Food for Thought: Real Questions on Biofuels

To provoke conversation on biofuels’ future in the energy industry, questions need to be answered.

Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were asked what their questions on biofuels were to help gauge a common understanding of the marketplace.

Students shared positive attitudes towards biofuels. However, some confusion remains as to the specific value of biofuel investment. Below are the questions posed by students.

 

“What are biofuels? And I’m not looking for a simple definition- I want a more in-depth explanation.”

Duoyun Zhou, from Shanghai, China, Class of 2018.
Duoyun Zhou, from Shanghai, China, Class of 2018.

Biofuels are fuels derived from the living matter of plants and animals. This matter typically refers to plant matter such as grasses, algae, or agricultural residue. This can also include animal fats and waste.

These materials are commonly referred to as feedstocks, or the raw materials used to create the fuel product. This biomass can be converted into various fuels, chemicals, and materials.

The conversion of biomass into a fuel product involves the use of microorganisms for fermentation. The fermented product is then created into a biofuel. The fuel can be used in a diesel engine and blended with traditional fuels.

There are major advantages of integrating a bioproduct in our fuel supply. A biofuel market will decrease the use of fossil fuels in our oil supply for conventional automobiles.

An increase in demand for biomass materials will necessitate an increase in farming practices to meet demand. By creating such a market, rural economies are supported while dependency on foreign oil markets is reduced.

This product results in a cleaner fuel supply that will improve air quality as well as human health.

 

“Where can you get biofuels? Where is this supply coming from?”

Gursheen Kaur, MBA Class of 2017, from India.
Gursheen Kaur, MBA Class of 2017, from India.

Imagine that at your nearest gas pump, biofuels are the fuel source used to power your car.

The imagined scenario is already partially true–ethanol, a corn based fuel, is part of the traditional fuel mix in the United States. In the future, more competitive feedstocks can be integrated into the mix as well.

If biofuels experience successful market introduction, biofuel access could be so integrated it would go unnoticed by the average citizen. As drilling for oil becomes less economical, biofuels will become more competitive and will slowly become a larger portion of supply.

The three main biofuel products in the global market are bioethanol, biodiesel, and biogas.

Jordan Kern, Professor with the Institute for the Environment at UNC Chapel Hill, explained there is not one optimal feedstock choice.

“It depends on where you’re growing it and the resources available,” he said.

Jay Cheng, Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at North Carolina State University, shared his thoughts on the matter.

Cheng explained that Brazil has a large bioethanol industry that accounts for approximately half of all automobile biofuel. Brazil’s success story in the biofuel industry goes back to the resources available to the country.

Cheng said their success was mainly due to their relatively cheap and high-yield sugarcane.

“What is the United States doing in the biofuels industry?”

Jinming Lin, from Memphis, Tennessee, Class of 2019.
Jinming Lin, from Memphis, Tennessee, Class of 2019.

Currently, biofuels provide about 1 percent of total United States’ energy needs. Ethanol, the primary biofuel in the US, is more expensive than gasoline on an energy content basis.

The United States government hopes to make this alternative energy source more economically viable. The US Energy Department plans to fund developments in biomass technology.

In January 2016, the department announced that 15 million in funding will be provided through 2020. Applicants hoping to capitalize on the opportunity must address technology improvements in processing and productivity.

In addition, the industry will be bolstered by military investment. In 2009, the Navy broadcasted that by 2020, half of fuel sources would be non-fossil fuels.

Since then, aircraft and ships have been have been powered by beef fat, municipal waste, palm oil, and algae. This aligns with the military’s commitment to security by reducing reliance on foreign oil.

Cheng also expressed a potential for the United States to utilize local biomass. A large amount of “wood pellets (are) shipped to Western Europe from southeastern states of the US for bioenergy production.”

Cheng thinks that the United States could better use this resource in order generate bioenergy as well as local jobs.

 

“What problems will you face in implementing biofuels?”

Abhaya Pratap Singh, from India, MBA Class of 2017.
Abhaya Pratap Singh, from India, MBA Class of 2017.

Unfortunately, biofuel production involves several drawbacks in terms of environmental best practices and industry infrastructure.

The largest environmental barrier is that large amounts of land are not readily available for the production of feedstocks. Biofuel production can lead to increased food and land use prices.

Biofuels create competition for land-use with food production. Increased crop-demand causes the price of those crops, and thus food derived from those crops, to increase. Meat and dairy product prices also increase, as it becomes more expensive for farmers to feed their livestock.

An increased demand for crops also leads to increased deforestation and destruction of natural habitats. This not only displaces indigenous peoples and endangers wildlife, it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Fortunately, algal biofuels can address many of these issues because it does not compete with food for land use. Algal biofuel is a more expensive biofuel option. However, algal fuels could avoid issues of higher food prices and destruction of natural habitats.

Kern stated the issue surrounding infrastructure is a “chicken or the egg” kind of conversation.

He explained that the companies that refine fuels are different than those that produce cars. He illustrated no one will build a biofuel production facility if there are no cars on the market that can use the fuel.

Currently, issue also surrounds biofuels’ ability to compete with traditional fuel products.

“One of the main challenges for biofuels is the scale,” Cheng said.

He explained that most production facilities are small in size. This occurs “because the cost of the raw material transportation would be too expensive if the facility is big.” In contrast, most fossil fuel production facilities are huge, which gives fossil fuels a “competitive advantage.”

However, Cheng also noted that fossil fuel resources are limited, “and the cost for biofuel production is getting lower.” He expressed that in time, biofuels will become a better fuel option.