Fill ‘Er Up: On biofuels
These days, ethanol is praised as the whiz-bang cure-all for our energy ills. And maybe all the sweet talk will cause this “new” fuel to forget that America dumped her for oil in the early 20th century. Oil’s just so … ew all of a sudden. We may finally be ready to return to our first love, an energy source that’s been by our side in some form or another since Neolithic times. Oil was too high-maintenance and demanding, anyway.
And ethanol’s a much better match … right? Or maybe biodiesel is the one? Or vegetable oil? Hemp? Turkey guts?
For all the hype, most people barely know enough about biofuels to drop a line or two at a cocktail party. What is ethanol, and how’s it different from biodiesel, and where does fry grease come in? Are there cars that can run on this stuff, and who’s making them, and where can they fuel up? Who sells it, who makes money off it, and why’s it such a political darling? Does “cellulosic” ethanol actually exist in the wild? What’s the big deal with Brazil? And does Willie Nelson really run his bong on biodiesel?
We’re here to help. Biofuels — derived from recently living organisms or their metabolic byproducts, aka plants, animals, and poop — are back, big time. Here’s your two-week crash course.
- How the world got addicted to oil, and where biofuels will take us.
- The numbers behind ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and biodiesel in the U.S.
- How experts measure the energy balance of alternative fuels.
- Cellulosic ethanol may be coming sooner than you think.
- A look at the impacts of biofuels production, in the U.S. and the world.
- How cash and corporate pressure pushed ethanol to the fore.
- It’s time for a real “food vs. fuel” debate.
- What Brazil can teach the U.S. about energy and ethanol.
- As its neighbors back biofuels, Central America gears up for business.
- Three perspectives on the biofuels debate.
- To fulfill its environmental promises, biofuel policy needs a kick in the pants.
- Toward a community-owned, decentralized biofuel future.
- An interview with biofuels naysayer David Pimentel.
- An environmental-justice advocate responds to the biofuels boom.
- What we’ve learned from the biofuels series.
- Using grease and other goodies, small producers are making a big difference.
- Grassroots biodiesel operations contend with industrial sand-kickers.
- How a grassroots biodiesel group can show the way for others.
- An interview with Seattle biodiesel distributor Dan Freeman.
- An interview with Greasecar founder Justin Carven.
- Richard Branson chats about embracing ethanol and slashing airplane emissions.
- Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla chats about the promise of ethanol.
- Biofuel pioneer Lee Lynd points the way toward a “carbohydrate economy.”
- An interview with Missouri farmer and ethanol co-op member Brian Miles.
- A biodiesel entrepreneur in Argentina spreads seeds of wisdom.
- Grains become fuel at the world’s first cellulosic ethanol demo plant.
- An interview with Mary Beth Stanek, General Motors energy director.
- Find out which cars can run on ethanol and biodiesel.
- All the resources you need to hop on the biofuels bandwagon.
- A handy biofuels glossary, and videos to boot.
- The what, where, and why of E85 ethanol.
- A lighthearted look at biofuels through time.
- The strangest biofuel sources you’ve never heard of.
- The top 10 reasons to give a hoot about biofuels.
- Check out the latest entries in the celeb-biofuels biz.
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Stories in this series:
How the world got addicted to oil, and where biofuels will take us
If oil is over, what’s on the horizon? Photo: house.gov They may be hyped as the way of the future, but biofuels already count as a juggernaut. Supported by the government and embraced by the Big Three automakers, ethanol is surging in the United States. Biodiesel, meanwhile, is roaring ahead in Europe as the continent strives to meet its carbon-emission obligations under the Kyoto treaty. But as we plunge headfirst into a sea of biofuel — both in the energy-hungry world and in this Grist special series — it’s worth looking back at previous energy transitions to gain insight into …
A lighthearted look at biofuels through time
The way most people talk about biofuels, you’d think they were a brand-new invention. But using natural products for fuel is an idea as old as the hills, as this highly selective timeline demonstrates. Mid-1800s: Soap-makers begin to transesterify vegetable oils — you know, exchanging the alkoxy group of an ester compound by using another alcohol, often catalyzed by the addition of an acid or base. Ahem. Or, for you non organic chemists, breaking down one molecule and building a shiny new one. Transesterification (not to be confused with transvestite Transylvanians) produces methyl and ethyl esters, of which biodiesel will …
The numbers behind ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and biodiesel in the U.S.
America devours oil like no other country in the world. Representing 5 percent of the global population, the country consumes fully a quarter of the world’s oil. Every year, to move ourselves and our goods around, we burn 140 billion gallons of gasoline and 40 billion gallons of diesel — enough to propel the average U.S. car around the world 1.6 billion times. But rising prices, climate change, and seemingly endless crises in the Middle East have sparked a reckoning. We love to pump, and it shows. Photo: hawaii.gov While there is plenty of disagreement about how best to end …
All the resources you need to hop on the biofuels bandwagon
Once upon a time, we were going to make a beautiful map for you, showing all the available biofuel pumps in the country. Then we realized: hey, there are already beautiful maps out there. Not to mention books. And articles. And organizations working their tails off on this stuff. So why reinvent the wheel? Instead, we compiled this list o’ links. Then we went out for a heaping plate of French fries — because they smell just like biodiesel. Got more resources to suggest? Add them in Gristmill. Maps OK, you’re sold on biofuels. Now where the heck are they …
Find out which cars can run on ethanol and biodiesel
Going bio with your auto doesn’t mean you have to invest in some strange contraption your neighbors will stare at. In fact, upward of 4 million cars currently on the road in the United States are already compatible with E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. More automakers are making new E85-ready models — known as flex-fuel vehicles — every year. To top that off, so to speak, any gasoline-powered car can run on a 10 percent ethanol/90 percent gasoline blend — in fact, the state of Minnesota requires that all gasoline sold there is of …
A look at the impacts of biofuels production, in the U.S. and the world
Nothing but blue skies from now on? Photo: house.gov Great news! We can finally scratch “driving less” off our list of ways to curb global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil! Biofuels will soon not only replace much of our petroleum, but improve soil fertility and save the American farmer as well! Sound too good to be true? Well, yes. But you could be excused for buying the hype. Ethanol and biodiesel are being promoted as cures for our energy and environmental woes not just by flacks for corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, BP, and DuPont, but by …
The what, where, and why of E85 ethanol
If you’re like the rest of us, you’ve probably heard of E85 — yet don’t have the slightest idea what it is. Or if you do have an idea, it’s, well, slight. But never fear, friends and neighbors: We’ve got the skinny on the corn-a-rific fuel that’s increasingly on the tips of tongues and in the depths of gas tanks. Lend us your ears. Photo: Ohio Dept. of Agriculture So … what is it? E85 is a motor fuel that is a blend of 15 percent unleaded gasoline and 85 percent ethanol, by volume. In the U.S., ethanol is usually …
How cash and corporate pressure pushed ethanol to the fore
… got all liquored on that road house corn … — Tom Waits, “Gun Street Girl” Before it became widely used as a car fuel, ethanol was just grain liquor — and the federal government was not particularly kind to it. We pledge allegiance to ADM. Shortly after the American Revolution, the new government imposed a draconian tax on the stuff, hoping to pay down wartime debt. Instead, it got the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, an insurrection eventually put down by forces led by President Washington himself. Similar hostility — including the indignity of Prohibition, the 1920s-era federal ban on …
Using grease and other goodies, small biodiesel producers are making a big difference
If you live in a city of any size, you’ve likely seen them out there: boxy little ’80s-era foreign cars, bumpers adorned with pro-ecology and anti-war slogans, and references to “grease.” Even the fumes they emit may smell different: literally like French fries, in some cases; like generic used vegetable oil in others. Foh sizzle my fuel-izzle. Photo: iStockphoto Welcome to the small-scale biodiesel movement, a grassroots challenge to Big Oil and Big Ag. While corporate giants create fuel by refining crude oil and fermenting corn, these more modest initiatives focus on a feedstock no one else wants: waste cooking …
An interview with Seattle biodiesel distributor Dan Freeman
Dan Freeman. As a kid, Dan Freeman experimented with using alcohol to run lawnmowers and minibikes. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that parent-son conversation.) These days, he runs Dr. Dan’s Alternative Fuel Werks, a Seattle-based biodiesel retail and distribution company with customers ranging from school districts to organic farmers to concerned individuals who want to drive greener. Grist recently spoke to the good doctor — who got his nickname years ago from his father, an underemployed Ph.D. at the time — about waste reduction, the power of local energy sources, and why biofuels are like …
Richard Branson chats about embracing ethanol and slashing airplane emissions
Does a music mogul who signed the Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson have what it takes to make a pop star out of biofuels? Sir Richard. Earlier this fall, publicity-chasing British entrepreneur Richard Branson made a $3 billion bet that he could do just that — and help solve the climate crisis to boot — via Virgin Fuels, a new company in his wide-ranging Virgin Group. An ear for music doesn’t necessarily indicate an eye for energy technology, of course. Branson has proved himself remarkably versatile over the last few decades, expanding his Virgin brand beyond the record label into …
A handy biofuels glossary, and videos to boot
With all the talk of biofuels swirling around, things can get a bit confusing. So we’ve put together this handy glossary for your reference. Now you can pontificate at cocktail parties with the best of ‘em. And just to keep you awake (yeah, we remember second grade too), we’ve included some explanatory videos thanks to the good folks at Current TV. Look! Real people using and talking about biofuels! See, it’s not all just a journalistic fantasy. Got more terms to suggest? Add them in Gristmill. Biodiesel: A fuel derived from biological sources that can be used in …
An interview with David Pimentel
Any worthy idea can withstand and even be improved by naysayers; scolds and skeptics play the useful role of pointing out obvious flaws. The biofuels industry has no more persistent, articulate, and scathing critic than David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University. David Pimentel. Photo: Chris Hallman / Cornell University Photography. In 1979, with the price of oil surging and a politically connected company called Archer Daniels Midland investing heavily in ethanol production, the U.S. Department of Energy invited Pimentel to chair an advisory committee to look at ethanol as a gasoline alternative. The committee’s conclusion: ethanol requires …
Three perspectives on the biofuels debate
Imagine how amazing petroleum must have seemed back when it was an emerging alternative fuel in the U.S. Drill a hole in the ground in some parts of Texas and Pennsylvania, and rich black stuff would come gushing up, loaded with energy. What could possibly be the problem with such bounty? In some quarters, biofuels inspire similar wide-eyed wonder today. They are, after all, renewable and carbon-neutral … right? By now, most environmentalists are aware that biofuel production as currently practiced generates serious ecological problems. Moreover, it’s dominated by a few corporations that, despite billions in public subsidies, clearly place …
Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla chats about the promise of ethanol
Venture capitalist and ethanol booster Vinod Khosla. Billionaires are piling onto the biofuels bandwagon. Bill Gates is doing it. Richard Branson is doing it. The Google guys are doing it. Less well-known is the billionaire who kicked off the whole trend: Vinod Khosla, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and former partner with Kleiner Perkins, the venture-capital firm that helped give rise to Google, AOL, Amazon, and Compaq. In 2004, he founded his own firm, Khosla Ventures, which has come to be known as a rainmaker in the ethanol world. To hear Khosla tell it, the burgeoning revolution in oil alternatives …
To fulfill its environmental promises, biofuel policy needs a kick in the pants
As war simmers in the Middle East and oil prices rise along with global temperatures, Midwestern farmers and politicians aren’t the only ones banging the drums for biofuels. Now big-time investors, security hawks, environmentalists, and even George W. Bush have joined their ranks. But is environmentally responsible bioenergy a real possibility, or are we bio-fooling ourselves? How green is your biofuel? Photo: gov.mb.ca The question is key, because current U.S. public policy is pushing biofuel production without giving much evident thought to sustainability. If present trends continue, the public could find itself funding environmentally ruinous projects in the name of …
Toward a community-owned, decentralized biofuel future
President Bush visits the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery in 2005. Photo: whitehouse.gov Biofuels won’t single-handedly solve the climate crisis, nor will they deliver energy independence. But a base of widely dispersed, farmer- and citizen-owned biofuel plants can displace significant amounts of fossil fuels — while also building local economies. What follows is a strategy for tweaking existing federal energy and farm policy to create such an energy landscape. Before getting to that, though, given the scorn heaped on biofuels by many well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned commentators, I’ll make the case that biofuels have an important role to play in any …
An interview with Greasecar founder Justin Carven
Justin Carven. In the span of just two years, Justin Carven invented the first waste-oil conversion kit for diesel engines, graduated from Hampshire College, drove a vegetable-oil-fueled van across the country, and started his very own company. Six years later, Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems is selling so many conversion kits that Carven is talking about setting up franchises in India and Brazil. Grist talked to him about the etiquette of snagging free waste oil, Iraq vets’ conversion to veggie oil, the economics of environmental goodness, and more. How did you first get interested in biofuels? I went to Hampshire …
An environmental-justice advocate responds to the biofuels boom
I am very excited to see this Grist series, because I am a biodiesel user. I am also very worried about the growth of the biofuels industry, because I am an environmental-justice advocate, and I see this industry rapidly leaving my community behind. What happens after the photo shoot? Photo: house.gov The growth of the biofuels industry creates significant economic benefits and downsides, economic winners and losers. Today, my words are a request that we ask hard questions about those winners and losers, about who is poised to benefit from this nascent industry. Let’s start with some recent history. Did …
Not quite, but cellulosic ethanol may be coming sooner than you think
Even as organizations ranging from Consumers Union to the Cato Institute cast doubt on the environmental value of corn-based ethanol, facilities designed to make it are popping up by the dozen throughout the Midwest. Meanwhile, cellulosic ethanol — which can be derived from just about any plant matter — draws near-unanimous environmental raves. Trouble is, the technology required for producing it economically still hasn’t quite emerged. Thus, like the kid in the back seat on a long family car trip, investors and other interested observers have for years been demanding to know, “When are we gonna get there?” Over and …