Editor's note

How will biodiesel fit into an energy independent America?
By | August 01, 2006
This month's cover story, "The 'Peak' Role of Biofuels," which starts on page 56, is largely based on biodiesel highlights from a mid-July conference hosted by the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), an internationally renowned RDD&C (sorry, you'll have to read the story for an explanation of that acronym) facility in Grand Forks, N.D. The conference, titled, "Biomass '06: Power, Fuels and Chemicals," provided a broad and categorically sensible overview of how biomass utilization is fitting into the world's overall energy picture.

In his opening statements, EERC Director Gerald Groenewold spoke of a new study conducted by the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB), a group comprised of governors and state legislators from 16 southern states. The critically acclaimed report, titled, "American Energy Security: Building a Bridge to Energy Independence and a Sustainable Energy Future," focuses on America's liquid transportation fuel options and presents a comprehensive plan for U.S. energy security through the production of clean liquid transportation fuels from domestic resources. The plan sets an aggressive timeline for achieving U.S. energy independence by 2030, and outlines the costs, risks and national security implications of current and future U.S. dependence on imported oil. Most importantly, the report lays out a plan to achieve energy stability and eventual independence.

Interestingly, the study's authors say the widely held belief that America is facing an "energy crisis" is a misnomer. Rather, they claim, the nation "faces the ominous prospect of crippling oil and liquid fuel shortages, and soaring prices." They say the solution to this "ominous prospect" is to, first and foremost, tap into the "trillions of tons" of unconventional fossil fuel resources in the United States-coal, oil and shale, specifically-and complement this cache of energy feedstock with biomass resources.

Although the initial cost of transitioning to such a program would be steep, I believe the long-term benefits of doing so are hard to dispute. Yes, the idea of heavily reinvesting in the domestic production of fossil fuels does seem somewhat archaic. However, before passing judgment on the idea, visit the SSEB's Web site, www.sseb.org, and take a look at the study. It's a pretty quick read.

Specifically, the study suggests that the United States should start using gasification or Fisher-Tropsch technology to convert vast quantities of coal and oil shale into crude oil that would, in turn, be made into "ultra-clean" gasoline and diesel fuel. It also proposes that America ramp up its efforts to extract hard-to-get oil from existing U.S. oil fields via carbon sequestration.

So where does the report leave biodiesel? Well, depending on your own personal views on the potential of biomass utilization, it puts biodiesel in a pretty good spot with a bit of a caveat. Referring to the SSEB's study, Groenewold said the EERC believes biomass could eventually provide up to 20 percent of the nation's energy needs. Personally, I believe a one-fifth market share for biomass would bode extremely well for biodiesel. As many of you know, however, biodiesel is not a lone contender-and I'm not talking about ethanol. The SSEB's report suggests that the true promise of biomass-derived liquid fuels lies in emergent pyrolysis and thermal depolymerization techniques that produce hydrocarbon fuels from organic wastes. Time will tell how viable these still-novel fuel concepts will be, but some experts say hydrocarbon fuels-even those made from contemporary biomass feedstocks-simply will not stand up to biodiesel in a variety of ways. Like it or not, we'll probably find out in the years ahead.
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