Next Generation Biofuels; Origins, Myths and Outcomes

Tomorrow I am speaking at the Virginia Military Institute.  And no, it is not an April Fool’s joke.  I intend to drop the boys at school, drive to VA, and give this talk.

I should note that I stopped publishing my speeches a long time ago.  Because I stopped writing them.  And there is a lot of redundancy. I give about a talk a week, and as long as it is about sustainable biodiesel, I am to the point of just walking on stage, and laying it down.  I didn’t even use notes at the National Biodiesel Board in February.

But Next Generation is new for me.  I don’t usually get tapped for that.  And so I wrote it out.  And I will give it the old fashioned way. Here is what I am going to say:

Before I launch into a talk on the “Next Generation,” I should note that I am a “First Generation” guy.  I’ve been making biodiesel since 2002, I’ve been to every National Biodiesel Board Conference since they started staging conferences, and so I am what you would call a “pioneer.”

I believe that if you do a Wikipedia search on “Pioneer,” it might be defined as the guy with the arrows in his back.

I started making biodiesel for my tractor out of left over cooking oil from deep fried turkeys.  I threw my hat into the ring with Leif and Rachel and we formed Piedmont Biofuels as a cooperative fuel making venture together.

The Coop was well received and has about 500  members and currently powers a bunch of local families with fuel made from waste vegetable oil that is collected from area restaraunts.  By some accounts it is the largest biodiesel cooperative on the continent, and we certainly have a large community of people who drive around on 100% biodiesel.

Our history is very simple.  It began with making fuel from waste.  People thought that was cool and started showing up looking for some.  When Rachel and I got our first ten gallon batch to separate, I think there were six people standing around clapping.  Everyone gets a gallon and a half to go home on.

It doesn’t take long before you need more fuel than you can make.  So what did we do?
We built a terminal so we could buy fuel from far away and distribute it to those who wanted some.

Which means we built fueling infrastructure.  In the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina, there are 8 locations where you can buy 99.9% biodiesel.  We call it the B100 Community Trail and it actually stretches from Wilmington on the coast to Asheville in the mountains.

Want to run around on alternative fuels?  Great.  Build the infrastructure to make it possible.

Those of you who are backyard brewers know the scene.  Lifting a five gallon carboy to fill your tank takes some heft.

We once put up a 500 gallon tank on an elevated stand, and I joked that it was so beautiful my wife, Tami, could use it to fill up her Jetta in her stilettos.  It became known as the “Tami Tank” from that point on.  Never mind that Tami is more of a “sensible shoe” girl than the stiletto type.

Years later I found myself waiting in a restaurant for Tami to join me, and I was greeted by a Coop member who recognized me from afar.  We chatted about biodiesel for a moment, and when Tami arrived I introduced her.

He gasped, “Tami, as in the Tami Tank?  Wow.  They named a tank after you.”

We went on to form Piedmont Biofuels Industrial, which is a commercial scale plant that  makes about a million gallons of fuel per year. It’s tiny by industry standards.  But big compared to making fuel in the back yard. We’ve used virgin soybean oil.  And poultry fat.  And used cooking oil.  And these days we are back to virgin soy.

The idea was to build a “community scale” plant that would meet the fueling needs of our community.  It turned out a million gallons was a little too big-forcing us to sell fuel elsewhere.

We’ve sold product in the domestic market, and we’ve sold product to Korea, and we’ve sold product to Europe, and we are back to selling product locally.  All of our customers are oil companies. And we’ve been kicked around some.

We took a page out of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Our Coop biodiesel plant was “too small.”  Our Industrial biodiesel plant was “too big.”  And nowadays we are busy shipping biodiesel plants all over the place.  They are “fleet scale,” or “farm scale,” or “pilot scale,”  and they are what I would call “just right.”

When I started making biodiesel for my tractor out of  used cooking oil I think some people considered it quirky.   We did a whole bunch of education and outreach and as the industry came into the world, there was a time when biofuels were exceedingly sexy.  And last summer, when global commodity prices hit the roof, biofuels was blamed in part and we became pure evil.  That’s when Time Magazine called us a myth in its cover story.  That’s when the United Nations thought it best to see us charged with crimes against humanity.

And now apparently biofuels will be OK as long as they are “Next Generation.”

I’ve been quirky.  I’ve been sexy.  I’ve been evil.  I’m really not that “Next Generation.”

I believe “Next Generation” is a Star Trek term, and to be honest, I’m sort of an original Star Trek type of guy.  I’m not that Trekky.

But the reason the world has turned to “Next Generation Biofuels” is because the first generation broke our hearts.  It did this a couple of ways.  The first was energy balance.  When we calculate the number of fossil BTUs that go into making a gallon of biofuel we become extremely interested in how many renewable BTUs come out.  And if that energy balance is low, let’s not waste our time on biofuels.

The second was food.  If the average American consumes 3000 calories a day (suffering from fat ankles and affluenza), and it takes 30K calories to fill an SUV with ethanol, biofuels look like a rotten idea.

Perhaps the “Food vs. Fuel” debate was simply a plot by the grocery lobby.  That’s what our trade association would have you believe.  Or perhaps it shined a light on the idea that we need new pathways to biofuels.

If you take the seed of the corn plant, which is full of starch, and you convert that starch to sugar, you can ferment that sugar into alcohol and use it for motive power.  If that corn was supposed to go into a tortilla to feed a hungry child in Mexico, but instead helped you make another pointless trip to the mall on the edge of town, we have a problem.

If you take the fat from a soybean, and convert it into biodiesel, you can use that to get around too.  But if we live in a hungry world that is short on fat, and if we use a whole lot of petroleum to raise that fat from the earth, biofuels don’t look so hot.

So biofuels are “maybe not so good.”

As a society we have decided that instead of drawing a line through biofuels, we will instead look toward the “Next Generation.”

The thinking is that if we can get out of the seed, and into the stalk, all will be well.  The premise is that in the next generation we will make alcohol from cellulose rather than from starch.  People get to eat the seed, and cars will consume the stover.

At this point we are unclear as to whether or not the stover may be a necessary ingredient to provide health to the soil.  Soil can be a renewable resource.  If we treat it right.  And it could very well be that treating the soil right is more important than deriving fuels from the biomass left over from our crop harvests.

In order for ethanol to get a “free get out of jail” card it needs to distance itself from its current production methods.  It’s energy balance is deemed too low, and it successfully competes with food.  So the “Next Generation” will come from cellulose.

Give it a few years.

It will get there from here.  In the absence of conservation.  And public transportation.  And sidewalks.  And in the absence of bike lanes.  And in the absence of logic, the Next Generation of biofuels will be made from something else and all will be well.

Something to note is that the biosphere cannot possibly grow enough BTUS to power this current wasteful economy.  Conversations about biofueling the future are meaningless in the absence of total and complete changes to the ways we consume fuel.  Conservation first.  Then fuel.

Biodiesel is in the same boat as ethanol for its next generation.  What we like to do in biodiesel is differentiate ourselves from ethanol.

When it comes to producing fat for biodiesel the “Next Generation” conversation moves to brand new feedstocks.  Instead of soybeans we talk about jatropha.  Instead of palm oil we talk about moringa.  One of the things we trumpet is crops which grow on “marginal land.”  Since we got in trouble with the environmentalists for burning the rainforest and planting oil palm trees all in a row, we came up with the “marginal land” argument.  The reality is that we get more oil per acre on fertile land than we do on marginal land, so we tend to plant our new oil seed crops on the best land available.

Biodiesel runs into lot of “Next Generation” problems.  Jatropha, for instance is toxic.  In the developing world it is used for abortions.  Once we squish the oil out of the seed, what are we going to do with the mountain of toxic meal which is left behind?

“Next Generation” for biodiesel generally spells algae.  The simple explanation is that algae reproduces so rapidly that the “oil per acre” yield is out of this world.

But whenever someone plays the algae card, make sure you count trump.  Algae is like a “kingdom.”  It is like saying we will make biofuels from trees.  Some have sap.  Others have tar.  Some lose their leaves.  Others stay green.

There are lots of varieties of algae in the world.  Some make oil.  Some do not.  Some are so hydrophilic you can’t get the water out.  Most need to be stressed by diet to even make oil in the first place.

The idea that we are simply going to drive around on biofuels derived from algae is a long way out.

One of the things the industry misses about fuel from algae is that cultivating it is like cultivating any livestock.  It takes water, and nutrients, and has weed and predation pressures like anything else.  And it give off waste water, like any livestock.

Algae is not a free lunch.  Nothing is in the energy business.  Regretfully we are regulated by the laws of thermodynamics.

For me the “Next Generation” of biofuels will come from drilling deeper into the waste stream.  Today we are making biodiesel from agricultural fats.  Tomorrow those fats will be used for their intended purpose first, and then used for biodiesel.  We will be making fuel from fats that have gone down the drain.  Tomorrow we will be making fuels from crop residues rather than crops.

Down in North Carolina we have a Biofuels Center.  It is a remarkable campus, with state funding, and a bunch of big brained folks who are working on building an industry.  They have a mission from the North Carolina legislature, and they are feverishly working on getting biofuels into our state’s liquid fuel mix.

I like to listen to their president talk, because he routinely transcends the details in which I am immersed.  He doesn’t talk about miscanthus, or switch grass or biodiesel.  When he speaks of biofuels he uses words like “imperative,” “urgency,” “responsibility,” and “vision.”

And he is right.  When it comes to any generation of biofuels it is less about “how” than it is about “why.”  Why is because fossil fuels face depletion.  Why is because America has grown dependent on fuel from countries who don’t really care for us.  Why is because our climate is changing in ways that are detrimental to our species.

We have to figure this out, folks.

Along the way we will take arrows in the back.  And we will knock up against some myths.  And we will innovate, and we will labor, and we will experiment, and we will find a way…

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3 Responses to Next Generation Biofuels; Origins, Myths and Outcomes

  1. Wow.

    Nail hit squarely on head.

    How do we make conservation sexy and get on the road to recovery from our bout with affluenza? Jimmy Carter was the last US president to try, yet he was unable to make button down sweaters sexy.

    I, too, have been forced to sleep on my stomach for a long time. But I feel very fortunate to have been part of this wild ride.

    Let’s ride on!

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    Apparently our new energy secretary, Stephen Chu, has a more agressive approach. Not content with one next generation, he proposes three — see the article at http://news.mongabay.com/bioenergy/2007/10/quick-look-at-fourth-generation.html.

    Dave Cohen of ASPO-USA has a nice deconstruction of this in http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2009/03/the-secretary-of-synthetic-biology/.

    To me, the plan just looks scary: massive re-engineering of biomes with no concern for unintended consequences or feedback effects has caused the demise of more than one civilization. I much prefer your kind of approach: local, pragmatic, modest, and always with one eye on the limitations and side effects.

    And of course, an awareness that without conservation and a dedication to living within our ecological means, any tech “solution” will just make the situation worse.

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