Soybean biodiesel has higher net energy benefit than corn ethanol - study
But neither can do much to meet U.S. energy demand
University of Minnesota
July 11, 2006
The first comprehensive analysis of the full life cycles of soybean biodiesel and corn grain ethanol shows that biodiesel has much less of an impact on the environment and a much higher net energy benefit than corn ethanol, but that neither can do much to meet U.S. energy demand.
The researchers tracked all the energy used for growing corn and soybeans and converting the crops into biofuels. They also looked at how much fertilizer and pesticide corn and soybeans required and how much greenhouse gases and nitrogen, phosphorus, and pesticide pollutants each released into the environment.
"Quantifying the benefits and costs of biofuels throughout their life cycles allows us not only to make sound choices today but also to identify better biofuels for the future," said Jason Hill, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of ecology, evolution, and behavior and the department of applied economics and lead author of the study.
The study showed that both corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel produce more energy than is needed to grow the crops and convert them into biofuels. This finding refutes other studies claiming that these biofuels require more energy to produce than they provide. The amount of energy each returns differs greatly, however. Soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than is used to produce it, while corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25 percent more energy.
Soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than is used to produce it, while corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25 percent more energy.
High oil prices fuel bioenergy push High oil prices and growing concerns over climate change are driving investment and innovation in the biofuels sector as countries and industry increasingly look towards renewable bioenergy to replace fossil fuels. Bill Gates, the world's richest man, has recently invested $84 million in an American ethanol company, while global energy gluttons ranging from the United States to China are setting long-term targets for the switch to such fuels potentially offering a secure domestic source of renewable energy and fewer environmental headaches.
Biofuels can replace about 30 percent of fuel needs With world oil demand growing, supplies dwindling and the potential for weather- and conflict-related supply interruptions, other types of fuels and technologies are needed to help pick up the slack. A group of experts in science, engineering and public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Imperial College London and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory recommend a comprehensive research and policy plan aimed at increasing the practicality of using biofuels and biomaterials as a supplement to petroleum. The review article, called "The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials," appears in the Jan. 27 issue of Science.
Ethanol more energy-efficient than oil, finds study Using ethanol -- alcohol produced from corn or other plants -- instead of gasoline is more energy-efficient than oil say researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. In a study published in Friday's issue of the journal Science, Berkeley scientists show that producing ethanol from corn uses much less petroleum than producing gasoline.
Congress deals blow to bioenergy market In a set back to the growing biofuels market and American energy consumers, House Majority Leader John Boehner said Monday he will not push legislation to reduce the U.S. tariff on ethanol imports. Thus, the United States will keep its 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol despite a warning from the Department of Energy that domestic ethanol supplies will fall short this summer and will need to reply on foreign fuel.
New process makes fuel from simple sugar The soaring prices of oil and natural gas have sparked a race to make transportation fuels from plant matter instead of petroleum. Both biodiesel and gasoline containing ethanol are starting to make an impact on the market. But the oil price hike has also fueled a race to find new sources for chemical intermediates - compounds that are the raw material for many modern plastics, drugs and fuels. Behind the scenes, American industry uses millions of tons of chemical intermediates, which are largely sourced from petroleum or natural gas.
The authors showed that the environmental impacts of the two biofuels also differ. Soybean biodiesel produces 41 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel fuel whereas corn grain ethanol produces 12 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Soybeans have another environmental advantage over corn because they require much less nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, which get into groundwater, streams, rivers and oceans. These agricultural chemicals pollute drinking water, and nitrogen decreases biodiversity in global ecosystems. Nitrogen fertilizer, mainly from corn, causes the 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We did this study to learn from ethanol and biodiesel," says David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology and a co-author of the study. "Producing biofuel for transportation is a fledgling industry. Corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel are successful first generation biofuels. The next step is a biofuel crop that requires low chemical and energy inputs and can give us much greater energy and environmental returns. Prairie grasses have great potential."
Biofuels such as switchgrass, mixed prairie grasses and woody plants produced on marginally productive agricultural land or biofuels produced from agricultural or forestry waste have the potential to provide much larger biofuel supplies with greater environmental benefits than corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel.
According to Douglas Tiffany, research fellow, department of applied economics and another co-author of the study, ethanol and biodiesel plants are early biorefineries that in the future will be capable of using different kinds of biomass and conversion technologies to produce a variety of biofuels and other products, depending upon market demands.
Hill adds that both ethanol and biodiesel have a long-term value as additives because they oxygenate fossil fuels, which allows them to burn cleaner. Biodiesel also protects engine parts when blended with diesel.
"There is plenty of demand for ethanol as an additive," Hill says. "The ethanol industry was built on using ethanol as an additive rather than a fuel. Using it as a biofuel such as E85 is a recent and currently unsustainable development. As is, there is barely enough corn grown to meet demand for ethanol as a 10 percent additive."
This is a modified news release from the University of Minnesota.
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