to gasoline mix in the early 1990’s.

Pros: Corn ethanol pollutes less than gas, but current production creates significant air pollution. There are 109 ethanol plants in U.S., and at least 40 more in the works. Billions of dollars are already being poured into refineries. Governor Rendell has subsidized and permitted the first ethanol plant in Pennsylvania. Unlike 50% of crude oil, which is shipped thousands of miles, only 10% of ethanol is traded internationally.

Cons: The Sierra Club does not support corn ethanol. First, an acre of corn only produces 480 gallons of ethanol, which means that it costs more energy to produce than it generates. Second, producing and using it emits carbon dioxide. Third, although ethanol can be used in existing fuel pumps at service stations, Shell, Exxon/Mobile, and Chevron/Texaco aren’t interested in selling it. Fourth, Pennsylvania already imports more corn than it grows, so ethanol plants here will compete with farmer’s buying corn for their livestock feed. Corn prices have already doubled in Centre County. 

Cellulosic ethanol
Cellulosic ethanol is made from wood chips, switchgrass plant fiber, sugar cane, corn stalk residue and agricultural waste. The Sierra Club encourages the development of cellulosic ethanol, but only from sustainable raw materials. This form of ethanol promises higher energy returns and has other advantages over corn ethanol.

Pros: Cellulosic ethanol doesn’t require a crop that feeds people or livestock, so farmers and the poor are not negatively effected by its use. If, as some believe, enzymes and microbes can convert high cellulose waste plant matter into alcohol, production costs and greenhouse gas emissions will be significantly reduced. 

Cons: It takes 1.67 gallons of ethanol to replace one gallon of gas and currently only 1% of existing service stations can pump it. The cost of ethanol at $3.50 a gallon, which isn’t currently a competitive price. Although Brazil needs only 3% of its agricultural lands to produce 10% of its energy from cellulosic ethanol, the U.S. would require a whopping 30% of its agricultural lands to produce that same 10%, while Europe would need a staggering 72%. Not currently in production in the U.S. Some raw materials for cellulosic ethanol may pose unacceptable environmental impacts, so the Sierra Club may oppose them.

Made from vegetable oil or animal fat, biodiesel could potentially make up 2% of U.S. diesel consumption. Even a small fraction of biodiesel mixed with petroleum based diesel produces lower emissions. The Sierra Club supports the development of biodiesel fuel because it appears to be a benign and cost-effective form of recycling.  

Pros: There are currently 85 plants in U.S. and 65 others are under construction. Users buy directly from the plants, eliminating the problem of competitive gasoline suppliers refusing to sell the fuel. There is already a market for biodiesel trucks and buses, especially in Europe where some diesel hybrid trucks already exist. Biodiesel produces less carbon emissions, although sulfur could be a problem with soy-based fuel. Camelina, an ancient grain could produce more biofuel oil from its seeds than canola and at a cheaper price.

Cons: Increased palm oil production could lead to increased slash and burn agriculture in tropical regions. It’s a drop in the proverbial bucket of the world’s required fuel supply. Only 150,000 – 250,000 gallons are produced annually in the U.S, which would ultimately require 62 billion gallons per year to power our vehicles.

Natural gas to liquid fuel

Derived from natural gas, this fuel must be converted to a synthetic gas before it can be changed into liquid fuel.

Cons: The Sierra Club strongly opposes this fuel, because converting the gas to a liquid fuel requires substantial amounts of fossil fuels and consumes large quantities of water. It also produces twice the carbon dioxide of gas. In addition, the liquid fuel is expensive and requires too much natural gas to produce.

Nancy F. Parks is a member of the Moshannon Group and chairs the Chapter’s clean air committee.