The Age of Vegetarian Machines: Biofuels Continue to Grow as a Renewable Energy Source

As sensor technology and artificial intelligence improve, humans are sharing more and more traits with machines: sight, touch, speech, even thought. Increasingly, we have something else in common—our food.

Vegetarian machines may sound futuristic, but plant-powered cars and trucks are as old as jazz music and celery soup. Invented in 1908, Henry Ford’s Model T ran on ethanol and corn, and Rudolf Diesel used peanut oil to fuel his 1898 compression-ignition engine.  Although fossil fuels proved more efficient, biofuels have come a long way since then.

Now, in the era of hip hop and kale salad, biofuels are an established part of the energy mix for industry, transportation, and everyday electricity needs. They’ve also taken their place in the world economy.

According to the International Energy Association, global output of biofuels will increase from 110 billion liters in 2012 to 135 billion liters in 2018. Last year, the bioenergy industry was valued at $168 billion, and it is projected to reach more than $246 billion by 2024.

GE-Biofuels-Sidebar-FINAL“Canada has a large role to play in the future [of biofuels] and we’re in a great place to take it on,” says Murray Thomson, director of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s program for clean combustion engines. He cites the technical expertise of Canadian companies as a key advantage.

Growing interest in bioenergy is spurring investment and giving rise to new Canadian ventures. Biox Cooperation operates a 67 million-liter biodiesel facility in Hamilton. Woodland Biofuels in Sarnia, Ontario turns things like woodchips, cardboard, and agricultural waste into ethanol. Edmonton biofuel startup Forge Hydrocarbons turns animal fat and oil into petroleum fuel; last year, they were awarded $4.2 million by the federal government to start production and go to market.

These types of investments are vital for the continued development of this sector. “Canada and its provinces have been steadily increasing consumption of biofuels and clean energy,” says Ian Thomas, president of Advanced Biofuels Canada. But more work is needed. “Unless we invest in production capacity here, we will become importers of the fuels of the future.”

Government research grants play a part, but the most important investments come from established companies that are ready to make a serious commitment, explains Murray Thomson. “The fuel industry is a capital-intensive business. To build a biofuel plant of a meaningful size, it has to be quite large to be economically viable.”

One example of viable biofuel investment with meaningful impact is the partnership between GE Water & Process Technologies and the University of Guelph in Ontario. The partnership is focusing on the development of a wastewater treatment process that enhances anaerobic digestion. In other words, it cleans more sewage, faster. What’s more, this technology potentially generates three times the amount of biogas than is possible from regular treatment. The by-product? A valuable, pathogen-free fertilizer.

This is the sort of win-win-win scenario that secures a powerful role for biofuels in Canada’s renewable energy future.

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