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Bio Diesel vs. Ethanol

December 20, 2011

A few weeks ago, a few members of our team went to Tallahassee to educate some of our lawmakers about our business and specifically about the potentials of Camelina.  It was a huge success by all accounts and we gleaned important information while making some solid connections for the future.

One of the most notable challenges that must be addressed is one that we were already aware of, but not entirely decided on how we were going to tackle.

You see once the idea of feedstock registers and alternative fuels are discussed many people begin to generalize or consider all fuels the same and thus have similar industrial cultures and realities.   This misunderstanding is especially prevalent when trying to distinguish between bio fuels.

Bio Fuels are considered to have come from some sort of organic beginning.  Using a strict definition it would not be stretch to consider petroleum products, natural gas, or fossil fuels as bio fuels considering they are a type of carbon based reaction that creates oil or gas from the fossils, pressure, and time.  This creates an obvious confusion and exemplifies why there needs to be distinction and separate consideration between the different types of fuel and their origins.

The ultimate goal is to find energy solutions that can power our society without being dependent on foreign interests.  Subsequent goals include doing so in a responsible and ethical manner that will not burden future generations.  The first distinction to make is whether or not the fuel is limited or renewable.  The next question is one sustainability and cost of production over time verses output.  Last, but certainly not least, what are the environmental implications?

This discussion will focus on Ethanol vs. Bio Diesel from a feedstock provider perspective.  As an alternative feedstock company, assumptions that create controversy are the ideas that ethanol must come from corn and bio diesel must come from soy bean.  Both are food crops and create legitimate concerns over sustainability, competing supply, and subsidy questions.  It has long been supposed that corn is the best solution for ethanol and soy for bio diesel and thus created barriers to production in balancing between an energy commodity and a food commodity.  Both fuel types have found multiple non-food crops that can yield much higher in more locations than either of the food crops.  This is a realization that the general public must be made aware of.  There is too much confusion as to the competition of food verses energy and frankly too many agendas generating false propaganda from multiple perspectives.

The scale and scope of these two fuels are quite different.  Ethanol has emerged from the top down, complete with big moneyed interests that have shaped and in many regards restricted proper development of this possibility.  One of the largest obstacles ethanol has faced is feeding the large scale processing plants that were created to meet volume and mandates associated with gasoline.  Conversely, bio diesel has been purposely shelved since big oil bought its interests out shortly after Rudolf Diesel created an engine that could be run from natural oils found on a farm.  It has only been recently that a resurgence of old technology has been reintroduced to the consuming public and the process been widely shared.

Ethanol is basically derived from plants with high amounts of sugar to be fermented and then processed.  Bio Diesel is oil that is retrieved from animal fats, plant seeds, or used vegetable oil and then combined with methanol in a transesterfication process resulting in glycerin and bio diesel.  Each of the resulting fuels has been extensively tested and accepted by the American Standards of Measurements and Testing.   ASTM certification means that the fuel meets acceptable specifications and is ready for consumption.

One of the issues with ethanol and a major reason for the recall of the mandate that is being proposed in Florida is in the blending with gasoline.  Ethanol’s recommended blend with gasoline is no more than 10% because it changes the properties of the fuel.  The mix with gasoline has some detrimental side effects if the blending ratios are not properly maintained and monitored.  In a haste to reach demand created by mandates many blenders are not so careful or exact in the process.  This results in blends that exceed 10% which can be detrimental to smaller engine parts and vessels.  Your lawn mowers and jet skis not performing after sitting a while with ethanol gas is an observable flaw.

The neat thing about diesel is that it is cracked with Kerosene which is an anti-lubricant.  It requires some sort of additive of lubricant to properly function.  Utilizing bio diesel works nicely, but moreover a diesel engine does not react adversely to too much lubricant.  In other words, it can function at various blends of bio diesel with no adverse affects to the engine.  The result is a cleaner, more efficient, and stronger performance from the engine.

Ethanol just helped corn farmers achieve one of their best years ever.  The production has been up and answering the demand has created other debates in regards to sustainability.  If corn were the only viable crop for ethanol some of those arguments might be valid.  Since there are at least three alternative crops being grown in Florida to answer the ethanol demand and the idea of diversity in location and crop is spreading, it is likely that the arguments centered on competing interests of corn will last much longer.  Ethanol has huge backers and billions invested into an industry that is growing out of its infancy.  Irrespective of people’s opinions, there are plenty of players in the industry making a profit, which means its activity will continue.

Similar to the stigma placed on ethanol by corn, Bio Diesel contends with the Soy Bean myth.  It is true that Soy accounts for a huge amount of US Bio Diesel produced but it is not by far the best choice for bio diesel.  First, most folks dealing with bio diesel would rather not have the fight or hassle that corn created for ethanol.  The general consensus is to not compete in food markets and the search for feedstock other than Soy has been a primary focus.  Recycling used cooking oil gives bio diesel and extra point in the environmental department, but collection and coordination of the grease is a monumental undertaking.  The used vegetable oil is sought after for a number of different reasons from several industries leaving a fragmented and limited supply to producers.  Animal fats have yields but the process is messy and creates other concerns in terms of preparation.  That leaves crops that have oil seeds.  The best known ones are currently not allowed in most states including Florida.  Our company is the first in the country to ASTM certify Camelina oil in bio diesel production and others are being explored.

The Bio Diesel challenge is in scale.  Growing from the bottom up relieves the industry from the mandates and bureaucratic entanglements.  It also means that much of the research funding, grants, and subsidies to grow are not considered for bio diesel but go to the larger ethanol industry.  Many of the crops that have high oil yield have special considerations for harvesting, drying, storage, and pressing.  One crop has requirements different from the next and both are different from traditional regional agriculture.  It is very much a chicken vs. egg scenario in that the industry cannot grow without infrastructure and investment in that infrastructure will not occur without growth.

One of the urban myths surrounding bio fuels is the energy quotient s or energy return numbers.  The legend states that it takes more energy and cost produce ethanol or bio diesel than the energy that is received.  Common sense dictates that if this were true, there would be no incentive for continuing research.  I suppose that when gasoline was under a $1.00 a gallon this type of work did not make economical sense.   Depending on the research used, ethanol returns 25-30% more than the energy it takes to create and bio diesel having a huge range of numbers can be an estimated average of 65-70% return.  When recycled materials are utilized then positive gains are compounded.  Bio Diesel can take advantage of waste vegetable oil (UVO) turning a societal liability into a positive energy product.

Both can reduce carbon emissions.  Both can increase performance and mileage.  Both can supplement reserves of fossil fuels.  Ethanol is working from the top down.  Its production and infrastructure is being implemented to be an additive to consumer vehicles fuel, the primary dispensary being the individual pump.  If standards of the volumes were to be maintained, there would likely be less states reacting like Florida because so many constituents are fed up with replacing carburetors on their small 4 stroke engines. (There are a lot of boats and lawnmowers in FL.)  Bio Diesel is building its infrastructure and shaping to be a volume provider to military, heavy industry – land and sea, and fleet customers.  This makes sense given the nature of the majority of diesel consumption.

For every two gallon of gasoline we consume a gallon of diesel. Our overall consumption is heavily dependent on foreign sources.

“The US imported 61% of its oil, or 374 million barrels in May 2010, sending approximately $27.5 billion, or $617, 234 per minute, to foreign countries.” ~ DOE Energy Information Administration

Rough numbers brings our total consumption to 600 million barrels a month or 7.2 billion barrels a year. 2.3 billion goes to diesel and 4.9 billion barrels will go to gasoline.  Both of these alternative fuels can be beneficial to the reduction of dependence on foreign oil.  Due to the nature of ethanol it is limited to 10% or less blends and will be strictly be an additive until motors are developed to handle higher blends.  All diesel engines can take any blend up to B100 or 100% bio diesel – it just depends on your equipment warranty limitations.  Some warranties on farm equipment and from car manufacturers currently allow B20 and some are considering higher blends.   Of course if the warranty is already expired – then concerns of voiding it are mute.  Simply put there are more options to replace more fossil fuel with bio fuel utilizing bio diesel.  That being said, it will take ethanol, bio-diesel, other alternative fuels and traditional sources to reach energy independence.

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