The Next Generation of Biofuels in the USA

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mrupix (CC0), Pixabay

It wasn’t all that long ago that those who talked of vegetable oils and alcohol as fuel were shut down as environmentalist hippies — even despite the fact that some of the first cars ever manufactured ran on exactly this. It’s kind of funny because biofuels were used before fossil fuels were ever even discovered.

Now, we live in an age where the use of fossil fuels is laden with all kinds of judgment, and rightfully so as we become continually aware of the environmental damage of taking carbon out of the earth. Nations around the world have developed targets for the production of biofuels and their application in industry.

But there are fundamental environmental concerns about the biofuels industry, too. Some environmentalists and even the UN suggest that biofuels may damage the environment more than they save it, and could have dire consequences for the economics of food.

There are both challenges and opportunities for the USA to harness in the next generation of biofuels. Hemp and algae are high on the agenda for the next biofuel crops of the USA, but to what degree with these biofuels solve the current environmental problems we face?

3 Crops on the agenda for US biofuel

There are a number of different crops that have been recommended as viable crops for biofuel production. Essentially, for a crop to be an efficient source of biofuel, it should contain an abundance of sugars that can be converted into alcohol or should be a rich source of oil.

Until now, corn has been the most scrutinized plant for the production of biofuel. But as we’re beginning to discover, there are some hurdles to overcome with corn. It might be more energy-consuming to process and grow the plant than what could eventually be used from it, and this poses neither economic nor environmental viability.

Multiple other crops are now being investigated for their potential to run our cars and machinery without exhausting a black cloud over the earth’s atmosphere.

hemp, cannabis sativa, nature
NickyPe (CC0), Pixabay

1. Industrial hemp

The word hemp has become all the craze and all the buzz in the USA recently, thanks to the Farm Bill that was recently passed at the end of 2018. Henry Ford, the man who manufactured the first hemp car —which also ran on hemp — is probably turning in his grave over how long we’ve wasted not using this plant.

Industrial hemp plant is arguably the most versatile crop in the world and can be used in the production of medicines, fibers, plastic, and of course, biofuel. It produces nearly four times more oil than soybeans, which are currently the US’s number one biofuel crop. On top of this, it can be grown in some of the poorest soil and requires very little input in terms of nutrition and water.

The only problem with hemp as a biofuel source in the USA is not enough of it is grown. Most of the hemp cultivated in the USA is used for the production of CBD goods, a cannabinoid that is highly abundant in the hemp plant. But all’s not lost, because the enormous amount of waste produced by the marijuana industry as a whole in the US makes for enough biomass at least to provide biofuel locally.

Prior to the legalization of hemp cultivation in the USA, most of America’s hemp came from Europe, namely France and Romania. Now that hemp cultivation is legal, it’s probably in the USA’s best interest to cash in on environmental sustainability.

2. Algae

Yes — that slimy green stuff that everybody avoids like the plague when they enter a freshwater source is abundant in the kind of oils we need to make biofuel. What makes this kind of biofuel source so interesting is that it barely even needs land to grow.

Actually, it can grow in municipal wastewater lagoons. These organisms grow incredibly fast, and they produce 200 times more oil per acre than soybeans.

The biofuels industry has faced a lot of challenges with growing algae and converting it to biofuel. Certain quirks that belong specifically to algae have rendered this source more costly than what’s practical or sustainable for the American population.

With that said, some are still pursuing the dream, such as Exxon Mobil who believe that cost-effective algae would be readily available soon. However, this involves a genetically engineered variety of algae.

3. Carrizo Cane

No one would have ever considered this invasive weed potential in the US biofuels conversation, but there are literally thousands of acres of wild Carizzo growing all throughout the south of the country. The Carizzo Cane can grow up to 30 feet tall and produces more biomass per acre than basically every other plant on earth — that’s a lot of cellulosic ethanol production.

The species is native to Europe, and on the European continent, it is already being produced on a commercial scale for biofuel purposes. There are huge risks with planting a species as invasive as Carizzo, especially in the USA where it isn’t native and chokes out many of the native plants.

Certain interested parties have tried to harvest the wild Carizzo Cane that grows along riverbanks and in wetlands, but this has proven to be an enormously difficult task. Logistically, it’s been too difficult thus far to harness the biofuel potential of this plant.

Challenges facing the biofuel revolution

When it first became apparent that biofuel production could help to alleviate some of the environmental stress caused by fossil fuels, an enormous biofuel revolution started underway. However, more recently, some concerns have entered the arena: is biofuel production more harmful to the environment than what’s feasible?

To start with, arable land is often used to grow biofuel crops. Often, this land is taken away from other crops, which are usually food crops. This can have consequences on the price of food, which is especially alarming. In a leaked UN report published this month, the UN placed Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia at the greatest risk of a damaged food economy as a result of biofuel production. Plus, developing countries are usually the first ones to be taken advantage of by booming industries, which imprints a moral dilemma on the issue, too.

In addition to this, a considerable amount of land is required to grow biofuel crops. Often, fertilizers and other chemicals are used in the cultivation of these crops, which eventually lead to soil degradation. These sites could be rendered marginal after a while, after which even food cannot be grown.

Finally, there has to be efficient in the crop of choice. For example, the amount of energy required to cultivate, transport, and process corn for biofuel exceeds the output. For a biofuel to be viable, it has to produce more energy than it consumes, and many of the candidates thus far just haven’t met the mark.

Before the biofuels industry enters full production, these issues have to be adequately addressed. The current environmental situation requires a solution — and rapidly — but it’s also very delicate. While trying to fix a dependence on fossil fuels, the biofuels industry could create more environmental disasters that could be even more difficult to address.