Hard reality – biofuels are a loser, despite all the hope and hype

I’ve been spending the past hour or so reading an excellent paper written by a US Naval aviator titled Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Energy Security Strategy.

(Note: The link for the original paper is broken, but CAPT Kiefer has published another version in the spring 2013 issue of the Strategic Studies Quarterly titled Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels.)

Though there is sufficient coverage of the basic chemistry and thermodynamics of agriculture and combustion processes to satisfy the geek in all of us, the paper is easy to read and understand for anyone with a reasonably broad based education.

There is a healthy portion of history included that makes for fascinating reading. I learned quite a bit of new material, even thought I have been intensely interested in energy for many decades. For example, have you ever heard of the waterworks project for the city of Chan Chan, which failed due to a fatal planning flaw; no one surveyed the required route to realize that it inevitably required water to defy the law of gravity?

I learned that the chemical energy added to soil by intensive ammonia-based fertilization has been directly responsible for increasing Iowa corn yields by a factor of 6 since the 1930s. It was a little depressing to find out that that adding hydrogen from natural gas to upgrade carbohydrates to useful liquid fuel releases 11 tons of CO2 for every ton of hydrogen added to the fuel and that the process is absolutely required to make biofuel compatible with the military fuel supply system.

There is also an important passage about the Dynamic Energy Budget theory and why it highlights the importance of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for both organisms and for society as a complex organism that requires energy to function.

The paper’s author has a solid background in a world where critical thinking skills can be the difference between success and a very short career.

Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer is a naval aviator and EA-6B pilot with 7 deployments to the PACOM and CENTCOM AORs and 21 months on the ground in Iraq. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physics from the US Naval Academy and a Master’s in Strategy from the US Army Command and General Staff College. He has commanded at the O-5 and O-6 level and was 2005 action officer of the year of the Joint Staff J-7 Directorate in the Pentagon. He currently teaches strategy at the US Air Force Air War College as the CJCS Chair.

Captain Kiefer clearly explains why no amount of genetic engineering can overcome the fundamental limitations of trying to grow fuel for vehicle propulsion and why adding biofuels into our fuel supply makes us less secure. I hope that the people who are excited about funding the Green Fleet will listen to one of their own and stop the wasteful spending program.

About Rod Adams

41 Responses to “Hard reality – biofuels are a loser, despite all the hope and hype”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Joris van Dorp says:

    Good post. Could be much more heavy handed in my opinion. And presumably also in the opinion of Nobel Prize winning biochemist and director at the German Max Planck Institute for Biophysics, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Michel, who last year made mincemeat of the pseudo-environmentalist arguments for switching to biofuels.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/anie.201200218/pdf

    It is (for me) completely a mystery why EU and USA biofuel policies have not long ago been halted and discarded as the complete rubbish they obviously are. Note that the issues discussed by Dr. Michel are not new, and have been very well known for years, if not decades.

  2. Rich L says:

    ” I hope that the people who are excited about funding the Green Fleet will listen to one of their own and stop the wasteful spending program. ”

    What has happened to the emerging great green fleet I was part of during the 1950′s and 60′s? It is my understanding that the Naval Reactors today have better attributes, advantages and capabilities than those I worked with then. Why aren’t we using nuclear reactors in every ship capable of using them today? How much real CO2 would we eliminate?

    Here is a NASA photo of ship tracks. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Aerosols/page4.php And those are caused by things other than CO2! I wonder if these ships control their emissions while out at sea like the land based power stations are forced to do today? The costs with following some of these requirements is staggering (10 to 25 % efficiency/fuel loss) and I would not doubt that the commercial ships have a setting for “Inside Territorial Waters” and “In International Waters.”

  3. Cyril R. says:

    Biofuels have been a loser from the start. The energy density just isn’t there.

    To many energy historians, the push towards biofuels produces only smiles of irony. Those who know something about history know we moved away from biofuels a long time ago, because fossil fuels were more available and more energy dense. Now, with many orders of magnitude increases of energy use since the biofuelled economy of the middle ages, we are running into problems even with fossil fuel energy densities (eg shale oil and coal mountaintop removal ecosystem destruction). And some people come along claiming we need to use more biofuels to solve the problem? That’s like saying we need to live in caves to solve the growing need for housing problem. Completely backwards and oblivious of history.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      It’s not so much energy density as energy productivity.  If we produced a huge volume of some stuff that had enough energy, we’d be fine.  Instead, we produce stuff that hasn’t nearly enough useful energy, regardless of volume.  That is the failure of “biofuels” compared to what we’ve come to expect from fossil fuels.  Their nature is to produce energy as fixed carbon, and it’s far too inefficient.

      Photovoltaics produce many times the areal energy of biofuels, but are far too expensive.

      The “solution” is to stop viewing carbon as the default energy carrier.  Energy won’t come as a liquid, it will come as electrons.  Liquids will come at a price premium.  Take it seriously.  LIVE IT.  That’s the only way to manage the constraints of our future.

      • Cyril R. says:

        You’re assuming that covering half of your country with energy plantations won’t have dire effects on food and ecology. That’s not correct. It’s a huge problem.

        To be succesful an energy source needs to tick all the boxes. It needs to be energy dense. It needs to be cheap. It needs to produce a lot of net energy. It needs to be reliable.

        PV may get cheaper and higher net energy, but it will never be energy dense nor reliable. It fails on two important criteria. In fact, if PV produced power 24/7 it would be already economical in most places in the world today. It would be cheaper than coal in all sunny areas.

        The attraction with biomass and biofuels is that energy storage makes them more reliable, but it comes at such a huge cost in further degradation of energy density that it’s a complete loser by default.

  4. Marcel F. Williams says:

    Growing crops for fuel, especially food crops, has never made any economic or environmental sense. But converting urban and rural biowaste (garbage) into fuel, makes all the sense in the world.

    However, approximately 80% of the carbon content of biowaste is wasted during its conversion into liquid fuels. But if hydrogen produced via electrolysis from nuclear reactors was added to the process then the quantity of biofuel produced could potentially be increased by nearly five times.

    • Daniel says:

      @ Marcel,

      You may want to take a look at Plasma converters for leveraging of municipal wastes.

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        It’s very hard to get solid numbers on plasma converters.  The best ones I have suggest that they’re uncomfortably close to mere energy breakeven.  I don’t have anything on capital expense.  On the other hand, if they are capable of disposing of almost any sort of waste (other than radioactive) and are generally energy-positive, they might be worthwhile if all the benefits are properly allocated.

        Properly allocating the benefits… you have your headache remedy handy, don’t you?

        • Cyril R. says:

          It’s a useful technology for waste management, but very inefficient for energy generation. Using electricity to heat stuff up 10000 degrees and then generating electricity back from the heat… very wasteful.

          Waste isn’t such a big energy source anyway. We’ll never get more than 5% of primary energy from wastes, even with 100% efficiency.

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            Apparently there is a pilot plant which is producing ~4 MWh(th) of syngas for an input of 0.5-0.75 MWh(e).  If the syngas was used in something like a GE LMS100 gas turbine (46%), it would produce in excess of 1.8 MWh(e).  That’s a return of better than 2:1, worst case, and possibly as good as 4:1.

            What interests me about this is the potential to buffer electric demand.  Even atmospheric-pressure storage of syngas could hold 1 GJ in a reasonable volume, allowing the gasifier to be used for demand-side management and the gas-consumption side as dispatchable generation.  The detail not stated is the power requirement to hold the system on standby.

            The key issue is the cleanliness of the syngas; it would have to be free of tars and anything else that would gum things up downstream.  That seems to be plasma’s claim to fame, though I’ve not been able to find any firm figures.

            The presentation claims potential methanol production of ~100 gallons/ton MSW.  If it fetches $1.25/gallon wholesale as motor fuel, the product would yield from $160 to $250 per MWh(e) of input.  If the system could be used as a dispatchable load using off-peak electricity at $30/MWh or less, that might be attractive.  It depends on the capital costs and O&M.

          • jmdesp says:

            Well, the capital costs of that kind of solutions tend to be very high.
            Just like the capital cost of electrolyzers, which is why they are currently a dead end.

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            the capital costs of that kind of solutions tend to be very high.
            Just like the capital cost of electrolyzers

            Unlike electrolyzers, there are no precious metals or other exotic materials required.

            Maybe something else would work better for MSW, such as fast pyrolysis in an electrically-heated fluid bed gasifier.  That could even be slightly carbon-negative, if the char was buried rather than burning it.  On the other hand, the bio-oil product of FP is notoriously messy stuff.

  5. Jeff Walther says:

    I liked the title of Section 2: “Failing to Learn the Lessons of History and Current Science”

    That pretty much describes the western world’s entire energy policy since Gore did his thing, doesn’t it?

    BTW, I posted a comment to the NRC Blog story about the Palisades water leak pointing out that if they really wanted to proceed “with safety in mind from start to finish.” they wouldn’t shut down a power plant for a minor water leak, thus condemning the local environment to the burning of more fossil fuels.

  6. Jeff Walther says:

    I am enjoying the paper so far, but please help me determine if I have found an error.

    In section 7.1 the author states, “An 8:1 EROI means that 1 barrel of liquid petroleum fuel energy input88 can support the exploration, drilling, extraction and refining of enough crude oil to make 8 new barrels of liquid petroleum fuel energy, The much lower 1.25:1 EROI of corn ethanol means that, to produce the same net gain of 8 barrels of energy requires not 1, but 32 barrels of input energy.”

    Unless I’m having a senior moment, an EROI of 1.25 should mean that it takes 6.4 barrels of input energy to produce 8 barrels of output energy.

    Anyone want to double check?

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      if you put in 6,4 barrels, the ‘net gain’ is only 1.6 barrels, not 8. To get a ‘net gain’ of 8 barrels, you do indeed need to put in 32. Putting in 32 will yield 40 barrels for a net gain of 8 barrels.

  7. Jeff Walther says:

    I am enjoying the paper so far, but please help me determine if I have found an error.

    In section 7.1 the author states, “An 8:1 EROI means that 1 barrel of liquid petroleum fuel energy input88 can support the exploration, drilling, extraction and refining of enough crude oil to make 8 new barrels of liquid petroleum fuel energy, (snip) The much lower 1.25:1 EROI of corn ethanol means that, to produce the same net gain of 8 barrels of energy requires not 1, but 32 barrels of input energy.”

    Unless I’m having a senior moment, an EROI of 1.25 should mean that it takes 6.4 barrels of input energy to produce 8 barrels of output energy.

    Anyone want to double check?

  8. Jeff Walther says:

    Oops. Never mind. He’s talking about the input required to yield a “net gain” of 8 barrels of energy, as opposed to the input needed just to produce 8 barrels of output.

    Profit vs. revenue.

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      oops, I didn’t read this before posting the above. Never mind.

    • jmdesp says:

      But there is an error then. The 8:1 EROI produces only 7 barrels of new energy from 1 consumed as input.

      • jmdesp says:

        I’ve just come to realize something that is new. The EROI determines how big the part of your economy that not dedicated to generating oil is.

        If EROI is 8, 12,5% of your economy serves to generate oil, and 77,5% can be used for something else (in other word, burning oil for an aim which is not extracting more oil).

        If EROI is 1.25, 80% of your economy servers to generate oil, and 20% can be used for something else. This means only 1 out of 5 people has the opportunity of doing any task other than generating oil. Like being a teacher, doing healthcare, or other completely minor task like that. You economy is utterly, completely bust, almost nobody has enough money to pay for even basic healthcare or education.

        Actually as only 1 of out 5 people is available to prepare food, that economy can’t even feed itself (except if the feeding has a very high food/oil EROI).

        • Cyril R. says:

          I don’t think it works this way. The energy intensity per worker of energy production is much higher than the energy intensity per worker of energy consumption for most sectors (except energy intensive sectors such as aluminium production).

          Services sector uses very little energy per worker. Whereas the oil industry generates a lot per worker.

          • jmdesp says:

            Yes, I simplified by not taking into account the energy intensity of each sector. However in my opinion it varies a lot less than you believe.

            Here’s an old, but essential study of 1980 showing how actually all economic value is almost directly linked to energy use (and therefore how the price of a product almost always about directly represents it’s gray energy) : http://www.pdx.edu/sustainability/sites/www.pdx.edu.sustainability/files/media_assets/iss/fellow_publications/Costanza%201980%20Science.pdf

            When you pay someone to do a job, you’re paying for a given portion of his time, but actually for a given portion of the energy he consumes. In countries where the industry is no more the major consumer of energy, that represents almost as much energy per dollar as in the economy as a whole.

      • Jeff Walther says:

        I think he’s counting the one barrel of other products, along with the net gain of seven barrels of fuel. There’s a diagram on the page after the discussion.

  9. Peter Geany says:

    Hi Rod this looks like a very good paper that will take me time to digest . But I’m in total agreement with what you say. Another matter that was overlooked in the early days of Biofuels was that they altered the tuning of engine and in all cases upset the emission controls which meant they added to the harmful emissions such as NOx and particulates. This is why biofuels are now only supplied as a blend. Perhaps todays 2010 and onwards certified engines are not so affected, but the fact remains they are not a good substitute technically. They are how ever a good vehicle for publicity seekers such as Richard Branson and his Virgin Atlantic Airlines so they can claim they are a green airline by running on “Biofuels”. This is one of the reasons that they will be around for a while yet.

    The unintended consequences of this stupidity is having other direct environmental consequences that are so unnecessary.
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23188-biofuel-rush-is-wiping-out-unique-american-grasslands.html

    This link below I think you will find interesting and will support your arguments about the importance of energy. Basically many think of economics in terms of money, when in reality its about energy. I like you see the only way out for the west is with a mixture of nuclear technologies for All electricity production whilst we go all out to improve how we use energy to keep mobile. The political and corporate class are just not going to support this call because it calls for courage, which none of them have. Perhaps when you read this you will have a better appreciation of my earlier discussions on this blog. Happy reading

    http://www.tullettprebon.com/Documents/strategyinsights/TPSI_009_Perfect_Storm_009.pdf

  10. Rich Lentz says:

    “I hope that the people who are excited about funding the Green Fleet will listen to one of their own and stop the wasteful spending program. ”

    What has happened to the emerging great green fleet I was part of during the 1950′s and 60′s? It is my understanding that the Naval Reactors today have better attributes, advantages and capabilities than those I worked with then. Why aren’t we using nuclear reactors in every ship capable of using them today? How much real CO2 would we eliminate?

    Here is a NASA photo of ship tracks. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Aerosols/page4.php And those are caused by things other than CO2! I wonder if these ships control their emissions while out at sea like the land based power stations are forced to do today? The costs with following some of these requirements is staggering (10 to 25 % efficiency/fuel loss) and I would not doubt that the commercial ships boilers have a setting for “Inside Territorial Waters” and another for “In International Waters.”

  11. Peter Geany says:

    Completely agree here is more evidence of the damage being done by Bio fuels
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23188-biofuel-rush-is-wiping-out-unique-american-grasslands.html

    And here is an interesting article that you may find supports your call for Nuclear energy. People tend to think of economics in terms of money, but economics is not about money but about excess energy. It supports my thoughts previously on this blog that you have all the economic arguments in the bag, and rather than argue that primary need for nuclear is environmental, rather this helps with the framing of the economic argument; which is the only one that will work long term, with environmental benefits being a bonus. That way you carry the people rather than the political and corporate class who support biofuels, wind farms, and quantitative easing

    http://www.tullettprebon.com/Documents/strategyinsights/TPSI_009_Perfect_Storm_009.pdf

  12. Peter Geany says:

    Rod you may have a glitch as my comments are disappearing into the either. Unless you have some secret moderation applied.

  13. Peter Geany says:

    OK email finally arrived in my mailbox

  14. Josh says:

    There is a lot of talk about produing biofuels using algae. They are referred to as second generation biofuels. Don’t know if they could displace petroleum now or anytime soon, but it does sound good.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      Robert Rapier has experience in these things, and does a good job of deflating the hype surrounding them.  Algae have poor productivity, unless they are (a) fed concentrated carbon dioxide in (b) environments protected from predators and parasites.  What this comes to is an energy-intensive and expensive “bioreactor” scheme which cannot remotely come close to competing with other energy resources.

      What this comes down to is that you can produce as much biofuel as you want, so long as you don’t care what it costs and want affordable fuels for vehicles or heating.  If you do, the joke is on you.

      • Josh says:

        Whether or not algae could displace oil, nuclear will be sorely needed. Masao Hori gave an interesting account of hydrogen produced from nuclear.

      • Jeff Walther says:

        Agree. I have cultured marine algae on a small scale before. If you culture in a controlled environment, then it’s not too difficult. However, that’s energy and capital intensive.

        If you culture outdoors where sunlight is the energy source, it doesn’t take long for rotifers or other small herbivores to drift in (or be pooped in by birds) and then you don’t have an algae culture any more, you have a rotifer culture.

        You can shut down rotifers (some) by vigorously agitating the water, but then you’re back to large energy inputs.

        • Engineer-Poet says:

          Another possibility is to grow something that requires conditions that the herbivores can’t tolerate.  Since brackish water seems to be in ample supply, concentrating it in order to grow halophytes would also yield a stream of fresh water as a byproduct.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Josh
      The “sounds good” part is why I posted a link to a paper that does a pretty good job of exploring the physical limits that prevent the product from ever achieving anything close to the promises in the marketing materials.

      There are good reasons why ExxonMobil spends a substantial fraction of its overall biofuels budget advertising its interest in algae based fuel research. The ad money makes them sound as if they are interested in alternatives to fossil fuel, there is government money available for research, and they do not actually invest much of their capital on large development projects that would be money losing investments.

      That company is well run and pretty careful with its money. As one of the researchers who stars in the TV spots tells us, the company has been supporting researchers into algae based fuel for several decades. If there was really much promise, they would have moved much farther towards commercialization.

      http://www.exxonmobil.com/corporate/files/news_pub_algae_factsheet.pdf

      In the renewables world, a $600 million project sounds pretty big. When spread over 6 years, made contingent on meeting R&D milestones, and put into the context of a company that has a annual capital expenditure budget of $37 billion per year that number dwindles into decimal dust.

      • Josh says:

        This only reaffirms my support for nuclear. Sometimes its easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these alternative sources are ‘just around the corner’ when reality (based on technical, economical and environmental viability) paints a very different picture.

  15. Mike Young says:

    I am surprised that nobody has started thinking about creative uses of low-grade waste heat from reactors to increase overall efficiency.

    One proposal I saw a couple of decades ago involved using low grade waste heat to help drive decomposition of a (large) municipal sewage waste stream – driving off methane, which would then be used to swing a smallish gas turbine. Cycle efficiency there is extremely low but who cares – we were going to just throw out the energy into the river in the first place, and the somewhat accelerated decomposition of a noxious waste stream is in everyone’s best interest.

    If we could ever remove head from tail and build some HTGRs or liquid salt cooled reactors we could have much higher cycle efficiency in our nuke plants. This means the extremely expensive (in electrical energy terms) enrichment investment in our fuel can go significantly farther. Also, though, at the higher process temperatures it becomes possible to use the reactor to drive some interesting chemical processes – we can then use reactors to reform waste methane or NG to more interesting fuels, etc.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      It’s hard to use plant waste heat for sewage treatment when regulations require plants to be sited far from cities.  I’ve suggested that isolation be accomplished by physical barriers rather than distance, such as by tunnelling down a few hundred feet.  This would allow plants to be put within the boundaries of cities.  Low-pressure steam from plants could be used for space heating; an mPower producing 350 MW(th) of waste heat could replace about 300,000 therms/day of natural gas, some 3 trillion BTU over a 4-month heating season.

      Hmmm.  Build 1000 of them to produce 180 GW(e) and you might replace no less than 3 quads/year of natural gas too.  You just have to get them down tunnels.

  16. Frank Jabonski says:

    Split atoms, not wood.
    Leave the trees alone.

  17. Cliff Claven says:

    Link to file provided above is broken.
    Found the file here at http://wici.ca/new/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Kiefer-Snake-Oil2.2.pdf

    Also, same author has similar article here that has rebuttals from the Department of Energy and Department of Defense http://www.au.af.mil/au/ssq/.

  18. Scott Greenfield says:

    Yes he does have an impressive background. Vice Admiral McGinn (retired) from the American Council on Renewable Energy has a more impressive background though and is a leading advocate of a diverse portfolio approach to future energy needs and for national security reasons. As a 3-Star he probably has a better strategic understanding than an O6, although he appears to have an excellent tactical grasp of some signficant challenges to biofuels ability to reach commercial scale, doesn’t seem to recognize that the EROI for Fossile Fuels have been steadily increasing, and for tar sands and other sources are actually less than some biofuels available today. Continued investment in R&D for biofuels can only help increase the EROI–the same can NOT be said for fossil fuels.

  19. randy taylor says:

    link to long version of paper
    http://www.au.af.mil/au/ssq/digital/pdf/spring_13/Kiefer_Long_Version.pdf
    thanks for the great commentary.
    regards
    randy