by Max Frankel
Biofuels have fallen out of favor in many environmental and political circles. But in the world of science, researchers around the world are working on some very innovative ways to produce gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from more sustainable feedstocks.
Here’s a look at three cool recent developments in biofuels:
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em: Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California are working on converting tobacco plants into fuel powerhouses. The project is funded by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The scientists selected the plant because tobacco is “grown in large tracts throughout the U.S and in more than 100 countries. It generates multiple harvests per year, its large leaves could store a lot of fuel, and it’s amenable to genetic engineering.”
Tobacco has huge potential because it produces very high yields. The Berkeley lab estimates “that about 1000 acres of tobacco could yield more than one million gallons of fuel.”
Currently, tobacco is one of the most ubiquitous plants in the American south. But as sales of commercial tobacco products fall demand for the crop is declining (a good chart from Canada is here). It’s possible that this new use for the product could stimulate the industry for the benefit of our health, not the detriment. Tobacco grown for biofuel purposes can be planted at up to 16 times the density of tobacco planted for consumption, so fields already producing the plant could vastly increase production to meet potential future need.
The Berkeley scientists are working on creating tobacco plants that maximize the uptake of CO2 and sunlight and the production of fats and oils. Check it out:
Bottoms up: The Scotch Wiskey Association of Scotland is currently constructing a nearly $100 million combined heat and power plant capable of generating up to 7.2 megawatts of electricity from nothing but whiskey byproducts.
The process uses “pot ale” and “draff,” two waste products created during the production and distillation process, to create biobutanol, a fuel with the potential to produce 30% more energy than ethanol. Scientists at Edinburg Napier University have pioneered the process and say that the butanol produced could eventually be pumped right into existing automobile engines.
Halfway around the world, scientists in the United States and Central America have been studying the biofuel capability of Agave, a plant best known as the main ingredient in tequila production. The Agave has more potential output than many traditional biofuel crops like corn and soy.
Agave is grown in arid or semi-arid regions where not much else can grow, so it is more environmentally sustainable. According to researcher Sarah Davis, “Biomass from Agave can be harvested as a co-product of tequila production without additional land demands. Also, abandoned Agave plantations in Mexico and Africa that previously supported the natural fiber market could be reclaimed as bioenergy cropland.”
With all this tobacco, whiskey, and tequila going into our gas tanks, pretty soon we may need an ID just to fill up at the local fueling station.
Pass the wasabi: Seaweed is a great source of natural sugars that can be utilized when fermented. Until recently however, scientists had no way to ferment alginate, the sugar that makes up half the energy potential of seaweed. Now, an altered form of E. Coli has been developed to tap into this resource.
A company called Bio Architecture Lab is currently conducting studies off the coast of Chile that are showing promising results — yielding up to 80% of the algae’s theoretical energy potential. Because it grows in the ocean, seaweed totally avoids the problem of taking up valuable arable land and increasingly scarce freshwater. In fact, it may prove more effective as a biofuel than some other, more traditional crops: “Farmed at 18 to 22 dry tons per acre…seaweed can yield 1,500 gallons of ethanol per acre. That is 50 percent more ethanol per acre than sugar cane and triple the ethanol per acre of corn, at a fraction of the cost.”
Interestingly, the idea of using marine biomass for energy is anything but new. Check out this plan from the 1970s to create a power producing undersea farm.
These are a few of the interesting ways researchers are experimenting with new biofuel feedstocks. Considering all this innovation going on, it’s clearly too early to write off biofuels.
Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College.