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:
Grains become fuel at the world’s first cellulosic ethanol demo plant
Our plant supplants your plant: a real-life cellulosic ethanol refinery. Photo: Iogen Sometimes it seems virtually anything can be made into fuel. As though, if we had the right technology, we could throw together old T-shirts, bumper stickers, and pine cones to make a magical elixir to run the millions of cars on North America’s highways. That’s not an entirely far-fetched scenario. The days of filling up our cars on dead dinosaur goo are likely coming to an end. Instead, we’ll be using fuel made from plants and plant waste. (Don’t hold your breath for the bumper stickers.) The great …
Biofuel pioneer Lee Lynd points the way toward a “carbohydrate economy”
Well before cellulosic ethanol became the hot new fuel, Lee Lynd was immersed in it. Since 1987, the engineering professor has been leading a major academic study group on cellulosic ethanol from his perch at Dartmouth. Before that, he even wrote his undergraduate honors thesis on it. Lee Lynd. Photo: Joseph Mehling/Dartmouth More recently, Lynd has been putting his technical expertise to the test in the marketplace. In 2005, he cofounded Mascoma, a cellulosic biomass-to-ethanol company that has just completed its second round of venture funding with support from Vinod Khosla and other investors. (Lynd serves as chief scientific officer.) …
An interview with Missouri farmer and ethanol co-op member Brian Miles
Cultivating change? Photo: iStockphoto Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him, Brian Miles spends his days working the family farm. Unlike his forebears, however, he also sits on the board of Mid-Missouri Energy, a farmer-owned ethanol cooperative in Malta Bend, Mo. Grist talked to Miles about the present ethanol boom, the potential for an ethanol bust, and the many splendors of fresh corn on the cob. How did you get involved in the ethanol biz? Our state corn growers association had a meeting a few years ago, because they had isolated this area as a good spot for …
Check out the latest entries in the celeb-biofuels biz
You’ve heard of BioWillie, Willie Nelson’s foray into the world of celebrity-branded biodiesel. But did you know that several other celebs, not to be outdone, have plans to unveil their own biofuel lines? During our series, Grist has been doused with requests from PR professionals to promote their clients’ fuelish products. We’re only too happy to oblige. Celeb: Martha Stewart Product: DIY Biofuel The deal: Martha Stewart has partnered with IKEA to launch Biofuel-in-a-Box in spring 2007. The country’s chief domestic engineer says it will be possible to make 10 gallons of biofuel by mixing the contents of the box …
It’s time for a real ‘food vs. fuel’ debate
Can U.S. farmers keep filling the nation’s bellies as they scramble to fuel its cars? Given its evident gravity, the question has drawn remarkably little debate. Like it or not, though, more and more food is being devoted to fueling the nation’s 211-million-strong auto fleet. High gasoline prices, a dizzying variety of government supports, and an investment frenzy have caused corn-based ethanol production to more than triple since 1998. As recently as a year ago, corn seemed wildly overproduced. Suddenly, it’s a hot commodity. In 1998, about 5 percent of the corn harvest (526 million bushels) went into ethanol production, …
As its neighbors back biofuels, Central America gears up for business
Driving down either of El Salvador’s two principal highways, you’re almost sure to end up braking behind a pickup truck that’s jammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. Occasionally these rural taxis are new vehicles, but most are rickety, rusted, and running on antiquated engines and exhaust-spewing diesel. Even though 48 percent of Salvadorans live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Program, the huge influx of remittances from migrants in the United States means that more Salvadorans are buying cars, formerly a luxury reserved only for the very rich. And El Salvador is not alone: while …
A biodiesel entrepreneur in Argentina spreads seeds of wisdom
Even by Argentine standards, Ricardo Carlstein can talk a blue streak. Ricardo Carlstein. I met with the founder of Biofuels SA, an Argentina-based maker of small-scale biodiesel plants, in the posh environs of Buenos Aires. Carlstein sat at his desk and explained how any person can be a fuel plant by using his invention, a technology protocol he calls “high-temperature pressurized” (simply put: a way to cook biofuels at abnormally high temperatures, one that cuts effluence by rendering obsolete the need to “wash” the fuel). A massive, bearded man in T-shirt, slacks, and New Balance running shoes, he reminded me …
What Brazil can teach the U.S. about energy and ethanol
In 2006, Brazil officially achieved “energy independence” — that is, its oil exports came into line with imports and cancelled them out. No longer beholden to foreign suppliers for its energy needs, the nation theoretically has no stake in costly Middle East military adventures to secure access to oil reserves. Grain alcohol? Haven’t touched the stuff since college. Photo: Whitehouse.gov Sounds like a certain colossus to the north has a lot to learn from Brazil’s recent energy strategy, huh? Indeed, much of Brazil’s energy independence stems from a successful ethanol program, which has replaced about 40 percent of gasoline use …
The strangest biofuel sources you’ve never heard of
Sure, you’ve heard of corn and switchgrass as potential sources of biofuel. But those are rendered totally boring in light of the potential of trash, dead cats, and human fat to meet our energy needs. Make your engine purr. Photo: iStockphoto Surprising sources abound in the world of biofuels, with researchers probing the farthest reaches of their imagination in hopes of spinning gold from — well, crap. Take a look. Ass fat: We like big butts and we cannot lie — especially when we use our own to power a speed boat. Or better yet, use other people’s. Bones: A …
The top 10 reasons to give a hoot about biofuels
Well, here we are, at the end of Grist’s illustrious series on biofuels. We’ve thrown a lot of information at you, and we hope it’s becoming clear why biofuel production is a big, Relevant Thing that deserves your attention. But just in case you need more proof, behold: Grist’s Top 10 Reasons To Give a Hoot About Biofuels. 10. The future is now. Sure, it may feel like biofuels are some fringe thing, popping up in zany online eco-publications and only occasionally mentioned in the “real world.” But biofuels are here, and they’re mainstream. There are currently 4 million vehicles …
How a grassroots biodiesel group can show the way for others
The way that Rob Del Bueno backed into the world of biofuel almost by accident, as told in the article “Small Potatoes,” is emblematic of the way most folks get engaged in grassroots biofuel development. It starts with a desire to use a renewable fuel to power your life long before a GMO-happy megacorporation was going to start reliably supplying you with it, and then it turns into an obsession that alters your whole outlook. Erik Hoffner. At about the same time that Rob was getting started, friends of mine were interested in creating a biodiesel-buying co-op together. Discovering how …
An interview with Mary Beth Stanek, General Motors energy director
Trucks with a green hue? GM is in heaven. What a difference three bucks a gallon makes. In the past year, General Motors has rallied state and federal support to get more E85 (an 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline blend) pumps at U.S. gas stations, launched a corn-hued marketing blitz, and announced that it is increasing production of its flex-fuel vehicles by 25 percent. Mary Beth Stanek, GM’s director of environment and energy, talked to Grist about ethanol’s role in GM’s fuel portfolio, SUVs’ bad rap, and future eclecticism at the pump. How did E85 become one of …
What we’ve learned from the biofuels series
Future or folly? Photo: iStockphoto After spending much of the last several months thinking about the biofuels boom and its implications in preparation for this special series, we’ve come to a few conclusions. Like other energy sources, biofuels have significant environmental liabilities. Boosters’ rhetoric about “renewable energy” aside, topsoil — from which biofuel feedstocks spring — is not an easily renewable resource. It takes centuries under natural conditions to replace an inch of topsoil lost to erosion. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute reckons that “36 percent of the world’s cropland is now losing topsoil at a rate that …