• Jul 28, 2011
Researchers from the University of Idaho and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have analyzed the energy life cycle of soybean-based biodiesel and presented updated data showing the renewable fuel offers a fossil energy ratio of 5.54 to 1. This isn't a typo. The 5.54:1 ratio comes mostly from the "free" power of the sun that helps the crops grow.
This energy-in, energy-out ratio – commonly referred to as energy balance – shows that "biodiesel production continues to improve when it comes to efficient use of resources," according to Don Scott, director of sustainability at the National Biodiesel Board. Furthermore, Scott claims that, "No other fuel available in the U.S. comes close to such a high energy balance."

Since the USDA had to conduct its analysis using data from 2006, it's quite likely that biodiesel production techniques have improved significantly in five years' time. Why? Well, there seems to be a trend in biodiesel production efficiency. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and USDA completed a comprehensive life cycle assessment for biodiesel back in 1998. That study found a 3.2:1 energy balance. Then, in 2009, the DOE and USDA revisited biodiesel production and, using data from 2002, found the ratio had soared to 4.56:1. Jim Duffield, USDA senior agricultural economist, who co-authored all three biodiesel life cycle analysis, says that:
In addition to improved energy efficiency at processing facilities, soybean growers have accomplished greater yields with lower inputs of water and fertilizer per bushel, even as cropland has declined.
And the Western Farm Press boldly claims that biodiesel is the "only commercially available, advanced biofuel" made in the U.S.A. Apparently, standard corn ethanol isn't considered "advanced," then?

[Source: Western Farm Press | Image: jsbarrie – C.C. License 2.0]


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  • 17 Comments
      Marco Polo
      • 3 Years Ago
      The main future for biodiesel should be as a replacement fuel for maritime use. The conversion of just 10 large container vessels from bunker oil to Biodiesel, would equal the removal of the entire US car fleet ! Biodiesel can be produced form other crops that Soya, and can be grown on very marginal land, even deserts. From the Planet Earths point of view this would be a far more useful investment than wind-farms, Solar, or any other technology.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Marco Polo
        Actually, I would rather see container ships using micro nuclear, like Hyperion. Those reactors can provide 20 years of energy and waste material is about the size of a football (which is reused for new reactor fuel).
      EVnerdGene
      • 3 Years Ago
      I'd like to hear the fossil energy ratio for ethanol production in the US, from an unbiased, authoritative source.
        superduckz
        • 3 Years Ago
        @EVnerdGene
        That would depend. Are you talking corn ethanol like here in the US (which by every measure I've ever seen is terrible) or sugarcain/sugarbeet ethanol which by most accounts is quite excellent. All these technologies still have a deleterious effect on food prices however.
      superduckz
      • 3 Years Ago
      I am not what most folks on here would consider an environmentalist but I am a HUGE fan of this technology. This and algae tech make SO much sense an are so obviously possible that I'm almost positive that it will fail. Government stupidity and protectionism along the US attitude towards efficient diesel being what it is. I really hope I'm wrong.
      paulwesterberg
      • 3 Years Ago
      AFAIK the energy return on investment(eroi) for oil has been dropping because deep/offshore wells & lower quality reserves(sour oil, tar sands) and is now down to 20:1. Industrial solar & wind are currently at around 17:1 have been improving as technological advancements are made. 5.54:1 makes biodiesel worth the effort as a cleaner climate-neutral way to fuel our legacy transportation systems, but going forward renewable electric power generation will win.
        Pete K
        • 3 Years Ago
        @paulwesterberg
        Yeah, except for the big trucks...at least for a while...
          superduckz
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Pete K
          And what is going to power that rail transport?
          Spec
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Pete K
          Exactly. A lot of transport will move to electric but there will always be some things that require energy dense liquid fuels such as aviation and heavy long-distance trucking.
          paulwesterberg
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Pete K
          But we don't need heavy long distance trucking if we have an adequate system of rail transport.
      GoodCheer
      • 3 Years Ago
      "No other fuel available in the U.S. comes close to such a high energy balance." What about hydrogen electrolized from water using PV? No, I'm not supporting hydrogen, I'm simply pointing out that if you included different components in the EROEI calculation for different technologies, you can get yourself tangled up really fast. So be careful out there, readers. They call the the "fossil ratio" for a reason.
        Stacey
        • 3 Years Ago
        @GoodCheer
        First, you need a lot of electricity to break enough hydrogen from water to drive any significant distance. Second, PV panels are only about 12-15% efficient, converting just 12-15% of the solar energy to electrical energy. Third, PV panels spend about a third of their life simply paying off the energy it took to make them in the first place. Better to use PV to directly charge batteries and use the batteries to run a car, but still not ideal. Consider the following rough estimate with the Nissan Leaf: Assume: Leaf's battery capacity is 24 kWh. 20% minimum state of charge, leaves 19.2 kWh to be provided to full charge. 200 watt solar panels (5'x3' - $270) 8 hours of peak solar production each day (this is very generous). With the above assumptions, it would take 96 panels to fully charge a Nissan Leaf in 8 hours. That is an array 40' x 36', and would cost $26,000 just for the panels. This is a generous estimate as well, as you rarely get peak wattage out of any panel for 8 hours a day unless it is mounted on a sun-tracker. Possible, yes. Also remember, this array would only be able to fill a Nissan Leaf, not power a home as well. I'm still a fan of electric, mainly because there are many sources for electricity, and even if charged from coal, they are still less polluting than individual gasoline vehicles. I am also a fan of biodiesel, in that it can also come from many sources. I currently own a VW TDI, and as it ages (and gets out of warranty), I plan to increase its biodiesel consumption over petrodiesel. I'd consider buying an electric car, but unfortunately, the range issue is the main problem for me. My commute is 1.5 miles, done by bike year round, but I often travel long distance for business. Today, I'll be putting about 360 miles on our TDI, at 44 mpg.
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Stacey
          If your TDI is new enough to be under warranty, I would be wary of increasing the BD ratio above the recommended 5%. The new common-rail engines run their fuel at about 30,000 PSI, which is apparently enough pressure to make BD "come apart" and ruin the fuel system. Until a BD formulation is created that can handle those pressures, stay away. I drive a 2005 Passat TDI which has a PD (Pump Duece) engine and I run B99 in it as long as it's warm enough not to gel, and it works great. http://tdiclub.com/ is a great resource for TDI owners and potential owners.
          Schmart Guy
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Stacey
          @Stacey, Better check your numbers again. 96, 200 watt panels would give you 19.2 kW of output. The maximum the LEAF can draw is 3.3 kW. That would require only 17, 200 watt panels.
          GoodCheer
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Stacey
          Similar to Schmart Guy's comment: If you're supplying 19.2 kWh in 8 hours, that's 2.4 kW, which would be 12 of those 200W panels. ... but as you say, 8 hours/day is almost impossible.
      Alex_Pawlowsi
      • 3 Years Ago
      well, as we have seen time and time again, American-produced Corn Ethanol is far from being an "advanced" biofuel, might as well start drinking oil instead of corn-based products... Good news for biodiesel producers, steps in the right direction
      • 3 Years Ago
      Sorry, but the photo that was on my Flickr account was not mine to share. The owner of the photo has requested that it be taken down. Best, jsbarrie
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