The push to displace petroleum with biofuel is progressing, with much research and a growing infrastructure. However, the ethanol industry is still undergoing major shifts as suppliers attempt to move away from corn.
The techniques used to provide biofuel that can help reduce petroleum consumption are evolving rapidly, according to panelists at the Monday afternoon SAE World Congress session Energy: Field to Wheel. They predict a steady increase in biofuel output over the next several years.
“Most folks believe there should be capability for about 90 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2030,” said Dale Gardner, Associate Lab Director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Renewable Fuels & Vehicle Systems at the National Renewable Energy Lab. That additional capacity will be needed to meet a worldwide increase in demand for fuel. Even though transportation fields are all driving to reduce fuel consumption, population growth alone will drive demand upward.
“Between now and 2030, 2.5 billion energy users will be added,” said Nazeer Bhore, Senior Tech Advisor, Corporate Planning, ExxonMobil Corp.
That will help drive demand for more energy, with transportation requiring the second highest percentage, trailing only power generation. Bhore predicted that within the transportation segment, hybrids, government regulations, and other trends will trim fuel consumption for cars.
“In the U.S., light-duty vehicle usage has peaked. It will be going down,” he said.
Though there's a huge focus on electrification, panelists question whether batteries will account for a large percentage of vehicle power sources. Magdi Khair, Institute Engineer for the Southwest Research Institute, predicted that in 2030, flex-fuel, diesel, or mild hybrids will be the major power sources for vehicles. Plug-in hybrids will account for only a small percentage of vehicles.
Ethanol blends and biodiesel will be key elements if petroleum usage is going to be reduced. But that will require significantly more effort.
Gardner noted that this year’s biodiesel capacity is only 2.6 billion gal (9.8 billion L), a small percentage of the 60 billion gal (227 billion L) of conventional diesel fuel to be produced this year. Corn-based ethanol output is expected to drop from the 9.2 billion gal (35 billion L) produced last year.
Much of the focus for researchers today is to shift away from corn, partly to reduce criticism that ethanol usage impacts food availability. A range of cellulosic ethanol sources such as grasses are expected to eventually dominate ethanol output.
But that’s a long way off. Cellulosic ethanol accounted for less than 1% of the output last year,
One potentially promising feedstock is algae. In comparable oil yield, it can provide 1200 to 10,000 gal (4500 to 37,000 L) per acre, far outstripping the 48 gal (182 L) per acre of soybeans,
Algae is getting a lot of attention, but its future remains in question. “There are 180 companies worldwide working on it, but it may not work, Gardner said.
Government support for renewable fuels is strong. Gardner noted that the economic stimulus act provides $800 million for biofuels, providing a significant addition to the $217 million already allocated for 2009.
Though biofuels are getting support from many levels, they are being viewed as a transitional step as more efficient alternative fuels are developed. Biofuels will lessen reliance on petroleum, but they will not replace it.
“The ultimate propulsion system is a hydrogen fuel system,” said moderator Norman Brinkman, Technical Fellow, General Motors R&D Center. “But the alternatives don’t displace petroleum. It will still be around when hydrogen is up and running.”
Panelists also noted that there are many engines that may have problems if the level of ethanol is increased beyond the 10% that’s common today. Chain saws and other equipment will not run correctly if they burn fuels that are not largely petroleum.
“Thousands of small engines don’t have the electronic controls needed to handle larger percentages of ethanol,” Magdi said.