What are renewable fuels?
Renewable fuels, or “biofuels” like ethanol and biodiesel, are liquid transportation fuels made from agricultural crops like corn and soybeans. Ethanol is a clean-burning gasoline-type fuel made by fermenting grain or sugar cane into alcohol. Biodiesel is created from oil seeds (like soybeans) and waste materials like restaurant grease. Both ethanol and biodiesel can be used in everyday cars and trucks in low-level blends or in slightly modified vehicles as substitutes for gasoline and diesel.
Biofuels are a proven alternative to oil for transportation. Thirty percent of American fuel is already enriched with ethanol (it improves performance and reduces tailpipe emissions), and biodiesel is the fastest growing alternative fuel. The four branches of the U.S. military run their vehicles on 20% biodiesel blends (B20) at installations around the country, and the Navy is brewing its own biodiesel from mess hall cooking oil. Concerns over rising oil prices, national security, greenhouse gas emissions, and other forms of air pollution are also bolstering interest in biofuels.
How much biofuel can we produce?
Producing energy from America’s abundant farm and forest lands is an idea whose time has come. In the State of the Union address this year, President Bush set a goal of replacing 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025 – a quantity very similar to 25x’25 (because most of our oil comes from other regions). Oak Ridge National Laboratory reports that we have more than 1 billion tons of unused raw materials each year that could be used to make biofuels. In fact, one of America’s leading venture capitalists says 25x’25 is too conservative a goal, and that we can shoot higher and move faster.
How do we produce that much biofuel?
To get to 25x’25, we will need to use all kinds of plants for biofuels. Today ethanol is made from corn, sugar cane, and sweet sorghum. Biodiesel is made from oil seeds like soybeans and canola and from nuts like coconut, palm, and jatropha. Advanced biofuels can be made from the “cellulose” in trees, grass, agricultural residue (corn stalks, cotton gin, rice hulls), and municipal solid waste. Cellulose makes up the majority of a plant’s structure and can be broken down into sugars, which can then be fermented and made into ethanol. The President vowed in the State of the Union to make advanced ethanol available by 2011. Once commercialized, advanced ethanol will be competitive with $35 per barrel oil. Studies indicate that the U.S. can produce 50 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol using only agricultural residue.
Can my car run on biofuels?
Cars, trucks, and farm machinery can all run on low-volume biofuel blends without any alteration. Current car warranties cover operation with ethanol-blended gas of up to ten percent (E10). Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) operate on any combination of ethanol and gasoline. FFVs are being sold in the U.S., Brazil, and China. As ethanol has a higher octane, it is used as a gasoline additive to improve vehicle performance. In fact, many international racing teams use ethanol because of its high performance qualities. Biodiesel blends of 20% (B20) show similar operation in conventional diesel engines as regular diesel fuel.
What about the energy balance of biofuels?
A recent report in Science Magazine confirmed that the energy balance of corn and cellulosic ethanol is positive. Furthermore, the report states, “All studies indicated that current corn ethanol technologies are much less petroleum-intensive than gasoline.” The ethanol process yields 5.5 to 22 units of energy for every unit of petroleum consumed.
Ethanol is a high-value energy product that displaces the need for expensive, imported oil. The energy consumed during the ethanol conversion process is from coal and natural gas used to produce heat for fermentation and distillation. On net, we trade these domestically available fossil fuels for transportation fuel, which we largely import. Compared to gasoline, ethanol also reduces by at least 20% the pollution that contributes to climate change.
What are the benefits of biofuels?
- Energy Independence: We import more than half of our oil, much of it from unstable parts of the world. The Middle East has two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves, the U.S. only 2% – yet we consume one-quarter of the oil produced every year. Biofuels could replace 25% of our gasoline and diesel use by 2025.
- Smaller Trade Deficit: The U.S. borrowed more than $200 billion from foreign countries last year to pay for imported oil. That amounts to $700 for every man, woman, and child in America. Ethanol produced at home replaces oil pumped abroad.
- Economic Growth: Biofuels create new markets for agricultural products and stimulate rural development. In 2004, ethanol production added $4.5 billion to U.S. farm income and created 130,000 jobs across all economic sectors.
- Cleaner Air: Biofuels burn more cleanly than gasoline and diesel. Using biofuels means producing fewer emissions of carbon monoxide, particulates, and toxic chemicals that cause smog, aggravate respiratory and heart disease, and contribute to thousands of premature deaths each year.
- Less Global Warming: Biofuels contain carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere by plants and trees as they grew. Gasoline and other fossil fuels are adding huge amounts of stored carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, where it traps the Earth’s heat like a heavy blanket and causes the world to warm. Studies show that ethanol made from corn reduces CO2 emissions by 13 to 26%. Advanced ethanol, such as that made from energy crops like switchgrass, could reduce those emissions nearly to zero.