Posts Tagged ‘biodiesel’


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Peaks Island in Casco Bay, off Portland, Maine. Photo by S. R. Shray, used with permission, some rights reserved, 2007

Please check out Treehugger.com for a huge collection of articles, discussion forums, practical tips and wildly utopian but stimulating ideas for helping the environment.

The site also has treehuggertv for video reports (haven’t watched any yet).

As usual, I don’t endorse all the views expressed on the site (though I do endorse my own comments found there!), but I fully support engaging in the discussion and debate on treehugger as well as on my own blog.

We simply will not make progress talking only to people who agree with us or by dogmatically refusing to listen to dissenting opinions. Of that, I am sure. So, again, I invite comments, criticism, debate and discussion. Praise is nice, but not as important as these other responses.

Sample stories from treehugger.com:

IBM Chips In a Wafer

by Tim McGee, Helena, MT, USA

“Although silicon is one of the most abundant elements on earth, single crystal silicon wafers don’t grow on trees- yet. It is actually quite an extensive and expensive process to produce silicon wafers, which are used to create everything from computer chips to solar cells. As announced via the IBM video above, IBM’ers in Vermont have devised a process that allows their rejected wafers to be repurposed for solar cells.”

Garbage-Burning Oven Helps Clean Up and Power Kenyan Slum

by Eliza Barclay, Nomad

“The Christian Science Monitor has a piece out of Nairobi on a garbage-burning oven in the notorious slum of Kibera that aims to preserve the country’s forests, which are swiftly being cleared to provide wood and charcoal for cooking, while finding a way to utilize trash for energy. If successful, Monitor says, the pilot project could be a model for megacities and the waste they create.”

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Please see the article (click on the title):

Renewed Effort

Big oil companies are joining the search for the next generation of biofuels

By JESSICA RESNICK-AULT of the Wall Street Journal

Ms. Resnick-Ault provides a discussion of the range of biofuel options as viewed by major oil companies and she reports on their choices, which vary widely. The article mentions this blog (thanks!) in its round-up of relevant blogs. The most promising news reported, from my perspective, is the following:

“ConocoPhillips of Houston … has paired with Tyson Foods Inc. to produce renewable diesel at its refinery in Borger, Texas. Renewable diesel shares properties of conventional diesel fuel but is derived from feedstocks such as food waste rather than oil. A second venture …. unites ConocoPhillips with agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. to research and commercialize … renewable transportation fuels from biomass, or farm waste.”

Hydrogen fuel cells also make an appearance on the scene courtesy of ExxonMobil. Also in the Wall Street Journal, we find the article (click on the title):

What Price Green?

For many Americans, pretty much any price is too high

By ANJALI ATHAVALEY of the Wall Street Journal

The author describes how unwilling Americans are to give up nearly any conveniences in order to help the environment, even when they believe that the environment needs help. Conservation is modest at best these days, even while a Gallup poll shows that pro-environmental political activism is increasing. In a thorough journalistic approach, the article cites surveys from a very broad range of sources to provide the overall picture of declining interest in things like more energy-efficient kitchen appliances, and it is very credible. Unfortunately! Overall, Europeans are found to be much more willing than Americans to make sacrifices for the good of the environment.

I will repeat my mantra that we have to cut back on energy use and other waste in addition to finding alternative energy sources.

America Unplugged is my new trial balloon slogan for conservation.

However, it is important to remember that plastic shopping bags come from petroleum just like gasoline/petrol does. So, bringing a set of cloth bags to the grocery store will help rid us of our dependence on foreign oil. As will recycling plastics.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007
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I have discussed biofuels, and especially bioethanol from corn, in quite a few posts so far. Some of the discussion has centered on promising (old and new) approaches to biofuels, which I believe include:

  • Biodiesel from waste (fish oil, cooking oil and other sources)
  • Ethanol (bioethanol) from agricultural waste (specifically not from food products)
  • Metabolic engineering of bacteria to aid biodiesel production
  • Chemistry and engineering of new catalysts for biodiesel production (which probably have to be tailored to each different source of raw material)

With the exception of biodeisel from waste cooking oil and very similar sources, these processes are typically still at the research stage and are not being practiced on a large scale.

Much of the discussion here has covered the problems I and others see with current biofuels practices, which include:

  • The terrible impact on the environment of dramatically inefficient processes such as corn to ethanol (corn ethanol)
  • The conclusion by many scientists, myself included, that sound scientific shows a net loss of energy by using corn to make ethanol
  • The environmental impact of corn ethanol or even some “biodiesel farms” is both direct and indirect
  • Clear cutting of rain forests is being driven by biofuel farming
  • Fertilizer alone from corn ethanol production damages fresh water and salt water, not to mention other agricultural chemicals
  • The problems with air quality associated with ethanol as fuel (mostly ozone and formaldehyde generation and increased photochemical smog, all of which lead to respiratory ailments)
  • My belief that research and development can solve problems with air quality from ethanol fuels
  • My prediction that catalytic converters for ethanol-based cars will be cheaper than current models because ethanol fuels can greatly reduce or eliminate nitrogen- and sulfur-containing impurities found in crude oil and gasoline/petrol (depending on whether one uses ethanol or ethanol/gas-petrol mixtures such as E85)
  • The problem that people are taking political and dogmatic stances on alternative fuels instead of examining each issue critically and on its own merits

Then of course, we have the problem that not enough people are talking about and doing something about energy conservation:

Ignoring conservation is particularly a problem in the US and developing countries- Europe is taking conservation seriously and always has in some ways, such as a the huge investment in public transportation

Now a U.N. spokesman has stated that current biofuel practices are creating hunger and starvation problems amongst the world’s poor (though future biofuel generation methods are predicted not to cause such problems):

As reported by EDITH M. LEDERER, an Associated Press Writer,

“A U.N. expert on Friday called the growing practice of converting food crops into biofuel

“a crime against humanity,”

saying it is creating food shortages and price jumps that cause millions of poor people to go hungry. “

The statement by Jean Ziegler called for a stop to the current practice of using food crops to make ethanol, saying that it is leading to hunger of catastrophic proportions among poor people.

Mr. Ziegler did not call for an end to biofuels as a source of fuel. Instead, he proposed a 5 year break in biofuel production to give new technologies that don’t threaten the food economy time to make an impact on the marketplace. These technologies include

  • nonfood crops and cellulose-based sources of biofuels
  • crops that require far fewer resources than corn
  • agricultural waste as a source of ethanol
  • new methods of biodiesel production

Careful to point out that current biofuel practices grew out of good intentions, Ziegler still made it clear that the conversion of huge amounts of food crops into ethanol will lead to serious food shortages in many areas.

As reported by Lederer,

“The world price of wheat doubled in one year and the price of corn quadrupled, leaving poor countries, especially in Africa, unable to pay for the imported food needed to feed their people, he said. And poor people in those countries are unable to pay the soaring prices for the food that does come in, (Ziegler) added.”

Read the full article for more details. Thanks to John B. for pointing out the article to me.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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This is going up in honor of Blog Action Day, 10/15/2007.

One site that does a lot to make affiliations of “dissenters” clear is the Global Warming Forum. Here we find opinion, commentary, quotes and graphics on many subjects, including:

Curious, to say the least, don’t you think?

I recommend reading Global Warming Forum regularly and learning about a variety of things, including who and what are behind some of the anti-environmental and anti-“environmental regulation” papers that some people publish routinely.

  • Please don’t get the impression that I condemn industrially-funded research, or that I believe all dissenters are evil.
  • I am funded by industry and the Federal government, and plan to keep it that way.
  • In the US, Federal funding levels are low, and industry has always funded important work, worldwide
  • Furthermore, some scientists may believe that global warming is a non-issue without having any ties to large corporations.

However, as required by all reputable, “peer-reviewed” scientific journals (as opposed to newspapers, magazines, trade magazines, etc.), all publications acknowledge funding sources and make clear any possible conflicts of interest. “Peer-reviewed” means that an article has to be read and approved by (typically) 2-3 anonymous, independent scientists and an editor before it can be published. It isn’t a perfect system, but it works pretty well.

Just the other day I found an unreviewed article on the web that was, I felt, really just advertising. It was a very positive discussion of biodiesel, which does have many good properties, but can also be bad for the environment and/or food prices, depending on the details of how it is made and used. The source cited for this article was a website that promotes and advertises biodiesel directly. I tried to contact the author but the email bounced back, so I responded with a post about the problems with Bioethanol (I didn’t want to attack Biodiesel, I just wanted some balance. I address some issues I have with certain types of biodiesel elsewhere in this blog).

There are many things to commend biodiesel, but I’d be willing to bet that any technology examined from only one perspective can sneak up and hurt us:

We need balanced reporting of the benefits and possible drawbacks of all technology!

Let’s take a look at an unrelated example that does acknowledge the “connections”, but also reveals something curious about the past. Searching Googlescholar for the “link between cigarettes and cancer” turns up articles like:

The idea behind this article is that an “electrically heated cigarette” (EHC) is far safer than a cigarette that burns in the normal way. Who cares? It will still kill you. Of course, the authors and their employers from the tobacco industry care. Interestingly, the following note accompanies the paper:

“Philip Morris Research Laboratories GmbH recently changed its name from INBIFO Institüt für Biologische Forschung GmbH.”

Just perhaps, this change took place because people became angry that something called

“INBIFO, the Institute for Biological Research” (translated from the German)

was just an arm of Phillip Morris, the tobacco company. Somehow the “Institute for Biological Research” sounds impressive and independent, especially compared to “Philip Morris Research Laboratories”. I wonder how many years the “deceptive labeling” practice went on.

So, keep reading here, at the Global Warming Forum and elsewhere to have a better chance of judging the quality and sources of information for yourself.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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There are good and bad sides to biofuels, as Jane Goodall points out. I will explore this in detail in a series of articles that express my opinion and cite scientific reports or discussions. First, a bullet-point summary of key points is given below.

Much of the good/bad duality of biofuels has to do with the following questions:

  • where do the biofuels come from?
  • what are we destroying in order to generate biofuels?
  • what are we consuming in order to generate biofuels?
  • what are we failing to produce in order to generate biofuels?
  • Many (most) of the crops being planted for biofuels are destined to generate biodiesel, not bioethanol.
  • Some plants grown for fuel are intended to produce a type of diesel called straight vegetable oil (SVO).
    • SVOs contain a number of impurities, at least as far as fuel oil is concerned. Even water is an impurity here.
    • Just as an example, you only have to press the oil out of the olives to remove it.
    • Peanut oil and practical coconut oil can be also be collected mechanically, like pressing olives.
  • Biodiesel is more pure than SVO or WVO (if made properly). It is made by chemically splitting animal fat or vegetable oil into two parts, followed by purification.
  • The standard chemical reaction to make biodiesel uses alcohol (methanol or ethanol) and a catalyst.
  • This reaction, called transesterification, generates fatty acid esters and the byproduct known as glycerol.
  • One example that seems to me to have little or no downside is the generation of biodiesel from fish oil:
    • Fish oil is already generated by the fishing industry.
    • Fish oil is potential waste that already exists and may not be used as efficiently as possible.
    • Fish oil conversion to biodiesel still needs to be pushed forward by invention and commercial development.
  • Another example of a method that exhibits great potential is the conversion of all of a plant’s dried matter (known as biomass) into biodiesel:
    • Plant oils are only about 10% of total plant biomass in most cases
    • Using all the biomass to generate biodiesel captures much more of the value of a plant, and the energy that went into growing it, than using only plant oil does
    • Cellulose and lignins are components of typical biomass and are hard to convert into liquid fuel, compared to oils

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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It was reported by Timothy Gardner of Reuters that Jane Goodall, one of the world’s best-known scientists, has come out strongly against the planting of biofuel crops in tropical areas because this is typically accompanied by extensive destruction of rain forests.

So, whether it is “corn-to-ethanol” raising your food prices or fast-growing weeds for generation of fuel, one must question the true benefits of “bioenergy” or biofuels in many cases.

The situation is different in the case of waste oils being converted into biodiesel: waste is being put to good use here. Treating food and rain forests like waste is another matter, one that we can expect to be harmful to the planet in many ways. I’ll be discussing this at length over the next few weeks.

This quote from Jane Goodall, as reported in the Reuters article, sums things up perfectly: “Biofuel isn’t the answer to everything; it depends where it comes from.”

See here for another recent report on biofuels in India, and here for a summary of consumer waste.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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