Understanding the Implications of Biofuels Doesn’t Require a Biology Degree

This sleek and swift Koenigsegg CCXR sports car uses E85 and E100 ethanol fuel or standard 98 octane fuel. Photo by paalia on Flickr via Creative Commons

This sleek and swift Koenigsegg CCXR sports car uses E85 and E100 ethanol fuel or standard 98 octane fuel. Photo by paalia on Flickr via Creative Commons

Following years of extensive research and product trials, biofuels are today considered a viable fuel source for vehicles. Proponents of these alternative fuels tout their sustainability, ability to lower carbon emission levels and comparable (if not superior) vehicular performance — though some major oil companies have been slow to embrace the movement.

Here’s a look at some of the major renewable fuel alternatives, including a few many consumers may not be aware of.

Ethanol

Ethanol is the most commonly used biofuel in the United States, according to the Biomass Energy Data Book. Fermentation ethanol, which is rendered from corn or biomass feedstocks, accounts for roughly 90% of the American ethanol industry; the other 10% is comprised of synthetic ethanol, which is primarily used in the industrial sector.

Ethanol increases the octane hydrocarbons in regular gasoline and reduces carbon emission when the fuel is burned. Most ethanol sold in the United States is blended with gasoline at a ratio of 1:9, though higher concentrations are available for flex-fuel vehicles.

Biodiesel

Biodiesel is the most commonly used biofuel throughout Europe, and its popularity in the U.S. is increasing. Most American biodiesel is rendered from soybean oil or recycled kitchen grease, though other sources (such as animal fat) may also be used.

This type of fuel is non-toxic, biodegradable and clean burning. As a result, biodiesel is the only biofuel that meets all the health effects testing criteria imposed by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Biodiesel must meet specific industry standards and be officially registered by the EPA in order to be sold for use in motor vehicles.

Bio-Oil

Studies are currently being done to determine the viability of bio-oil as an alternative fuel source. Bio-oil is created using a process known as flash pyrolysis, during which solid fuels (like wood and crop residue) are heated to 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit and the resulting vapor is condensed.

Bio-oil production facilities are located throughout the world. Some can process up to 75 tons of solid fuels per day. However, bio-oil products have not been approved nor made commercially available for public use.

New Alternatives

Other biofuels are currently in development, as well. In Pima County, Arizona, for example, researchers have recently explored ways to power compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles with gas from a sewage treatment plant. In April 2012, Science Daily reported that scientists at Virginia Bioinformatics are using marine algae to produce an industrial-scale biofuel.

Many studies today focus on implementation of second-generation biofuels, or those produced using sustainable feedstocks (such as non-food crops). According to Biofuel.org.uk, second-generation projects currently in development include biomethanol, wood diesel, mixed alcohol and biohydrogen diesel.

From Competition to Cooperation

Over the years, the relationship between biofuel producers and major oil companies has been mixed; at first, the two groups were competitors. Reuters reports that 2007 marked peaks in both gasoline consumption and fuel-efficient vehicle production.

That same year, however, the US Renewable Fuel Standard established a mandate of 13.2 billion gallons of alternative fuel sources to be blended with American petroleum. This quota has risen over the years, and in 2022, the amount will reach 36 billion gallons (58% of which must be rendered from a source other than corn).

This federal requirement has forced biofuel producers and oil companies into a shaky alliance. While Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and others have heavily invested in alternative fuel technologies, the American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit against the mandate, citing “unachievable” goals.

Despite some opposition, the relationship between oil and biofuel will ultimately improve as a result of these mandates. And, as biofuel technology explores new resources and vehicle owners continue to purchase fuel-efficient automobiles, the alternative fuel industry stands to grow exponentially in the coming years.

Madison Jones
Guest Writer
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Madison Jones is a staff writer for a website that discusses biology education, including information about where graduate students interested in biology can find more information about programs that focus on biofuels research and development.

Related Posts

Notes from Iowa: The Downside to Biofuels

Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

From Swamp to Gas Pump – Cattails Take on New Role

Former Chef Now Cooks Up Biofuels

 

 

 

 

Notes from Iowa: The Downside to Biofuels

In 2010, 58% of Iowa's corn crop was used to make ethanol. Photo: Joe Hennager

The following is an excerpt from a letter to the editor published in the Fairfield (Iowa) Daily Register, April 14, 2011. The letter writer is Francis Thicke, Ph.D., an expert in soil science and an organic dairy farmer who, along with his wife, Susan, won the prestigious Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture in 2009. Thicke waged a popular — but ultimately unsuccessful — grassroots campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in 2010. The issues he raised have galvanized proponents of sustainable agriculture across the nation. We’re pleased to have Dr. Thicke’s permission to reprint his letter. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


Fully 58 percent of Iowa’s 2010 corn crop was used to make ethanol. So, it is not just “surplus” corn that is going into ethanol, as is claimed by the ethanol industry. Even the livestock industry does not believe the ethanol industry’s claim that this much corn going for ethanol does not affect prices. That is why the livestock commodity groups for hogs, cattle and poultry are all lobbying against ethanol subsidies in Washington, D.C.

A recent Iowa State University analysis indicated that ethanol subsidies are no longer needed to keep the ethanol industry profitable. It’s time to end the $0.45 per gallon ethanol subsidy, which cost taxpayers nearly $6 billion in 2010. The real cost per gallon of that subsidy is actually much higher: If you account for the fact that ethanol contains just two-thirds the energy of gasoline, and that two-thirds of ethanol’s energy consists of embedded fossil-fuel energy that was required to grow the corn and make the ethanol, the real cost of the $0.45 per gallon ethanol subsidy comes to over $2 per gallon of gasoline net energy equivalence. That is $2 per gallon that we taxpayers pay for ethanol even before we buy it at the gas pump.

Crops worldwide — canola, cassava, palm oil, corn, soybeans, sugarcane and others — are increasingly being used to make biofuels. That might not make a lot of difference in the price you pay for corn flakes, but it does make a big difference to the half of the world’s population that lives on just $2 per day or less. They spend about 80 percent of their income on food, and the worldwide shift from food to biofuel crops causes them hardship, or worse. When the price of corn doubles in the U.S., it causes a ripple effect that increases food grain prices worldwide and pushes more people into starvation.

Our huge investment in ethanol wouldn’t seem so bad if we used that ethanol efficiently. But we are using it in passenger vehicles that average just 20.4 mpg (compared to 45 to 50 mpg in Europe and Japan). It would take only about 1 mpg increase in our passenger vehicle mileage to save the equivalent amount of energy we get from all the ethanol we produce in the U.S.

Aside from the disastrous economic investment the ethanol industry has been, we should consider the environmental problems ethanol brings with it. For example, for every gallon of ethanol made from corn, two gallons of soil are lost to erosion. Clearly, this is not a sustainable system. Corn production in Iowa averages 5.7 tons/acre of soil eroded each year, but the soil naturally regenerates at an average rate of just 0.5 tons/acre per year.

Nutrient loading to water resources from corn production is another problem. According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, corn production is a major contributor of nutrients that cause the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which grows to about the size of New Jersey every summer.

It is important that we look critically at the talking points of the biofuels industry, and not let them play us for biofools.

Francis Thicke, Fairfield, Iowa

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future

Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

Susan and Francis Thicke with one of their grass-fed, organic dairy cows. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Susan and Francis Thicke with one of their grass-fed, organic dairy cows. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Francis Thicke is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man. He is also an accomplished scientist and an award-winning farmer. Thicke’s list of credentials is impressive, including selection by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation as a Policy Fellow in their Food and Society program, work as the National Program Leader for soil science for the USDA-Extension Service, and a current seat on the board of directors of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Most recently, Francis and Susan Thicke were selected as recipients of the 2009 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture. The couple will be honored at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture on December 5 at the 9th Annual Iowa Organic Conference. Together, they own and operate Radiance Dairy near Fairfield, Iowa.

Thicke (pronounced TICKee) is also a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed Thicke to learn about his vision for improving agriculture in Iowa. Not surprisingly, given his background and his interest in sustainability, Thicke has a lot of ideas that we thought you would find interesting — regardless where you live. Blue Planet Green Living endorses Thicke’s candidacy for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

This is the first in a series of conversations with Francis Thicke. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


Organic dairy farmer and scientist, Francis Thicke, is a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Organic dairy farmer and scientist, Francis Thicke, is a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

BPGL: Why did you decide to run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture?

THICKE: I see a lot of challenges coming down the road for agriculture in Iowa, as well as opportunities. I think we need new vision and new leadership to meet those challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.

One challenge is escalating energy costs. We saw last year how oil prices went through the roof. And that meant that input costs for agriculture went through the roof. Of course, oil prices came back down again, and the input prices are coming down.

But oil economists tell us we’re going to see this roller coaster of spikes and valleys in oil prices continue. And they’re going to keep trending upward.

That makes it difficult for an agriculture that’s so dependent on oil-based inputs. When oil prices are dropping, but farm input prices have not yet dropped, you get a mismatch of peaks and valleys, and it could be a real disaster for agriculture.

The bottom line is that we need to get off this treadmill of oil. We need to look for ways we can become more efficient in our agriculture and power our farms with locally and sustainably produced energy.

BPGL: What suggestions do you have for doing that?

THICKE: I have several. One thing is that agriculture is producing corn for ethanol that’s used in cars that run on the highway. That is not a very efficient use of our biofuels.

The average mileage for passenger vehicles, if you include SUVs along with cars, is about 22 miles per gallon. So, we’re putting ethanol in these very inefficient vehicles, and we’re not powering agriculture with our biofuels.

Just to see the irony of it, if we could increase our fuel mileage by only two miles per gallon on average, from 22 to 24 mpg, we would save more fuel than all the ethanol we produce in this country, which takes about one-third of the U.S. corn crop. We’re not using our biofuels energy-producing capacity very efficiently.

I would like to see future biofuels development be twofold: One, it uses perennial crops, which are more sustainable, more resilient cropping systems. And two, we target biofuels to power agriculture.

BPGL: Describe how you would use perennial crops for biofuel. I assume you’re talking about using a different process than is used to make ethanol with corn.

Pyrolysis — A New-Old Technology


THICKE: There are some promising new technologies on the horizon that are being developed now. One is called pyrolysis. It’s not a new process; it’s been around for years, and was used to make fuels during World War II.

Pyrolysis is a process of heating biomass at high temperature in the absence of oxygen. The result is gaseous and liquid fuels, which can be converted to gasoline and diesel fuel. Now there is some research showing that this can be done on a smaller scale than the huge-scale ethanol plants. It can be done on a local, cooperative scale, or even on a farm scale. If we develop the technology of pyrolysis to work on a local, or farm scale, we could use biofuels to power agriculture, making farms more energy self-sufficient, and keeping more profit on farms and in rural communities.

BPGL: Is pyrolysis more efficient than the process used to produce ethanol now?

THICKE: Pyrolysis produces more biofuel per unit of biomass than ethanol does. It’s a more efficient biofuel-production process.

BPGL: What are you cooking in pyrolysis?

Theoretically, any biomass could be used to make biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: julia Wasson

Perennial prairie plants produce a lot of biomass and could be used to make biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: julia Wasson

THICKE: Cellulosic materials. You could cook corn, but any organic material will work. What I’m suggesting is that we grow perennial crops, prairie plants, for example, or miscanthus, which is a perennial plant that produces a tremendous amount of biomass. It’s been looked at a lot in university research.

Miscanthus requires very little input, such as fertilizer, and it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. It’s a minimal-input cropping system. The advantage of using perennial crops for biofuels is that perennials do a much better job of protecting the soil from erosion and from the loss of nutrients — like nitrate and phosphate — to water resources, where they become pollutants.

BPGL: So there’s no burning of the cellulosic material. You’re just heating the plants and turning them into fuel.

THICKE: Yes, but at high temperature. It’s not really burning per se, it’s transforming. The first stage of normal combustion turns solid or liquid fuels into gases through super heating. Then the hot gases ignite and burn in the presence of oxygen. The byproduct of normal combustion is carbon dioxide and water. That first stage of combustion is a form of pyrolysis.

When using pyrolysis to make biofuels, the environment remains depleted of oxygen. Combustion does not go to completion, so the end products are combustible gases and liquids. The liquid product of pyrolysis is called bio oil, which is somewhat like crude oil. It depends upon how you control the conditions during pyrolysis whether you get more gaseous or liquid fuels. These fuels can be transformed into gasoline or diesel fuel.

BPGL: Who is doing the research on this?

THICKE: Iowa State University has a project, but there are projects all over the country. Google “pyrolysis,” and you’ll see that there’s a lot going on.

BPGL: So, the energy it takes to create the fuel comes from the same fuel that you’re producing?

THICKE: Yes. An exothermic reaction is one that gives off heat when you burn something. But pyrolysis is slightly endothermic; it takes a certain amount of heat input to make the reaction occur. So you would have to burn some of the fuel — a small portion — to keep the high temperature.

Increasing Efficiency of Biofuels


BPGL: If it takes energy to heat the cellulosic material, is it that efficient?

THICKE: Yes. I’ve asked scientists working on pyrolysis about this. They said that the overall net energy is more per unit of biomass than you get with ethanol production. If you take a biomass material — even corn — and use pyrolysis, there should be a slightly more efficient gain of energy than if you made ethanol from it, including the input of heat.

So, first, we need to become more efficient and sustainable in biomass crop production by using perennial cropping systems, which are resilient and help protect soil and water quality. Second, if it can be done on a small scale — and a research project at Iowa State University indicates that it can — then you can do it at a farm scale. And that means, you could produce these fuels right on the farm. There is some research going on that indicates you could maybe even make it into diesel and gasoline on a farm scale.

BPGL: Can you cook any type of carbon-base material? Any type of grasses? It doesn’t have to have a sugar base?

THICKE: No, it doesn’t. Carbohydrates, lignins — any biomass, any reduced-carbon compound like that will work.

BPGL: Such as wood, trees, things like that?

Wood could be used to create biofuels through pyrolysis. Photo: Joe Hennager

Wood can be transformed into biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: Joe Hennager

THICKE: Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, a few months ago, there was a story in the Des Moines Register about a man who had a pickup truck with a small pyrolysis unit on the back. He was throwing wood in there, and he was driving on the highway, powering his pickup truck with pyrolysis. He could go 80 mph down the highway, he said.

It’s a demonstration, and I certainly wouldn’t think it would be an efficient way to fuel cars. But, it does show that you can do it on a small scale. If you do it on a farm scale, the neat thing is that you could power your farm with biofuels.

With corn-based ethanol production, farmers produce corn, which is a commodity, for which they get paid wholesale prices. To power their farms, they have to buy fuel at retail prices. If they could produce fuel on their farms, not only could they power their farms, but they could sell any excess fuel they produced at nearer to retail price. So this would be good rural economic development, in my mind.

Corn-based ethanol production has brought some economic development to Iowa. But, corn is not a resilient crop on the landscape. It leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion and the loss of fertilizer nutrients, which can become pollutants to water resources.

Also, when large corn-ethanol plants are owned by outside interests instead of being owned locally, agricultural wealth is extracted from rural communities. For example, some of the ethanol plants that went bankrupt last year were bought up by an out-of-state, multinational oil-refinery company. That puts the same industry that retails fuel to farmers in a position of extracting the profits of value-added biofuel production. So, you can see the potential economic advantage for farmers if they could produce biofuels on the farm to power their farms. They would retain much more wealth in their own rural communities.

BPGL: Is the pyrolysis technology ready for farmers to use on their land today?

THICKE: This is in the research and technology development stage. I think one of the Iowa projects was funded by the Iowa Power Fund. It’s something that universities should be picking up and working hard at.

What I advocate for is that we make a concerted effort to try to develop these kinds of technologies. It would help advance both rural economic development and sustainable farming systems.

BPGL: There are so many things that are carbon based that could be burned. Everything from animal feces to secondary crops.

THICKE: A big one would be garbage waste. A lot of the garbage waste — like wood and cardboard and things like that — could be used. Even grass clippings, tree leaves… It’s a tremendous opportunity.

Biochar – A Promising Soil Amendment


THICKE: A third byproduct of pyrolysis, besides the gaseous and liquid fuels, is called biochar, which is similar to charcoal. Biochar functions like humus when added to soil. It has properties that help soils hold nutrients, and it increases the water-holding capacity of soils. It also can be used for virtually anything charcoal is used for — a whole variety of uses, industrially.

Biochar has a lot of promise for use as a soil amendment, which is something that you would use to improve the soil. Normally, people think of soil amendments as fertilizers or lime, or anything that you add to the soil to improve it. Biochar doesn’t break down easily, so it persists for a long time in the soil, and it increases soils’ beneficial properties.

There are some ancient soils in Brazil, called terra preta. People have wondered over the centuries why these soils were so productive. They are dark, black soils that are highly productive with very little input; they never seem to stop producing.

Geologists and soil scientists are speculating that many centuries ago, some culture had a way of doing something similar to pyrolysis; they made a type of biochar, and put it into the soil. The biochar made terra preta soils tremendously productive. So we don’t even know the extent biochar would be useful as a soil amendment, but it’s going to be exciting to see what potential it has.

Preventing Erosion with Cover Crops


BPGL: Earlier you mentioned multiple challenges to agriculture. What is another one?

THICKE: Another challenge coming down the road is weather extremes due to climate change. Climatologists are telling us that’s what we are going to be seeing, when we talk about global warming or climate change. The way it will affect agriculture is that we’re going to be seeing extremes like droughts and flooding, high-intensity weather events. Iowa’s current cropping systems are not resilient enough to be able to handle that.

Last year, with the hard rainfalls and flooding, nearly 10 percent of Iowa’s cropland suffered soil erosion rates of 20 ton per acre. Two-thirds of Iowa’s land surface is covered in corn and soybeans. So our cropping systems are not very resilient, and they don’t absorb rainfall as well as perennial cropping systems would.

Soil Erosion is a major problem for Iowa farmlands. Photo: Joe Hennager

Soil erosion is a major problem for Iowa farmlands. Photo: Joe Hennager

BPGL: Is there a way at the state level to promote changing the monoculture that we see in Iowa farming, so we can get more biodiversity in our crops?

THICKE: Yes, there are things we can do to make our landscape more biodiverse and resilient. There are several ways we can approach this. One — and we can do this through programs at the state level — is to try to get more cover crops on the land. For example, after corn and soybean crops are harvested in the fall, the land is not well protected from soil erosion and nutrient leaching. If a cover crop, like rye or hairy vetch, were planted to grow during late fall, winter and early spring, soil erosion and nutrient leaching would be reduced, which would help reduce hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s one thing we can do.

BPGL: Are cover crops something that farmers can sell, as an added source of income?

THICKE: With cover crops, you normally don’t harvest and sell them. They are intended to be returned to the soil, to build the soil. They are planted to protect the soil and to absorb nutrients after harvesting corn or beans. In the spring, before planting annual crops again, cover crops are returned to the soil. As the cover crop decomposes in the soil during the summer, it provide nutrients for the growing summer crop. The added residue on the soil from the cover crop also helps protect the soil from erosion.

The cover crop could be killed in the spring either with tillage or through no-till farming methods [without plowing the plants under the soil] using a herbicide like Roundup. That would be a popular way conventional farmers would do it.

BPGL: Would you use that method — no-till, with Roundup?

THICKE: As an organic farmer, I wouldn’t do that. But that’s a common practice. It would be good for protecting the soil, and conventional farmers are going to be using the Roundup herbicide anyway.

However, there is new research being done now on no-till organic farming, which looks very promising.  In no-till organic farming you use a cover crop, like rye, for the purpose of suppressing weed growth, in addition to the reasons we talked about earlier. The rye crop is killed in the spring with the use of a special tool called a roller/crimper, which is a roller with sharp fins on it that knocks down, crimps and kills the rye plants.

BPGL: I would think even conventional farmers would like that idea.

THICKE: That’s a good point. They might. They would need special equipment, but this is something that’s being developed. There’s some research being done at Iowa State University on no-till organic farming. It’s been developed out east, in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. It’s a coming thing that could be done by conventional farmers.

BPGL: It seems like there’s a job opportunity for someone to have a crimper that they take from farm to farm.

THICKE: Right, it could be. However, a roller/crimper would not be a real expensive piece of equipment, compared to the other field equipment farmers use. This is something that needs to be demonstrated on a wide scale so that farmers can see it work. They are not going to want to do it unless they see it working.

End of Part 1 in a continuing conversation with Francis Thicke.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion (Top of Page)

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future

My 5: Francis Thicke, Organic Dairy Farmer, Political Candidate

From Swamp to Gas Pump – Cattails Take on New Role

Cattails do far more than just provide beauty in your neighborhood swamp. Photo: Caryn Green

Cattails add beauty to the landscape. Photo: Caryn Green

Cattails are among nature’s most primitive species. They were here when dinosaurs ruled. They kept baby Moses from floating down the Nile to a premature death. They’re ubiquitous, found in ditches the world over. Grown in clean water, they’re edible. Grown in waste water, they remove pollutants from the sewage so it can be safely returned to the natural water cycle. In the process, cattails absorb the atmosphere’s increasingly abundant carbon dioxide to fuel photosynthesis, producing sugars and starches that can be converted easily, cleanly, and cheaply into alcohol used for biofuel.

Biofuels solve the same problems that petroleum fuel creates. Plants use the carbon dioxide they remove from the environment to grow. Harvested and converted to alcohol, they return that same energy when used as fuel. This is why corn has garnered a lot of attention as a source of biofuel.

But corn-for-ethanol is problematic. Land devoted to growing fuel is land that can’t be devoted to growing food. And, unless it’s grown organically, corn is fertilized with materials that pollute our groundwater and contribute to global warming. Gas-powered tractors harvest it; gas-powered vehicles truck it to market. All this for a fuel source that yields – depending on which study you consult — 75 to 200 gallons per acre? There’s got to be a better way.

Whiskey, Biscuits, and Biofuels

Cattails are hard to eradicate and prevent shoreline erosion. Photo: Caryn Green

Cattails are hard to eradicate and prevent shoreline erosion. Photo: Caryn Green

The same characteristics that have earned Typha latifolia some bad PR over the years make the common broad-leaf cattail an excellent candidate for biofuel production: They’re aggressive and invasive. Once established, Typha is pretty tough to evict, making it effective in combating shoreline soil erosion. It is drought- and fire resistant.

Typha is able to thrive in both freshwater and brackish, moderately saline swamplands — out-competing other native species that can only live in one or the other. It’s tolerant of wide fluctuation in climatic conditions and water levels, as evidenced by its occurrence from the sub-Arctic to the tropics, and in areas of persistent drought or frequent flooding.

Cattails are often among the first species to gain a foothold in disturbed environments, even when they were not part of the existing vegetation. They were among the earliest plants to emerge after Mount St. Helens erupted. They’re amazingly prolific, propagating both by airborne seed and underground root growth. They don’t require planting or special treatment; they readily grow on unused land, drinking our garbage.

Ancient civilizations recognized the many uses of cattails: The Romans used them to make whiskey. Cattails were a staple of the Native American diet, and our indigenous populations used them for medicinal purposes, building materials — even to make dolls for the kids. More recently, the cattail’s potential as a food and fuel, building material, and source of paper pulp was cited more than 50 years ago, in a December 1955 Science News article. A New York Times article entitled “Cattail biscuits now” reported, “the starchy inner portion of the cattail rhizome makes an excellent flour”; the piece was dated August 8, 1920.

Bioremediation with Cattails

Cattails purify swampy water. Photo: Caryn Green

Cattails purify swampy water. Photo: Caryn Green

For some time now, cattails have been used to treat secondary sewage (the oxygen-depleted, nitrate-, ammonia-, and bacteria-laden sludge that remains in waste water after solids are removed). In 1986, the city of Arcata, California built one of the world’s first sewage treatment wetland facilities. Today, approximately 500 communities are employing cattails in sewage treatment. Able to absorb solids and detoxify dissolved chemicals like mercury, cattails are ideally suited to the task of bioremediation: They even capture and eat organic bacteria through pores on the lower part of the plant.

But, so far, no community is taking the second step — that of harvesting the plants and converting them to ethanol. A cattail’s starch content would put a potato to shame. Its rhizomes — the stout, horizontal stems that grow just below the soil — can contain anywhere from 40–60 percent starch. There’s no general consensus on cattail ethanol yield — different studies using different methodologies have cited anywhere from 1000 to 2500 gallons per acre — but there is universal agreement that cattails represent enormous potential as a bioremediator and fuel source.

Cattail-for-Ethanol Advocates

David Blume, author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas and founder of the International Institute of Ecological Agriculture, consulted on the Arcata Marsh Project. He has been one of the leading advocates of alcohol fuel since the late 1970s.

“Of the 500 or so municipalities that are using cattails for sewage remediation, none are taking advantage of the cattails to process them into ethanol. The original plans for the cattail marsh in Arcata called for the treatment facility to make fuel from the cattail. And they built a test distillery, but by the time the marsh was up and running, gas prices had dropped and they didn’t follow through.”

Blume suggests one of those “the-problem-is-the-solution” remedies in Alcohol Can Be a Gas. “’How about using the roads to provide the fuel for the cars that use them?” Water gathers around roadsides, allowing runoff filled with toxins like herbicides, oil and antifreeze to be carried for miles downstream. “If each county were to cultivate a 5-foot wide strip of cattail on each side of only 1000 miles of county-maintained roads, boom mowers could shred and harvest up to three crops of cattail per year, producing in theory up to 61 billion gallons of fuel (40% of the U.S gasoline consumption — without using a single acre of farmland while also thoroughly detoxifying road runoff water. Planting energy crops in the nation’s unused median strips along divided highways would generate additional billions of gallons.”

Cattails can treat contaminated ground water and serve as a source for biofuel. Photo: Caryn Green

Cattails can treat contaminated ground water and serve as a source for biofuel. Photo: Caryn Green

Peggy Korth, founder of Sustainable Technology Systems, is a tireless proponent of the cattail as a solution for numerous environmental issues. The author of Small Scale Energy and Fuel Production and the force behind “Cattail Histhings,” a monthly open-source newsletter, Korth — like Blume — has devoted years to the cause. Korth credits her mentor, Dr. David D. Woodbridge of the University of South Florida School of Public Health, with awakening her to the cattail’s enormous potential.

“The American public needs to be educated,” Korth said. “That’s why I’m standing around at county fairs talking to anyone who will listen.” Now that she has “retired” to New Mexico, Korth is only working about 60 hours a week. “Cattail offer a natural solution to multiple environmental concerns,” she says. “It can treat contaminated groundwater without expensive engineered technology. Its starch-rich rhizomes and sugary stalks make it ideal for ethanol production. Its ethanol yield per acre is at the very least three times that of corn, without use of pesticides or fertilizer.”

Korth’s focus is community self-sufficiency and cleaning up farms. She envisions small-scale ethanol distilleries operating in tandem with waste water treatment facilities opposite cattle or produce farms. “If we design it right, we can schedule processing using whatever biomass we have available for fermenting at the time — not only cattail but apples, cherries, sugar beets, or whatever waste produce that’s not selected for consumption — while taking advantage of every bit of alternative fuel we can capture to make the ethanol.”

Growing Awareness, Growing Acceptance

Advocates like Blume and Korth are finding support at all levels — from individuals with home distilleries to municipalities, to legislative bodies, to multinational corporations.

“We’ve been working with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) to push forward legislation for small-scale ethanol production,” Blume told Blue Planet Green Living. Feingold introduced an amendment to the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 to further the adoption of technologies developed by the Department of Agriculture and to encourage small business partnerships in the development of energy through biorefineries. Blume is also encouraged by the introduction of a bill by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) that calls for 50 percent of all light-duty vehicles manufactured for sale in the United States to be dual-fuel automobiles by 2011.

Ford Motor Company applauds the work being done by Blume and his people. The automaker has come forward with sponsorship money in support of his efforts. After all, Henry Ford never intended to burn petroleum-based fuel in his internal-combustion engine. His Model T ran on ethanol.

The cattail-for-ethanol movement got a huge boost from Congress last year. Overriding a veto from George W. Bush, they passed the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. Sponsored by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the bill called for lower tax credits for ethanol produced from corn and other feedstocks, while establishing a credit for production of biofuels from cellulosic matter, such as growing trees, perennial grasses, and agricultural and municipal waste.

In this context, cattails once again lead the way. Cellulose requires complex chemical processing to be converted into sugars and starches, which are then easily fermented into alcohol, while cattails are ready from the get-go.

Flex-fuel Cars Within Everyone’s Reach

Once all this clean, cool home-grown fuel is available, what will it take to adapt our cars to run on ethanol? Not much. Gasoline-burning vehicles require relatively minor software adjustments to the fuel intake program to be able to burn blended fuel.

“It costs about 50 bucks on the assembly line to convert a car to flex fuel,” Blume said. And the cost to convert an existing auto is only a few hundred. You can buy a kit on Blume’s website.

Blume looks forward to increased public recognition that flex-fuel cars are easily within everyone’s reach. Actress-activist Daryl Hannah is going to have one of the conversion kits installed on 9/28, amid, hopefully, lots of press coverage from outlets that do not typically report on environmental issues. Hannah is an ardent supporter of ethanol as fuel and will be at the forefront of a promotional effort to build public awareness on this issue.

Making Progress

The ubiquitous cattail has the potential to solve multiple=

Peggy Korth’s efforts of the past year are getting a positive reception far beyond the county fairgrounds. Sustainable Technology Systems signed an agreement with Otero County, New Mexico on August 8 to conduct a feasibility study on the use of cattails for ethanol. That same day, Korth received a collection permit from the US Forest Service, allowing her to harvest cattail from nearby Lincoln National Forest and to record the plants’ re-growth. “We only remove very small amounts, so the adjoining stands will invade any empty spot,” she explained.

On August 18, the Tularosa, New Mexico village trustees agreed to issue Korth a permit to use their land and waste water effluent to raise cattail. If the results of the study prove favorable, Tularosa could become the first municipality in the United States to use cattail grown in waste water for commercial ethanol production.

For More Information

International Institute for Ecological Agriculture

Biofuels Wiki

House Committee on Agriculture

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)

Ethanol Producer Magazine


Caryn Green

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Post


My 5: David Blume, Executive Director, International Institute for Ecological Agriculture

David Sieg, Biofuel Pioneer

October 29, 2008 by  
Filed under Biofuels, Blog, Books, e-Books, Ecopreneurs, Front Page, Iowa

Rapeseed is an ideal crop to use for biofuel. © Joop Hoek - Fotolia.com

Rapeseed is an ideal crop to use for biofuel. © Joop Hoek - Fotolia.com

“Sitting in a rice paddy one day in 1995, I watched a Viet Cong soldier pour vegetable oil into his tractor,” says David Sieg, co-author of the Down and Dirty Guides to Making Biodiesel.

Sieg is the subject of BPGL’s first interview, with environmental pioneers, leaders in some aspect of the green movement, writers, inventors, visionaries, and “regular” people, who are putting the principles of “organic, green, and natural” to work in their daily lives. BPGL asked Sieg to talk about how he first got interested in biofuels. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


SIEG: Keep in mind, this was a time when Vietnam and the U.S. were still technically enemies. [BPGL note: On July 11, 1995, President Clinton declared that the U.S. would normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam, breaking a 20-year standoff.] The farmer was a relative of my future wife, whose family included soldiers on both sides of the conflict. He was one of the rich farmers who could afford a tractor. He couldn’t afford to buy fuel for it, though. I asked him what he was doing, and he explained the tractor would run on vegetable oil, but wouldn’t start on it. So, he used a little bit of diesel to start it, then switched over to vegetable oil. That was my introduction to biofuels. Later, I learned this was something both the Allies and the Nazis had used in World Wars One and Two, which is where the Viet Cong picked it up.

No one had even heard of biofuels or biodiesel at the time. I was hooked. Of course, there was very little information regarding biofuels. But, for me, this was where the foundation was laid. I studied everything I could get my hands on. Later, I found out that Rudolph Diesel invented his engine to be run on vegetable oil as a means for farmers to always have their own fuel supply.

Once the Internet came about, I was able to study biofuel a lot more in depth from some of the true pioneers. I made lots of trips overseas, shared what I knew, and word got around. In around 2004 or so, I returned to Vietnam, thinking at the time that I would live there. It was easy to see, at that point, that the whole energy system was unsustainable and would soon be in crisis. I knew from experience that the hardest hit would be the third world.

BPGL: When you moved back to Vietnam, you became something of a local expert. Tell us about that.

SIEG: I started teaching at a technical college in Vietnam. People soon approached me about what I knew about biofuels. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a pro. I was just a guy whose hobbies included alternative energy. The school asked me if I could make enough biodiesel to run their generators. I was sure I could, so I did. My students and others got involved. They told their parents, many of whom were business owners. Soon I was consulting on lots of projects. This led to using different kinds of oils, like catfish oil, palm oil, etc. And that led — eventually — to algae.

Tram Nguyen and David Sieg, authors of the Down and Dirty eBook series

Tram Nguyen and David Sieg, authors of the Down and Dirty eBook series

BPGL: You and your wife, Tram Nguyen, have authored a series of books about biodiesel. What motivated you to write about the topic?

SIEG: I started writing about biodiesel simply because, at the time, there was very little “down and dirty” information about it. I mean, I just wanted information I could use, now. I didn’t care about the politics or the technical reasons. It didn’t matter. I just needed hard-hitting information that I could immediately put to use. It started out as my own notes and grew.

The lack of information was even worse about algae biodiesel. There was really no information about it at all. It was brand new and cutting edge. It still is. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use any other information or draw on research of my own. I was working for someone else and confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements pretty much forbade even talking about it. This meant I had to start over. What saved me was that most of the information I had drawn on were public records or studies conducted by the U.S. government that were in the public domain. I was able to recreate a lot of info from that, putting what I knew into it as I went along, adding to it where more explanation or details were needed.

BPGL: Your research covered many different types of oils. Is there one that stands out as more efficient as a fuel, not from a producing point of view, but from an engine point of view? Which provides the best engine efficiency?

SIEG: To me there is no right or wrong answer. Different feedstocks can be used in different places, for different things, for different reasons. In a particular location, one feedstock may be better than another, but there is no “hands down” winner in my opinion. It’s like asking, “Which is better, penicillin or ampicillin?” It really depends on which one you need, right? For example, palm oil is a great feedstock. But in northern climates it gels faster when it gets cold than canola (rapeseed). Does that mean rapeseed is better? That depends on if you live in Europe where it is cheap and plentiful. If you live in Asia, where rapeseed is not that plentiful, or cheap, and the temperatures are warm, then maybe palm oil is better.

Come to Iowa, and I’m sure people here will tell you corn or soybean oil is the best. If however, you can’t abide using food crops for fuel, then neither is any good. Of course, waste oil is a good choice. But the problem with that is, “waste” oil is no longer a “waste”; it has now become a commodity. So the profit advantage from that is now gone, or is shrinking fast.

BPGL: From all that I have read, algae presents the most promising future — high oil content, high number of crops per year and barrels per acre, non-food source, etc. What is your opinion of the future of algae as fuel?

SIEG: Excellent. It has the POTENTIAL to solve a lot, if not all, of our fuel problems. However, there are still lots of hurdles to overcome in producing it commercially. I’d say we are at least two to four years from doing so. But we’re getting there.

BPGL: I understand you’re planning to build a small biodiesel production facility. What fuel source will you use? Cooking oil? Algae? Something else?

SIEG: Algae is cutting-edge, for sure, and still in its infancy. It remains to be seen whether it can become commercially viable. Truthfully, at this point I want to use junk grain. Corn, soybeans, anything that is being thrown out, and/or used as cattle feed. The whole point of alternative energy is to use what is being thrown out, a waste source, and/or free source — such as solar, wind, or geothermal — to create something valuable either from nothing or from trash. You can’t, however, interfere with the food crops. This is a compelling reason some people are using to trash alternative fuels — and they’re correct. It makes no sense to feed engines and furnaces at the expense of food.

However, fuel is a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The disease is called the “Internal Combustion Engine.” If we could move beyond the internal combustion engine (and we can) the entire peak oil crisis becomes moot. It would solve the entire fuel debate in a heartbeat.

But my uses will be personal and small scale. I’ll use it to run a generator, maybe a truck. I’ll also be experimenting with sugar beets to distill biogasoline. I’m hoping to be able to do it from household waste or a small energy farm. We’ll see. I have no desire to do it commercially.

BPGL: You said the word “experimenting.” This implies research. Directed toward efficiency? Different sources? Perhaps data for your next book?

SIEG: What I want to do at this point in my life is show people they can become completely energy independent, and do so in ways that doesn’t mean reading by candlelight or eating Spam out of can. To be as comfortable as we are now by re-directing our energies in different way. This can be done NOW. Not 10 years into the future. The technologies are here. It is our thinking which is getting in the way. You can easily eliminate almost 75 percent to 85 percent of your utility bills simply by doing small week-end projects and changing your thinking. You can eliminate it completely using solar and/or wind energy. So I’m looking to buy an old farm house on 10 acres, and make it produce all it’s own energy. Not everyone can buy an old farm, I agree. But everyone could eliminate their utility bill by making small changes in thinking, and very little elbow grease.

BPGL: You were a teacher of bio energy alternatives when you were in Vietnam. Do you intend to teach at a college or junior college here in the States?

SIEG: No. To teach here would mean to be constantly defending every breath you take to fools. Publishing papers for the sake of publishing papers. Life is too short. Why not talk to people who want to listen, rather than trying to convert those who don’t? Let life itself convince them.

BPGL: Without giving away your latest book, how can an individual begin producing algae as fuel at home?

SIEG:    It’s not that simple, and too many factors come into play. There also isn’t a “one-size-fits-all,” or a “paint-by-numbers” method of doing it. What you have to remember is that using algae for oil isn’t a “static” process like mixing biodiesel. Algae is not an inert material, it’s a life form.

Biodiesel is a pretty straightforward process: Mix “A” into “B,”,then mix “A” + “B” into “C” to make “D.” People make the mistake that making fuel from algae is the same process. Algae, however, is a “dynamic” process, meaning it changes all the time. Introducing a life form into the equation forces that change. The capacity for variation is almost endless. To that end, trial and error, in any personal situation, is almost guaranteed.

But to answer your question, an individual can start by getting any local strain of algae and see if they can make it produce and reproduce. It’s not easy to mimic nature, not even for a one-celled organism. The complexities of even simple organisms are staggering.  But that would be the beginning of the journey. After that, they need to find an oil-bearing strain of algae, and see if they can get that to reproduce. Sounds simple, right? I mean after all, the stuff will grow in your birdbath. Give it a try. Easier said than done.

BPGL: Tell me about your Down and Dirty series of eBooks.

SIEG: They cover just about everything you need to know about biodiesel at this point. My books are more expensive than most and they’re worth it.

BPGL: Who is your target audience? Who do you think needs these books?

SIEG: Anyone who believes in thinking globally and acting locally, anyone who wants to make a difference in the environment, anyone who believes that oil companies don’t have to be our natural destiny, anyone who wants to be energy independent, anyone who doesn’t believe in wars for oil. In short, just about everyone, sooner or later.

In my next set of eBooks, I’ll be getting away from biofuels (sort of) and concentrating on making people energy independent. Like I said, it’s possible. I’m going to show people how.

BPGL: Describe your average reader.

SIEG: Describe your average person. About 75 percent of my customers are from the USA, I’d say 10 percent from the EU, or Australia, and about 15% from everywhere else.

BPGL: Why is it so important for people to have this information? How is this information going to help the planet?

SIEG: Change is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. I think most thinking people understand this now. Either we have to take a pro-active step in cleaning up the global consequences of climate change, or Mother Nature will do it for us. The first step, once again, is going to be weaning ourselves off of hydrocarbon fuels. Then, second, taking away the nipple of the internal combustion engine. Period. End of story. If we don’t, then history is full of lost civilizations and we’ll become another one of them. I’m not trying to be “Doom and Gloom” about this, but to me anyway, at this point the outcome is pretty clear. We either clean up the mess, or we suffer with it. I don’t see a third choice.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)