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A Win-Win for Biodiversity and Biofuels


Studies by researchers at Michigan State University indicate that using grasslands can be useful for biofuel stock as well as helping protect bird species.

Much of the current domestic ethanol production is corn based, although there are numerous criticisms against this approach. Cellulosic methods such as using prairie grasses for ethanol production do not produce 'food-or-fuel' conflicts, and can be equal or better yielding feedstocks for the process than corn or sugar. And, according to MSU biologist Bruce Robertson, using grasslands to produce biofuel feedstock would also provide habitat for a more diverse population of birds.

"Robertson and colleagues found that bugs and the birds that feed on them thrive more in mixed prairie grasses than in corn. Almost twice as many species made their homes in grasses, while plots of switchgrass, a federally designated model fuel crop, fell between the two in their ability to sustain biodiversity."

Converting even more land over to undifferentiated monoculture crops for biofuel is likely to be a short-sighted decision, and could lead to further decline of bird species. Developing methods to make fuel by using diverse grasslands could be doubly beneficial, aiding the protection of bird species as well as providing a more carbon sensitive alternative for producing fuel.

image: Matt Sileo/MSU

via: MSU News


Agave Plant Could Produce Both Tequila and Biofuel

The latest plant to gain biofuel feedstock status is the same one that fuels our margaritas.  The agave plant, most notably the source of tequila, could also soon be a new source of biofuel.

Researchers have discovered that agave is a very high-yielding source of biofuel and it would cause very little, if any, land use change.

Biofuel could be harvested from the plant as a by-product of tequila production.  Agave plantations that already exist for tequila production, as well as abandoned ones in Mexico, Africa and Australia that were previously used for fiber production and could be reclaimed, would be used to produce the biofuel without any land grab issues.

More testing has to be done to figure out which Agave species can deliver the highest yield and is most tolerant to the semi-arid regions where it would be cultivated, but it seems we'll be hearing more about this soon.

via Inhabitat


Qantas to Produce Biojet Fuel from Waste

Australian airline Qantas will announce this month that they will be building the world's second commercial-scale plant to produce biojet fuel completely made from waste for its aircraft.

The airline is partnering with Solena, an American biofuel maker to build the plant, which will convert food scraps, household materials like grass and tree cuttings, and agricultural and industrial waste into biojet fuel.  Solena has already partnered with British Airways to build a similar plant in London that will convert 500,000 tons of waste into 16 million gallons of biojet fuel a year.  That plant will be up and running in 2014.

Almost every airline has been testing biofuels in their aircraft, with successful results so far. Right now, only a 50/50 blend of biofuel and jet fuel is certified for use in the U.S. and the U.K., though British Airways is looking to use 100 percent biojet fuel once it's approved.

via Guardian


Synthetic Gasoline Is Created From Biomass and Solar Power


Concentrated solar energy is most commonly used for electrical power generation. However, a Colorado company, Sundrop Fuels, has a unique approach to the production of biofuel by that marries the mirrors and tower of concentrated solar power with their process for the production of bio-based fuels.

Instead of burning biomass for the energy needed to create biofuel, Sundrop uses concentrated solar as their energy source to gasify a range of feedstocks including agricultural waste, energy crops, and wood waste. The Sundrop process can produce a range of fuels including gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel. Many other biofuel processes produce ethanol which has a lower energy density than other fuels, meaning that more of it must be used for an equal amount of work. (Flex-fuel cars get fewer miles per gallon from ethanol than from gasoline, but the ethanol fuel costs less per gallon, and the ethanol is not derived from petroleum.)

Sundrop uses the high temperatures from the concentrated solar array to vaporize the biomass feedstock and form syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. As with other biofuel processess, the syngas is the basic building block which is turned into useful fuel.

Sundrop's process has other efficiencies that provide additional benefits. By using solar energy, the process yields 100 to 125 gallons of fuel per ton of biomass, which is more than twice what other biofuel producers obtain. The process also requires far less water, needing only a half gallon of water per gallon of fuel produced, versus 6 or 7 gallons required in other systems. The process also creates electrical power from the waste heat generated in the reaction tower.

One of the only significant drawbacks that the Sundrop process faces is the distance between areas with excellent solar access (and few cloudy days) and ready sources of biomass.

The Sundrop process is expected to be able to create gasoline, without subsidies, for less than $2 per gallon. The company is constructing a pilot plant and aims to have a full, commercial-scale plant with a capacity of 100 million gallons by 2015.


Related on EcoGeek: More On Coskata's $1 per Gallon Ethanol


Biomass Energy a Harder Sell in the US


Although the adoption of biomass power is on the rise in Europe, the same case is not true in the United States where renewable power generating facilities are increasingly coming under attack. Plans for a proposed biomass plant in northern Michigan were recently shelved due to public opposition, and the utility board has decided to reconsider a natural gas plant instead. Proposed facilities in other states are also facing opposition.

Biomass has been eagerly pursued by utility companies with a renewable power mandate because they are a quick and inexpensive way to meet renewable energy portfolio targets. Biomass is a local fuel that is well suited to agricultural areas. Although opponents suggest that biomass facilities will contribute to ongoing deforestation, biomass fueled plants tend to focus on using waste materials, including agricultural field waste and branches and leaves generated from logging, rather than competing for valuable lumber or other crop material. In the best cases, waste material that otherwise represents a problem that needs to be disposed of serves as the feedstock for the power plant. The dual efficiency of eliminating a waste problem and providing power generation at the same time is a positive synergy that these plants offer.

In the case of the Traverse City (MI) Light & Power utility, there is both a state mandate of 10 percent generation from renewable sources by 2015 as well as the utility's own goal of generating 30 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2020. With the shelving of the biomass plant plan, it is unlikely that the utility will meet either of their goals.

Biomass is no more a silver bullet for energy generation than any other technology. Each system has its own benefits and drawbacks, and biomass is no different. The wind energy industry faced this for many years, and still encounters irrational opposition, although its acceptance is continuing to grow. Biomass energy is likely facing a similar point in its development.

Links: NY Times and Traverse City Record Eagle

Image via: Wikimedia Commons

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