The Economist posted an intriguing article regarding the future of biofuels.  The original concept of creating fuel from plants - especially corn - seemed like the ingenious idea back in the '70s.  However, the end product of ethanol has definitely highlighted its own set of issues that may be preventing the larger acceptance of this type of fuel.   The article presents some companies working to create new types of biofuels.  Specifically mentioned are "drop-in" hydrocarbons, butanol and single-celled algae.


The future of biofuels
The post-alcohol world
Biofuels are back. This time they might even work
Oct 28th 2010 | London and san francisco

MAKE something people want to buy at a price they can afford. Hardly a revolutionary business strategy, but one that the American biofuels industry has, to date, eschewed. Now a new wave of companies think that they have the technology to change the game and make unsubsidised profits. If they can do so reliably, and on a large scale, biofuels may have a lot more success in freeing the world from fossil fuels than they have had until now.

The original 1970s appeal of biofuels was the opportunity to stick up a finger or two, depending on the local bodily idiom, to the oil sheikhs. Over time, the opportunity to fight global warming added to the original energy-security appeal. Make petrol out of plants in a sufficiently clever way and you can drive around with no net emissions of carbon dioxide as well as no net payments to the mad, the bad and the greedy. A great idea all round, then.

Sadly, in America, it did not work out like that. First, the fuel was not petrol. Instead, it was ethanol, which stores less energy per litre, tends to absorb water and is corrosive; people will use it only if it is cheap or if you force them to through mandatory blending. In Brazil, which turned to biofuels after the 1970s oil shocks, the price of ethanol eventually became low enough for the fuel to find a market, thanks to highly productive sugar plantations and distilleries powered by the pulp left when that sugar was extracted from its cane. As a result Brazil is now a biofuels superpower. North American ethanol is mostly made from corn (maize), which is less efficient, and often produced in distilleries powered by coal; it is thus neither as cheap nor as environmentally benign. But American agribusiness, which knows a good thing when it sees one, used its political clout to arrange subsidies and tariffs that made corn-ethanol profitable and that kept out the alternative from Brazil.

This still left the problem: using corn limits the size of the industry and pits it against the interests of people who want food. Boosters claimed that cellulose, from which the stalks, leaves and wood of plants are made, could if suitably treated become a substitute for the starch in corn. Both starch and cellulose consist of sugar molecules, linked together in different ways, and sugar is what fermentation feeds on. But cellulosic biofuel has so far failed, on an epic scale, to deliver. At the moment, only a handful of factories around the world produce biofuel from cellulose. And that fuel is still ethanol.

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Biofuel Digest has identified the 10 prominent impacts to the biofuel industry due to the election results. A quick overview on where power has changed hands, and where it remains as related to biofuels.

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Back in February 2010, we remarked on the upcoming storm brewing regarding the EPA's evaluation of E15 and the contentious points at that time. With the recent October decision by the EPA to increase the amount of ethanol in fuel, the firestorm continues to grow. Although the EPA has approved usage of E15 in only cars and light trucks of 2007 model year and newer, voices around the country are making their points known regarding impacts from the higher ethanol content.

• In a recent blog post on Renewable Energy World, "Chevron indicated in a recent email to retailers that the company has no plans to sell Chevron or Texaco-branded E15. ExxonMobil followed suit with a blog post similarly denouncing the decision, despite the sound body of testing by academia, private industry and government entities that supports the use of E15."

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• Potentially higher feed costs due to the demand for corn are a concern of the livestock industry

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• Convenience stores continue to question the effect on equipment due to the higher ethanol

• Although the EPA would require labeling at the pump regarding E15 usage, organizations such as Outdoor Power Equipment Institute and BoatUS have concerns regarding the impact of E15 used in marine craft and equipment such as lawm mowers and power tools.

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