Biodiesel Musical Chairs

By | May 14, 2008
Those attending February's National Biodiesel Conference general session on feedstocks probably understand the reference to musical chairs in this column's title. At one point the feedstock industry panel seemed to be engaged in a children's game of musical chairs as they shuffled positions and aligned themselves in order of commercialization. Before getting settled, the audience called for a re-alignment to demonstrate the potential order of magnitude that each of the feedstocks might bring to the market. The panel represented corn oil from ethanol plants, mustard, canola, industrial rapeseed, algae, soybeans, brassica juncea, and high-oil corn varieties. Although not scientific, the arrangement demonstrated that oilseeds with the highest volume potential are not necessarily the ones that will impact the market first.

The crowd favorite that day in Orlando was unmistakably algae. However, it was felt by the industry panel that other technologies would have an impact sooner. Near-term opportunities exist with the creation of "virtual acres" (greater yields per acre), capitalizing on growth in the ethanol industry, and additional acres of oilseeds such as winter canola and camelina.

"Virtual acres" is a term for generating additional feedstock from the same acre. Monsanto plans to introduce new technology that can increase soybean yields by 9 percent to 11 percent. DuPont is commercializing soybean varieties that increase yields by as much as 12 percent. These technologies are set to have an impact in 2010. An increase in yields of just 10 percent could produce more than 250 million additional bushels of soybeans and almost 400 million gallons of biodiesel without increasing acreage in the United States. In addition, the National Biodiesel Board has teamed up with The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to look at the potential to enhance the oil production in soybeans and other oilseeds, although this is a longer-term endeavor.

Soybeans will play a near-term role in adding to the feedstock supply, but we still need to secure other raw materials to meet future demand. The ethanol industry may offer our nearest-term opportunity for additional supplies. Ethanol firms are investigating fractionation technology to remove corn germ (the portion of the corn kernel that contains oil) prior to the ethanol production process. Further, some ethanol plants have already made public their intention to employ technology to remove the remaining vegetable oil from distillers dried grains, a coproduct of the ethanol process. Both of these technologies could add to the biodiesel raw material supply in a meaningful way.

The production of oilseeds on new acres may also offer additional raw material supplies to the biodiesel industry. Private firms are offering camelina contract opportunities in the Pacific Northwest, and the U.S. Canola Association has established an initiative to increase canola acres by 2010. Although interest in these oilseeds is high, current price spikes in wheat have dampened the effort to expand winter canola and camelina acres.

Investment in new, non-edible raw materials sources such as algae, jatropha, mustard, brown grease and seashore mallow continues at an aggressive rate. Stay tuned for a future article on the feedstocks just mentioned. Back to the conference session on raw materials-I actually did have an attendee say it reminded them of musical chairs. I had flashbacks of grade school and being pushed out of the way when the music stopped by a bigger and stronger classmate-a girl-by the name of Sheila Johnson. Luckily, in this game of musical feedstocks, no one will be left out. All new fat and oil sources will be needed to meet future renewable fuel needs in a sustainable manner.

Sustainability Task Force makes progress, launches Web pages
The recently formed Sustainability Task Force is working to ensure that the U.S. biodiesel industry continues to protect the environment while producing jobs and reducing dependence on foreign oil. The team of 10 industry representatives is developing a definition of sustainability pertaining to biodiesel as well as the mission and goals of the task force.

To support the work of the task force and keep everyone up-to-date with sustainability issues, the National Biodiesel Board launched a sustainability Web site. The site, is full of information on environmental, economic and social sustainability. Follow the Sustainability Task Force link to see meeting minutes and more.

The NBB supports the Sustainability Task Force's efforts to ensure that biodiesel produced and sold in the United States comes from sustainable resources and discourage any non-sustainable practices in producing agricultural commodities used for biodiesel.
Following are key points on sustainability to keep in mind:

Biodiesel, like all other renewable energy sources, was developed specifically to enhance the sustainability of our use of energy resources.

› Crop production in the United States is trending significantly toward utilizing more conservation practices. According to the Conservation Technology Information Center, conservation tillage practices, including no-till farming, has increased dramatically both in terms of percentage and actual acreage since 1990.

› he United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has calculated that of the land that could be used for agriculture today, only 3.7 billion of 10.4 billion acres are used, and of that, only 1 percent is used for biofuels, which includes ethanol.

› In the United States, more than 80 percent of estimated 2007 biodiesel production came from domestic soybean oil. A growing amount of biodiesel produced in the United States is also being made from other feedstocks such as recycled cooking oil, fats and vegetable oils from other oilseed crops. The increased demand for biodiesel is stimulating research and investment in developing new feedstocks such as algae, camelina, jatropha and arid land crops. The result is that additional feedstock volumes will be coming from marginal lands and utilized by innovative technologies.

› Biodiesel has a significant positive energy balance. A USDA and U.S. DOE study has shown that soy-based biodiesel has a 78 percent carbon dioxide reduction. This study takes into account everything from planting the soybeans to delivering biodiesel to the pump. A 2007 update to the USDA/DOE study found that for every unit of fossil energy it takes to make biodiesel, 3.5 units of energy are gained.

› For every gallon of B100 that is consumed, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 16.12 pounds.
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