Is Biofuel Set to Fly High?

Aviation produces 2% of the world’s human-induced carbon dioxide emissions and the demand for air travel is predicted to double over the next 20 years. As such, the industry is desperately looking for new ways to reduce their emissions, along with the energy generating industry itself, and this has spurred an interest in biomass-derived jet fuels. Although many different plant materials can be used to produce this fuel, researchers at the University of Illinois are working on engineering sugarcane to make it a high yielding, resilient crop ideal for producing far more energy than it takes to make.

Getting more Fuel per Land Unit

One of the problems in using bio-jet fuel is, at current production levels, there simply isn’t enough available for it to be widely used. Sugarcane is widely used to create biofuels and Brazil has been using it for many years to create ethanol which yields 25% more energy than is used to produce it and reduces emissions by 15% compared to fossil fuels. However, the University of Illinois researchers theorised that they could engineer the sugarcane to produce enough oil that it could be used to create biodiesel which is even more environmentally friendly as it yields 93% more energy than it takes to produce it and has 41% less emissions than fossil fuels. It is also more suitable for large scale deployment.

Other Benefits to Sugarcane

Natural sugarcane is unsuitable for producing biodiesel because the plants contain only 0.5% oil but the researchers believe they can increase that to 20% using genetic engineering. To date, they have managed to increase the production of fatty acids and oil to 12% and have named the plant they have created ‘Lipidcane’ and predict, at 20% oil, it could produce 15 times more jet fuel than soybeans. They also predict that it could be five times more profitable for farmers than soybeans. Another benefit to using the new lipidcane plant is, once the juice has been extracted from it, the remainder can be burnt to produce steam and electricity. In their calculations, the researchers also worked out that enough energy could be generated this way, it would not only fully power the biodiesel production, but to also be sold back to the grid.

Sugarcane in the US

Typically, sugarcane grows in tropical climates, hence why it is so popular as a source of biofuel in Brazil, but the researchers believe they can engineer their lipidcane to grow in colder climates and, as it thrives on marginal land not suited to other food crops, they believe it could be grown in underutilised land in the south eastern United States. They projected that if their 20% oil yielding lipidcane was planted on 23 million acres of this part of the US, it could produce 65% of the country’s jet fuel. It’s estimated that this fuel would be cheaper than bio-jet oil derived from algae, soybeans, canola or palm oil.

Work continues in this area to create new strains of lipidcane that can photosynthesise more efficiently, grow more quickly and produce more oil. They will call this ‘energycane’. Research of this kind is going on all around the world and Ex~I Flow Measurement are proud to provide flow measuring computers to all kinds of energy producing companies. To speak to someone about how we can help you, call +44 (0)1243 554920 or contact us here.