June 2, 2008

Biofuels are Growing in Florida

By Mary Campbell, Extension Director, Urban Sustainability

JatrophaGas prices in the U.S have increased 20% in the past year. It is not just the US that has been impacted, and this has an effect on our economy as well. The price of gas in the UK is about $8.26/gal. and $9.45/gal. in the Netherlands. Many countries have experienced huge increases over the past two years. In January, 1996 the price of gas in the U.S was $1.27/gal. The increase cost of gas impacts the cost of all products that are transported.

Developing alternative sources of fuel to power our cars and trucks is of great interest with gas prices soaring and carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change. Biofuels are renewable liquid fuels made from plant matter rather than fossil fuels. Biofuels can help reduce air pollution, greenhouse gases, and the dependence on imported oil. Twelve grants totaling $25 million were awarded by the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services as part of the state’s “Farm to Fuel” initiative in 2008. These projects will serve as a catalyst for major commercial investment in the biofuel industry in Florida.

There are two types of biofuels that are currently taking center stage in the push for alternative fuels – ethanol and biodeisel. Ethanol and biodiesel are completely different. Ethanol is a product of fermentation, and biodiesel is chemically-converted fat or plant oil. Currently, the biggest source of biofuel is ethanol — a liquid distilled from corn or other starchy crops. Proponents of biofuels suggest that they are the best, readily-available, renewable substitute for gasoline and conventional diesel. The most contentious issue surrounding biofuels is whether they, in fact, save fossil fuels. Some research reports that more fossil fuel energy is used to produce ethanol from corn than the energy it replaces. Flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) are designed to run on gasoline or a blend of up to 85% ethanol (E85). logo for ethanol 85%Except for a few engine and fuel system modifications, they are identical to gasoline-only models. FFVs have been produced since the 1980s, and dozens of models are currently available. Since FFVs look just like gasoline-only models, you may have an FFV and not even know it. To determine if your vehicle is an FFV, consult your owner’s manual. FFVs experience no loss in performance when operating on E85. However, since a gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline, FFVs typically get about 20-30% fewer miles per gallon when fueled with E85. E10 (also called “gasohol”) is a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline sold in many parts of the country. All auto manufacturers approve the use of blends of 10% ethanol or less in their gasoline vehicles.

A method of turning biomass, such as yard waste and crop residues, into “cellulosic” ethanol is part of the research at the UF Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels. A new facility to make biofuels from plant waste will begin construction in southern Florida under a $20-million state grant to UF. The use of waste from crops, such as sugarcane and wood, may provide the most practical and efficient source of biofuels. The first commercial cellulosic ethanol facility to convert waste wood materials into a renewable fuel went online near Upton, Wyoming in April, 2008.

Biodiesel is made from sources such as vegetables oils and can be blended with diesel made from petroleum. When the first diesel engines came along at the end of the 19th century, they were originally designed to run on vegetable oil. Biodeisel can be produced from crops such as soybean or Jatropha. Jatropha, or Physic Nut, is a plant of interest for Florida in the production of biodeisel. Jatropha is a drought-resistant perennial, growing well in marginal or poor soil. It is easy to establish and plants produce seeds with an oil content of 37%.

Another source of biofuels is used cooking oils. In San Francisco, SFGreasecycle is a free program in which the city picks up used cooking oil and grease from local restaurants, hotels and other commercial food preparation establishments. Those substances are then turned into biodiesel. Since 2002, Pinellas County has been using biodeisel purchased from a company that recycles grease waste into biodeisel.

Algae have also been reported as a source for biodeisel. Unlike some biofuel sources which require crops to be specially grown, which use more land, fuel, chemicals and fertilizers, the algae already exist. To get the fuel, the algae are processed into a pulp before lipid oils are extracted to be turned into biodiesel. The first algae-to-biofuel facility began operation in April 2008 in Rio Hondo, Texas, and is scheduled to produce an estimated 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million lbs. of biomass per year off a series of saltwater ponds spanning 1,100 acres.

There is not one single answer to the issues of dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions. It will take a combination of improved fuel economy, investment in public transportation, new technology, and new fuel sources like biofuels and electricity to move us into a more sustainable future.

U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center:

Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels:

EPA Alternative Fuels:

IFAS team receives $1 million grant to unlock more energy from sugarcane:

New biodiesel crop Jatropha taking off in S.W. Florida:

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