Biofuels were not on his mind when 18th century poet William Wordsworth coined the phrase “splendour in the grass,” but he might find himself struggling to find words that rhyme with “ethanol” or “renewable fuel” if he were writing his famous ode today. I can just imagine him sitting at a keyboard talking to himself: “Let's see, ‘ethanol/hear the call/come one, come all…’ No. No. That is awful. How about, ‘Ah cellulosic ethanol! Ah biomass!/that brave new fuel made from grass…’ ”
Okay, while the shotgun marriage between transportation and renewable fuels may not be inspiring lyrics of love, it is clear that biofuels made from something are going to be a part of trucking going forward, like it or not. If expediency is to ever become the stuff of poetry, though, we have to figure out how to make renewable fuels that meet our energy and environmental needs without creating some serious if unintentional consequences along the way.
Corn is a case in point. While corn-based ethanol was the first darling of many renewable fuel advocates, it has not taken long for the industry's affections to wander. Not only are the profit margins for ethanol producers extremely tight, but it also takes a lot of energy to produce ethanol, diminishing its net positive contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even more worrisome, however, is the growing evidence that we may be producing renewable fuels at the expense of food.
In “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor,” authors C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer describe the ripple effects of diverting primary feedstocks from the food chain to the fuel tank (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007). “In the United States, the growth of the biofuel industry has triggered increases not only in the prices of corn, oilseeds, and other grains, but also in the prices of seemingly unrelated crops and products. The use of land to grow corn to feed the ethanol maw is reducing the acreage devoted to other crops. Food processors who use crops such as peas and sweet corn have been forced to pay higher prices to keep their supplies secure — costs that will eventually be passed on to consumers. Rising feed prices are also hitting the livestock and poultry industries. … If returns continue to drop, production will decline, and the prices for chicken, turkey, pork, milk, and eggs will rise.”
In the few months since Runge's article appeared, food costs have dramatically risen as predicted, and they continue to rise, right along with the prices of diesel, gasoline and petroleum-derived products of all kinds. What to do?
Today, perhaps the most promising solution to the world's interlocked energy/food supply/environmental woes appears to be a technology with a name even Wordsworth would find tough to rhyme: second- and third-generation renewable diesel made from “ligno-cellulosic sources.”
“Third-generation renewable diesel can be obtained from ligno-cellulosic sources such as straw, timber, wood chips, plant waste or manure,” notes Gary M. Parsons, global OEM and industry liaison manager for Chevron Oronite in his recent two-part article on biodiesel for Lubrication, a technical publication by Chevron Products. “Since the technology allows renewable diesel to be produced from any plant material, this would eliminate the competition between food and fuel, as well as the finished product quality concerns that are intrinsic to first generation biodiesel production.”
There are two main obstacles in the way of bringing this third-generation renewable diesel to the pumps however, according to Parsons and other experts: technology and cost. The good news is that work is going on around the world right this minute to address those problems. As Wordsworth might say, “Oh, make haste!”