If you’re interested or work in the energy industry, it’s been a wild ride over the last few months.
- Royal Dutch Shell predicted that its oil production had peaked and would never again reach its 2019 level.
- OPEC announced that it will maintain its production restraint.
- Saudi Arabia hinted that it may increase production by one million barrels to shore up its reserves.
- Texas was hit by two deadly snowstorms in a week, making home heating fuel a precious commodity.
- Yet, because of the storms, production in the Permian Basin has slowed dramatically.
Even in an industry known to be a rollercoaster, these last few months have been especially tempestuous.
But from a deeper, more strategic perspective, the energy industry looks a bit less volatile, inching ever-so-surely toward a more diverse energy landscape—tilting away from fossil fuels toward more renewable energy.
Public policy plays an important role in that transition, and the tea leaves point to a renewed focus on green energy funding and incentives and a more robust regulatory environment. The market is trending in that direction as well, as witnessed by Shell’s recent oil production announcement, the lower-than-expected demand for oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and an increased investment in solar and wind power by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its energy behemoth Aramco. Literally and figuratively, the winds are shifting.
The macroscopic policy focus has been on wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal. But I’m an engineer, and while I’m highly conscious of the macro, I make my living in the micro, and one of the micro-areas I’ve been researching the most of late is biodiesel fuel—energy manufactured or recycled from vegetable oils, animal fats, algae, or restaurant grease. Think of sunflower oil, animal fats, and yellow grease powering global transportation. The end product can be used in cars, trucks, planes, or in any engine that uses diesel fuel. It’s made in the USA and is renewable…because there’s not likely to ever be a shortage of restaurant grease. More importantly, it:
- Requires little or no adaption for use in diesel engines. You just need the right mix, a decision comparable to the one you make when selecting a fuel grade for pumping gas into your car.
- Is biodegradable.
- According to the EPA, biodiesel fuel emits 11% less CO2 and 10% less particulate matter than regular diesel while reducing net carbon emissions by almost 80%.
The logic is obvious and no stranger to the energy discussion. What if we could take waste—human, animal, industrial—and rather than spending hundreds of millions to store it/detoxify it/diminish it, we transform it into something that both delivers a valuable energy resource and diminishes its negative impact on the environment? From manure ponds to used cooking oil, what we now routinely store or pay others to dump can—with the right engineering technology and financial incentives—soon offer an alternative to hydrocarbon fuels.
Biodiesel fuel is simply blended fuel—mix the new byproduct with the diesel fuel and you have biodiesel. Manufacturers have a few different blends as options: 2% (B2); 5% (B5); 20% B(20); and even 40% B(40). The blend you use depends upon the type of diesel engine you run. (BTW. Biodiesel can also be used as heating oil, which presents a whole new world of possibilities and logistics challenges.)
There are challenges to overcome in assessing the impact of biodiesel on our energy menu.
- Will we have a stable energy policy focusing on reducing dependence upon fossil fuels, or will the pendulum swing widely depending upon who inhabits the White House?
- Are there ways to provide incentives to move toward biofuels without delivering windfalls to large corporate entities and/or political cronies?
- Can we compete with foreign countries who boast dramatically lower labor costs in the energy industry?
- Can we increase engineering innovation to improve industrial efficiency and to create financial incentives to do so?
- How do we efficiently deliver animal waste, sugar, algae, or restaurant grease from geographically diverse farmyards and restaurants to transportation and production facilities for biodiesel manufacturing?
Getting these biomass products off the farm and into the engine presents challenges that us engineers can address. But first, the farmers must do their part.
In order to have enough biomass for fuel, there needs to be a steady and reliable supply of animal waste, algae, grease products, etc. to rely upon. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Consider the vagaries of changing human food tastes, global trade and tariff issues, climate change and weather disruptions, and rollercoaster commodity prices.
But if the farmers can handle supply challenges, it’s up to us engineers to design a supply chain that factors in biomass availability, manufacturing, storage, and distribution logistics.
Unfortunately, biomass feedstock is bulky, comes from far-flung places spread across the rural landscape, requires demands increased labor costs to load and unload, and is aerobically unstable throughout its transportation cycle. It’s our job to ensure that upon leaving the production plant, this volatile fuel does not oxidize, get contaminated with water, or become fermented by microbial activity.
Storage is less challenging; if you can store petrodiesel, you can store biodiesel. Be sure to avoid brass, copper, lead, or zinc, as those materials shorten the lifespan of the fuel. Minimize light and heat exposure as well for obvious reasons, but also ensure that biodiesel doesn’t freeze and become an ugly gel. If the temperature at your storage location is likely to dip below 50°F, you’ll need to consider heating, insulation, or below-ground storage. Water is biodiesel’s main enemy, as it’s frequently present in existing diesel storage tanks. But the less time biodiesel spends in storage, the less likely it is to degrade. “Use it or lose it” is a wise adage to follow.
Unlike waste, food stocks, and grease, algae present different opportunities. As with animals and oil, fat is the key here and, believe it or not, algae have pockets of fat in their cells. It’s what allows them to float on the surface of the water.
In contrast with the wide geographic footprint of crops, manure ponds, or fryer grease, algae can be grown in a more constrained environment and their concentration yield more bang for the buck. They also don’t require high-quality soil or expensive retention walls to prevent pollution. Algae aren’t fussy. They’ll grow in crystal-clear fresh water, brackish salt water, and everything in between. That means that a significant portion of the United States can grow algae. States with the greatest exposure to sunlight are the leading candidates, including Arizona, California, Florida, and Hawaii. Interestingly, the same dairy and feedlots that hold the greatest potential for biomass production would also be excellent sites for algae ponds, as would municipal wastewater treatment facilities. The nutrient-rich wastewater could spur algae production. In turn the algae remove pollutants from the ecosystem.
Biodiesel fuel is not a panacea. But it’s worth staying abreast of the science and the technology behind these opportunities. I intend to do my part by continuing to engage with multiple players in this field, so stay tuned.