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doug root

What’s new in transportation fuels

— by Doug Root, Ph.D

AURI Senior Scientist of Biomass & Renewable Products Technologies

While ground-breaking scientific technology is rarely predictable, we do know that there will always be change and innovation. In the area of transportation fuels, there are many developments that will likely have an impact on Minnesota’s agriculture economy. This column gives an overview of the factors that might impact renewable fuels, but the only certainty about future developments is that “the future ain’t what it used to be,” as Yogi Berra noted many years ago.

In the biofuels world, unpredictable developments in weather, commodity markets, and technology will maintain a certain level of turmoil for those in the ethanol and biodiesel industries. The technology for use of E15 (15% ethanol in blended gasoline) for late-model vehicles appears to be acceptable to the EPA, and this opens the way for states to require E15 at the pump. However, opposition from petroleum companies and others continues to be a challenge to greater utilization of ethanol. This summer’s droughts are also impacting the price of corn, raising the production costs of ethanol. In addition, the energy balance of biofuels, land use changes, and greenhouse gas impacts are being widely debated and may influence decisions regarding ethanol production in Minnesota.

New technologies for biodiesel production are under development in Minnesota, which could expand the production capacity within the state. There is also much discussion around the Renewable Fuel Standards, which mandate the use of defined amounts of renewable fuels. Increases in utilization of biodiesel in Minnesota are mandated at a 5% biodiesel blend (B5) now, B10 in 2013, and B20 in 2015. However, outside factors could cause delays in the schedule.

One of the biggest changes in recent years is the technology for production of biobutanol as a potential transportation fuel. Biobutanol is an alcohol similar to ethanol, but with four carbon atoms instead of the two carbons in ethanol. It is produced from corn starch by microorganisms in a process similar to fermentation, but yeast is not involved in the process. Two biobutanol plants in Minnesota, Gevo in Luverne and Butamax in Lamberton, appear to be blazing the path toward a sustained biobutanol industry. Also, Butrolix in Duluth has technology that may increase the efficiency and yield of butanol from fermentable sugars. It is not clear yet whether butanol can be cost competitive with ethanol for transportation fuel, but the availability of markets for butanol as an industrial chemical allows decoupling of butanol production from transportation fuel markets.

It is difficult to know which innovations and changes will succeed, but it seems clear that biofuels will continue to have a great impact on the agriculture economy in Minnesota for years to come. The potential for innovation every day is a good reason to be optimistic about the future of value-added agriculture in greater Minnesota.