By Arianna Puopolo
Good intentions will not save the planet. The world’s population is looking for a solution to global climate change, but the repercussions of our search may be contributing to the further deterioration of the planet.
“There’s only so much you’re going to be able to get out of our environment,” said David Fridley, staff scientist and leader of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
After half a century of neglecting biofuels, scientists, students and citizens reestablished them as a viable source of fuel almost a decade ago.
From that research came two of the more common alternative fuel sources which are now widely available to the public: biodiesel and recycled vegetable oil. Biodiesel, which can be derived from a variety of plants, is an energy source which has gone through a refinement process. Straight vegetable oil (SVO), virgin vegetable oil, and waste vegetable oil (WVO) — oil which has been used for cooking and more — will run in any diesel engine, requiring only minimal filtering.
The process by which each of these is derived varies greatly, but when each one is used as liquid fuel within the transportation sector, they all produce fewer emissions than petroleum fuel.
On Dec. 6, 2006, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) hosted the UC Biodiesel Meeting, which was attended by representatives from nearly every UC as well as Stanford University. The agenda for that meeting, posted by the UCOP, outlined a discussion regarding the possibility of integrating biofuels into UC fleet fuel supplies. In effect, the UC system has decided to make an effort to reduce schools’ contribution to climate change.
Just months after the conference, UC San Diego and UC Irvine began taking strides towards neutralizing the environmental impact of their campuses in regards to global climate change. UCSD received press coverage after several of its students recycled used vegetable oil from campus dining facilities into usable fuel.
James Ma, who graduated from UCSD in 2007 with a degree in chemical engineering, contributed to the team effort by converting his campus’s WVO into fuel. Ma said he would like to pursue graduate research in alternative fuel, and plans to investigate more of the options for producing sustainable biofuel.
“We need to do a lot more work before it can be viable on a national scale,” Ma said.
Because of the experimental aspect of the project, Ma and his team’s oil has not been put to use by UCSD. Their 100 (B100) percent vegetable oil fuel is being used to fuel some of the student participants’ cars, however.
UCI is also doing its part to affect change. The university is currently revamping its transportation department. Stacy Murren, the UCI fleet services manager, said, “UC Irvine’s shuttle system has been converted to B100. … The campus shuttle bus system carries over one million passengers per year.”
They are currently exploring other ways to become more environmentally friendly.
“We have made some progress in converting our refuse trucks,” Murren said. “The entire campus community is very proud of this accomplishment. We faced many challenges along the way.”
Not to be left in the dust, UCSC is doing its part to protect the environment. Warren J. Lutey, fleet services manager, said that 72 of UCSC’s 290 vehicles are running on B20 (20 percent biofuel and 80 percent diesel) and the university is in the process of purchasing several more “fuel-flexible vehicles.”
“There are a lot of departments working hard to get this campus working greener,” Lutey said.
Biodiesel is derived from semi-renewable resources and reduces environmental impact, but there is one hitch: Its growing popularity is responsible for the massive deforestation of rainforests in places like Southeast Asia and South America.
According to New America Media, palm plantations are responsible for nearly 90 percent of Malaysia’s deforestation. It is also a growing export of Indonesia, and endangered species in Borneo and Sumatra are now facing extinction due to displacement and habitat destruction.
Soybean plantations cover over 50 million acres of land in South America that were once rainforest, and that number is growing due to the United States’ Environmental Act of 2007.
This act requires that the U.S. build up a supply of 50 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, and a significant percent of that fuel will be corn-derived ethanol.
Because of the growing demand for corn production in the U.S., many American farms that once yielded soybeans are being converted to cornfields. As a result, Brazil is picking up the slack and has become the world’s No. 1 soybean exporter. Millions of acres of rainforest are being destroyed in an effort to clear land for farming.
Biodiesel is created through a refining process. One bushel (2150.42 cubic inches or 35.24 liters) of soy produces 1.5 gallons of biodiesel. Fifty gallons of biodiesel can be derived from one acre of soybeans.
Fridley, who recently addressed the inefficiency of biofuels at the Louden Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz, spent his hour in front of an attentive audience pointing out the production rate and investment/return ratio of energy in various biofuels.
Corn-derived ethanol is one of the least energy-effective energy sources. Palm oil has a higher rate of return in relation to amount of energy invested in the production of fuel than any other commonly acknowledge source of biodiesel, but it is still not as high as petroleum.
Fridley is persuaded that dependency on oil, biofuel and other liquid energy sources is unwise.
“Reduction is going to be forced on us,” he said.
Instead of liquid fuels in the transportation and industrial sectors, Fridley is “a fervent supporter of the electrification of transportation.”
He emphasized the concept that the only dependable, sustainable source of natural energy is wind, although he acknowledges, “What we don’t have is a good, long-term, light-weight, cheap way to store [the energy].”
SVO or WVO fuel, on a larger scale is not sustainable as well. The U.S. deposes only 3 billion gallons of vegetable oil annually. In that same year, the U.S. consumes 66 billion gallons of diesel.
Centralized communities like the UC could potentially rely on recycled vegetable oil as a dependable source of fuel, but there is no guarantee.
Biodiesel works in diesel engines and can reduce total hydrocarbon emissions by 47 percent when used as a 20-percent blend with a catalytic converter and petroleum. Reduction of air pollution decreases as the ratio of biodiesel to petroleum increases.
Professor Brent Haddad, of UCSC’s environmental studies department, specializes in water research. He said that water is the “Achilles heel” of biofuels. “If we’re going to be successful with biofuels, we’ll have to solve the water problem,” Haddad said.
But Haddad has an optimistic approach to the setbacks in biofuel development.
“We should think of this as a starting point for biofuel, not as an ending one because of the negative impact,” he said.
Haddad emphasized focusing on the present options while new alternatives are being developed.
He also recognized the dependence Americans have on liquid fuels. “The value of biofuels is that they are liquid [fuel] and that is crucial to our transportation sector,” he said.
While some people are counting the costs of using SVO/WVO or biofuels, others have dedicated their livelihoods to taking advantage of the opportunity to reduce their contribution to global climate change.
Craig Reece and Will Noel are two entrepreneurs who advocate the advantages of SVO/WVO and biofuel use.
Reece is a co-owner of Plant Drive, an online company that provides people with the information and technology to run their cars on SVO and WVO, and Noel is a partner and executive manager of Pacific Biofuel in Santa Cruz.
Reece and his wife both drive cars that run off of WVO. “I live and breathe this stuff,” he said. Reece said he was originally drawn to SVO and WVO because “it has the tiniest carbon footprint of any fuel on the market, currently.”
Reece, who has made SVO and WVO his livelihood, said that anyone who does even the most minimal amount of research could make SVO or WVO work as a fuel in their vehicle. “What you don’t want is anything partially hydrogenated or containing trans fat; bad for your body, bad for your car,” he said.
While Reece acknowledges the limited supply of SVO and WVO available, he also said he did not anticipate the mass population converting their cars, so it’s not a problem at this time.
Noel and Pacific Biofuel have aspirations of creating a market for local production of biofuels. Currently, their biofuel is created from a blend of domestic soybean oil and WVO and distributed from a company in Las Vegas, but Pacific Biofuel would like to see biofuel localized. “We’d like to bring all the factors of production into the county,” Noel said.
Some concerns with biofuel involve cost, but as Noel pointed out, the price difference between regular diesel and biodiesel is minimal. “It’s not a ‘boutiquey’ type of fuel,” he said.
Biofuels like ethanol, biodiesel, and SVO/WVO are considered “first-generation biofuels.” The development of alternative fuels has taken over a century thus far, but programs like Iowa State University’s degree in biosystems engineering are working toward progress. They may be the key to finding an alternative fuel from algae Jatropha or other, as yet undiscovered “second-generation biofuels.” Making the effort makes the difference. As Fridley said, “It takes energy to make energy.”