Category Archives: algae biofuel

3 Picks: Algal Biofuels, Caribbean Food, Recycled Food Waste


Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, Speaking at Biomass 2013

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, Announced New Funding to Pursue Algae Biofuels: In part of his speech at the Biomass conference this summer, Moniz announced $16.5 million in new funding to accelerate the development of algal biofuels. The money will go to four projects in California, Hawaii and New Mexico.

2) Jamaica is Encouraging Local Food Production for Economic Reasons: “Across the Caribbean, food imports have become a budget-busting problem, prompting one of the world’s most fertile regions to reclaim its agricultural past. But instead of turning to big agribusinesses, officials are recruiting everyone they can to combat the cost of imports, which have roughly doubled in price over the past decade. In Jamaica, Haiti, the Bahamas and elsewhere, local farm-to-table production is not a restaurant sales pitch; it is a government motto.”

3) New Study Reveals Food Companies Disposed More Than 4 Billion Pounds of Food: “The manufacturing sector disposed of 2.4 billion pounds, while the retail and wholesale sectors disposed of 1.7 billion pounds. Fortunately, only a small amount of waste ends up in landfills while 73 percent is converted to animal feed, and 20 percent is reused as fertilizer.”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

Revisiting the Energy Return and Merits of Soybean Biodiesel

In the current issue of Scientific American, there is an article with nice multiple graphics to educate people about today’s higher cost of producing energy as measured by the EROI. Energy return on investment (EROI) is the value used to represent the energy obtained per unit of energy spent to obtain it. The article titled, “The True Cost of Fossil Fuels,” is written by Mason Inman, who is writing a biography of geologist M. King Hubbert, the “father of peak oil”.

Inman explains that even though much of the easy-to-extract oil is already gone, the average EROI of conventional oil, at 16, is still far higher than that of other liquid fuels. As we go after oil from more difficult places, however, that number continues to fall. He tells us that 5 to 9 is the minimum EROI required for industrial societies to function economically.

The following graphic (using Inman’s EROI values) puts some of today’s liquid fuel sources into perspective:

As shown, corn ethanol is on the bottom of the heap for the EROI of the included liquid fuels, at 1.4. Irrigated corn produced in Nebraska would be even lower. And corn ethanol is not even close to fitting into the 5 to 9 required economic range, which is why it would not survive without the infrastructure subsidies and mandates that it has been afforded. This is why I rail against it here so often, assuming that my readers are familiar with this low EROI fact. It is not good to do so much damage to our environmental and exhaust our agricultural resources to produce a product which offers us nearly nothing in return.

The point of the Scientific American article is to show us which energy sources are the most economically feasible, which are the most worthwhile to pursue, and which hold the most promise for a sustainable future. It also includes graphics on electrical production and vehicle mileage return on investment.

As our industrialized nations spend more and more for fuel, we have less to spend on other societal needs. If governments such as ours pick winners through mandates and politics, we find ourselves pouring valuable time, money, and natural resources into a poor EROI product like corn ethanol. For such a serious subject as energy, on which every aspect of our lives depend, wasted efforts are not what we need. In addition, the sobering related economic realities mean that it is not a good time to be blowing bubbles in our monetary policy or having to work through the aftermath of a debt crisis. Corn (and cellulosic) ethanol mandates have unfortunately been a political opportunistic sideshow, distracting and diverting resources away from solutions that might have better potential based on real energy physics.


Now, back to the point of this post, the energy return of soybean biodiesel.
Based upon an informal Google search that I did of recent articles on soybean biodiesel, it seems that the current energy return value of 5.5 for soybean biodiesel is poorly known, as it is common to continue to see values of 1.9 to 3 given, instead. The study reporting the FER value of 5.5 came out in 2011 from an American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers publication, Energy Life-Cycle Assessment of Soybean Biodiesel Revisited by A. Pradhan, et al. (FER stands for Fossil Energy Ratio which is the energy delivered to the consumer divided by the fossil energy inputs. Inman uses the FER value as “EROI” in the above graph.)

The 2011 ASABE paper cited above explains to us that the greater efficiency in the production of soybean biodiesel has been achieved through improvements in soybean yields, energy savings from using no-till, and more energy‐efficient soybean crushing and conversion facilities. It used 2006 data, which showed an improvement from 4.6 in a previous study that used 2002 data, and from 3.2 in the study prior to that which used 1990 data. If we had an up-to-date study, we’d be safe to assume that today’s energy return for soybean biodiesel —absent a drought— would surpass 5.5. And, according to soygrowers.com, U.S. seed technology companies are projecting that current soybean yields will double by 2030.

While corn ethanol is struggling and never has made energy sense, there are conditions today which favor the increase of soybean biodiesel production. Soybean biodiesel is classified by the EPA as an advanced biofuel. Americans have watched with dismay as the EPA has had to erase its ongoing unrealistic mandates for the unscalable product, cellulosic ethanol, year after year. Might this failed policy redirect towards more soybean biodiesel production, since it qualifies as an advanced biofuel already?

Growing soybeans using no-till and a cover crop uses less water and fertilizer than input hungry corn, making it the lesser of two evils if you dislike monoculture crops.

As an added bonus, biodiesel can be used as heating oil.

The EPA requires that 1.28 billion gallons of biodiesel will be blended in 2013. About 60 percent of U.S. biodiesel feedstock is currently from soybeans. (Other feedstocks are industrial grade corn oil, canola oil, animal fats and tallow, and recycled cooking oils and grease.) This year’s biodiesel will require 11.6 million soybean acres, equivalent to 15 percent of all U.S. soybean acres. Compared to corn ethanol, the EPA’s mandated use for next year is 13.8 billion gallons, which will require approximately 32 million acres of corn. One acre of soybeans will produce about 63 gallons of biodiesel, whereas one acre of corn will produce 423 gallons of ethanol. In 2011, 29 percent of U.S. crop area was planted to soybeans and 35 percent to corn.

In the E.U., rapeseed provides two-thirds of the input for biodiesel production and the amount that soybeans can provide is capped at 1 million metric tons because of the food vs. fuel debate. Soybean biodiesel promoters argue that biodiesel is a valuable use of soy oil, and that the food portion of the bean is still entirely utilized as feed or food.

Obviously, the two products of ethanol and biodiesel are used differently, and each has its own set of challenges. Ethanol found its foothold as a replacement for MTBE, but as fuel it contains 34 percent less energy than the gasoline which it replaces. In comparison, biodiesel is just 8 percent less energy dense than petroleum diesel.

In conclusion, the sobering bottom line is this…. A 2006 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study told us, “If all American corn and soybean production were dedicated to biofuels, that fuel would replace only 12 percent of gas demand and 6 percent of diesel demand.” That is why, when land use considerations are made, higher lipid dense micro-algae biodiesel holds far more promise than any other biofuel, but actually producing it on any kind of scale —so far— appears to be just another fairy tale.

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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN SOURCES:
How to Measure the True Cost of Fossil Fuels – As oil becomes more expensive, determining where to invest energy to get energy is increasingly important. By Mason Inman.

Behind the Numbers on Energy Return on Investment. A full listing of the sources and references behind the calculations in this EROI infographic. By Mason Inman.

Agriculture News October 2 2012


Colorado Sunflower Field. Photo by Brittany Seydel.

Here are my chosen news links for this week….

Why is Brazil the new America? Hint: water. While the US farm belt is mining its groundwater, Brazil is expanding production and lowering the cost of raising food. (CSM)

US farmers using more pesticides on ‘superweeds’ …the annual increase in the herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control weeds on cropland planted to genetically modified crops has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to about 90 million pounds in 2011. (Reuters) K.M. Note: 1.5 to 90 ??

How do we solve our agricultural problems? (Minnesota Daily) K.M. Note: Yes, Brittney, I hate to break it to ya but you need to change your major to political science.

High Food Prices Forecast More Global Riots Ahead, According to New England Complex Science Institute in Cambridge, Mass. (NPR)

This year’s Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas (Salina.com) AND As the annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas takes place this weekend, NYTs Green interviews Wes Jackson. K.M. Note: I went to the Prairie Festival the last two years, but skipped this one.

Growing farm industry needs high-tech workers (The Detroit News)

Useful facts and scuttlebutt from the Algae Biomass Summit (Biofuelsdigest)

Algae Biomass Summit: producers say commercialization is close (Biodiesel Mag)

Dennis Gartman on oil and agricultural commodities (Credit Writedowns)

● As water levels drop in Kansas lakes, tempers rise – Some question why reservoirs were drained to help barge traffic that has been disappearing from the Missouri River. (Kansascity) K.M. Note: Trying to uphold barge traffic on the Missouri River in a drought year is crazy. Instead, the Mighty Mo should be allowed to return to a more natural state.

Ethanol plant in UK to boost biofuel output (FT)

Syngenta’s Enogen hybrid corn receives 40 cents/bushel premium as ethanol hybrid (Farmindustrynews)

IDB eyes investment in Kazakh, Central Asia energy, farmingAl-Aboodi said the ICD’s agribusiness fund was considering grain, meat and dairy projects in Kazakhstan, one of the world’s top 10 wheat exporters, for sharia-compliant investment. (Reuters)

US farmers scramble to buy Brazil’s farmland (AlJazeera)

Cambodia is in the grip of a land-grabbing crisis that has seen more than 2m hectares (5m acres) of land transferred mostly from subsistence farmers to agribusiness. (Guardian)

How to improve India’s Agriculture Economy (The Atlantic)

U.S. Research Advances Sustainable Water Use in AgricultureNebraska is expected to end its 2012 summer growing season with its eighth-largest grain yield in history while drawing down its aquifer just 1 percent. (AllAfrica) K.M. Note: Sigh.

Early harvest overflowing North Dakota grain elevators with soybeans (The Republic)

EIA releases ethanol stats for first half of 2012 (Ethanol Producer Mag) K.M. Note: And, yes, ethanol exports are still going strong, or they were through the end of June.

IGC cuts further corn and wheat stocks estimates (IGC)

Sheep reportedly buried alive in Pakistan (New Zealand Herald)

Saudi Agriculture 2012 attracts 24,000 visitors and more than 400 exhibitors from 23 countries (AMEInfo)

Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Farm Bill Expires on Monday — What Does It Mean and What Happens Now? (NSAC)

The process of urbanization in India (The economist)

Agriculture causes 80% of tropical deforestation (mongabay.com)

The growing popularity of New Zealand’s farmed salmon is a driver of new employment in the Mackenzie Basin. (Otago Daily Times)

Scottish scientists develop ‘see-through’ soil (BBC)

Feeding the World Sustainably: Agroecology vs. Industrial Agriculture (Infographic by the Christensen Fund) (Nourishing the Planet)

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Slideshow from Lester Brown’s latest book… Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity

Could food become the weak link for us as it was for so many earlier civilizations? This slideshow presentation, based on Lester Brown’s latest book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, explains why world food supplies are tightening and tells what we need to do about it.

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Grow Fish Anywhere

Grow Fish Anywhere has developed and implemented a unique fully closed, Zero Discharge Intensive Aquaculture system that is suitable both for fresh and sea water fish.