Axing Food vs. Fuel Problem
June 12, 2008
Robert Byrnes has all the proof he needs that biodiesel from camelina, restaurant waste and animal fat is a viable fuel source. To testify before Congress on Wednesday, Byrnes made the 1,200 mile trek to the nation’s capital without using a drop of petroleum. Byrnes, a farmer from Oakland, Neb., powered his Jeep using only farm-made biodiesel.
He was one of five expert witnesses testifying Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Rural and Urban Entrepreneurship on second generation biofuels and their effects on America’s small businesses.
“The idea was to try and quantify the potential opportunities,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., after the hearing. “We don’t want people to have irrational exuberance.”
Lawmakers began the hearing by highlighting the need for more alternative fuels, given that gasoline is now running at an average of $4 a gallon nationally. They also emphasized looking at feedstuffs that do not compete directly with food or livestock feed, given the battles that are now taking place politically regarding food vs. fuel.
Some of the new methods of biofuel production proposed recently come from crops many farmers may consider strange. Topping the list of potential biofuel sources are camelina, jatropha and algae.
“Camelina is a nonfood crop, in part because it doesn’t taste very good,” said Jeffrey Trucksess, executive vice president of Green Earth Fuels LLC, before the committee.
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A relative of the mustard seed, camelina can be grown all over the country, and may provide an alternative biofuel that doesn’t dent the world’s food supply, Trucksess testified.
Farmers can work the crop into a rotation with their normal planting schedule, seeding fields with camelina every third year instead of leaving their fields fallow.
“It fits in well, and you’re not competing for wheat acres,” Trucksess said.
Trucksess also discussed plans to launch 50 trial acres of jatropha in Texas. Jatropha is resistant to drought and pests, and its seeds can be ground up to produce oil.
Biofuels could prove to be a $22-billion industry in Texas alone, and create up to 100,000 jobs, Trucksess said.
Algae could prove to be another nontraditional cash crop for farmers. Because algae doesn’t waste energy creating roots, it can absorb a much higher percentage of photons from the sun, said Tom Todaro, CEO of Targeted Growth and Sustainable Oils.
“I’m pretty confident that help is on the way,” Todaro said. “Well before the time oil depletes, biofuels really can make a significant impact.”
However, there are a few obstacles to harnessing this new energy source.
Algae goes through two distinct growth stages. During one stage, it grows significantly, but doesn’t produce much of the feedstock necessary to create biofuels. During the second stage, it makes the feedstock, but doesn’t grow nearly as much.
The trick is getting it to just grow first, and then getting it to just produce oil, Todaro said.
Another issue is that algae’s enormous energy potential could be too much of a good thing and attract foreign competitors to the renewable fuels market.
“Fifteen years from now, the biofuel everyone will be using is algae,” Todaro said. “One of my big fears is that the investments made abroad are much greater than the investments that have been made here.
“Once you figure out how to do it, it’s deployable everywhere,” he added.