03 April 2007

How Much Carbon Dioxide from Biodiesel?

Biodiesel puts CO2 in the Atmosphere -- But How Much?

soybean plant, borrowed from http://technolog.it.umn.edu/technolog/spring2002/biodiesel.htmlBiodiesel is made from vegetable oil or animal fat. In the U.S., most of it is made from soybean oil. This makes it a "renewable" or "alternative" liquid transport fuel.

The carbon dioxide released by burning biodiesel in your vehicle was originally taken out of the air by soybean plants. So in some sense biodiesel is "carbon neutral" and doesn't contribute to increasing atmospheric CO2 as much as the regular diesel made from fossil petroleum.

To produce one gallon of biodiesel takes about 18 kg of soybeans. But the soybeans are only part of the soybean plants that produced them. The soybean harvest makes up only about one-quarter of the biomass of the soybeans the farmer grew. So the total biomass grown to make a gallon of biodiesel is about 75 kg.

The soybean plants made themselves out of air, using the energy in sunlight to fix CO2 into carbohydrates and lipids. Growing that 75 kg of soybean plants took about 175 kg of CO2 out of the air. (The plants spat the O2 out again, and replaced it with the lighter element hydrogen.)

So that gallon of biodiesel started off as 175 kg of CO2. To produce the soybeans, crush them to separate their oil, manufacture the oil into biodiesel, and transport the products among these operations took some energy derived from fossil fuels. Assuming this energy came half from natural gas and half from liquid fuels, these fuels contained 700 grams of carbon. When they were burned they released about 2.5 kg of CO2. (True, the transportation fuels could have been biodiesel -- the impact of such substitution is left to the student as an excercise.)

Where the Carbon Goes

So about 177 kg of CO2 is embodied in the gallon of biodiesel, and all of it will be released as the biodiesel is produced and used. Here is where it goes:
  • About 30 kg of plant residue is left in the field. Eventually it decomposes and releases 110 kg of CO2. This is more than 60% of the 177 kg of CO2 we started with.

  • Soybean oil makes up only about 18% of the soybean, by weight. After the oil is extracted what is left is "soybean meal", a valuable protein-rich animal feed. The Soybean meal from our one-biodiesel-gallon's worth of soybeans weighs about 15 kg and contains about 13 or 14 kg of carbon. Eventually it will be digested by animals, broken down, and converted back into CO2 (it may have to go through several animals to finally be CO2 again). That will yield about 53 kg of CO2, about 30% of what we started with.

  • When the soybean oil is converted into biodiesel there is some glycerine produced as a byproduct. When that glycerine is eventually broken down it will release another 850 grams of CO2 (less than 1%).

  • The fossil energy consumed in the growing, transporting, and processing to get biodiesel to the vehicle's fuel tank produces about 2.5 kg of CO2 (about 1.5%).

  • Finally we get to the biodiesel. One gallon of biodiesel has about 2.8 kg of carbon in it, and when it is burned it will produce about 10 kg of CO2. that is about 5.5% of the CO2 fixed by the soybeans and burned to make them into fuel.

picture of biodiesel-powered bus, by U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Efficiency of Biodiesel

So in one sense we used agricultural and industrial ingenuity to convert 700 grams of carbon in the form of fossil fuels into 2700 grams of carbon in biodiesel. That is like multiplying that fossil carbon 3.8 times!

On the other hand, the process was shockingly inefficient, turning 50 kg of carbon fixed by plants into 2.7 kg of carbon in liquid fuel form. Only 5.5% of the total fixed carbon ended up powering a vehicle!


It all depends on how you look at it.

These posts are thoughts that have occurred to us here at GCF Associates and Global Climate Fund. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas for future posts.

1 comment:

scoutmus said...

There is a way better solution to soybeans used as a seed to produce biodiesel. May I invite you to check out this webpage:
It contains the ultimate solution for production of biodiesel, enough to supply and replace the whole worlds demand of fossil fuels within the next 10 to 15 years - and the end of poverty in the african countries at the same time!