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
Originally published in Earth Island Journal , Summer, 2008
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.
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
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.
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 715 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, C[O.sub.2] 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
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?,” 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 C[O.sub.2]. 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
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.”
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