Oil supplies are under threat. Environmentalists are clamouring for reductions in emissions. Vehicle owners want cheaper fuel. Can renewable biofuels appease all these parties and still make a profit?
“They’ll never let it happen.” The chemical engineer with whom I was discussing recent developments in the biofuel business was adamant. She also insisted on remaining anonymous – big oil companies don’t like engineers with their own opinions it would seem.
“Do you really think big oil companies are going to stand by and allow these new technologies to grow to their full potential,“ she continued eyeing me intently.
And yet, despite these sentiments and widespread concern regarding the influences of ‘oil’ on our future – leaving conspiracy theorists aside, many people believe oil was the real force behind the US-led incursion into Iraq – it is hard to deny the money flowing into alternate fuel technologies these days. In particular biofuel technologies (that is fuels that originate from biological sources such as biodiesel and bioethanol) have received tremendous political and financial support recently.
The most popular source materials for biofuel production are maize and sugarcane which are converted into bioethanol – a popular addition to petrol. In addition, vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, soya and jatropha (a type of tree) together with animal oils such as catfish oil are refined through a process of transesterification to form biodiesel – a diesel equivalent that can be used in modern diesel engines without requiring any modifications.
Biofuel technology is not new and few people realise that the first diesel engine, created by German engineer Rudolf Diesel in 1893, was powered by peanut oil (although technically this was not refined so was not a biodiesel by any modern definition). Diesel’s vision was a world of engines driven by renewable energy sources – biofuels.
Large petroleum companies, however, were able to stifle development offering their oil-based products to the market at significantly lower prices. But Diesel was adamant and in a visionary speech given in 1912, he insisted that the time would come when oil reserves would falter and humans would be forced to revert to renewable alternatives such as biodiesel and so on. With recent instability in the Middle East and no significant new oil reserve discoveries in recent years, it seems Diesel’s prescient observations have been vindicated.
Ethanol as a Fuel Additive
Fuelling souped-up hot rods with pure ethanol has long been a popular pastime for backcounty rednecks in the US not to mention racing enthusiast’s worldwide. These days however, ethanol is increasingly finding a legitimate place in mainstream automobile fuels. Many countries, and in this Brazil is a world leader, already use ethanol derived from maize and sugarcane as an additive in their petrol. Percentages of ethanol commonly range from 10% to 25%, although percentages as high as 85% are available in certain states in the US. These mixes are generally referred to as E10, E25 and so on depending on the percentage of ethanol; E100 is pure ethanol.
The advantages of ethanol are multiple. It reduces the cost per litre of fuel, reduces harmful emissions including those involved in global warming, helps increase the octane of unleaded petrol reducing the dependence of alternates which are generally less environmentally-friendly, and probably most significantly, reduces the reliance on non-renewable fossil-fuels such as oil and coal.
South Africa currently does not utilise any biologically produced fuel additives, although pundits predict this will soon change when the long awaited government policy on biofuels is published (expected October 2006). The government is expected to announce a mandatory 10% ethanol addition to all petrol sold in the country alongside significant biodiesel additions.
Strategically this makes sense and will help reduce South Africa’s reliance on foreign oil supplies, while benefiting the environment and the economies of rural farming communities. The current head of the Southern Africa Biofuels Association (Saba), Erhard Seiler, believes that locally produced biofuels have the potential to meet 10% of local demand by 2010. Considering the volumes required (currently SA utilises some 11-billion litres of petrol and 8-billion litres of diesel per year), it is hardly surprising that a new venture, Ethanol Africa, has recently began construction of a R700-million bioethanol plant in Bothaville in the Free State. Ethanol Africa plans to develop eight such bioethanol facilities round the country and is adamant that biofuels are the way of the future.
The Bothaville plant will process 1 125 tons of yellow maize daily, producing 473 000 litres of ethanol and 63 000 litres of biodiesel a day. The maize will be sourced from surrounding farms – probably on a contracted out production basis, significantly improving the economics of local farming communities. In addition, it is expected to greatly increase the viability of small-scale farming in the area and it is hoped that a significant percentage of the maize requirements will be sourced from small-scale operations.
Significant Job opportunities will also be created by the plant, with quoted figures predicting the creation of as many as 10 000 jobs including both direct and indirect opportunities. Although this number is probably inflated, the location of the opportunities is important in terms of developing rural communities. A significant proportion of the opportunities will be in rural farming areas and this will not only uplift depressed rural areas of the country but will help ease the drain into urban areas.
Not everyone is happy with the recent developments in the biofuel industry, however.
Biofuels: Panacea or Pariah
Biofuels are not universally accepted as the panacea of world energy problems and deep rumblings have sounded from various quarters.
Uncertainty surrounds the economic viability of biofuels, although this is not the major concern of many experts, who are worried by the impacts of biofuels on land use (for farming) and indeed food prices.
One such critic is Unilever, a company which produces a significant proportion of the world’s food. Their concern is that food prices will soar with concomitant shortages of staple foods. These sentiments were echoed in a recent editorial published in the Washington Post entitled “Starving the people to feed the cars”. In this, author Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, hints at food shortages – especially in developing countries – as crops increase in value through their use as fuel. If oil prices continue to rise out of control, even marginal oil-bearing crops could be turned into fuel, thereby increasing food costs resulting in increased food shortages and starvation.
Evidence to back these concerns is readily available. Brazil, which produces more than half the world’s sugar, now converts roughly half its crop into bioethanol for fuel. This has caused a near doubling of world sugar prices over the last couple of years. Similarly, livestock farmers in the US have raised concerns about the price of feed for their animals as more and more bioethanol facilities come online in maize producing areas of the country.
Ethanol Africa, maintains that South Africans need not be concerned by these developments. In a statement, the company has responded to critics explaining they plan to use only yellow corn, which is not used currently as a major food source.
Be that as it may, many energy experts maintain that to pursue biofuels will further delay a shift to more efficient, renewable vehicles; such as solar-powered, highly efficient gas-electric hybrid or pure electric vehicles. Brown maintains in his Washington Post article that if wind power was to be harnessed effectively, electric vehicles could run primarily off wind-generated electricity at a petrol price equivalent of roughly R3.00 a litre.
Make Your Own Biodiesel
A growing number of enthusiasts have begun making their own biodiesel, utilising a variety of vegetable oils including old cooking oil. The process is relatively simple requiring basic chemicals found in your average hardware store or chemist – methanol, sodium hydroxide or caustic soda – a blender, thermometer, an accurate scale and a plastic drum or two. I won’t go into details here but if you have access to the internet various detailed recipes are available (for starters check out www.wikipedia.com or www.journeytoforever.org).
And it’s not only weirdoes that are busy playing Doctor Strange in the garage. Environmentalists are excited by the potential of these micro-scale refineries to reuse old, waste oils in communally driven recycling efforts. Most importantly, with high oil prices the current indications are that these micro-refineries could operate profitably making waste-oil recycling into a viable small business and it is likely we will begin to see more and more small-scale recycling/biodiesel plants developing in our communities.
The Future of Biofuels
There is little doubt that biofuel technology will continue to improve in the years ahead. Although many manufacturers are experimenting with alternate fuels such as hydrogen, these suffer from the fact that engines need to be re-designed to accommodate these fuels. Not so with biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel that can both be used in current vehicle engine configurations. That is not to say, we will see a radical change to biofuels in the near future; far more likely is a slow increase in their use as additives.
Eventually, if technology develops to the point where these biofuels can be produced more efficiently we may eventually reach a point where all vehicles run off biofuels. To make this a reality however, a tremendous amount of research is required. In particular, investigations into the use of non-essential crops or crop residues (known as cellulosic biomass) including various species of grass, cornhusks, wood chips and other agricultural waste is required. Recent surveys in the United States suggest that as much as 30 percent of American fuel requirements could be derived from such sources.
Also underway is research into a species of algae that is grown hyponically and which therefore does not compete for prime agricultural lands; whether this will prove a viable feedstock for biofuel production remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, however; oil will not last forever. As it dwindles energy costs will increase dramatically and political instability will ensue. In the end, biofuels may well turn out to be the new ‘oil.’ We can only hope they’ll be better at calming troubled waters….
Biofuels and Your Vehicle
Possibly the greatest factor that will contribute to the success of biofuels is that your vehicle will not need significant modifications – if it needs any modifications at all – to enable it to run on biofuels. Although Mitsubishi has not released any research on the specific effects of biodiesel and ethanol on its vehicles, its parent company Daimler Chrysler has already begun to embrace biofuel technology and is working together with its competitor Volkswagen and German-based fuel developer Choren Industries to create biodiesel fuels that can be used in any diesel engine without modification. It is not clear at this stage how vehicle performance will be influenced by biofuels.