Biofuels and the Common Wealth

14 November 2013

Dreamstime - SintraPatrimonio Mundail

Several years ago, it was my good fortune to make several visits to Lisbon and its environs. It is a short rail trip through the hills northwest of Lisbon to Sintra, a sylvan place of castles and palaces. Lord Byron is said to have called it “the most beautiful place on earth”. Markers there refer to Sintra as Patrimonio Mundail, literally the world’s patrimony.

The phrase “world’s patrimony” resonates with me. There is a Common Wealth that all of us share — to enjoy now and to preserve for those who follow us. Cultural sites like Sintra offer one example of that Common Wealth. The natural world is another, as is the atmosphere we all breathe and live in.

Sustainability is about recognition of and respect for the Common Wealth.


Biofuels — fuels from sustainably renewable sources — are an attempt at recognizing something of the Common Wealth that the natural world represents. Biofuels offer several advantages:

>> Environmental Emissions — Biofuels are sourced from non-toxic organic matter of recent origin, such as trees or grain. The carbon dioxide emitted when such fuels are burned is balanced by the carbon dioxide that was adsorbed as the source plant grew — a closed loop.

>> Energy Independence — Biofuels offer an alternative to fossil fuels, such as coal or petroleum. Since biofuels originate in the fields, they may be grown in places that lack fossil alternatives.

>> Natural Resources Conservation — Reliance on fossil fuels is clearly not sustainable. Sooner or later, that patrimony will be exhausted. Plants, on the other hand, are renewable.

>> Fuel Price Stability — The price of biofuels need not be tied to that of other fuels.

Biofuels today provide about 4% of America’s energy requirements. Roughly half of that is liquid fuels, primarily used as transportation fuels, the remainder is mostly methane captured from landfills, used for boiler fuel and other industrial purposes.[1]

Transportation Biofuels

In 2007, the U.S. Government passed legislation requiring that motor fuel suppliers admix fuels from renewable sources with petroleum derived motor fuels sold in the U.S. Most of us are familiar with the “contains up to 10% ethanol” notices on the pumps at the service station. In 2011, that 10% amounted to 12,871 million gallons of renewably sourced ethanol. An additional 878 million gallons of biodiesel were blended into diesel fuel.[2]

>> Gasoline Replacement — The almost 12.9 billion gallons of ethanol pumped into American cars is produced almost entirely from corn. That’s about 4.9 billion bushels (275 billion pounds) of corn. 40% of the total U.S. corn crop is distilled into ethanol, which is mixed with gasoline and burned by your car and mine!

Of course, corn has other uses, like corn on the cob, corn flakes and livestock feed. This government mandated additional demand for corn has had some unintended consequences. When demand increases a lot, and supply can’t increase apace, price does its usual thing. Has anybody priced beef steak at the super market lately?

Further, burning food instead of eating it is not really my idea of sustainable. The global population is on course to increase by another 2 billion souls by 2050, while several billion humans significantly increase their income, hence rate of food consumption. Yet more: as I write this (12 November 2013), the Associated Press has released an article on the environmental impacts of increased corn production in America’s heartland (primary in Iowa).[3]  Whoops… as Kermit says, it isn’t easy being Green.

There are other ways produce more sustainable ethanol. Brazil uses bagasse. Bagasse is what remains of sugar cane after the sugar has been pressed out. Bagasse is a (formerly waste) by-product, so there is no loss of food (sugar) production. There is no (additional) cost of growing the bagasse. No additional fertilizer, seed, tilling or whatever. Just the cost of converting the bagasse to ethanol. At the same time, the simpler process of converting bagasse to ethanol means the net amount of carbon dioxide involved is significantly lower, so it is both cheaper and Greener. Little wonder that most of the cars in Brazil run on ethanol.


>> Diesel fuel — Organic oils, of animal or plant origin, can rather readily be converted to fuels comparable to petroleum middle distillates — such as diesel fuel, #2 fuel oil or jet fuel. Bio-based diesel fuel has a long history: Rudolf Diesel ran his engines on peanut oil before 1900!

Today’s biodiesel fuels are made primarily from soybean oil or palm oil. Both are food products, with the same problems that ethanol from corn faces. There is much experimental work and pilot – scale production today on biodiesel fuels from food waste, from algae and other possibilities. This is a large potential market, led by demand in Europe (over 50% of new cars sold in the E.U. are diesel powered) and from the U.S. military.

So What?

The natural world and the atmosphere are clearly examples of the Patrimonio Mundail that directly affect — and are affected by — the actions of businesses everywhere. Responsible actions to protect and enhance such patrimonio are necessary, be those actions through businesses acting individually, jointly, or via proxies such as government. When businesses act individually or jointly (through trade associations or through organizations like the U.S. Business Council on Sustainable Development), those businesses retain a measure of control over the definition and extent of those actions. When government acts, the definition and extent of actions is substantially determined by political and other factors.

Lead or be led.

Chuck - BrittanyThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington

: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website ( are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published on Wednesday evenings.

Photo – Sintra:


[1] See the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook, available at:


[2] The Energy Information Administration’s publication Biofuels Issues and Trends,, is the source of most of the specific figures cited in this post.