Biodiesel from Algae and the Biofuels Discussion in Argentina

An Argentine company called Oil Fox announced recently that they would produce biodiesel from algae oil for commercial use. According to the website SciDev.Net, the company has signed an agreement with the government of Chubut province (located in Patagonia, Argentina) to grow four species of algae in "secret" pools around the province (to avoid industrial espionage, they claim). The whole project would involve 19 million US dollars investments -from German capitals-, and is supposed to result in 240 thousand tons of biodiesel. This is the latest of a series of announcements related to biofuels that have been taking place in the country in the last year, and specially after the launch of a biodiesel law by Argentine government and the US president George Bush's visit to the region (in which he signed an agreement to promote a market for ethanol with Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva). As a result of that, in the last weeks biofuels have been getting big headlines in the country's biggest newspapers and projects have flourished everywhere. According to Clarin newspaper, "13 biodiesel projects have been announced, with investments over 300 millions US dollars in plants, that will start functioning by the end of the year in provinces like Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, Tucumán and Rio Negro". Even though most countrymen support the initiatives (mostly for the economic revenues they mean to them), some scientists and groups have been making interesting points about how the theme is being (mis)treated in Argentina.
Picture: soy and corn plantations and algae in Chubut, Argentina.Leaving the most radical speeches behind, we thought worth mentioning some excerpts from a document by Engineer Enrique Mario Martinez, president of the Argentine National Institute for Industrial Technology (a well known investigation institution), who highlights issues like the low yield of corn-based biodiesel, the different impacts in the environment between biodiesel and bioethanol, and the big oil companies interests in biodiesel mixed with petrol.

One of the drawbacks Martinez -and many professionals- questions is corn biodiesel, since the amount of energy required to plant, fertilize, harvest and process the grains until their final fuel form is almost the same or less than the energy obtained in biodiesel. "According to some authors, it generates about 100% or 40% more -as ethanol- than the necessary for its implementation. Some investigators -like a serious Cornell University group, claim that the total balance could be even negative. That is: the final anhydrous alcohol could deliver a total amount of energy below than the necessary to produce the corn, extract the alcohol and purify it".

Another factor the engineer points is that "biodiesel obtained from vegetables oil even when used at 100% or mixed with petroleum, does not reduce in a relevant way the greenhouse effect. Its relation with the environment is actually indirect". Martinez explains that the European legislation has taken the sulfur levels in fuels to very little levels (below 50ppm), and low sulfur mineral fuels loose lubricant ability inside engine cylinders. "So the 5% biodiesel incorporated to the carburant mix is intended to recover that lost ability", he says. "This demand has nothing to do with the benefit of biodiesel for the environment, but with its capacity to allow a correct function of diesel engines when sulfur is eliminated from the mineral fuel". When it comes to ethanol from vegetable matter, Martinez says, it's a different story: "Europeans demand it to mix with petrol and its effect there is in fact contamination reducing, specially because it substantially reduces emissions of gases (those different from carbon dioxide".

Martinez points as another issue the fact that as a way to mantain their power, liquid fuels producing companies -also distributors- will try to control the coming scenarios, favoring fuels produced at big scale instead of those that can be generated and consumed locally. "Biodiesel or ethanol, mixed with gasoil or petrol, keep the actual model and therefore are stimulated; little matters if the first one doesn't reduce directly the contaminants by itself, or that the energetic balance of corn-based ethanol is totally debatable", he says. Hence, adds that the biodiesel production to be used to 100% in a farm, the use of vegetable oil as direct fuel with little adaptations in the gas engines, hybrid cars, domestic Aeolian generators, etc, don't have enough media or institutional support.

As closing thoughts, the INTI president says even though the possibility to use soy or corn with a new purpose hasn't endangered the global food supply and that "probably won't happen", it will seriously affect the soy and corn price as commodities. "It has already happened with corn, as a result of the US government ethanol promotion. The supply won't drop, but it will be more difficult to access to these, specially for poor people".

Going back to the original news, biodiesel from algae is supposed to be more convenient for the environment, since the soil isn't depredated and they capture until four times more carbon dioxide when making photosynthesis. Algae has also a higher yield: while one soy hectare results in 400 oil liters, the same amount of algae area results is 100 thousand liters. It also costs 50% less than the one produced from soy, according to Oil Fox president, Jorge Kaloustian.

So this is good news regarding the first concern pointed above (about corn yield), though yet to be seen if other initiatives appear as a response to the other questionings surrounding the biofuels business in the country. Download the whole document by Engineer Martinez here. ::Original Algae Biodiesel story ::Repsol YPF to produce Biodiesel in Argentina ::George Soros to invest 300 million in Biofuels in Argentina

Tags: Argentina | Biodiesel | Buenos Aires | Ethanol

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