Bio Fuels

Biofuels constitute the other major segment of alternative fuels. Just as is the case with the term unconventional fossil fuels, the biofuels designation encompasses both feedstocks and refined products.

Feedstocks, which come under the general nomenclature of biomass, include food crops, specialized crops grown only for fuel, agricultural wastes, forest wastes, and certain types of industrial wastes such as the so-called “black liquor” which is a byproduct of paper production. By stretching the definition of biomass somewhat we may also include landfill wastes, manure, and a number of residues associated with mechanized food preparation.

The refined products most commonly associated with biomass are ethanol and biodiesel; nevertheless, processes exist for transforming biomass into many of the same fuels derived from fossil fuel sources, including diesel, gasoline, methanol, and methane, among others. The fact that this has not occurred on any scale thus far has been due to the rather poor economics of biofuel in the past; however, the recent rapid development of many innovative production processes and the rising prices of petroleum and natural gas make biofuels a much more attractive proposition today.

Biofuels also include some quite interesting products that have yet to win much market acceptance but which may potentially be quite important. These include methane, syngas, and di-methyl ether from biomass; bio-based methanol; pyrolysis oil; and even coal substitutes. There is also a large market, chiefly in Northern Europe, for what are known as wood pellets, the latter consisting of processed, formed wood wastes with combustion characteristics that are superior to ordinary wood chips or scantlings.

The Biofuel Opportunity

The larger biofuel category incorporates so many diverse feedstocks and finished products that overall projections for the industry are nearly meaningless. What can be said with utter confidence is that the production of ethanol and biodiesel, currently the most widely distributed products, has in both cases been subject to 100% annual increases in sales recently, and all indications are that sharp increases will continue for the foreseeable future.

Neglected Biofuel Sector with High Growth Potential: Our own belief is that the now neglected category of BTL (biomass-to-liquids) may eventually overtake both ethanol and biodiesel. BTL processes produce what are essentially bio-based synfuels, that is, straight substitutes for petroleum-based gasoline and diesel that are chemically nearly identical to them and thus require no new distribution infrastructure or engine modifications. Moreover, energy yields per ton of biomass appear to be generally better for BLT than for either ethanol or biodiesel. Currently, however, there is no well proven BLT technology offering production costs that are demonstrably lower than those for refined petroleum products or even coal-based synfuels.

The first company able to demonstrate a cost effective BLT production technology stands to profit enormously. It must be remembered, however, that both petroleum companies and large chemical plant engineering firms are quite active in BTL, and the winner or winners will not necessarily be startups.

small-scale BTL

Is it possible to convert biomass (say switchgrass and farm waste) to liquid (ethanol for vehicles) on the scale of a farm?

I'd like to see our alternative energy production decentralized. This allows lower costs to the consumers because there would not be an industry controlling the prices. This, in turn, would tend reduce the use of gasoline for fuel for vehicles, and therefore facilitate cleaner air, since ethanol burns cleaner.

Since there is a biofermentation stage in the process, maybe individuals with the resourcefulness of the producers of moonshine, of the early part of the last century, would serve to spread the small scale production cause. Really cheap fuel would be the incentive. Production for one's own use could not be taxed besides.

Farmers would be able to grow switchgrass, say, on marginal land, or grow it on fallow fields to enrich the soil, then use it when it is harvested. Or, use any bio waste produced on the farm (bedding straw?) to produce ethanol for use in farm equipment and road vehicles.

Is there a need for continuous operation in BTL? Could the process be scaled to the likely day to day production of feedstocks?