As this piece is being written, there remains little progress on the climate change and energy bills in which many have held a great deal of hope here in the US, with respect to significant federal mandates limiting carbon emissions, as well as federal incentives toward assistance in the development of cellulosic ethanol technologies & projects.

Although a significant amount of money has been poured into biofuels technology and developments, sequestration alternatives and allied projects - mostly via stimulus funding - this is short lived in terms of the source of this funding.

As the Renewable Fuels Association has long stated, federal incentives are needed to further the course of cellulosic technologies and working-scale projects, in order to precipitate the development of these ventures in the near term.

It is only logical to consider the need to use renewable feedstocks from crops, trees, and allied organic materials for production of fuels that supplement (and long-term replace) fossil fuels; from a sustainability perspective alone. This ultimately represents survival of the planet, from an environmental point of view, as well as a need to address energy independence for the US, EU, and other global regions.

Fossil fuels are of course finite, as we all know, and interpreting this tenure varies significantly, depending upon which models are used – often from 50-100 years in their remaining life, primarily for oil alone in this definition. However, biomass utilisation represents a complete cycle of growth, consumption and a full recycling of renewable organic mass – sourced from plants, trees, algae, and the like. Biofuels are the key to long-term sustainability, both for our species and our planet.

Herein lies perhaps the strongest argument in favour of promoting biofues. Further, biofuels are the huge watershed in terms of energy potential for a well sustained energy economy, plus job creation and growth, as well economic sustainment – and a means of coping with the ever-growing catastrophic end which most of the world’s species and the planet should face if we continue along the fossil fuels path without significant change.

The press is rich with websites, articles, claims and plans to evaluate, develop, and consummate second and third generation biofuel projects – which are derived from non-grain and non-food related feedstocks.

In North America, there are near 200 commercial ethanol ventures, most of which are operational today; however, some are idle or have been in the process of reorganisation ever since the ethanol crash began.

Fermentation is the prominent raw gas source for the merchant CO2 industry in North America, followed closely by natural (geological) and anhydrous ammonia as source types. Some of the commercial developments for cellulosic ethanol projects in the US have been hampered by the woes experienced by oil companies – such as BP’s joint venture Verenium (Vercipia) which, for example, has been planning a new ethanol-from-cellulosic venture in Florida and has now been further delayed.

Also, the highly publicised US ExxonMobil joint venture for harvesting algae, has yet to move ahead the slightest bit. Therefore, critics say these ventures are announced mostly for the sake of portraying their organisations as a good environmental citizen.

Ethanol is a logical alternative for the oil companies to find growth as well; plus they have the economic strength to develop the more expensive front end of the technologies needed. Many oil companies have ethanol interests as of today; and the future in ethanol and biofuels are the second and third generation technologies, without a doubt – which is utilising otherwise non-food organic matter and crops for the world’s energy needs.

All of this is so logical, however, refinement of the existing (and development of new) technologies, and scaling up to world-class production plants are key to making these technologies work in industry.

In the past, when so many grain-based ethanol projects were in a state of correction – meaning bankruptcy, dormancy, or sale – many observers were convinced that practically all future ethanol ventures would be cellulosic in nature, not grain-based. At this moment in time, due to the lingering recession, the poor access to capital markets, and a less than ready-state for operating scale implementation, it appears the actual moment to precipitate numerous second and third generation biofuels ventures may remain a bit further off than was felt not too long ago.

Just as we hoped the lingering effects of the recession would be further behind us today than what is now found, the same actually applies to the ready-state of the second and third generation biofuels industry – often not ready at this time to commercialise.

On the other hand, there is no doubt sufficient land space exists to produce abundant crops for all of mankind’s food and fuel needs, despite those who claim otherwise; however, to fully utilise non-crop borne biomass is the key to tomorrow’s energy independence and a clean & safe environment.

In the end, as the planet’s fossil fuel reserves are depleted, renewable energy will have to be more of a mainstream component of the energy equation. Of this greater ‘renewable fuels sector’ biofuels is a hugely important component of the renewable fuels definition – also to include solar and wind borne energy.

Since the Gulf Area oil spill, the need to develop technologies and viable renewable energy sources has become ever-more clear, and has been placed under the microscope – thus giving credence for politicians and renewable energy implementations to occur sooner than later.

There is an almost infinite amount of potential from biofuels alone to replace or at least augment part of the fossil segment of the energy sector, when you simply consider using algae, seaweed; and the energy derived from the many grasses, trees, woods, and allied organic matter. Even in the mind of the most pessimistic, cellulosic ethanol, or sometimes labelled second and third generation biofuels, it is a sure bet for the future energy economy.

These projects and technologies will, in due time, fulfill a major segment of our energy economy, thus augmenting and eventually replacing a significant sector of former (and much dirtier) fossil fuels – producing a double advantage for the energy economy in terms of diversifying from an old fossil economy to a cleaner carbon energy economy with significantly fewer emissions.

Emissions of CO2
By some definitions, in excess of 75 million metric tons of CO2 are emitted to the atmosphere, unchecked, on a global basis each day – and perhaps 25 million tons per day are absorbed by natural sinks including the global oceans.

The oceans are one of the world’s major natural carbon sinks, with photosynthesis being the other major carbon sink. The oceans have taken quite a beating, again highlighted by the Gulf oil spill; however, there must be many more significant forms of carbon sinks utilised and developed in order to turn the tide on the rise in CO2 atmospheric content which has taken place.

These means of reducing carbon include moving away from the dirtiest of fuels – primarily coal and oil: coal in power plants; and oil throughout the industrialised world. Both of which are in the form of biofuels for motor vehicles and cleaner fuels for electric power production. Further still, a truly catastrophic end – with respect to unchecked carbon emissions – would be highly acidified oceans at significantly higher levels, a growing desert expansion worldwide, a loss of species, and an increasingly uninhabitable globe for all of us.

Even though the catastrophic end seems entirely remote to many, it is entirely likely and a daunting end for all, unless we absolutely turn the tide in terms of emissions. A reduction in greenhouse gases is an absolute must over time. It is a hard pill to swallow for large industries – when considering the largest offender for example, that being the electric power industry, which accounts for almost 40% of the global CO2 emissions.

The US Congress has not found the appetite or perhaps the stomach to diligently pursue this greater goal. Should the carbon question be tackled in earnest terms, then a levy would probably have to be placed on the consumer’s power bills, as well as the power companies reinventing their presence in the production of electricity. This would mean replacing coal with biomass, for example.

In the replacement of coal, the coal industry would have to also reinvent its presence in the world’s markets. It has been a long haul for the coal companies from their emergence in providing fireplace fuels, firing locomotive engines, and fuelling electric power plants, to a now strong presence in the current supply of fuel to the global electric power industry. The heavier the hydrocarbon, the greater the CO2 emission made – thus coal being probably the worst of all.

Many mechanisms for carbon sequestration have been declared, such as the $90m stimulus funded DOE-sponsored carbon sequestration project planned by ADM in Decatur, Illinois for a geological sequestration project. Many forms of geological sequestration projects have been identified, planned, and implemented (at least on a pilot level) to include the American Electric Power project for enhanced coal bed methane recovery via replacing methane with CO2 molecules.

Furthermore, enhanced oil recovery has endlessly been identified as a method of sequestering CO2; however, as CO2 is pumped downhole, it is also recovered as the oil and gas are also recovered – thus a hugely imperfect technique when it involves truly sequestering CO2 molecules.

Of course, the natural aquifers are under consideration in many world markets, and have successfully been employed in the North Sea by the oil and gas industry. However, further interesting targets such as integrating significant sums of CO2 into the manufacture of plastics is a hopeful and technically viable alternative for carbon sinks which truly take CO2 off the table.

Moreover, more technologically developed alternatives are being developed, such as the use of various (including unprocessed CO2 waste streams) sources with largely CO2 and sunlight for the production of biofuels without an intermediate – straight into the biodiesel market.

Therefore, we need industry and politics to work toward cleaner, more environmentally friendly energy and climate solutions. The development and implementation of these energy production and sequestration alternatives will, in turn, create huge, long-lived industries and jobs to foster, develop, and implement these opportunities.

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