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Biofuels crambe breaks through to biofuel

Published on February 19th, 2009 | by Tina Casey

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Corn Biofuel is Toast: Here Comes Crambe

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February 19th, 2009 by
 
Corn is beginning to seem more and more like the has-been-that-never-was of the biofuel feedstock scene.  An inedible, weedy-looking plant called crambe is the latest competitor to come along and stick a fork in it.  Never heard of crambe?  Then you haven’t been spending enough time in North Dakota.

The Icing on the Crambe

Crambe is a drought-tolerant plant that’s economical to grow in the U.S. compared to other biofuel feedstock such as soybeans.  The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) has developed technology that can convert crambe seed oil (and other feedstock) into biofuels that are virtually identical to petroleum fuels.  The EERC has just announced a one million dollar grant to demonstrate the commercial viability of the process.

A Brief History of Crambe

Crambe is an inedible Mediterranean native that was introduced to the U.S. in the 1940′s and established in several states.  In addition to its potential as a biofuel, crambe oil is used to manufacture synthetic rubber, as well as erucic acid-based materials like plastic film and nylon.  It’s also used for lubrication and corrosion control.

Crambe:  But Wait, There’s More

The U.S. currently gets its supply of erucic acid primarily from imported rapeseed oil – to the tune of 40 million pounds annually.  Crambe oil looks promising as a domestic source because it contains up to 9% more erucic acid than rapeseed, and it’s better suited to the U.S. climate.

Earth to Corn: Buh-Bye

Corn is rapidly losing its place (if it ever really had one) as the pivotal element in the biofuel picture.  Non-food plants like crambe and algae are front and center in the next wave of fuel production.  There is even a place for animal carcasses.  And new bacteria-produced plastics may soon make corn bio-plastics obsolete.

If the end is in sight for corn biofuel, it’s not too hard to imagine the day when King Coal topples off its throne, too.  It will never disappear completely as a fuel source, but we won’t be sacrificing the world at its alter any more.

Image: meemal at flickr under creative commons.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • chrisp

    Come on Alan! Ethanol from corn does not save a bit of oil. It takes just a much oil to make ethanol. Plus you are killing the river and streams along the way. The only thing Ethanol has been good for is a stepping stone. Don’t plan on it being around once Washington gets their head out of their a$$.

    Go figure… GM.

  • chrisp

    Come on Alan! Ethanol from corn does not save a bit of oil. It takes just a much oil to make ethanol. Plus you are killing the river and streams along the way. The only thing Ethanol has been good for is a stepping stone. Don’t plan on it being around once Washington gets their head out of their a$$.

    Go figure… GM.

  • chrisp

    Come on Alan! Ethanol from corn does not save a bit of oil. It takes just a much oil to make ethanol. Plus you are killing the river and streams along the way. The only thing Ethanol has been good for is a stepping stone. Don’t plan on it being around once Washington gets their head out of their a$$.

    Go figure… GM.

  • Alan Adler

    I work at General Motors in biofuels. Hate it or love it, corn-based ethanol IS the source of biofuels today – 9 BILLION gallons of it last year alone. And biofuels – read, ethanol – is the only alternative even making a dent in reducing oil/gasoline consumption. So isn’t it kind of silly to dismiss corn ethanol out of hand for something few have ever heard of. If we get rid of corn ethanol, what will pave the way to cellulosic and other advanced biofuels?

  • Alan Adler

    I work at General Motors in biofuels. Hate it or love it, corn-based ethanol IS the source of biofuels today – 9 BILLION gallons of it last year alone. And biofuels – read, ethanol – is the only alternative even making a dent in reducing oil/gasoline consumption. So isn’t it kind of silly to dismiss corn ethanol out of hand for something few have ever heard of. If we get rid of corn ethanol, what will pave the way to cellulosic and other advanced biofuels?

  • nix

    mds – You are right about lithium also coming from south america as well, in fact it seems that contrary to what I previously thought, most of it comes from their currently. But that unfortunately does not solve the many problems in using lithium batteries in cars.

    Lithium is terrible for the environment in both extraction and in disposal.

    It also overheads if short circuited or damaged and can cause fires or explode. Sure, gasoline does the same thing, but why not use something that doesn’t?

    More on lithium – http://www.azom.com/news.asp?newsID=7648

    Even wikipedia agrees with me – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium

    I had never heard of electrolytic capacitors until now, but after looking at them, they are already far outclassed by modern superconductors that would be used in cars anyways. That point is moot.

    With capacitors, you would be able to pull up to a charging station, hook in a plus, and charge your car in 5-10 minutes and go. Not too different from what we have now. They only downside is range is about 1/3 of a lithium battery, but that’s based on current (but not production) technology. It will improve.

    Lithium is useful, but to think it will be a solution for powering our cars is folly.

  • nix

    mds – You are right about lithium also coming from south america as well, in fact it seems that contrary to what I previously thought, most of it comes from their currently. But that unfortunately does not solve the many problems in using lithium batteries in cars.

    Lithium is terrible for the environment in both extraction and in disposal.

    It also overheads if short circuited or damaged and can cause fires or explode. Sure, gasoline does the same thing, but why not use something that doesn’t?

    More on lithium – http://www.azom.com/news.asp?newsID=7648

    Even wikipedia agrees with me – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium

    I had never heard of electrolytic capacitors until now, but after looking at them, they are already far outclassed by modern superconductors that would be used in cars anyways. That point is moot.

    With capacitors, you would be able to pull up to a charging station, hook in a plus, and charge your car in 5-10 minutes and go. Not too different from what we have now. They only downside is range is about 1/3 of a lithium battery, but that’s based on current (but not production) technology. It will improve.

    Lithium is useful, but to think it will be a solution for powering our cars is folly.

  • nix

    mds – You are right about lithium also coming from south america as well, in fact it seems that contrary to what I previously thought, most of it comes from their currently. But that unfortunately does not solve the many problems in using lithium batteries in cars.

    Lithium is terrible for the environment in both extraction and in disposal.

    It also overheads if short circuited or damaged and can cause fires or explode. Sure, gasoline does the same thing, but why not use something that doesn’t?

    More on lithium – http://www.azom.com/news.asp?newsID=7648

    Even wikipedia agrees with me – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium

    I had never heard of electrolytic capacitors until now, but after looking at them, they are already far outclassed by modern superconductors that would be used in cars anyways. That point is moot.

    With capacitors, you would be able to pull up to a charging station, hook in a plus, and charge your car in 5-10 minutes and go. Not too different from what we have now. They only downside is range is about 1/3 of a lithium battery, but that’s based on current (but not production) technology. It will improve.

    Lithium is useful, but to think it will be a solution for powering our cars is folly.

  • Sam

    You mean the weeds I’ve been pulling out of my yard are worth money?

    XD

  • Sam

    You mean the weeds I’ve been pulling out of my yard are worth money?

    XD

  • mds

    Don’t forget about jatropha, a drought tolerant bush. There is already $ billions being invested into the use of this plant. Something like 30% of the seeds of this plant are oil.

    Crambe is a new one on me. Very interesting.

    nix,

    I thought most lithium was from S. America. There’s plenty down there and elsewhere. As for “low life”, I have a list of 9 companies who make lithium batteries with a life of 3,000 deep depth-of-discharge cycles or more. You’re talking about full discharge per day for 8 or 9 years. Some of these are nanotech lithium materials that are as safe as any capacitor from explosion. (Much safer than electrolytic capacitors.) Capacitors are certainly improving and will certainly be used, but lithium batteries are here. Several companies are building large scale production. There are further improvements to lithium batteries in development. Sometimes it’s not either or, but both.

  • mds

    Don’t forget about jatropha, a drought tolerant bush. There is already $ billions being invested into the use of this plant. Something like 30% of the seeds of this plant are oil.

    Crambe is a new one on me. Very interesting.

    nix,

    I thought most lithium was from S. America. There’s plenty down there and elsewhere. As for “low life”, I have a list of 9 companies who make lithium batteries with a life of 3,000 deep depth-of-discharge cycles or more. You’re talking about full discharge per day for 8 or 9 years. Some of these are nanotech lithium materials that are as safe as any capacitor from explosion. (Much safer than electrolytic capacitors.) Capacitors are certainly improving and will certainly be used, but lithium batteries are here. Several companies are building large scale production. There are further improvements to lithium batteries in development. Sometimes it’s not either or, but both.

  • Jonathan

    Crambe might be the next great biofuel source, but don’t think the corn producers are going to give up their ethanol-production subsidies without a massive fight. The corn lobby is very powerful in Washington.

  • Jonathan

    Crambe might be the next great biofuel source, but don’t think the corn producers are going to give up their ethanol-production subsidies without a massive fight. The corn lobby is very powerful in Washington.

  • nix

    Corn is terrible nutritionally as well.

    If you feed cattle entirely corn, they die. Same thing when we send it overseas to starving people. It gives energy, but they will still lack everything else they need to function, in effect, starving while full.

    Lithium batteries for cars are being talked about like people used to talk about corn. People are not thinking through the implications.

    (For those that don’t know, lithium comes mostly from china, and the world supply is already running low. Couple that with a fairly low life, it’s just bad planning. Capacitors are the way to go. Non explosive, recharge very quickly, can be made from much safer materials, easily last decades and lower wieght. The main downsides are lower energy storage, and cost. But those will be fixed as we become more proficieant in mass producing nano products.)

  • nix

    Corn is terrible nutritionally as well.

    If you feed cattle entirely corn, they die. Same thing when we send it overseas to starving people. It gives energy, but they will still lack everything else they need to function, in effect, starving while full.

    Lithium batteries for cars are being talked about like people used to talk about corn. People are not thinking through the implications.

    (For those that don’t know, lithium comes mostly from china, and the world supply is already running low. Couple that with a fairly low life, it’s just bad planning. Capacitors are the way to go. Non explosive, recharge very quickly, can be made from much safer materials, easily last decades and lower wieght. The main downsides are lower energy storage, and cost. But those will be fixed as we become more proficieant in mass producing nano products.)

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