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The Top 4 Advanced Biofuels: Keeping Food on the Table

By Jen Alic | Tue, 11 September 2012 22:33 | 4

As the fuel versus food debate intensifies, Oilprice.com takes a look at the top four advanced, non-food biofuels that may have a long-term potential to become commercially, and hopefully environmentally, viable. The production of advanced biofuels was up this year by some 437 million gallons over last year, but economic challenges remain formidable and technology will be the key to unlocking potential. Perhaps things are so great right now for the advanced biofuels industry, but it will take time and patience to figure out how to appease both the market and Mother Nature. 

Algae: Growing on Us

Algae produces some carbon dioxide when burned, but it takes the same carbon dioxide in to grow. So when algae farms grow massive quantities to be turned into biofuels, the end result is that they actually suck greenhouse gas out of the air. It also has other advantages over biofuels from corn or soybeans, in that it does not require soil or fresh water to grow. It also has the potential to produce more energy per hectare than any land crop.

Currently, the high cost of capital and operations limit bio-based materials and chemicals to a few facilities located where corn and cane are plentiful and cheap. Algae can change that and recent technological advances are promising. Testing is now being conducted for technology that could dewater algae and remove contaminants in the harvesting process. Water is a key drawback: It evaporates quickly from algae ponds and must be continually replenished, which makes its too expensive.

SBI energy research firm predicts a compound annual growth rate of 43.1% for algae biofuels (a $1.6 billion market by 2015) as the sector gets a boost from strategic partnerships and is weaned off government loans. SBI particularly lauds algae for its high yield per acre and low environmental impact.

But there are a number of unanswered environmental questions. The idea is that algae would be grown in big, open ponds, and ecologists are questioning whether these new “microalgae” would spread and “mingle”, whether they would hybridize or evolve outside of a controlled environment. There are also concerns that the microalgae would be dispersed by wind or wildlife activity and upset the ecosystem or produce harmful toxins.

The key names to watch for algae developments are Sapphire, Solazyme, General Atomics.

We think algae biofuel development is still a good decade away from realizing its potential, but we believe it has the most potential of today’s advanced non-food biofuels.

Camelina: A New Aviation Buzz Word

Camelina is an oil seed that is being bandied about by the aviation industry as a potential game changer. Camelina is an annual plant with small, pale yellow flowers with four petals, reaching a height of up to 3 feet, with pea-shaped seed pods. They produce around 400,000 seeds per pound which contain 40% oil, as opposed to 20% oil with soybeans.

The seed is harvested dry using wheat combines and then crushed to extract oil, leaving behind some 70% of its original volume, which is then used as animal feed.

Camelina has the best prospects in the states of Washington and Montana, where they can be grown on dry, lower value land. 

For now, the market for camelina is very small and farming of the plant is still minimal, meaning that it’s not worth it for farmers to grow the plant. Conversion of camelina to biojet fuel is still in the pilot stages. 

Camelina is being developed by GenEx and BioJet.

Jatropha: Boom and Bust

Jatropha seeds come from a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree with poisonous leaves and fruit pod that contain large black seeds that yield oil when crushed. This oil is used to make soap and can be burnt in lamps. The tree is grown Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, India and Latin America, largely in the tropics, but its needs are minimal and it can also survive in dry, sandy areas. Growing Jatropha to produce feedstock for bio-diesel is indeed economical in theory, but so far, it has been boom and bust.


At first Jatropha seemed destined for greatness. It looked set to outdo algae due to the slower pace of necessary technological developments, and was proven to have a higher biofuel yield than camelina. It took only a few years for the jatropha dream to collapse after investors threw tons of money at the idea in 2007-2008, particularly in Africa. In part, it was the financial crisis, but the bigger problem was that we learned that while jatropha could indeed be grown on dry, sandy, low-value land, it did not produce enough seeds inside its fruit pods to make mass biofuel production possible. Like traditional biofuels such as corn, it would have to be grown on high-value land intended for food crops.

Not everyone has given up, though. In January this year, US-based SG Biofuels Inc. received $17 million in venture capital to fund research and international jatropha planting programs. Developers are hoping to discover how to get the plant to yield more seeds without competing for fertile, food-growing land.

Palm Oil: Environmentally Controversial

Palm oil has seen better days. Over the past week alone it has become mired in controversy. Environmentalists are on the offensive against Herakles Farms, an affiliate of US-based Harakles Capital, over massive land grabs in Cameroon for the development of the one of the world’s largest palm oil plantations.

While palm oil is cost-effective for use in biofuels and being cultivated in mass in Africa and Asia, they remain environmentally controversial, not least because they generally require the cutting down of rainforests or the draining of swamps.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January this year ruled that biodiesel made from palm oil failed to meet the requirements to be added to its renewable fuels program due to high greenhouse-gas emissions; to wit, about 17% more than emissions from traditional diesel fuel.

By. Jen Alic of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment

  • Durwood M. Dugger on September 12 2012 said:
    Jen, A very limited perspective. "We think algae biofuel development is still a good decade away from realizing its potential, but we believe it has the most potential of today’s advanced non-food biofuels."

    Unfortunately, this statement contradicts most of what we already know about the basic chemistry and physics of biofuel production. First, the only non-food biofuels are those that can be produced from wastes. Current studies show that energy produced from wastes are extremely restricted by logistics, spatial limitation, climatic factors and a hosts of others - such that waste can produce an estimated maximum potential of about 1-3% of current energy needs. Not that we shouldn't convert wastes to biofuel, but we shouldn't expect it to have a significant impact on our energy deficits.

    Beyond wastes there are simply no non-food biofuels. All major biofuel mass balance studies (U of K, MIT, Rand and others) have concluded that NPK fertilizer will be required for at scale biofuel production (including algae) to provide any significant energy contribution to our energy needs. This has produced estimates that a biofuel industry based on NPK would quadruple NPK demand - and have a proportional effect on food production costs. Considering that both NPK and biofuel production are dependent on petroleum (natural gas for N, diesel fuel for mining P and K, and natural gas for hydro-processing biofuel liquids) it's economics/costs increases will also be accelerated by peak petroleum and peak phosphate.

    Now tell me again where you see all that biofuel potential(terrestrial or algae)??? We need alternative energy that aren't dependent on petroleum and that don't affect our food supplies - that doesn't describe at scale biofuels production.
  • Hans Nieder on September 12 2012 said:
    Brilliant retort, Mr Dugger! You should write for this website, indeed...

    Biofuels, are nothing more than a pipe dream for the environmental and government communities...

    They will NEVER achieve scale in mass nor economic efficiency, which is why they are adored by the Enviro/Gov complex...They are tenets for the Environment Justice crowd and make work for our dear beloved governmental units...

    I would have more respect for Enviros, if they took their monies, some of which are tax dollars, and attempt to makes these produces work, rather than engage in lobbing, protesting, trespassing and other acts of civil unrest...

    In order words, this is junk science...
  • TR on October 01 2012 said:
    It's amazing the ignorance and so called experts. Take away big oil subsidies and include the cost of our servicemen and their deathas and we then see biofuels are the answer. Biodiesel made from Soy, Animal fats, and corn oil are only helping to lower food and fuel cost. With out ethanonl most people in the US would be paying an extra $0.75 per gallon for their gasoline. Junk science is the closed mind to real hard facts published by the USDA, NREL Reports and University Studies from Texas AM, Iowa State, Perdue University, and the University of Idaho. Your high food cost is attributed tho the following: the weaak dollar, high fuel costs to get products to market, hiher energy cost to process the grain to food, higher energy cost to get food to stores, greed of food companies that offer smaller packaging at the same price of older larger packaged products, and finally speculation in commodities by technical traders that see the BTU/energy values. All of the previously mentioned directly influence and create the distractions that Big oil want you to believe. How soo do we forget the BP, Valdez, hurricanes, and middle east costs that all tax payers keep funding so Big oil gets bigger and Hahns can live in his fantasy land of ignorance clouded by the junk that big oil wants him to believe.
  • Durwood M. Dugger on October 01 2012 said:
    TR, I suggest you read your own referenced agency reports. Especially the 2011 USDA Fertilizer Import/Export Summary. "U.S. nitrogen and potash supplies largely depend on imports. More than 54 percent of nitrogen (N) and 85 percent of potash (K2O) supply was from imports in calendar year 2011. Because domestic production capacity is limited, any increase in nitrogen and potash demands will have to be met largely by imports." That's quoted directly off their web page report.

    However, it's phosphates that I'm worried about. A decade ago the US was the largest exporter of NPK and it's most critical component rock phosphates. Rock phosphates are also the only known at scale/economic source of ag. and ind. phosphorous known - and that after 40 years intensive R&D to find new sources. Rock phosphates supply the phosphorus (most critical element in fertilizers) in NPK fertilizers which are btw totally dependent on petroleum for their production today (as mentioned in my initial comment.

    In 2011 the US was the second largest producer of phosphates. China being number 1, but and very interestingly - as of 2002 China no longer exports phosphates. The Chinese leadership understands better than our scientifically ignorant politicians that nothing grows without adequate phosphorous, most especially the Green Revolution "food machine" fueled by NPK and abundant cheap petroleum products (and rock phosphates) and that 95% of the world is dependent on for food today. Our world food production hasn't been able to sustain itself within the natural phosphorus soil replenishment cycle since the early 1800s when the population was less than 2 billion. Think about what happens when the current NPK and phosphorus economic paradigm suddenly changes if equivalent phosphorus sources aren't available as current research indicates.

    We now import a growing amount of rock phosphate - 15% of our consumption in 2011 according to USDA. From where you should ask? Well, that would be largely from Morocco (85% of the worlds remaining known reserves - outside of China).

    This begs the logical question - "If we have to import the fertilizers that we use for civilian and military biofuel production as well as increased amounts of petroleum, and especially for food production - how is that import process less risky, or a lower priority to be rid of - than importing foreign oil?" and "How does it reduce our critical dependency on foreign resources - especially in times of war where foreign dependency can be used against us as an effective weapon?"

    Apparently, our modern military leadership has dumped that old Roman adage - "An army travels on its stomach." Likely we (civilians) will be sacrificing food, so the military can wage its MIC promoted wars fueled with NPK based biofuels.

    And finally TR, only the scientifically ignorant don't get who the real beneficiaries are in biofuel production - it's the BiG Oil companies that silly you thinks are going to be hurt by biofuel production. Big Oil that produces the petroleum products that make fuel the NPK and biofuel production -and which biofuel is totally dependent upon. That's why Exxon, Shell and Chevron are all supporting biofuel research - not because they are forward thinking, environmentally responsible and humanitarians. It's a very good business decision with which to drive the fertilizer side of their oil businesses and make even more profits off of the silly people who think that Big Oil - isn't the same as Big Biofuel.

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