Biofuels have gotten a lot of attention recently due to the promise they show as a renewable energy source. Unfortunately, several of the current most popular sources of biofuels are not considered to be very sustainable. Palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia are among the primary culprits in the massive deforestation of the native rainforest, threatening critically endangered species such as orangutans and the Javan and Sumatran rhinos and violating indigenous land rights. In the US, the widespread use of corn-based ethanol contributes to the growing Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to runoff from the heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as many other environmental and social problems, including the rising food prices that have contributed to growing social unrest and uprisings in many countries.
In order to be sustainable, biofuels must create more energy than they take to produce, require minimal chemical inputs or irrigation, minimize damage to local ecosystems or wilderness areas, and minimize agricultural land taken out of food production, among other factors. Fortunately, there are some biofuel crops that show greater promise to fulfill these requirements.
If you are interested in the renewable energy field, consider starting a green business growing sustainable biofuels. Here are five unique green business ideas in biofuel production:
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) was once one of the dominant species of the North American tallgrass prairie. Like most native prairie plants, it performs very well on marginal soil with little or no chemical inputs or irrigation thanks to its extremely deep and fibrous root system, which is also renowned for its good erosion management and water filtration abilities. Switchgrass has been a top choice for soil conservation and game cover plantings for many years, and also makes good forage for cattle and bison. Some cultivars, most notably the striking bluish “Heavy Metal,” are also popular in ornamental plantings. More recently, it has gained a lot of attention as a second generation biofuel for cellulosic ethanol production because of its efficiency at turning solar energy into biomass and the extremely low inputs required to produce it. Recently, some scientists have even begun to experiment with using diverse native prairie plantings combining switchgrass with other native grasses and forbs as biofuel feedstock.
Miscanthus giganteus is another grass species that has become popular for cellulosic ethanol production. A hybrid between the popular Eurasian ornamental grass Miscanthus sinensis and Miscanthus sacchariflorus, Miscanthus giganteus lives up to its name by growing 12 feet tall or more and producing more than twice the biomass of corn or switchgrass. Though not as hardy as switchgrass, it also has low input requirements, making it very cost-effective to grow.
Though still in the experimental stage, woody agriculture shows great promise as a sustainable biofuel production system. Woody agriculture is based on the ancient practice of coppicing, which was used to produce much of the charcoal that powered the early Industrial Revolution. Coppicing is the practice of cutting a tree down close to the ground and allowing it to resprout from the roots. It fell out of favor after the discovery of fossil fuels, but is experiencing a renewal of interest thanks to the success of some experiments with coppicing willows and hybrid poplars for biomass. Woody agriculture takes this a step further and uses fast-growing, nut-producing trees such as chestnut and hazel to create a food-and-fuel rotation. Developed by the Badgersett Research Corporation in Canton, MN, the system is now spreading to other farms.
Another experimental biofuel crop that shows great promise for the future is agave. As a native dryland plant with more than 200 species worldwide, agave shows great promise as a biofuel crop in semi-arid regions with marginal land, including many parts of the US Southwest. It is already widely cultivated in Mexico as a source of fiber, and is also one of the major ingredients in tequila. Currently, more than 80% of the plant is discarded during tequila production, but this waste could be used to produce biofuels. Recent studies have found that Agave mapisaga and Agave salmiana, in particular, substantially surpass the productivity of other popular biofuel crops.
Algae is one of the darlings of the sustainable biofuels movement whose potential has only begun to be explored. Preliminary tests suggests that it could produce up to 300 times more fuel than corn or palm oil, that just 15,000 square miles of cultivation (1/7th the land currently covered by corn in the United States) could replace all petroleum fuel consumed in the US, and that it can do it in virtually anything, even wastewater. However, production costs have so far remained too high for widespread commercial viability. Will your green business be the one that finally realizes the promise of algae biofuels?