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Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Rise and Fall of Biodiesel

Do you think defining biodiesel is easy? After all, it seems logical to see it simply as a fuel that is derived from renewable oils in contrast to fossil sources and be done with it. Of course, things are not quite that simple. The substances that a diesel engine can use vary in terms of their natural base material and the processes to manufacture them. This is not to make it more complicated. On the contrary, it gives me the opportunity to lay down a couple of ground rules so we all have the same starting point from which to tackle this subject. Especially, since the terms biodiesel and biofuel are sometimes used interchangeably. Therefore


Biodiesel vs biofuel

The aim is to give you an understanding what it is that you might be putting into your car’s tank and where it fits into the future of renewable transport fuels. In the media you will see the terms First Generation Biodiesel (= conventional) and Second Generation Biodiesel (= from biomass). There is an important difference. So much so that regulators distinguish the two quite clearly. Because they are linked, particularly with regards to sustainability, I will treat them here under the same umbrella.


Biodiesel vs biomass

Fat + Alcohol = Smelling of Roses?

Fuels from natural sources are anything but new. None other than inventor Rudolf Diesel himself toyed with the idea and there is evidence of one of his engines running on peanut oil at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. Of course, fossil fuels became widely available very quickly and, therefore, cheap and convenient. Pioneering motorists had to go to a pharmacy if they wanted to buy petrol, used mainly as a cleaning agent at the time. However, as early as 1905 the world’s first purpose-built filling station opened in St. Louis, Missouri and Europe followed about 15 years later. Biofuels were not deemed to be important enough to be pushed and could not keep pace.

Transesterification, the chemical mechanism also used to make biodiesel from oils or fats, was known even before Rudolf Diesel was born. It is a relatively simple process, by which oils are mixed with alcohol. If that takes you back to your partying days, when taking a swig from a bottle of cooking oil was thought to ward off the effects of copious amounts of drink, and makes you think you could turn yourself into a walking biodiesel factory I will have to stop you there. What is needed is a catalyst. One frequently used agent is sodium hydroxide, also known as lye or caustic soda. Anyone who has ever unblocked a drain knows it is not recommended for human consumption. After swallowing it you might be smelly but the scent of roses doesn’t come into it.

Biodiesel transesterification
Should you like to learn more about the chemical processes why not have a look at this description by Strathclyde University or by researchers in Brazil?! Since this method uses easily obtainable ingredients and is technically simple it has made biodiesel production attractive as a do-it-yourself operation. In that context, the raw material is usually used cooking oil. In fact, many commercial operations concentrate on it and it is the reason why my car emits the distinct smell of a fast food outlet on start-up in the morning. However, this quirky detail leads us over to a topic that is no laughing matter at all.

Sustainability in Question

When interest increased in biodiesel as an alternative to fossil fuel it promised a lot – reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, less waste, new income opportunities, and more. It seemed to be the proverbial free lunch. Used cooking oil and unwanted animal fats as raw materials were the starting point. Only, their availability is limited. Apart from some environmentally questionable parts of the manufacturing process, which we will look at in a moment, a fierce debate has arisen that centres on the proposed substitutes. There are a number of oil plants, such as oil palm, rape seed or Jatropha that could offer a solution but the argument is that their use will replace food crops, exhaust the soil and encourage the destruction of natural habitats.

The Food-versus-Fuel Debate

It is beyond question this has happened already. One of the most prominent examples is the clearing of forests in Sumatra and Borneo for oil palm plantations, which is putting enormous pressure on populations of the orang-utan that are under threat already. Equally, large scale Jatropha plantations have replaced food crops in Africa without fulfilling expectations while a hungry population needs more to eat.

These changes together with a massive push in developed countries to become more independent from fossil resources have led to arguments that biodiesel – and biofuels in general – do more harm than good. Critics are quick to point out that they are not against renewables but then often retreat behind reasoning that suggests these are empty phrases. At the other extreme, there are those who claim it is all a conspiracy and biofuels are completely harmless with a distinct whiff of ‘Don’t touch my profits’. Both stances are nonsense.

First of all, there is little choice. Crude oil and natural gas are harmful and finite. We have to face the fact that we need to do something – that means all seven billion of us – and whatever that is, is a set of compromises. Destroying habitats and fertile land is unacceptable but to argue that a biofuel drive is purely at the cost of those that are hungry is missing the fact that climate change and pollution are not going to be of great benefit to the world’s poor either. If there is destruction of rainforest or corporate selfishness taking over farmland it is no good seeking solace in pointing the finger at the developed world and its falling in love with renewables. The greed and callousness for that to happen have their accomplices not just in London or New York but the countries who are said to be the victims too. 

In answer to blaming western governments for pushing biofuels at the cost of those in need it has to be realised moving away from fossil fuels needs action on a broad a base as possible. Trying to get something moving for, and together with, close to a billion people in Europe and North America cannot happen without some sweeping directives and not all possible outcomes or effects can be taken into account. Add to that China and India with their burgeoning economies that are best led onto the renewable path now rather than in 20 years’ time and you have an unenviable task at hand.  

Interestingly, in all this mankind’s relentless proliferation seems to be a taboo subject. While discussions rage about food shortages and lack of productive land our species carries on growing happily. National Geographic reported in a series of articles about the anticipated expansion of the global population. It might fizzle out at about nine billion in 2050 but at the heart of that prediction is an increasing affluence everywhere that will reduce our urge to procreate. Apparently, the better we feel the less frisky we become. It is a large number of people, nevertheless, and this prosperity will mean more CO2, a greater impact on resources and a growing need for transport and food. Don’t forget the Western world became wealthy on the back of massively improved infrastructure and mobility. Therefore, biofuels are not just crucial here and in the emerging economies but equally for those who have been left behind so far.

No Way Out?

Does all this mean the conflict between driving our average 1.15 cars per household on supposedly clean fuel and the livelihood of a sub-Saharan farmer cannot be solved? Should we see orang-utans and starving people as unavoidable collateral damage in our quest for a world that is sustainable for us but no one else? No. We have had 2.5 million years to develop a superior brain. It is time to start using it in a constructive way. Instead of blaming an inanimate object such as biodiesel our attention has to turn to the question how we can have fuel AND food without wrecking the planet and making the undertaking pointless.

  • In 2002 the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations published a report on global agriculture and its capacity to feed the world in the future. It showed that significant areas of suitable land are still unused for growing food
  • Although these areas are unevenly distributed, much of it is in Latin America and Africa where it is needed most.
  • Even so many countries are or will become net-importers of food, particularly cereals. That needs funds to which renewable energy, including biofuels, could make substantial contributions. We import gas from Russia, so why not solar power or oils made by algae (they need a lot of sunshine too) from Africa?
  • Biodiesel is only one of many renewable fuels. Several alternative technologies, for example, hydrogen, are being moved into the mainstream of private, commercial and public transport now, and they don't need oil crops
  • New forms of biodiesel are being developed (see below) so we can move away from plantings for fuel

Should you wish to delve deeper into the subject you cannot do much better as a start than Eliza Anyangwe’s article ‘Food versus Fuel – The Truth about Biofuels’ and take it from there.

Other Problems

Biodiesel has other problems. As mentioned already, the chemical processes need substances that pose health and environmental hazards. More importantly, roughly ten percent of the end product is Glycerol (also commonly known as glycerine or glycerin). It was used in the manufacture of explosives and is still a staple raw material in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. However, the expansion of biodiesel production has resulted in a large surplus.

Is Anything Good About Biodiesel?

A life cycle assessment (LCA) can provide the scientific answer to that question. This is a method that incorporates all elements of a product’s existence from the raw materials to its consumption, disposal or recycling and measures its environmental impact.

Biodiesel from oil seeds does not perform well. Studies, for example by the Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung Heidelberg GmbH in Germany, have shown a reduction in greenhouse gases but a higher release of nitrous oxide (acid rain) and ozone depletion than fossil diesel. The conclusion was that biofuel from these sources wasn’t a complete failure. A comparison in favour of them was dependent, however, on how much emphasis one placed on the different criteria. In other words you can use the results to support your own position whether it is for or against biodiesel but it is not much better than fossil fuel.

In contrast fuel from waste oil or tallow is a different matter. Research at the Technische Universität Graz, Austria, demonstrated that it reduced the overall environmental impact to 18.38% of fossil diesel. B20, a mixture of 20% biodiesel and 80% conventional diesel, produced and tested by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, still caused a reduction in all harmful substances they assessed.

MIT_life cycle_B100 B20Reproduced from A Well-to-Wheels Lifecycle Assessment of Used Vegetable Oil Biodiesel Produced On MIT Campus, Alexander Pak, Biodiesel@MIT, Summer 2007

The ingredients used in the transesterification of waste oil to biodiesel that I mentioned earlier cause few concerns in practice if any. These are, particularly, strong acids and bases as catalysts, and alcohol. As long as one does not splash them about their environmental impact is negligible as studies have established.

Neither is the surplus of glycerol as problematic as previously thought. Intensive research has turned a drawback into a benefit and found a number of new uses. For example

  • Pig feed
  • Poultry feed
  • Additive to anaerobic digestion
  • Raw material in hydrogen production
  • Building blocks for chemical uses

That is only a small range and the search for new options continues.


The New Generation of Biodiesel – is Biomass the Answer?

At the very least it is part of it. The most appealing aspect is the use of a wide variety of waste products. These come from forestry, municipal waste, agriculture, and even paper manufacture. Therefore, the food-versus-fuel dilemma could be turned into a food crop = fuel crop formula, since the biomass process can utilise leftovers of plants after the nutritious part has been stripped off.

Other sources that have been explored successfully are oil-producing algae and carbon from biogas, air or seawater. The main benefit is that waste is not created, it is put back into a useful cycle. New methods developed by Spanish researchers improve efficiency and dispense with solvents. Such technological progress enhances the contribution to sustainability of synthetic fuel from biomass.

And Now?

Biodiesel is not as terrible and destructive as it is often made out to be these days. While fuel from oil plants is a dead end, the conversion of a wide variety of waste products, in form of oil and fat even as a first generation fuel, has tremendous benefits. It offers new income streams, reduction of waste, substantial environmental advantages over fossil fuels, and secondary positive effects in form of energy or base materials.

A future with renewables will mean living with more than one fuel anyway. Biodiesel has its place in such a world, although I expect that its importance will diminish over time. It is not the problem. We are and how we handle our impact on the world from cradle to grave (now there’s a thought – a life cycle assessment of man). As a way to put waste to good use, biofuels can be great savers of resources and reducers of pollutants.

The food-versus-fuel debate is not important, it is essential. However, if we don’t want to see natural habitats and productive farm land being abused, instead of using our creativity and energy for devising the kind of protest with the most impact we better concentrate on finding alternatives for the people that are affected, taking advantage of their input. Otherwise, it is no wonder they are tempted to use land in the vain attempt to make more money for buying imported food and are vulnerable to corporate greed and ruthlessness.

According to the UN’s World Food Programme “[there] are 925 million undernourished people in the world today. That means one in seven people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are in fact the number one risk to the health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.” It seems to me we better get going and take renewables with us. Otherwise hunger might turn out to be the least of our problems.


See you next week


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