Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Can politics be removed from biofuel generation?

The Administration has been praised for its move to rely more on science in the generation of policy, and on Tuesday a new group was announced that will work to encourage a new generation of biofuels.
The working group aims to accelerate funding to biofuels producers, in the hopes that they will phase out fossil fuel use at their own plants, instead using biofuels.

The group, which will be headed by the chiefs of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, also exists to encourage a new generation of biofuels made from biomass and other non-corn feedstocks.
Part of the study will, however, try to create a standard for assessing the GHG costs of producing and using the new fuel.
Mirroring a similar change in California, EPA is proposing to measure carbon emissions that come as a result of biofuel production. This includes a complicated and controversial formula that adds in emissions that occur when overseas farmers respond to higher food prices by converting forest and grassland to cropland.

“Life cycle estimates of the greenhouse gas relate to the fuel cycle and land conversion,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “This research will be very important to future policies.”
It may well be that the “controversial” formula may take the discussion out of pure science, and give the opportunity to ease politics back into the discussion.

Certainly the Administration recognizes the financial cost, with some $800 million of DoE stimulus money being directed at research, development and the funding of test projects. However $484 million will go to demonstration projects, some of which are already being funded. The major emphasis seems to remain on generating ethanol, though an algae biofuels consortium will also be funded. This is to be followed by $1.1 billion in DoA funds much of that will go to help producers, through the biofuels credit program, restructure their businesses to survive. At present production is down and there is not enough (if any) profit to be made between the price of the corn feedstock and the sale of the ethanol.

The carbon costs of each process, will be calculated by the “controversial” formula, but the calculation was first subjected to “peer revew.” Though I guess that the validity of that process depends on the peers that were used.

In regard to the algae effort the Univ of New Haven are looking for better strains of algae to use. They note that some $195 million was raised for investment in algae work last year.

One of the greater drivers for algal biofuel development is coming from DoD who are anxious to find a replacement source for the jet fuel, on which an increasing percentage of their mobile systems run. DARPA have been taking a lead in developing this research. One of their advances has just been given some publicity
Researchers at the university (UT) have already developed an electromechanical process for extracting oil from an alga cell that is rapid, energy-efficient, free of solvents and less expensive than competing methods. The technique employs electric fields to break open the cell.

Another group of researchers at the university is focused on the science of separations research and is identifying techniques to separate the oil from the algae biomass once it has been released
In another development Richard Sayre at theDanforth Center in St Louis has discussed the use of algae that can be milked instead of being destroyed. The goal of the DARPA program is to reduce the cost of the biofuel to $3 a gallon.

The fact that algae make fuel while consuming CO2 is also being presented to Congress at the same time as a new report on the subject is being released. (pdf).

In perhaps a sign of things to come, an ethanol plant in Iowa is going to add some algal photobioreactors to the plant. The algae will take advantage of the water heat and CO2 generated from the ethanol plant, with hopes to use some 60% of the CO2.

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