02/03/2012 07:12 EST | Updated 04/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Biofuel a Win-Win: Green and Cost-Effective


As many of you know, much of the gasoline available today has a biofuel component with newer vehicles already E85 compatible -- meaning they operate normally with up to 85 per cent ethanol.

Boeing is testing biofuel use on it's aircraft. In 2010, Boeing tested passenger jets and a U.S. Navy F/A 18A Super Hornet with aviation fuel and biofuel with excellent results.

Boeing's Sustainable Biofuels Research & Technology Program (SBRTP) reported up to 80 per cent less CO2 emissions when compared to petroleum-sourced jet fuel.

An excerpt from the SBRTP summary states;

The Bio-SPK fuel blends used in the test flights have all either met or exceeded the performance specifications for jet fuel.

For example, the Bio-SPK fuel blends demonstrated higher energy density per unit mass than typical jet fuel, enabling airplanes to travel farther using less fuel. For all of the test flights, the blended biofuel displayed no adverse effects on any of the aircraft systems.

Other biofuels are also becoming available. Diesel-fuel can also be extracted from plant sources and in many jurisdictions, used cooking oil is collected from restaurants and homes and filtered to become vegetable-oil based diesel fuel.

Some cities have done the calculations, and surprise! -- it's more cost effective to re-process that oil than to deal with the harm to the environment from toxic used oil. Not only that, many government vehicles run on that free (for the cost of pick-up and minor refining) fuel, including buses, trucks, and other government fleet vehicles.

For environmentalists, getting two uses instead of one -- per million litres of cooking oil -- is a sign of progress.

When "going green" equals profit, that's when environmental progress in the transportation sector will take off for real. Some companies in Europe buy used oil or freshly-harvested vegetable oil, refine it, and sell it on the open market for use in vehicles. Interestingly, vegetable oil-based diesel fuel emits less carbon dioxide per gallon of fuel than other transportation fuels.

Quite unlike fossil fuels, which cause a huge net gain to our atmosphere -- the CO2 equation couldn't be better for plant-based diesel. The vast majority of the CO2 gathered by the plant during its lifetime is stored in the plant (and then becomes stored in the fuel) which, after combustion, simply returns to the atmosphere from whence it came -- making plant-based fuel CO2 neutral for all intents and purposes.

Some countries have decided that biofuels belong in their future and have set thousands or millions of hectares aside for biofuel crop agriculture, as discussed in the book Biodiesel 2020 -- 2nd Edition by Will Thurmond. He writes:

Biodiesel growth from non-food feedstocks is gaining traction around the world. For example, China recently set aside an area the size of England to produce jatropha and other non-food plants for biodiesel. India has up to 60 million hectares of non-arable land available to produce jatropha, and intends to replace 20 per cent of diesel fuels with jatropha-based biodiesel. In Brazil and Africa, there are significant programs underway dedicated to producing non-food crops jatropha and castor for biodiesel.

The biofuel industry does have its detractors, however. I will list and briefly deal with their complaints below:

1) Most biofuel crops require plenty of water to grow.

True. Therefore, grow them in Indonesia or other rainforest-like zones -- not in the U.S., where biofuel crops effectively replace food crops. In fact, the trend is already towards locating biofuel farms in under-developed areas. Some plants, such as Jatropha, actually grow better in poor soil and in blistering hot conditions, with the proviso of plentiful rainfall.

2) Some crops don't return enough profit for investors.

True. Much depends on the biofuel crop you choose to grow. Jatropha and sugar cane are more efficiently converted to ethanol than corn, for example.

3) Apparently, biofuels must replace all conventional petroleum!

False. Why is it necessary for biofuels to completely replace conventional fuels? It can be a useful part of the transportation fuels solution when used as a petroleum feedstock.

4) Biofuels require expensive new infrastructure.

False. Biofuels provide work for farm labourers, income for farmers and contribute to third-world GDP. A much lower level of infrastructure is required to produce biofuels as compared to petroleum fuels -- especially when compared to deep-water drilling/extraction.

5) Biofuels are more expensive to produce than conventional petroleum-sourced fuels.

True (temporarily). As with most products -- when production ramps up economies of scale kick in, even as the knowledge base improves. Corn, which is considered first-generation biofuel, is being superseded by second-generation sugar cane and soybean. Next up are Jatropha, Camelina, and other non-food crops which grow in poor soils.

Much of the "easy" petroleum has already been -- or is about to be extracted and then released (burned) into our atmosphere. From this point onward, it is "hard" oil all the way. Deep-water oil wells, tar sands bitumen, sour crude, and depleted reservoirs are going to be the mantra henceforth. Biofuels can reduce the pressure on petroleum producers by dramatically adding to their feedstocks.

The quiet revolution is already well begun in the biofuel industry as it enters it's high-growth stage -- and it is only going to get better from here.