Fueling the Future?

The Hunt for a Sustainable Biofuel


The wind blowing through LaBelle, Florida was soft and warm. Large, billowy clouds hung above Mark Dalton’s 10-acre field, dappling it with shadows. The field, planted in January 2008, was a regiment of seedlings standing erect in the sandy soil — precisely 2,125 plants lining each of the 364 rows. Dalton kneeled and pointed at a six-inch-tall sapling. Two of its three small leaves were round and yellowish green; the third emerged from the shoot’s tip purplish and pointy, a sign the plant was thriving. In 18 months, the shrubs will be about four feet tall, leafy, and dotted with muscadine grape-like fruit. Hidden inside the bitter fruit will be the plant’s treasure — three oil-yielding seeds.

missing image fileCourtesy Robynne BoydSome believe that jatropha curcus could be the source
of an eagerly awaited sustainable biofuel.

Dalton’s crop is jatropha curcus, a perennial shrub native to the tropics. When pressed, the plant’s seeds release a hefty amount of oil that can be processed into a fuel used in diesel engines. Jatropha is one of the highest yielding oil crops, and, unlike most plants grown for biofuels, it thrives where others cannot. It requires modest amounts of fertilizer, grows in marginal soil, is pest resistant, and needs to be planted only once every 50 years. It can go without a drop of water for six months, although 12 inches of rain a year is ideal for steady growth.

Indigenous Peoples of Central America used its long-burning seeds as candles. Today, in parts of Africa and India, jatropha is grown as a living fence. The plant goes by many names, including Barbados, physic, and black vomit nut, for its purgative properties. Some have called it a “miracle plant.”

Like many biofuel entrepreneurs, Mark Dalton and his brother Paul, the founders of My Dream Fuels, call jatropha their liquid gold. The Daltons are unlikely environmental pioneers. Paul used to be an attorney. Mark is an ex-navy photographer and all-round handyman. Neither of them are eco-geeks, but both believe that jatropha can contribute to the world’s energy mix in the 21st century. And they are not alone. University and corporate researchers say that jatropha and other biofuels could help wean America from its dependence on fossil fuels, cut carbon emissions, and buy time to design a low-carbon economy.

Many others aren’t so sure. A growing chorus of critics say biofuels will continue our consumption-based lifestyles, usurp agricultural land used for growing food, and increase carbon emissions.

Biofuels, once heralded as the path to a sustainable future, are now at a crossroads as people question whether using plants for fuel will be an eco-solution or an environmental disaster.

Growing Gas

As farmers around the globe rush to plant corn, soy, sugarcane, and oil palm to be made into fuel, concerns about biofuels are escalating. Much of the worry centers on the trade-off between using land for fuel versus food. As biofuel production soars, so in turn, do global food prices. Although it’s difficult to calculate the exact extent to which biofuels are responsible for the rise in food prices, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute deduced through modeling that 25 to 33 percent of the increase in food prices between 2000 and 2007 appears to be driven by biofuels.

Another concern is deforestation. “Brazil is chopping down the Amazon, Argentina is tearing up the prairie, and Malaysia and Indonesia are chopping down forests and burning up peat bogs for sugarcane and palm,” says Eric Holtz-Jimenez, the director of Food First. “And it’s not even about a renewable future. It’s about the South growing fuel for the North.”

In the US, a portion of the country’s corn harvest has long been used to produce ethanol. But the nation’s race for biofuels didn’t really start until 2006, when President Bush used his State of the Union Address to advocate for a dramatic increase in biofuel production as a way of reducing reliance on foreign oil. When Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Renewable Fuel Standard set a target of 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012 and at least 36 billion gallons by 2022. Investment poured into the ethanol industry as farmers and processors sought to take advantage of the government mandated five-fold increase in biofuel production.

Corn ethanol is the current king of American biofuel. Companies are rapidly grinding up millions of pounds of corn into meal, then fermenting the starch into sugar, and the sugar into alcohol. In 2006, approximately 20 percent of the US corn crop was used for ethanol production. That generated 4.89 billion gallons of ethanol, comprising about 3.5 percent of the total annual US gasoline consumption of 140 billion gallons. By 2007, production of ethanol had increased to 6.5 billion gallons. The ethanol industry predicts that production will be close to 9 billion gallons in 2008.

“In the US, ethanol is the most viable biofuel available today,” says Matt Hartwig, spokesperson for the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry’s trade association. “Ethanol won’t replace every gallon of gasoline used in this country. But with the new technologies being developed, it could displace a significant percentage of the gasoline consumed.”

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute strongly disagrees. While Bush’s biofuel mandates were created with the best of intentions, Brown says, they are proving to be a mistake. Producing ethanol requires huge amounts of energy — in the form of natural gas-reliant chemical fertilizers — and contributes to the overuse of herbicides and pesticides. Also, the increased demand for corn is encouraging many farmers to remove land from government conservation programs that are designed to replenish depleted soils.

And, Brown says, even if corn cultivation is dramatically increased, it will be insufficient to make a meaningful dent in our fossil fuel consumption. According to a 2006 analysis of energy consumption by the University of Minnesota, if all of the corn grown that year were turned into ethanol, only 12 percent of America’s gasoline demand would be offset. If all of the soybeans grown in the country were processed into fuel, only six percent of the diesel demand would be met.

There are also worries that plowing up new lands to make room for biofuel production will actually increase carbon dioxide emissions. Many people assume that because corn ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, it is a green fuel. But a February 2007 study in Science showed that corn ethanol could result in nearly twice the greenhouse gas emissions as the gasoline it would replace. As grasslands and forests are converted to agricultural lands, CO2 that had been locked in the soil for millennia is released into the atmosphere. The cure, it turns out, may be worse than the disease.

The Seeds of American Jatropha

The Daltons say that jatropha offers a way to avoid such problems. Standing in his field, Mark Dalton warms up as he talks about his “babies’ potential.” His vision extends to supplying farmers around the world with jatropha seeds and saplings; in addition to their Florida fields, the Daltons are also growing jatropha in Costa Rica and India. The first step, though, is to grow and then supply the farmers of Lee County, Florida with enough jatropha plants to create biodiesel to fuel county school buses and government vehicles. By switching to jatropha, the county could not only make a dent in carbon emissions, but also save some money. A gallon of diesel costs about $3.38, compared to $2.10 for a gallon of jatropha.

According to a 2007 report by Goldman Sachs, jatropha is the “most efficient non-food biodiesel crop, and sugarcane the most efficient ethanol crop.” The report noted that jatropha could produce a barrel of biofuel for about $43, compared to a barrel of sugarcane-based ethanol for $45, corn-based ethanol for $83, soy-based biodiesel for $122, and cellulosic-based ethanol for $305.

“We’re trying to empower thousands of Floridian farmers, ranchers, and growers to create an endless, renewable, clean source of energy,” Paul Dalton says. “With that, we can accomplish a lot of other goals, one of them being preventing climate change. Every acre of jatropha captures four tons of carbon dioxide per year.”

The Daltons’ fields are both nursery and production line. Steady successions of seedlings sprout in a large outdoor greenhouse, and more than one million grow in the fields. All of the plants are for sale. To get other farmers interested in the obscure shrub, the Daltons started selling jatropha saplings for $2 each. By this summer, the price will increase to $4.

Citrus farmers are some of the most interested buyers. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma struck Florida, spreading citrus canker — a disease that causes lesions on the fruit — and forcing farmers to look for supplemental crops. Intercropping jatropha with citrus trees could help the state’s farmers.

One of the struggles with jatropha, however, is finding seeds that produce a high oil yield. The Daltons’ seeds come from India and contain 35 to 43 percent oil. This means that an acre of jatropha will yield anywhere from 400 to 500 gallons of oil — about seven to 10 times more than soy, slightly more than corn, which produces 354 gallons of oil per acre, and roughly equivalent to oil palm.

Roy Beckford, an agriculture and natural resources agent for the University of Florida, helps Lee County farmers increase their productivity and sustainability. Beckford became interested in jatropha when searching for an alternative fuel crop for farmers. After 18 months of research, he concluded that jatropha was the obvious choice. “I think what people are waiting for is credible data coming out of our university on crop yields, water variation, and fertilizers,” Beckford says. “Then I think we will see large growers and landowners in production.”

Waste Not, Want Not?

As corn, soy, and palm-based biofuels collect criticisms, researchers are rushing to find other ways of using plant matter to make energy.

One of the most eagerly researched options is cellulosic biofuel, which uses agricultural leftovers like corn leaves and stalks, industrial and municipal waste such as paper pulp, and plants like switchgrass to make fuel. Harnessing the plant’s energy involves breaking down cellulose — a complex carbohydrate that forms the skeletal structure of a plant’s cell walls — and turning it into ethanol. This is no easy chore. It takes a potent mixture of enzymes to break down the cellulose into sugars, which are then fermented into ethanol.

The benefit of the complex process is that cellulosic ethanol can generate up to eight times the amount of energy it takes to produce it, says Gary Schmitz, spokesperson for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO. Research from the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that ethanol made from cellulose could decrease greenhouse gasses by 88 percent compared to gasoline production, and would be about 60 percent better than ethanol production. According to NREL, cellulosic ethanol could supply 50 percent of the US’s annual transportation fuel demand.

“Cellulosic ethanol is still twice as expensive as corn ethanol,” Schmitz says. “We have a goal of creating cost-effective cellulosic ethanol by 2012.”

This is an ambitious target, given that there are just six pilot plants being built in the US, and no commercial operations planned. And, say cellulosic ethanol critics, even if the product is cost effective, that doesn’t mean it is environmentally efficient. One of those critics is Tadeusz Patzek, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who keeps a detailed Web site on why biofuels could become the bane of humanity. In his paper “How Can We Outlive Our Way of Life? (.pdf, ~1M),” Patzek writes that even if the refineries were “marvels of efficiency,” they would not make a dent in humanity’s transportation fuel consumption, because ultimately Earth has almost no biomass to spare over very long periods of time.

“Agrofuels are a particularly harmful and criminally stupid means of addressing the tragedy of our over-consumption,” Patzek wrote to me in an e-mail. “In the long run, agrofuel development will greatly speed up the global environmental destruction, desertification, and hunger.”

There are at least two fringe biofuels that almost fit the bill for sustainability and viability. One is straight out of the swamp and the other comes from the fryer vat.

Like cellulosics, algae is touted as one of the most promising sources of biodiesel production. These microscopic plants float in water, are high in chlorophyll, and grow faster than any other plant on earth. NREL estimates that algae plantations are capable of yielding 10,000 gallons of oil per acre per year — exponentially higher than any other fuel crop, and no one’s going to eat it. An added benefit of these microorganisms is that they have to be near a source of carbon dioxide to flourish. So while producing oil for fuel, they’re also consuming troublesome CO2. But, as always, the theory is more elegant than the reality.

“Algae have a few main challenges,” explains Michael Briggs, a physics professor who works on alternative fuels at the University of New Hampshire. “In open ponds, low oil strains take over. This indicates that photobioreactors are needed, at least to an extent, to grow an alga capable of producing a large percentage of oil without takeover by other strains. But photobioreactors are currently far too expensive.”

In order for algae oil to become commercially available, the cost of production would have to drop to $2 to $3 per square foot, says Douglas Heston, CEO of Solix Biofuels, an algae biocrude oil company based in Fort Collins, CO. Currently, the technology usually costs $100 per square foot. “In the next two to five years, these photobioreactors will be available to go into commercial operation,” Henston says. Algae has the potential to supply America’s entire automobile fleet, he says, if all vehicles ran on diesel, although how much land is necessary is still in question.

The lowest-hanging fruit of all the biofuels is also perhaps the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally friendly to produce: used cooking oil. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of used restaurant oil are trashed every day. A few resourceful people, like Oren Kleinberger, president of Ecological Creations in Canton, GA, are not letting it go to waste. For the last few years, Kleinberger has been collecting veggie oil waste and recycling it into a “carbon neutral” fuel oil. With just a few modifications, any diesel vehicle can be converted to run on vegetable oil; diesel engines usually have to be converted slightly to heat the oil so that it will be as thin as diesel fuel.

Compared to the current cost of gasoline, using veggie oil can be a huge savings; Kleinberger sells his veggie oil for $2 per gallon. But, like other biofuels, the benefit is limited. Restaurants produce about 100 million gallons of waste oil each year, a tiny fraction of all the energy consumed in our cars.

“I have the only cost-effective energy solution in America currently, because of the availability of my resource,” Kleinberger says. “Although it’s limited, it’s very available. Restaurants often give it for free. I’m not calling it a solution, because if everyone switched to veggie oil today, there would not be enough. But it’s part of it.”

No Silver Bullet

As biofuel promoters debate the relative merits of their particular products and try to position their brand of biofuels as the best option, some question whether all of the effort is worth it.

Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute in Salina, KS, says the problem is larger than finding the appropriate biofuel to replace gasoline. He warns that by chasing the ultimate green fuel, humanity’s biggest issue continues to be ignored: our lifestyle of consumption.

photo of a cornfieldIstockphoto.com Any connection? According to one study,
biofuels may account for up to one-third of
the recent spike in global commodity prices…

photo of a burned car on a city streetReuters/Eduardo Munoz…that has sparked food riots.

For this reason, Jackson believes civilization is on the cusp of a giant success or a tragic failure. “This is our ‘walk out of Africa’ moment,” Jackson says. “We are the first species to have to willfully exercise restraint over the amount of resources we use. This moment will be more important than the American Revolution. If we can just stop the growth at 80 miles per hour on a curvy road, we can avoid the crash.”

This does not mean that biofuels should be dismissed — but they must be understood in context. The greatest gift that biofuels offer is an ability to bridge the gap between America’s current dependence on fossil fuels and the creation of a sustainable economy based on renewable energy and conservation. Biofuels can help wean us from foreign oil and buy some time as we rethink our consumption habits. But they are no silver bullet.

“Biofuels are not a safety net,” says Paul Heltne, director at the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago. “This gives biofuels too much importance. If people are thinking seriously about biofuels, and we probably should to some extent, we must be thinking of it in terms of a transition, not as a replacement for a non-renewable carbon source.”

Building the Bridge

Back in Florida, Paul and Mark Dalton continue tending their jatropha fields. Despite the problems associated with biofuels, the brothers are optimistic about the future and jatropha’s role in it — especially as the cost of oil rises.

“I think it’s healthy that there’s finally honest discussion about the repercussions of growing fuel,” Paul says. “Large consumers of oil need a cheap, clean source of fuel. If for some reason we’re successful in providing that, then I would have effectively limited all the pollution that the cars produce, and then I can say I actually did something with my life.”

Driving home from the farm in his Dodge Ram Diesel 2500, Mark seems content. His ruddy arm rests on the ledge of the open window and classic rock plays loudly on the radio. “I think I found my calling,” he says. “I can’t believe it took me 45 years to find it. There’s nothing like waking up at sunrise, working for 16 hours a day, and feeling like I’m helping the world.”

Robynne Boyd is a journalist with a focus on environment, science, and health, based in New York City.

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