Biofuel viability predicted with new forecasting model

Sandia National Laboratory said that biofuels are a viable method to wean the U.S. off a third of its gasoline consumption by 2030, basing its findings on a new forecasting model that takes into account the land, water and transportation available today.

Scientists from Sandia unveiled the findings in a joint study with General Motors. According to the Biofuel Deployment Model, the U.S. could produce 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol and 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol each year by 2022 without using land otherwise destined to produce crops. That could ramp to 90 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030, displacing 60 billion gallons of gasoline because of its lower energy content. U.S. consumption of gasoline is expected to reach 180 billion gallons that year, up from about 140 billion gallons now.

Scientists said it would take about the same amount of capital—about $400 billion—to increase domestic production by 60 billion gallons of petroleum as it would to produce 90 billion gallons of ethanol. "This country has to otherwise invest in new petroleum sources, and it would cost the same as biomass production for ethanol," said Bob Carling, director of the Transportation Energy Center at Sandia. "Why not invest in a technology that would produce biofuels from renewable sources?" The study noted that the U.S. has enough land to grow biofuel feedstocks without affecting the food supply. Feedstock plants such as poplar, willow and switchgrass could be grown on 37 million acres of pasture or idle crop land unsuitable for food production, or used as rotation crops, Carling said.

Additionally, the model forecast the best locations in which to grow the feedstock crops in order to minimize any extra water usage for ethanol over gasoline. Ethanol can't currently be transported using today's distribution system of pipes, requiring the use of the rail system. The U.S. has enough rail cars currently to distribute the projected 90 billion gallons, although the rail lines might not have the capacity for the distribution, the Sandia report said. The calculations assumed improved conversion processes from biomass to biofuel and improved cultivation of biofuel crops—variables that aren't ensured.

However, Carling said the researchers used "very conservative" estimates for the variables, meaning biofuel yields could be even greater than the study predicted. The study predicted that a ton of biomass (which would sell for $40) will yield 95 gallons of fuel, making it competitive with oil at $70 to $120 a barrel. Scientists from Sandia said the forecasting model can be used for any biofuel, they just applied it to cellulosic ethanol. Carling said the lab is looking for partners to help to expand the model to look broader or deeper at the market, potentially looking at the use of cellulosic ethanol in China.

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