Safe & Sustainable Chemical Series
Biofuels 2008 and the Impact on Chemicals
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Published: December 2008
Two false statements sum up biofuels best. But while they are about as false concerning biofuels as any statement could be, they are the way too many people, particularly in the political and similar arenas, have felt about biofuels.
- All biofuels are bad (socially, economically, environmentally)
- All biofuels are good (socially, economically, environmentally)
These attitudes, thankfully, are changing. The basic fact remains: there is no simple answer to supplying all of our energy needs. Prudent use of all of the resources available will ultimately be required and the mix will change as technologies underpinning the various resources develop at different rates.
The parenthetical qualifications in the above two statements are chosen purposefully. These three qualities—economic value, social structure and the environment—are often seen as the three legs of the sustainability stool. If one of them is missing, then the sustainability claim is rather wobbly. And the need for sustainability is the clarion call for energy reliability these days.
Economics change. What is economical today may not be so tomorrow; conversely, what is not economical today may be economically viable tomorrow. Environmental impacts would seem to be straightforward to calculate. But effects can be (sometimes conveniently) overlooked on both sides of an ecological balance sheet that considers the entire production/consumption value chain for competing products and processes.
What does this mean for biofuels—short term and long term?
Perhaps a good start is to examine the anticipated global energy needs and estimate the component of supply including all likely supply sources. This would include all the nonrenewable/nonsustainable fossil fuels—natural gas, coal, tar sands, petroleum, peat and a few others. This would also include the sustainable (if perhaps sometimes variable or unpredictable) energy sources—solar, wind, tidal/wave and ocean thermal gradient. And then there are quasi-sustainable energy sources, which include geothermal and nuclear fission/fusion.
Where do biofuels belong?
The following chart shows global energy consumption by type over the next several decades.
Over the remainder of this century, traditional fossil fuels, alternative fossil fuels (e.g., coal to liquid) and renewable sources such as wind and solar, nuclear, and biofuels will all be used to supply energy. It is likely that only traditional fossil fuels will decline in use in the not-too-distant future; all the others will grow in total supply, providing an increasing percentage of the energy required for modern society.
Predicting what the future energy mix will be is largely an educated guess. There are so many things that affect these portions that are difficult to foresee. The price of petroleum during the writing of this report has varied by several hundred percent from low to high. What the price will be over the decade is highly uncertain, but every dollar change affects the economic viability of a biofuels process/feedstock/product.
The last several months have been quite a roller-coaster ride for the world's economy. While that has been more than enough excitement for most of us, consider the plight of companies that are investing in biofuels. While there has been tremendous growth in the production and use of ethanol and methyl esters of fatty acids (FAME) in fuels, their economics have not been helped by the decreases in oil prices. On top of that, there have been a growing number of detractors of biofuels that fear biofuels are responsible for the recent increases in food prices.
Producing biofuels that are compatible with current distribution schemes, that have waste materials—especially cellulose—as raw materials, that are similar in chemical structure to fuels that are currently used are all aims of so-called phase II biofuel manufacturers. (Phase II biofuels being almost anything but ethanol from sugar and starch or biodiesel from edible oils and fats.) These companies are in embryonic stages of development and their future is even more confused than that of standard biofuel producers.
Nonetheless, the companies that are striving to manufacture new biofuel molecules from nonfood crops continue to work toward that goal. More than a hundred companies are operating at various phases of development and with various levels of financial security. In an environment where every dollar change in the price of a barrel of oil affects someone's process viability these are difficult times in which to operate.
Certain aspects of phase II biofuels should be of interest not just to biofuels manufacturers or users but to the chemical industry as a whole. The technologies used for phase II biofuels not only yield products that will replace some ethanol and FAME but make production of chemicals from biomass a more likely scenario in the future. Through the use of biotechnology, a wider range of compounds can be derived from a wider range of feedstocks.
There are several types of phase II biofuel participants. Perhaps the most crowded field is that which strives to make ethanol (or other products) from cellulose. There are several ways to do this. Cellulose can be converted chemically to fermentable sugars and then fermented to yield ethanol. When this is done, lignin is left over but may be used as fuel. But cellulose—and any biomass for that matter—can be converted to syngas and then catalytically converted to a variety of molecules. Trade-offs exist in evaluating these processes, often being a matter of differences in the costs of raw materials versus differences in capital cost.
Another growing entrant into the new biofuels duels is algae feedstocks, specifically microalgae, which can be grown by several techniques. They can be grown in bioreactors or in ponds and several different species have been tried. Unlike cellulose processing, where ethanol is usually the desired product, algae are excellent producers of oils for the biodiesel market. Also, the raw materials for algae are largely sunlight and CO2 with a few additional nutrients.
The new SRI Consulting report Biofuels 2008 and the Impact on Chemicals is a comprehensive review of all the developments in biofuels manufacture. Raw materials for biofuels, chemicals used and by-products derived from biofuel and an accounting of the players in the phase II segment are covered in this report.
The report covers:
- Biodiesel, bioethanol, biobutanol and others
- Phase II biofuels, including over 100 participants
- Global trends and trade patterns
- Chemical inputs and outputs
- Over 35 specific biofuel crops