Taking biofuel from forest to highway

Feb 18, 2012

The world is moving from a hydrocarbon economy to a carbohydrate economy, according to University of British Columbia biofuel expert Jack Saddler. He is presenting his work at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver on Feb. 17.

With the for energy continuing to grow, the biofuels industry will emerge as an economically and environmentally sustainable solution, he says.

Saddler, a professor in UBC's Faculty of Forestry, says: "we will become less dependent on fossil fuels and will become more dependent on fuels made from the sugars and chemicals found in plants."

For more than 30 years, Saddler studied converting biomass, like trees and agricultural residues, into ethanol to be used as a . He and his colleagues have studied every step of the process from the physical breakdown of to the industry's socioeconomic impacts.

"Biomass has another attractive characteristic in that it is very democratically distributed," says Saddler, who also serves as Canada's representative on the International Energy Agency's (IEA) Task 39 Network.

"While some countries may be rich in oil, coal or natural gas, many poorer countries tend to have the land and climatic conditions that may allow them to grow lots of biomass. A fully developed biorefinery strategy would offer these countries both , and a way to develop a more sustainable society."

The International Energy Agency's "Biofuel Road Map" predicts that biofuels will become increasingly important and will become a commercial reality during the 2020's.

Today, biofuels are blended with gasoline to satisfy government-mandated targets to include renewable content in . The 2007 and Security Act in the United States requires that 117 billion litres (31 billion gallons) of ethanol be added to gasoline annually by 2022. In Canada, the federal government mandates that gasoline must include five per cent renewable fuel content. In Brazil, all new cars are flex-fuel vehicles that can use various blends of ethanol made from sugar cane and gasoline.

The biomass-based biofuel industry is not currently commercially and economically viable, largely because of the time and cost associated with breaking down plant matter, says Saddler.

"In nature, trees breakdown and decompose over many years and decades. Our research is trying to find ways to make it happen in a few minutes or hours. In other words, speeding up the process that Mother Nature designed."

Currently, biofuels such as ethanol is made by either fermenting the sugar obtained from crops like sugar cane or sugar beet, or by using enzymes to break down the starch found in corn and wheat to make the sugars.

The goal of the work at UBC is to make biomass derived sugars as cheaply as those obtained from food crops while also using the other high value chemicals found in trees.

Similar to an oil refinery that processes crude oil to make thousands of supplementary products like plastics, dyes, paints, etc., the biorefinery would use leftover agricultural and forest material to make many of the same products, but from a sustainable and renewable resource.

Biodegradable plastic soda bottles, now used by some of the major manufacturers, are made from bioplastics. Other by-products that can be made from biomass include medications to help lower cholesterol, rayon for textiles and clothing, cosmetics, carpeting and building materials.

"There are so many opportunities for breakthroughs in this field from reducing the cost of producing and transporting the biomass to building on nature's already excellent mechanisms for recycling and using the stored energy in biomass that was put there by the sun."

Explore further: Renewable energy companies use new clout in statehouses

Related Stories

DOE publishes research roadmap for developing cleaner fuels

Jul 07, 2006

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today released an ambitious new research agenda for the development of cellulosic ethanol as an alternative to gasoline. The 200-page scientific "roadmap" cites recent advances in biotechnology ...

British government to require biofuels

Nov 07, 2005

The British government will reportedly soon require oil companies to blend a fixed proportion of biofuels into the gasoline and diesel fuel they produce.

Biofuels from the sea

Jul 04, 2011

Seaweed may prove a viable future biofuel – especially if harvested in summer.

Recommended for you

Renewable energy companies use new clout in statehouses

Dec 24, 2014

Earlier this year, Ohio became the first state to freeze a scheduled increase in the amount of electricity that must be generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources. The move gave advocates of repealing states' mandatory ...

America's place in the sun: Energy report sets goal

Dec 24, 2014

A recent energy report said that America should build on the recent growth in solar energy by setting a goal of obtaining at least 10 percent of its electricity from solar power by 2030. "Star Power: The ...

Nevada, feds to study nuke-waste burial in state

Dec 23, 2014

Nevada and the federal government are agreeing to have a panel keep studying whether the U.S. will bury radioactive material from Tennessee at a former nuclear weapons proving ground north of Las Vegas.

User comments : 27

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MR166
3 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2012
Anything that can replace hydrocarbons looks to be a great plus but ethanol from wood looks to be one great big loser to me unless some miracle bio agent is developed. My guess is that we are better off burning the wood for heat and electricity generation than trying to convert it into liquid fuel. A wood stove with a catalytic converter is a very good way to save heating/diesel oil.
Lurker2358
3 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2012
this is pointless.

There are only enough trees on earth to provide 13 years worth of energy at present consumption levels. By the time you count world population growth over a decade, that would actually be reduced to about 11 years.

Now of course, we wouldn't need 100% from wood, so maybe it extends it to 20 or 30 years. but the life cycle of trees needs at least 30 or 40 years to get a seedling back to a decent mass, so we wouldn't be able to grow them fast enough to replace the ones we burned.
djr
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 18, 2012
Lurker - why is there no shortage of nay sayers with limited vision - who have to follow up every article on alternative energy - with their own negative comments? I think MR166 is probably correct about burning the wood being the more efficient route. There are some very interesting things happening in Europe with small scale combined heat and power units. I think you are wrong Lurker in your assertion that it takes 30 or 40 years to regrow the trees. Poplars that grow 70 feet in 5 or 6 years are being researched http://friendsoft...iofuels/ Our energy future is so exciting - a mixture - fossils, biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal, nukes, OTEC, algae, fuel cells, who knows what else they will dream up. Try opening your mind - it is very refreshing.
BikeToAustralia
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
I heard diesel engines (optimally tuned) are the most efficient engines. Can I get an expert consensus?

Production of electricity doesn't seem to have any ecologically responsible winners; every one I know of has serious side effects.

The most ecologically responsible options I can think of are reducing human population on Earth. War and disease are... 'Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. Isaac Asimov' Migrating off planet and voluntary birth control (on a massive scale) seem like science fiction to me. In short, I see no happy way out of this mess we are making.
BikeToAustralia
not rated yet Feb 18, 2012
I heard diesel engines (optimally tuned) are the most efficient engines. Can I get an expert consensus?

Production of electricity doesn't seem to have any ecologically responsible winners; every one I know of has serious side effects. Plants or other life forms engineered to directly produce electricity... I think we are neither cautious nor wise enough to create genetically modified life; need to stick to cautious research. Our scientific, political and capitalistic (godlike) egos are terrifying.

The most ecologically responsible options I can think of are reducing human population on Earth. War and disease are... 'Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. Isaac Asimov' Migrating off planet and voluntary birth control (on a massive scale) seem like science fiction to me. In short, I see no happy way out of this mess we are making.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Feb 18, 2012
Now of course, we wouldn't need 100% from wood, so maybe it extends it to 20 or 30 years. but the life cycle of trees needs at least 30 or 40 years

Plenty of tree types that can be harvested after 20 years. But trees aren't the only biomass. The oceans provide a pretty big potential of biomass (as do artificial ponds/bioreactors)

djr is right: mon-causalistic thinking is ever the staple of the dense. The alternative energy world is diverse. Deal with it. Wood is a good energy storage (other types aren't good at storing energy - only at producing it). So it's perfectly suited for those short intervals when other sources aren't available
Lurker2358
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
naturalresources.umd.edu/Publications/BiosolidResearch/AuthorsCopyBiomassProduction.pdf

22 tons per hectare per 6 years.

Which gives 12.75 billion tons per 6 years if the entire surface of the Earth's land was covered in farms.

Which means it would take 6 years to produce enough fuel for 40% of one year's worth of consumption, if ALL of the Earths land was fast growing poplar tree farms.

Got any more bright ideas?

You'd need to genetically increase their growth rate by a factor of 15 just to break even if the entire planet was covered in them.
kaasinees
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
With local farming and pescetarian diets (which compliments aquaponics) we can cut a large portion out of transportation and farming energy needs.
djr
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
Got any more bright ideas? Yes - do some reading - and open your mind. We are not out of fossil fuels. Here is an excellent but sobering assessment of where we are regarding fossils. http://oilprice.c...ver.html Sooo. we have to transition to alternatives. Bio fuels will probably be a part of that mix. Here is another article on how the U.S. could produce a significant portion of it's liquid fuels with bio fuels. http://oilprice.c...lly.html The future of energy is very exciting - I am tired of the negatives from the peanut gallery. Let's enjoy the ride and stop being so pessimistic.
Lurker2358
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
djr:

Do you comprehend that if we burn fossil fuels for several more decades it's going to pretty much destroy the world ecosystems?

18 trillion barrels of shale oil? Really?

Not that I care who the source is, since normally wehn people report "known reserves" its nowhere near that, and even if you count what the U.S. allegedly has, it only comes to about 1.2 trillions.

Anyway, if 1 trillion barrels equals 115PPM CO2 (when taken together with coal consumption at a proportional pace,) then burning another trillion or two would be insane.

If CO2 production keeps growing proportional to population growth and living standards increases, we could be looking at a complete global meltdown.

What the heck. You want it to get to 2 parts per thousand CO2? I don't even know if life is possible on this planet under those conditions.

Even as things are, Greenland and Antarctica are going to melt in at most a few centuries.

These nuts are talking about destroying the world basicly.
djr
5 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
I am not as pessimistic as you Lurker - but I think we agree on the basic premise that we have to transition to alternative energy. Listening to current political dialogue here in the U.S. - it is clear the political powers have their heads firmly up their asses. Lot's of talk about gay marriage, and contraception - and no progressive energy policy from any quarter. If you are so convinced we are heading for global melt down - my question would be to ask if you have any solution? My prediction is that as fossils become more scarce, their cost will sky rocket, and the economics will push us into full scale switch to a diverse basket of alternatives. I guess time will tell how bad things really are.
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
The world is moving from a hydrocarbon economy to a carbohydrate economy
Unfortunately the biofuels aren't sustainable source of energy from single reason: the soil will become exhausted and depleted of both minerals, both of humus and organic matter after few harvests. Not to say about irrecoverable lost of biodiversity, lost of soil for production of food, impact to local and global climate, contamination of water, etc.. The western civilization is just converting huge areas of tropical forests into new deserts with no global responsibility. What worse, all this effort is absolutely unnecessary, because we are ignoring cold fusion for twenty years already - just because for people involved the research of classical technologies brings more occupation places, jobs and salary perspectives. These people are all enemies of human civilization as a whole from my perspective and they should be punished for it.
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 18, 2012
With such approach we will end like the Mayans or like the people at the Rapa Nui island. http://www.solar7...2008.pdf Why to repeat the very same mistakes again and again? Isn't it childish?
djr
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
So Callippo - your solution is cold fusion. Am I correct in assuming that as we speak - you are in your basement building a cold fusion reactor? You will be contacting the venture capitalist community - and bringing your product to market within 12 months. Or perhaps not? I am working on developing a gardening system that will allow me to be self sufficient food wise on a 1/2 acre in central Oklahoma U.S.A. If you research 'greening the desert' - you will find fascinating research that is taking desert land - and turning it into lush productive farm land - in a sustainable manner. I believe we have the solutions - and will be developing them over the coming decades - as fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive. Tell us again exactly what you are doing?
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
we speak - you are in your basement building a cold fusion reactor
Try to imagine, what would happen, if the nuclear weapon development would be maintained by initiative of individuals. We probably would have many plans today, but no nuclear weapon working, because such a research requires organized effort with million dollars of investments. Why we are able to organize such an effort for research of Higgs boson or gravitational waves, while not for cold fusion, which is way way way more useful for human civilization? If nothing else, at the case of the later we have some experimentally supported indicia, these things really exist.

Fortunately, the cold fusion research doesn't require the billion dollars investments and centralized effort to move on, but the application of double standards is quite striking here. Just the stance of physical community toward cold fusion research demonstrates, how deeply the contemporary society is rotten and motivated with group interests only.
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
In general, it's estimated, the production in one kiloWatt of energy in form of food requires ten kiloWatts of energy from external source. Why the people suddenly changed their thinking at the case of biofuels? It's evident, it cannot work at sustainable global level, but the influential people, who are interested about it financially are pretending the opposite.

http://telstar.ot...dsys.gif
djr
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
I guess Callippo I am tired of the conspiracy theories - and you seem to be king of claiming there is some grand conspiracy to silence cold fusion development. I see science differently that you do. There is currently a conference at CERN on the issue http://oilprice.c...ion.html On the issue of EROI with bio fuels. Could you give us a source for your claim of a negative 10 to 1 ratio in terms of EROI. I think you cherry pick your data. Here is an interesting article on EROI for different fuels, and a possible way forward for us to transition to alternatives. EROI on biofuels is very low - but as MR166 suggests - burning biomass directly is a better approach - with an EROI well above gas and nukes. http://www.energy...de/51060
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
It is pretty sad when we have to base our long term energy plans on a yet to be discovered energy source. Cold fusion is still a daydream. Solar and wind might be able to fill in a few gaps but are far from economical. BTW has anyone noticed that every time you read about a solar project only the theoretical power is ever mentioned. I have yet to see an audit from a solar plant that discloses how much energy it actually produced for the year.

Yes nuclear energy can be dangerous and kill many people but so does coal mining and lumbering. Running out of energy will kill more people than all of the nuclear accidents that ever happened, including the two bombs dropped on Japan.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Feb 19, 2012
with an EROI well above gas and nukes

What does EROI matter when you have no world to spend your ROI in?

Economic considerations are entirely besides the point.
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
"What does EROI matter when you have no world to spend your ROI in?"

Not to worry Antialias, since the CO2 forcings are not nearly as bad as they were purported to be, we will run out of hydrocarbons waaaay before the environment is changed. Can we live without modern sources of power? Of course but hundreds of millions will die making the adjustment. This far more than the occasional nuclear accident will kill. I hope man has learned something from the disaster in Japan. 10 heavy lift helicopters carrying 100KW generator sets probably could have averted the whole problem by keeping the cooling pumps supplied with power.
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
Cold fusion is still a daydream
It's a reality. Actually, the cold fusion of hydrogen at Raney nickel has been observed accidentally before fifty years already, but because the world was full of cheap oil this time, nobody cared about it. http://tech.group...age/1150 If people are trolls, the fact they're surrounded with phenomena will not help them in their exploitation. For example, the apes are facing fire in wild regularly for million of years, but none of them has attempted to use it for practical purposes. The people aren't different regarding cold fusion, they're just an "apes" at the higher level.
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
Look, if Rossi manages to make cold fusion a reality he will rightfully be hailed as a modern day savoir of mankind. If this "breakthrough" just fades away there is no doubt in my mind that it will all be blamed on the oil companies who took his invention and locked it up in their closet along with the 100 MPG carburetor and the pill that you drop into your gas tank along with 20 gallons of water instead of gasoline.
Callippo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
Rossi didn't reveal the cold fusion, it's an achievement of Piantelli and Focardi. The ignorance of these twenty years old findings is just a part of propaganda - the society is trying to pretend, we didn't wasted twenty years with ignorance of cold fusion and whole stuff just started with Andrea Rossi.
djr
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
Economic considerations are entirely besides the point. Well - they are what drives our current system antialis - whether we like it or not. I guess I would ask you the same question - what is your solution? I propose transitioning to alternatives as fast as we can. OTEC has a great deal of potential - and if deployed at large enough scale - could actually cool the oceans - and perhaps mitigate global warming. http://www.otecne...ga-ph-d/ I am totally about solutions - do you have any suggestions?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Feb 19, 2012
I guess I would ask you the same question - what is your solution?

That which is currently being practiced by some countries: mandate a changeover.

Our current system is doomed if it continues on that path of simply ignoring that we live in a world of finite resources - some of which are REQUIRED for our survival (not just 'luxury goods' like energy). Air, water, a certain temperature range, dry land to stand on. What good will it do to follow an economic system to our collective suicide?

That something drives our current economic system is no argument why this should forever remain the case.
djr
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
"mandate a changeover." - I think that would a great thing to do. Here in the U.S. as I listen to the political dialogue - I don't here much that would give me hope that it will happen any time soon. Too much religious belief in personal freedom, and too much anti science denial. I guess none of us know what is going to happen tmrw, so perhaps things will get bad enuf that the denial community will become the minority - I won't hold my breath.
djr
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2012
"mandate a changeover." Sounds good to me - unfortunately - here in the U.S. - as I listen to the current political dialogue - nothing gives me any hope that will happen any time soon. Too much insistence on personal freedoms, and too much anti science denialism. I guess none of us know what is going to happen tmrw - so hopefully things will change fast. I think we are on the same page Antialias. I expect the changes to come more from individual decisions - rather than government mandates. I will be happy with either.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.