VERMILLION — When it comes to all sources of power, corn ethanol provides the worst energy return on investment.
However, the technological breakthroughs that have allowed corn to be an energy source for several decades now, even with the inefficiencies involved, are allowing scientists and researchers to plow new ground in the area of research and development of biofuels that could one day be as economical and practical as today’s fossil fuels.
That was the message of Richard Sayre, Ph.D., who gave the keynote address Tuesday evening during IdeaFest being held at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Sayre spoke in the Muenster University Center on the USD campus.
Legislation passed by Congress in 2007 to establish the renewable fuel standard serves as the foundation of the United States’ energy policy. This bill set mandates that must be met throughout the years, and in 2010, the U.S. hit the production cap of ethanol provided by the legislation.
Future milestones set by Congress through 2022 and beyond include the addition of advanced biofuel feedstocks. Those biofuels’ sources include cellulose materials and biocrude made from algae.
The 2007 legislation has helped generate new start-up companies, has helped people into developing advanced biofuels, and has required the petroleum industry to purchase advanced biofuels.
“It’s safe to say at the present time that this is not efficient to push the economy in a more sustainable direction,” Sayre said. “Those of us that are interested in the (energy) industry and where it is going have come to the recognition that what is needed to pull the industry, in terms of investment and building the infrastructure necessary for a sustainable energy economy is a carbon tax or a cap and trade system.”
Sayre is currently a senior research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the New Mexico Consortium (NMC). His research centers on processes of photosynthesis, algal and plant biotechnology, and nutritional biofortification of crop plants.
Bringing the best energy return on investment currently are fossil fuels, including shale gas, coal and petroleum. A major disadvantage of these energy sources, Sayre noted, is the high amounts of carbon emissions that are the byproduct of burning them.
The U.S. economy has moved very rapidly to being based on natural gas, thanks to fracking and the discovery of new reserves of natural gas.
“That has been very, very good for carbon emissions, because burning natural gas emits about half as much carbon as burning coal,” he said. “The largest gains that we’ve made in the past few years in reducing carbon emissions in the United States are based on two criteria: one is the switch from coal to natural gas, and two is the downturn in the economy.”
Corn-based ethanol has an energy return on investment (EROI), on a scale of 100, of about 2. Researchers’ goals are to develop new biofuels with an EROI of greater than 10.
“South Dakota is a state that has a lot of interest in biofuels, and reasonably so,” he said. “There are a number of advantages that biofuels have, and one of the points that I think is particularly important is not only do we reduce carbon emissions, but we also reduce particulate emissions and sulfur emissions. Their emissions are substantially cleaner.”
Sayre, through his involvement with a number of energy consortiums in the United States, is in regular communication with individuals involved in the petroleum industry, including Honeywell UOP, a company that has constructed half of the world’s oil refineries.
“In discussions with their vice president for research, UOP will openly say that if they had their choice of feedstocks to run their refineries, that their first choice would be biofeedstocks,” he said. “In other words, biomass, for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it’s so clean, and the emissions that are released from it are substantially reduced.”
Those low emissions have a positive impact on catalysts that are used in refineries to convert feedstock into fuel, and it has impacts on engine life in the long term.
“The major constraint that we’re addressing in biofuels is the source of our ultimate energy input, and of course, that’s the sun,” Sayre said. “The density of solar energy on the surface of the earth is really quite low, so the question then is how do we harvest that energy as efficiently as possible?”
Current technology in the field of biofuels is focused largely on the production of ethanol that is blended with gasoline.
“There are other alternatives. The latest technologies produce a new kind of product called biocrude,” Sayre said. “This technology involves high pressure and heat transformation of the biomass into a product that, if you look at it in a flask, looks just like petroleum. This biocrude is very high in energy density. It’s very similar to petroleum.”
Biocrude not only has twice the energy density of ethanol, but it is also compatible with the world’s current infrastructure for petroleum.
“That includes the transport, the oil pipelines, the refinery, it’s the combustion engine - it’s the whole, complete nine yards,” he said. “That is a very important factor. What it means is we don’t have to rebuild our energy infrastructure, which is a $1 trillion expense.”
IdeaFest is an annual event at USD celebrating student research, creative scholarship and academic engagement.