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Going against the grain with some confirmation bias

There is something very much amiss in using the term “first generation” when discussing production of liquid biofuels, ethanol and biodiesel. It sounds almost derogatory and patronising, as if fermentation and press extraction are un- or underdeveloped and, by implication, inefficient technologies.

The term only seems to apply when a food or feed crop is the feedstock. Strange, as fermentation of cellulosic derived sugars to ethanol is, well, still fermentation. That these pathways have been around ever since mankind stumbled upon how to brew beer, press and ferment grapes and distil spirits is beside the point. Neither are really first-generation but rather 2.0 at least. Some of the first internal combustion engines used biofuels; Nicholas Otto’s “Ottocycle” in the 1860s used ethanol and Rudolf Diesel’s diesel engine in the early 1900s ran on peanut oil. And a vision Henry Ford had for his oft-quoted ”any colour you want as long as it is black” model T-Ford was that every owner would produce his own “moonshine” to run the car on by fermenting scraps from the table and garden.

Figures from the European Renewable Ethanol (ePURE) “State of the Industry Report 2014” show that fuel ethanol production and consumption in the European Union (EU) has grown steadily since 2003 and globally the region is currently the third largest producer. A key driver for this growth has been the EU 2020 target to have at least 10 percent renewables in transportation, a policy driven market. Incidentally the latest Eurostat numbers, for 2013, show that Sweden is the only Member State (MS) to already have achieved all its EU2020 targets, including transportation, seven years ahead of schedule. Even when taking into account the volumes of administratively double-counted biofuels. For ethanol the EU target translates into an estimated 14 billion litre per annum market given the gasoline-fuelled vehicle fleet. With 6.7 billion litres produced in 2013 the EU remains though a modest global producer compared to the US (51 billion litres) and Brazil (23.5 billion litres), despite a total consumption of 7.9 billion litres and a total production capacity of 8.8 billion litres. The lion’s share of this installed capacity, around 7 billion litres, is by fermentation of a dedicated crop feedstock.

The ePURE report also reveals that the EU ethanol industry used 7.83 million tonnes of grains and 1.5 million tonnes of sugar as feedstock in 2013, 93 percent of which originated in the EU. Big numbers it seems, but does it mean farmers are switching from food to feed grains so that I can tear 2 km down the street to the supermarket in my E85 flexi-fuel guzzler to buy flour and oatmeal at inflated prices? Hardly. According to the EU Cereal Balance 2013/2014, a mere 2 percent of the grain grown in the EU was used to produce fuel ethanol. 98 percent was used for other purposes and 1 percent, over 3.5 million tonnes, was apparently “lost”. Whilst European-made ethanol results in additional demand for agricultural crops, this has not resulted in more land being used but was achieved through increased agricultural productivity. Only 0.7 percent of the available agricultural land was required to grow the feedstock for EU fuel ethanol production 2013, less than the acreage of unused farmland in Romania alone.

Then there is the other half of my beef, so to speak. A direct co-product of so-called ”first-gen” biofuel plants is protein for animal and fish feed. According to the aptly named report ”Fueling the Nation, Feeding the World: The Role of the U.S. Ethanol Industry in Food and Feed Production” published by the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), the annual volume of animal feed produced by the US ethanol industry has grown by a factor of eight over the last decade. In the 2013/14 marketing year the industry produced an estimated 39.2 million tonnes of animal feed. This was more than the total amount of grain consumed by all of the beef cattle in American feedlots. Put into 1/4-pounder burger terms the feed produced would be enough to produce nearly 50 billion 1/4-pounder hamburger patties, or seven patties for every person on the planet.

Perish the dietary thought, it’s not bad for a ”first-gen” tech and explains the evangelical mood at the RFA ”going global” ethanol conference. A stark contrast to the ”iLUC but I can’t see the field for all the wavy corn growing in it” in Brussels. It is worth remembering that for all the billions of tonnes of finite crude oil that have been extracted, refined into transportation or heating fuel thus far, not 1 gram of edible protein has been produced as a direct co-product. What kind of  ”gen” is that?

Some vegetable oils have transitioned the other way, like that high-priced virgin cold pressed rapeseed oil in your kitchen. It started off as an industrial vegetable oil unfit for human consumption on account of its high content of the toxic erucic acid until some 30 years ago when new “canola” (Canadian oil, low acid) varieties came about. That begs a European centric ”what if” thought; what if oil palm with all its benefits and productivity had been able to grow in northern Europe making the EU the top producer in the world? I wonder.

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