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Biofuels Are a Loser, Despite the Hope and Hype

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
  • Member since 2006
  • 969 items added with 314,118 views
  • Feb 22, 2013

biofueldI’ve been spending the past hour or so reading an excellent paper written by a US Naval aviator titled Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Energy Security Strategy. Though there is sufficient coverage of the basic chemistry and thermodynamics of agriculture and combustion processes to satisfy the geek in all of us, the paper is easy to read and understand for anyone with a reasonably broad based education.

There is a healthy portion of history included that makes for fascinating reading. I learned quite a bit of new material, even thought I have been intensely interested in energy for many decades. For example, have you ever heard of the waterworks project for the city of Chan Chan, which failed due to a fatal planning flaw; no one surveyed the required route to realize that it inevitably required water to defy the law of gravity?

I learned that the chemical energy added to soil by intensive ammonia-based fertilization has been directly responsible for increasing Iowa corn yields by a factor of 6 since the 1930s. It was a little depressing to find out that that adding hydrogen from natural gas to upgrade carbohydrates to useful liquid fuel releases 11 tons of CO2 for every ton of hydrogen added to the fuel and that the process is absolutely required to make biofuel compatible with the military fuel supply system.

There is also an important passage about the Dynamic Energy Budget theory and why it highlights the importance of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for both organisms and for society as a complex organism that requires energy to function.

The paper’s author has a solid background in a world where critical thinking skills can be the difference between success and a very short career.

Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer is a naval aviator and EA-6B pilot with 7 deployments to the PACOM and CENTCOM AORs and 21 months on the ground in Iraq. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physics from the US Naval Academy and a Master’s in Strategy from the US Army Command and General Staff College. He has commanded at the O-5 and O-6 level and was 2005 action officer of the year of the Joint Staff J-7 Directorate in the Pentagon. He currently teaches strategy at the US Air Force Air War College as the CJCS Chair.

Captain Kiefer clearly explains why no amount of genetic engineering can overcome the fundamental limitations of trying to grow fuel for vehicle propulsion and why adding biofuels into our fuel supply makes us less secure. I hope that the people who are excited about funding the Green Fleet will listen to one of their own and stop the wasteful spending program.

The post Hard reality – biofuels are a loser, despite all the hope and hype appeared first on Atomic Insights.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Feb 21, 2013

My goodness, someone mentions "thermodynamics" and "growing" (photosynthesis?) and "genetics" and they have it all figured out so they blow a little steam!

No, growing weeds will not turn your propeller. But with quantum mechanics and chemical kinetic pathways, bio-derived carbons might drive more than a few cars. And not just after yeast eats it.

I can't help what your Captain reads, but I assure you, carbohydrates are hydrogen donors, not acceptors.

Many old corn farmers will tell you getting rid of quackgrass and other parasitic weeds was a defining step toward better yields.

But hey, who cares?

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Feb 21, 2013

Another post by a short sighted fool.  Hydrocarbon fuels come from a biological origin in the 1st place and we are currently learning to compress a million years of nature into a virtual instant.  Though the process may not be where it needs to be at this particular moment in time if we "stop the wasteful spending program" as you put it we never will get there.  That type of stupidity would have had us abandon the laser as a " solution looking for a problem and never developed the tech which sees huge portions of data transmission/storage dependant on the technology.  Yes let's throw the baby out with the bathwater because the tottering elderly fossil fuel technology feels a little bit threatened.

Ivor O'Connor's picture
Ivor O'Connor on Feb 21, 2013

Why go to all this trouble to explain why biofuels are Snake Oil? Well I'm going to wager it's because you want to take their subsidies away and apply them to nuclear Snake Oil? 

How much longer do we have to keep subsidizing different types of Snake Oil? End all subsidies now!

Simon Friedrich's picture
Simon Friedrich on Feb 24, 2013


Thank you for disseminating T. A. Kiefer's interesting paper. It should be highlighted concerning his statement in Section 2:

“DoE formally abandoned the “Gasohol” program after acknowledging that physical limits of poor energy balance and extreme land use requirements made it impractical…........during that same period before shutting them down without achieving any breakthroughs.6

These failures never stopped Congress funding bioenergy programs.  It has been a strongly funded energy research topic under all administrations since President Carter.  Also, under President Ford a large wood to oil project was started in Oregon.  In addition, the 2009 Economic Stimulus Law added about $ 800 million to the Department of Energy’s budget for biofuels.  

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Feb 23, 2013


I am quite familiar with the Navy's daliance with biofuels. My last job on active duty was in the office where the funding was being diverted from operational the operational fuels budget into the biofuels experiments where bio based jet fuel was costing in excess of $20 per gallon. The fuel works, but requires an energy intensive set of processing steps that does nothing to reduce our vulnerability to supply interruptions.

As an analyst, I strongly recommended not moving that money. Instead, the experiments continue and the fleet does not have the fuel it needs to do its job.

There is one hope for turning biomass into useful liquid fuel - injecting the energy input required from nuclear energy. Captain Keifer mentions that option briefly in the paper, but did not spend much time exploring why it might be beneficial. The key is that nuclear plants are great for making heat and electricity in a place where weight is not an issue, but they would have a hard time propelling an airplane or a personal vehicle. Artificial hydrocarbons made from plants could perform that task rather well.

This concept has been well known in defense analysis circles for many years. One of my buddies served on the CNO advisory panel in the early 2000s. They investigated the option and thought it would work well, but they determined that the politics would be challenging. The economics were quite favorable, especially for an organization that already has all the necessary infrastructure and the necessary training systems in place.

Rod Adams CDR, USN (Ret)

Publisher, Atomic Insights

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Feb 23, 2013

Rod, I was "hoping" you would read Mark Caine's (a Shell Oil young fellow) fine article of a week ago regarding the Alberta tar sands. I encouraged considering on-site nuclear process energy and some nuclear advocates responded that it was being considered.

Concerns of burning fossil fuels to create fossil fuels from a primitive tar for 50 years are barrier. As is the pipeline. As is, "how do you turn tar into fine fuels without abundant reactive hydrogen sources (like methanol, etc.)?"

The politics are less challenging today, given the cellulosic use mandates. The challenging part for me is the abuse of the term "biofuel." So I propose we start calling coal and oil "biofuel," too. That way it will become completely meaningless.

Ron Wagner's picture
Ron Wagner on Feb 27, 2013

Biogas is the most competitive biofuel, and is simple to produce. Third World nations can, and do produce it. No othe biofuel can compete with it aside from burning biomass dierectly or as pellets. Biogas is fairly easy to refine and use in engines, compared to oil. 

Ron Wagner's picture
Ron Wagner on Mar 11, 2013

Biogas can be refrigerated to LNG. My understanding is that the price is similar to any natural gas. It is being marketed now. I don't care if the government uses biogas, but it fits the definition under discussion.LNG and CNG should be the fuel of choice for the military and all governmental agencies. That would beat exporting it. Diesel/LNG engines are currently in use in trucks and ships. They are being prepared for locomotives. These engines can burn from 10% to 100% diesel when LNG is not available, So there is no excuse for not adopting them. CNG meets all the needs of light trucks and autos. They can also be bifuel with gasoline if needed. Payback would be short for any application that burns a lot of fuel. Government buildings in Washington D.C. are still burning fuel oil! 

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