Biofuels – to make them relevant, we need to learn from a partially pink elephant

By Dr Garth Cambray

Pink Elephants are often associated with consumption of ethanol. Here a partially pink, biomass powered elephant crosses a highway in India. In many ways India, like the rest of the world, has reached an energy crossroad, where the biomass economy, which powers the elephant, and the fossil fuel economy which powers the cars on the highway will need to be kept in tune with each other for continued economic growth. Pic by J. Limson

The current global recession is caused partially by a dearth of common sense, and partially by the fact that from an energy planning perspective, much of the world is up the wrong creak without a paddle. Biofuels have been mispromoted as a paddle that we could use to get ourselves out of that creak – in so doing, we have gone up another creak without another paddle.

The first problem with the biofuels economy is that the marketing of biofuel itself is ill-conceived. There is a major difference between for instance biodiesel, bioethanol and biomass. To lump the three in the same category is about as inappropriate as lumping wind power, geothermal and nuclear power in the same category. To understand this difference we need to take a detour through India, Brazil and the USA.

India has one of the fastest growing economies on the planet. This is driven in many ways by their biofuel economy which keeps food, and therefore labor quite cheap. If we look at northern India it has a distributed agro processing economy – small producers perform basic village level processing of bulky raw materials. Many of these raw materials are produced using animal traction – a simple form of biofuel, and are processed by people, who eat food, which is a form of biofuel. The value added, village processed products are then transported by tractors and slow moving trucks to bigger processing plants, where they are turned into concentrated value added products.

As an example, the monstrous Organosys ethanol plant 200km from Delhi receives molasses from all over the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. This molasses is produced by village level processors, who perform the basic extraction of sugar on site – they have cattle and water buffalo which are fueled on sugar cane byproducts, fires fueled on bagasse and nutrients which go back to the field as fertilizer. The products which leave this system are semi processed sugar and molasses. It is cost effective to transport both products greater distances as their energy density is great. The molasses enters the Organosys plant, is fermented to ethanol, which is then converted to various other products. The waste products left over are digested to methane and that is used to power a turbine which generates power for the monstrous factory and the surrounding area. Although this is a biofuel economy, it is not perceived as that as we don’t look at the issues correctly. This plant has been running since about 1976.

In a similar manner, the gigantic brass processing economy of Moradabad runs the majority of its furnaces on rice husks. Rice husks are an oddity of agriculture with no value as a food, and little as a compost. The most effective use of rice husks is as a fuel – hence in Moradabad, the brass furnaces, and in other parts of India, paper mills and many other industries use rice husks as a readily available biofuel and the ash goes back to the fields as a fertilizer.

In Brazil, sugar cane is likewise cultivated as a source of biofuel (in this case ethanol, biomass and methane). Here a slightly different angle is taken – big ethanol plants are centered in areas with huge amounts of sugar cane – sugar cane is highly productive, hence a truck running on methane or ethanol can make a short foray into the surrounding areas and return with a full load of sugar cane. The short transport distances mean that after sugar is extracted, the remaining bagasse is processed. The stillage and other leftovers are digested into methane, and the digestor effluent returned to the fields as an organic fertilizer. This is highly profitable from an energy perspective.

If we look at the derivation of the BRIC terminology, this refers to the fast growing economies of Brazil, India, Russia and China. China is also well known for its use of biogas, biomass and almost anything else as an energy source. The only odd one out in this list of what were very fast growing economies is Russia, which is just an old anomaly that has too much oil for its own common sense. Much of the growth in India, Brazil and China is however due to the fact that these countries have distributed economies which use a diverse range of energy sources – both fossil and other – this means these economies are at smaller risks in times of high or very low fossil fuel prices.

If we contrast the Indian and Brazilian models of biofuel production, with the model developed in the USA, this is where the concept of biofuel becomes problematic. In the US, and hence global vernacular, biofuel has come to mean corn based ethanol. If we look at a maize plant, a very small percentage of the total energy value of the plant is stored in the seeds, and these are traditionally eaten by people and animals. The motorcar in the US typically uses an intrinsically inefficient petrol engine, which can use ethanol as a partial fuel extender. Hence big capital, scared of the impending fossil fuel energy shortages, and devoid of common sense in many other areas, chased a pipe dream which was to set the American Mid West up as the New Middle East, without the political problems – a place where big investments in large centralized energy processing plants could deliver healthy returns on investment and fuel an economy which had grown in an ill advised direction and was dependent on petrol and big cars. The result was the formation of the US corn to ethanol industry, consisting of monstrous centralized maize processing plants placed within prime agricultural land so that minimum transport distances were needed to transport low energy density crops to be processed. The result was the worst setback sensible biofuel development could ever have had as these central plants are intrinsically unprofitable and unsustainable and produce a fuel which is priced beyond what the current world economy can afford. The American centralized corn to ethanol industry is about as sustainable as the Sports Utility Vehicles and oversized vehicles it was built to feed.

So for biofuel to make a meaningful contribution to the world economy, we need to reintroduce common sense to our planning. We need to develop disruptive technologies which mean that some small farmer in Lusikisiki in the former Transkei region of South Africa can be part of the production of fuel for their village and school buses and tractors, and that big capital somewhere can also make some money and invest in future technologies. We need to follow the Indian model of a distributed varied energy economy where common sense and economic sensibility determine our fuel use choices – if biofuel is cheaper without government intervention other than ensuring environmental integrity, then biofuel is the right fuel. If it is more expensive, then it is either being made wrong, or it is actually wrong.

This can be likened to the computer revolution of the 1980’s. Before 1980, computing was not a very profitable industry – large centralized mainframes did the processing, and unless you had big capital, you were not going to crunch numbers. The IBM PC and its clones put computing power in the hands of the people – now, we still have big central computers, but we also have a decentralized distributed information economy which generates hundreds of billions of dollars of profit that did not exist in the 1970’s. When our energy economy is like this our planet will be more profitable for all.


April 2009