Richard Branson and Boeing heap hope-and hype-on biofuels.
- By Michael Milstein
- Air & Space magazine, September 2007
University of Wisconsin
(Page 4 of 5)
The production and use of fertilizer, the need for long-distance hauling, and the operation of processing facilities might cause more ecological damage than it prevents.
“You don’t want to spend more energy trucking low-energy material around to get it to your plant than you end up in the fuel you produce,” says Douglas Kirkpatrick, who oversees biofuel projects for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA,which is spending more than $15 million on at least three aviation biofuel projects.
A team of researchers working for NASA calculated that a field of soybeans, a common biodiesel crop, big enough to cover Florida would replace merely 15 percent of the U.S. commercial jet fuel burned each year.
Even if such a harvest were practical, the soybeans would be taking away land for higher-value crops, including food plants, and thus driving up those costs.
But there may be other options. Researchers in Brazil are experimenting with a jet fuel that is made from the nuts of the babassu palm, a tree that’s already growing across millions of acres there.
The U.S. Department of Energy also studied algae, which grows quickly and densely while sucking up carbon dioxide, producing 150 or more times as much oil per acre as soybeans.
If algae were grown on a large scale at a reasonable cost—a scenario still in the works—an algae patch the size of Maryland might supply 85 billion gallons of fuel a year, enough for the world’s entire jet fleet.
Then there are fats. William Roberts, a professor at North Carolina State University, helped develop a patented process to turn fat-rich animal and vegetable oils into jet fuel.