NABC Report 19: Agricultural Biofuels: Technology, Sustainability, and Profitability

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Published 2007 by NABC.

The fact that the world consumes about two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered and that worldwide 98% of transportation relies on petroleum-based fuels shows that the transportation sector is responsible for about 25% of the world’s greenhouse gasses. Increasing demands from China and other countries have stretched oil-production capacity and played a significant role in higher prices. Promoters of biofuels, coal and oil should not become mutual enemies. All three will be needed plus natural gas, solar and other new technologies. Breaking the US addiction to oil will require the whole country—farmers, scientists, businesses, and government—working together.

A recent estimate of the hidden cost of oil dependence amounts to about $3 per gallon of liquid fuel excluding multiplier effects. This estimate includes incremental military costs, supply-disruption costs and direct economic costs. The United States uses 21 million barrels of oil a day, i.e. 5% of the world’s population uses 25% of its oil. And the US is borrowing money from its economic competitors to pay for foreign oil, thus subsidizing people whom we are asking our soldiers to fight.

The US is also the largest producer of CO2, with transportation accounting for ~33%.

The objective of the 25×’25 Committee is to steer the United States towards producing 25% of its energy from the land by 2025—through biofuels, wind, hydropower and solar technology. A bout 500 organizations have signed on to the 25×’25 vision, including the major farm organizations, auto companies, farm-equipment manufacturers, and conservation and environmental groups. Governors have signed on, as have many state legislatures. Domestically produced biofuels have the potential to provide long-lasting solutions to national security, economic competitiveness and oil-price and supply problems and create jobs, keep dollars in the country and lessen adverse environmental impacts.

The entire biofuel life cycle—all of the issues that are involved with feedstock production, including planting, processing, transportation and storage—should be quantified and compared with the fossil-fuel life cycle. The production of biofuels from cellulosic biomass requires a new industry to be born—many factors have to be put in place ranging from the technical to the political. Most estimates indicate a maximum production of 15–18 billion gallons of ethanol from corn starch with 42 billion gallons from cellulosic sources by 2030.

A comprehensive approach is needed for rapid development of alternative fuels, involving plant breeders, agronomists, bioprocess engineers, biotechnologists and microbiologists. Adoption of new alternative fuels will require the development of adequate infrastructure including vehicle systems, vehicle-refueling facilities, distribution and storage facilities, refineries and conversion facilities.

Over the long term, the United States must displace petroleum—old biomass—with new biomass, with practices that preserve wildlife habitats, soil quality, water quality, maintain or increase farm income, encourage rural development and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Renewable energy from our land is the most socially acceptable, environmentally friendly and economically feasible of all the choices.


Recent Submissions

Now showing 1 - 10 of 25
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    Q&A: Economics and Sustainability
    Kelley, Van (NABC, 2007)
    Question and answer session
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    Q&A: Technology: Biomass, Fuels and Co-Products
    Daschiell, Ken (NABC, 2007)
    Question and answer session
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    Workshops summary
    Daschiell, Kenton E; Kelley, Van C. (NABC, 2007)
    Workshop report and recommendations
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    Student Voice at NABC 19
    Clementson, Clairmont; Collier, Sarah; Gedikoglu, Haluk; Karunanithy, Chinnadurai; Meyer, Alissa; Mukherjee, Arijit; Niehaus, Thomas; Perez, Kari; Wilson, Buck (NABC, 2007)
    Student Voice report.
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    Development and sustainability of the biofuel industry in Canada
    LeRoy, Danny G.; Klein, K.K. (NABC, 2007)
    The markets for commodities like corn, wheat, gasoline and ethanol are global. The exportable supply of grains in the US has a strong influence on world prices. Canada is much less important in world markets for grains and oilseeds, though still a large exporter. Renewable energy policies in the United States will likely have greater economic impacts on Canadian agriculture than will domestic biofuel policies. The policy effects in both countries have benefited landowners by way of sharp gains in land prices.
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    Biofuels and biorefinery development in Canada: The question of sustainability
    Wellisch, Maria (NABC, 2007)
    An overview of biofuel development in Canada including question of sustainability. If biofuels are developed carefully and deliberately, they can be the foundation for a more sustainable future. The utilization of biomass in Canada will represent a major shift and adaptation. Economic, environmental and social aspect to sustainable development require assessing the impacts of our first-generation investments. Agricultural biotechnology holds the promise of providing new feedstocks for energy production and other industrial products. Industrial biotechnology can be applied to both biobased and non-bio feedstocks, supplying processes that are less energy or chemically intensive.
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    Energy-crop gasification
    Bricka, R. Mark (NABC, 2007)
    Biomass may be obtained from many sources such as switchgrass, corn stover, sawdust, willow, biodegradable waste, etc. However, its availability in a variety of forms is problematic. Chemical engineers like homogeneity; heterogeneity means feeding problems and handling problems; as feed source varies, moisture and chemical content vary. Gasification and combustion are the most readily applicable technologies for processing biomass of various kinds for production of biofuels and other chemicals and materials.
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    Butanol: The other alternative fuel
    David E. Ramey (NABC, 2007)
    We in the US have misinterpreted the viability of ethanol as an alternative fuel while missing the potential of butanol for three decades. Not only did we miss butanol’s feasibility as a fuel, but we should pay attention to an additional aspect of our “biomass to energy” quest—we must involve soil scientists. While scientists and engineers are focusing on lignin removal and with the use of stover, switchgrass and wood as biomass and their conversion to sugars, they ignore the need to restore the soil health.
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    Food vs fuel? An integrated approach to producing both
    Kraeger, Mark (NABC, 2007)
    PRIME Biosolutions uses a patented method to tie cattle feeding with anaerobic digestion and ethanol production. The ethanol plant takes in grain (corn, sorghum, barley) and produces ethanol, wet distillers grains that are directed to the feedlot, thin stillage that can be used as feedstock for the anaerobic digestor and carbon dioxide that is used in nutrient removal. The anaerobic digestion unit is fed with manure from the feedlot as well as with thin stillage from the ethanol plant. The digester facilitates economic removal of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The feedlot consumes all of the distillers grains. There’s no drying or hauling—saving freight is a significant advantage. Although it is a concentrated animal feeding operation, we have no run off, etc.
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    Biofuels, energy-security and global-warming policy interactions
    Tyner, Wallace E. (NABC, 2007)
    There has been a significant movement in political consensus towards an energy future with a substantially larger renewable-energy component. One of the major drivers is the perception that importing over 60% of our oil reduces our national security. A recent estimate of the hidden cost of oil dependence amounts to about $3 per gallon of liquid fuel. This estimate includes incremental military costs, supply-disruption costs and direct economic costs. Many argue that energy security is a major issue that must be addressed in today’s policy environment. Another issue is global warming caused by human interventions. Biofuels, especially cellulosic-based biofuels, emit much less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than conventional petroleum sources.