Manure Manager

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Biofuels are biofuels


April 29, 2008
By Robynne Anderson

I don’t mean to dismiss the
differences that exist between a broad range of biofuels. Ethanol from
grain, biodiesel from oilseeds, and biogas from manure: all use
renewable resources to create energy and that’s important for the
environment and important for
agriculture.

    I don’t mean to dismiss the differences that exist between a broad range of biofuels. Ethanol from grain, biodiesel from oilseeds, and biogas from manure: all use renewable resources to create energy and that’s important for the environment and important for
agriculture.

    It’s arguable that success is already at hand for the biofuels business. Ethanol and biodiesel output is growing at a rate of 30 to 40 percent globally, with China slated to dramatically increase production in the next two years. As the Economist magazine noted in a recent issue “… the old idea of biofuels as merely a green diversion from the real world can no longer hold. Fine, when oil was $20 a barrel, (but) not even oil companies believe it now.” In fact, today oil companies are among those investing in biofuels.

    This growth could mean good things for manure too, if the sector can engage in the experimentation, development, and public policy discussion.

    In few places—other than Brazil—is the biofuels business driven purely by markets. The hand of government in subsidizing production and encouraging use cannot be ignored.

    Even now, policies are shifting support from biodiesel (generally created from oilseed crops) to ethanol (generally created from grain and sugar) and back again. Recently, cellulose technology that uses straw and wood has become a focal point. It’s important for animal agriculture to participate in this policy debate; support for biofuels must include manure-based solutions with the sustainability of the environment and the livestock sector in mind.

    This is not only an issue of subsidy—it is also an issue of the materials used to create energy. The raw material costs of ethanol production are about 50 to 60 percent of the total cost. Undoubtedly grain is cheaper than oil, and straw is likely to be cheaper than grain; but what of manure? It may not make ethanol, but scientists are using it as a replacement for oil, and more commonly electricity. Manure is generally collected in centralized areas and thus offers the potential to further reduce raw materials costs for energy conversion, provided water content can be managed.

    As the sophisticated lobbies of the grains and oilseeds businesses drive value to their industries through biofuels, the animal agriculture lobbies seem quiet on this front. There are estimates that ethanol could soon represent as much as 30 percent of the end use of grains. Creating a market for grains and oilseeds clearly is an important part of that
industry’s agenda.

    On the other hand, animal agriculture tends to look at meat as virtually the only market. Here is a chance to change that. Seeking a piece of the biofuels pie can make a tangible difference to animal agriculture producers. Imagine if 30 percent of manure output could be turned into energy.

    Of course, one hopes use of manure for biofuels could also make a tangible, positive difference to waterways, air emissions, and human health. A first step could be mandating the military to use biogas from manure for a portion of their energy needs, particularly in areas of intensive livestock production.

    Manure is certainly a byproduct of animal agriculture. Perhaps we could see it as a product for use in biofuels in the years ahead.


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