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Biofuel Companies Miss the Point, Turn to Natural Gas

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Biofuel Sample Up CloseWhat is the point of biofuels development, except to eliminate carbon-dioxide [CO2] emissions? Basically speaking, biofuels emit the same amount of CO2 during combustion that was removed from the atmosphere by the biomass it was synthesized from.

For example, a bioenergy crop, during photosynthesis, combines CO2 and water [H2O] to produce Sugar [C6H12O6] and Oxygen [O2]. Biogasoline synthesized from this crop is a carbon chain between C6 and C12, which, when burned, releases the same amount of CO2 back into the atmosphere. As long as the process is carbon-neutral, biogasoline is a clean fuel.

Natural gas, on the other hand, is a byproduct of petroleum- and coal-extraction and refining. Captured and refined itself, it can be used as a fuel. Calysta Energy’s new biofuel process will not use biomass, but natural gas, in its new ‘biodiesel’ plant.

Researchers there have proven that microorganisms that normally feed on natural gas can be modified to produce other chemicals, including a sythetic diesel fuel. Can you really call it ‘biodiesel’ if its feedstock is natural gas?

Alan Shaw, CEO of Calysta, summed it up quite nicely, when he said, “Biomass doesn’t cut it. Carbohydrates are not a substitute for oil. I was wrong in that, and I admit it. That will never replace oil because the economics don’t work. You can’t take carbohydrates and convert them into hydrocarbons economically.” [italics mine]

It seems to me that Calysta, and other biofuel companies who are abandoning biomass, is missing the point. Fuels derived from natural gas, while they may be competitive with current hydrocarbon fuel supplies, are not carbon-neutral. Green companies are having a difficult time, but this is a step backwards.

Tom Foust, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, says that prices for both natural gas and sugar are volatile. At current low gas prices, natural gas has an advantage, he says, “but it’s overly simplistic to say that natural gas is the preferred feedstock [for biofuel] forever and ever.” [mine]

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