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How the U.S. Can Produce 36 Billion Gallons of Biofuels Annually

By Brian Westenhaus | Wed, 15 February 2012 22:18 | 0

Jim Lane at Biofuelsdigest.com has written an article worthy of serious consideration to answer the U.S. challenge in law to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel annually.

Ethanol from corn, now well past the E-10 or 10% blend share and looking to get to 15% and much more E-85 (85%) sales plus various ratios in between, is closing in on a third of the legal requirement.  So far the legal requirement is being waived, as the technology isn’t fully there for cellulosic ethanol production.  The special interests are resisting and the consumers aren’t on board.  It’s tough going from farmers to gas stations.  Lane has an elegant solution.

RFS Proportions

The article is quite complete so here we’ll summarize and encourage those interested to have a full look by clicking over. You will be well rewarded.

Lane identifies the big challenges as being the scalable and economically viable technology, investment for adding the production capacity and product distribution.  These are major, difficult problems and progress to the solutions is just about at hand.  Thus the choices and decisions are about to thrust themselves on the market.

The law or the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) seeks to displace about 3 million barrels a day of gasoline use.  It does limit the corn-starch base to 15 billion gallons of the 36 billion.  Today the ethanol industry has built about 14 billion gallons of capacity, but the RFS doesn’t specify that be ethanol production.  Lane suggests that the technology is available to switch production to biobutanol.  Due to butanol’s higher energy content it would count in the law as 1.3 times the ethanol value – which would cancel out the US needing any more corn-starch based production facilities for domestic use.  The switch should thrill a lot of ethanol detractors as well.  15 down, 21 to go.

Next Lane offers using agricultural residues for another 3 billion gallons.  That idea depends on Lane’s reliance on the company POET suggesting that U.S. corn farmers supplying 25% of the corn plant left in the fields is delivered to the current ethanol plant fleet to make another 3 billion gallons of butanol.  That one is something of a stretch, but possible.  3.9 more, 17.1 to go.

The most interesting idea, which is more technically feasible than a first impression would allow, is to use the 90 million pounds of unused CO2 from biobutanol production to feed algae as Joule is doing at their plant.  It isn’t untried; BioProcess Algae broke ground this month for an algal-based fuel system that uses the CO2 (and process heat) from the Green Plains corn ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, smack in the middle of the U.S. corn belt.  It’s an elegant pathway and could get to 10.2 billion gallons of biofuel leaving 6.9 billion to go.

Lane points out that there is 3 billion gallons of equivalent capacity of biodiesel.  That number is possible because diesel has an even higher energy density.  Oddly, or due to inattention to incentives much of the capacity is unused.  This is a “restart” choice, that if used gets the U.S. down to 3.9 billion gallons to go.

So far all this comes from existing infrastructure in biofuels. If the farmers go along and the incentives allow biodiesel to mature the U.S. could answer nearly 90% of the RFS mandate taking nearly 3 million barrels a day out of the oil market.

For the last 3.9 billion gallons Lane discusses the great American resource – the trash.  With 150 million tons of trash getting buried each year worth about 100 gallons each, well, that would yield 15 billion gallons.  Now Lane is way over, by 11.1 billion gallons.

Add to that, construction is underway for 200 million gallons of biodiesel and another 100 million gallons of ethanol plus another 1 billion gallons is planned. In RFS language that comes to 1.5 billion gallons annually.  Now Lane is over by 12.6 billion gallons – or – better than another million barrels a day of oil.

For the U.S. 4 million barrels of biofuels plus national oil production, growth from shale oil, natural gas to liquid technology and increased efficiency could position the U.S. as a true energy and fuel exporter again.

Lane points out that the technology is already rolling out.  Butanol blends with gasoline at nearly the same energy density and offers ethanol’s better thermal efficiency.  The capital required isn’t a huge barrier, nor is the consumer resistance likely to be high.  As noted it’s getting farmers to deliver high bulk feedstock and the government to get the incentives in place on the diesel side.

Lane’s article is more complete and offers more details.  A read is worth the time.  There are other routes to RFS compliance, but Lane offers a good one, well laid out and practical.  All that biobutanol will be welcome.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: An Elegant Answer to the US Biofuel Challenge

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