Making Biofuels More Practical

24 03 2009
Switchgrass

Switchgrass

The basic argument against biofuels is that food sources like corn and wheat should not be used to make fuel. The substitutes for these crops are plants such as switchgrass and miscanthus, but these grasses take longer to break down than corn kernals, making the fuel production process more costly.

Miscanthus

Miscanthus

BUT, researchers at Cal Tech have synthesized several new enzymes that will break down cellulose plants quicker than the current method, ultimately making the process cheaper.

This is also good news for the Obama administration, which continues to advocate funding for alternative energy policies and research.

At the White House on Monday Obama said, “Speaking to entrepreneurs in the fields of energy…Your country will support you. Your president will support you.’ The administration’s $787 billion stimulus package includes $39 billion for the Department of Energy and $20 billion in tax incentives for clean energy.”

He plans to speak more about the stimulus package in a televised address Tuesday night.





Rate My Biofuel

4 03 2009

United States:
Switchgrass

Switchgrass

Switchgrass

Soybeans

Soybeans

Soybeans

Corn

Corn

Corn

Brazil:
Sugar Cane

Sugar Cane

Sugar Cane

Europe:
Sugar Beet

Sugar Beet

Sugar Beet

Wheat

Wheat

Wheat

China:
Cassava

Cassava

Cassava

Sorghum

Sorghum

Sorghum

Southeast Asia:
Miscanthus

Miscanthus

Miscanthus

Oil Palm

Palm

Palm

India:
Jathropa

Jathropha

Jathropha

Learn more about: switchgrass, soybeans, corn, sugar cane, sugar beet, wheat, cassava, sorghum, miscanthus, palm oil and jatropha.





The War on Oil’s Cousin, Corn

18 02 2009

For the most part, corn and oil can be composed into very similar substances, except that corn can be made into edible syrup and oil cannot. Corn and oil can be refined to make both fuel and polymers for plastics.

Cash Crops

Cash Crops

Since the 1970’s corn has been turned into ethanol, a grain alcohol, to be mixed with refined petroleum (and other chemicals) to make today’s gasoline. You’ve probably noticed gas pumps that read “contains X percent ethanol.”

Gasoline Contains Ethanol

Gasoline Usually Contains Ethanol

Now, the incredible, edible corn is also used to make plastics.

However, is this a wonder crop, or is it causing more harm than good? The obvious benefit of corn plastic is that is it biodegradable. Within three months the polylactic acid plastic (PLA or bioplastic or biopolymer) will decompose if disposed in an open landfill. “Moreover, should you choose to burn it, you don’t have to worry about creating toxic fumes.” So if we all switched to making plastic from corn instead of from oil, we would have the chance to reduce CO2 emissions and our dependence on both foreign and domestic oil.

But, the combination of creating corn plastics and ethanol requires a whole lot of corn — which, theoretically would drive up the price of corn as a crop. Also, this much corn requires much more land than if it were simply harvested for food. But also, this much production would sustain and perhaps encourage the economy of many Midwestern states like Iowa.

According to one environmental journalist, Robert Bryce, the production of ethanol, not bioplastics, causes, “higher global food prices, increased air pollution from burning ethanol-spiked fuels, spreading dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico from a surge of fertilizer use, and strong evidence that growing a gallon of corn ethanol produces just as many greenhouse gases as burning a gallon of gas.”





Plastic Bags From Corn

16 02 2009

Plastic grocery bags that are 100 percent biodegradable exist, so why aren’t they used in stores? Some American stores like City Market use these bags, but why aren’t more?

Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable Plastics

The brand of plastic bags called BioBags uses a bio-polymer instead of polyethylene to make plastic. Essentially, this means the bags are made from corn.

BioBag

BioBag

These two articles, one from India and one from Guam show that the U.S. is far behind in utilizing biodegradable technology. One debate, which recently took place in Virgina, was over bills that proposed the banning of thin plastic bags in favor of thicker bags with durable handles to encourage re-use. The bills were denied by both the state House and Senate. While I don’t think this is the way to go with plastic bags, at least the U.S. is starting to recognize the problem.