Birding Site Guide

The biofuels debate is raging and it does not take a genius to work out that destroying tropical habitat to grow palm oil is a bad move which actually vastly increases greenhouse gas release particularly when rainforest or tropical peatlands are being destroyed. (But actually nearly all palm oil production is used for cooking oil and fats). This does not mean all tropical production is bad. As Brazil has demonstrated its sugar cane plantations, mostly long established and not in the Amazon region, produces the second highest yield of biofuel per hectare there is.

More controversial is the production of biofuels in the temperate zones. Can it really make sense in the USA or Europe to turn over the production of valuable food producing arable land to biofuel plant production? As I read just this weekend (16.08.08) one journalist at least seems to think it ludicrous to produce biofuels from plants grown in temperate climes. Yet in the very same paper is an article by a biofuels expert (Rebecca Wright) who says categorically it does make sense. Who is right?! Well it depends on the method of production. The first journalist seemed to only consider the possibility of biofuel production from Hemp, Miscanthus, oilseed rape or sugar beet or wheat grown on land formerly used for food production using machinery running on fossil fuel and processed in factories powered by fossil fuels. In this way greenhouse gases would hardly be reduced and valuable agricultural land would be lost. It seems a rather dim view to think this is the only or even most likely way biofuels can be produced even in temperate zones.

Any biofuel produced directly from a crop in this way is called a first generation biofuel. While practical in some situations, most biofuel producers, particularly those looking at biodiesel manufacturing are looking at alternative biomass sources for production. But, just staying with first generation, temperate zone for the moment there are ways to massively increase the greenhouse gas offset even here. Firstly wouldn’t a company manufacturing biofuels use biodiesel to fuel their vehicles including their farm vehicles and transporters? It would also seem reasonable that they may run their factory on biofuel or some other source of renewable energy such as wind power. The type of crop used of course can make a huge difference and at the moment Miscanthus and Hemp are considered best. In temperate climates Hemp may not overall have quite the highest yield of biofuel compared to Miscanthus, if measured over 3 years or more. But Hemp is an excellent soil conditioner with deep roots and once the biofuel has been extracted the leftover pulp can be made into high protein animal feed pellets (as only carbohydrate is removed to make biofuel). Also Hemp has a huge range of other uses that Miscanthus does not.

Many areas of uncultivated land that are unsuitable to grow food crops can nevertheless grow biofuel crops such as Miscanthus, Switchgrass or Hemp so food producing land is not taken out of production. And what about the ‘waste’ organic matter, well this is widely used to make high protein animal feed pellets, such as British Sugar does with its used sugar beet. As an aside British Sugar also power their plant from the excess heat produced in the refining factory using a combined heat and power plant which actually exports energy to the grid, oh and it only uses surplus sugar beet that it is not allowed to sell, the same can be said about wheat powered plants that only use wheat that would otherwise only go on a grain mountain. This reduces the need to import soya. Soya used in Europe is invariably grown in the tropical Amazon region, but rainforest if left standing is a major sink for greenhouse gases. It also limits over harvesting species such as Sand Eels thus helping seabirds, as these too have traditionally been used for animal feeds for pigs and chickens (and domestic cats). The ‘waste’ can also be used as a high quality mulch or blended and turned into good quality compost thus helping to preserve peat bogs which are a major greenhouse gas store. So actually if all these benefits are factored into the carbon offsetting calculations then it definitely is worth pursuing biofuel production even in temperate zones, though it will always be more efficient in the tropics.

Yet amazingly there are new technologies that increase the already significant gains many times more and this is by producing biodiesel from algae. Again this is already a reality in New Zealand, and no it does not use genetically modified microbes, it uses a native algae. This approach is also being pursued in the USA, where they are developing intensive feeding processes to dramatically increase production. Because algae are amazingly efficient at converting sunlight to energy and lock up carbon, this would seem to be the best option overall for first generation biodiesel.

But this efficiency can be increased multiple times more wherever it is practiced by the use of so called second generation biofuels or biofuels from waste. This not only means the fuel is 'free' because it is from waste, it also saves money and land from landfill tips. The waste can be anything organic or that contains organic carbon. This includes old tyres, woodchips, human and animal waste, municipal waste, kitchen waste such as used cooking oil, used ground coffee, grass clippings and landfill rubbish. The processes involved, except for the first 2 are simple and in fact anyone can safely make their own biodiesel in their kitchen with no more complicated equipment than for brewing beer and with about the same costs (see below). All these processes are a reality now, all are efficient enough at producing biodiesel (usually the biofuel of choice) all have masses of raw material and some are starting to be seen on a commercial scale. The question one has to ask is why, today, are we still buying and running our vehicles on fossil fuels? Most countries could be fossil fuel free quickly, easily and cheaply forever with technology available now, whilst saving the environment and lowering transport costs significantly. What is lacking is political will from fossil fuel dependent governments.

Fuel from solid waste, such as tyres, often means pyrolysis; super-heating organic matter anaerobically (that is without the presence of oxygen) under high pressure or thermal depolymerization; uses an electric arc to re-arrange molecular structure). Though this produces a fuel similar to fossil oil crude, it is not a straightforward process to extract biodiesel from it and more cost effective methods need to be found. However it is already cost effective to use these processes to produce biogas which can then be used in gas engines. With woodchips the problem is the breakdown of cellulose and lignin, this again is an expensive processes and can only be cost effective at the moment if woodchips are produced close to the plant as a waste product. Wood chips are already used to make bio-oil by pyrolysis in north America and in Sweden making biodiesel from them is being investigated.

Bio-ethanol can be blended with diesel in various amounts before use in modern diesel engines. Increased amounts cause delayed ignition or knock which lowers performance and in time permanently damages the engine. Bio-diesel, the production of which requires a more complicated process, however can be put into a modern diesel car neat, without any alteration to the engine or loss of performance. This is why the focus of research is on this particular end-product.

It is quite clear that biofuels, particularly biodiesel will be the key players in supplying our energy needs for transport within the foreseeable future. But these still produce greenhouse gases even if on a neutral overall balance, and we may not want these gases in our cities. Also internal combustion engines are noisy. So further down the line this may be overtaken by hydrogen power from renewable sources, as this produces no toxic or greenhouse gases and the power plant being driven by hydrogen would be electric and so would be much quieter. Where could we produce such vast quantities of reliable renewable energy? Well the EU is now looking into a 450 billion Euro project to harness solar power from the Sahara and use direct current cables to bring it to Europe. The project would cover an area the size of Wales and harness 0.3% of the solar power available in the Sahara and produce all Europe’s energy needs.

This sounds like a great idea and it already has the backing of Britain’s prime minister and France’s president. The only point I feel I should raise is that maybe it would make more sense to use the solar power to split piped-in seawater and produce hydrogen, which could then be transported by pipes to tankers in ports and then used for vehicles. Hydrogen power used on site would produce drinking water too, important in a desert. Conversion to hydrogen fuel would stop fluctuation in power supply associated with many renewable energy sources including solar power since hydrogen can be stored with no loss of potential. The hydrogen could also be used in power stations to generate electricity. Hydrogen can be stored and transported safely with new techniques loosing hardly any performance. This would dramatically lower costs for the Sahara solar project as no new power cables would be needed and oil tankers could be used as transporters. It would however require a canal/pipeline/railway deep into the desert from the sea, but this would bring added benefits to the host country/ies as already outlined.

Sahara solar power for Europe

Journey to Forever Make your own biodiesel

Biofuels from waste

Biofuels from human waste


more pyrolysis

Biogas from rice waste

Biodiesel from algae

Bio oil from woodchips

Fischer-Tropsch oily-based paraffins

European Energy Commission See also European Energy Commission; Bioenergy

Author: BSG