Could Plants Be the Petroleum Alternatives We’ve Been Waiting For?

Mini sunflowers are filling up the car with green power.

Running our cars on corn and used cooking oil sounded like a novel prospect in the early aughts when oil prices spiked. And though it didn’t take off as expected, that doesn’t mean that biofuels are dead. Now, in addition to developing bio-diesel, scientists are working on creating more efficient petroleum alternatives from plants and other renewable sources that could become commercially viable, without competing with food crops.

Are Biofuels Still Worth It?

A universal switch to electric vehicles and a complete abandonment of fossil fuels would be ideal for the planet, but since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, the development of petroleum alternatives mixed with gasoline seems to be one way to incrementally phase out fossil fuels. But with the massive grip the oil industry has on the global energy economy, those steps have been slow and met with a lot of resistance.

Biodiesel has been around for several decades now, though most of the commercially used fuel is blended with traditional diesel. And while B100, or pure biodiesel fuel, is typically compatible with most engines, it isn’t sold everywhere.

There have also been hurdles in its implementation with regulating emissions and ensuring engine compatibility, but in the U.S. the biggest hurdle has been the price. Diesel has been taxed heavier than regular petroleum, making diesel engines less common in the U.S. compared to other countries.

Biodiesel is a much cleaner fuel source, as it’s carbon emissions are offset by the growth of the plants, like soybean, used as the fuel source. The only emission it produces more of is nitrogen oxide, though more recent vehicles have implemented filters to curb NOx almost entirely.

For blends of biodiesel such as B5 or B20, the amount of hydrocarbon pollution is equivalent to the amount of non-biodiesel petroleum in the blend. Though it’s better than nothing, the jump to B100 would result in an estimated 74 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. Making this jump would require sweeping policy changes, but for now the good news is that biodiesel production has been steadily on the rise, though it still only accounts for about 5 percent of all transportation energy sources.

When it comes to biofuels for non-diesel petroleum, the story is slightly different…

While ethanol mixed with gasoline might lower emissions from your car, many argue that the energy-intensive process for growing crops like corn and sugarcane cancels out the benefits, actually leading to greater aggregate emissions. In fact, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the climate benefits from replacing non-diesel petroleum with biofuels is basically nothing. At the same time, ethanol lowers your gas efficiency by at least 3 percent.

Plant Oil As Fuel

There are certain plants that produce compounds called terpenoids, or terpenes, that can generate hydrocarbons, which are typically ideal candidates to be used as a biofuels. Ranging from bacteria to pine, these terpenes are being studied by private companies and government agencies to be genetically modified to produce more hydrocarbons.

Starting in 2009, the U.S. Energy Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, or ARPA-E, was running a research program looking at 10 different potential sources for the next big biofuel. The project was called PETRO, an acronym for Plants Engineered to Replace Oil.


plant oil as fuel


One area it focused on was engineering tobacco to be more efficient in its photosynthesis process by incorporating algae and cyanobacteria for hydrocarbon biofuels. Another project worked on engineering plants to produce more vegetable oil in leaves and stems, rather than just seeds.

The program gave each project three years to prove itself worthwhile before it was scrapped, leading to many successful advents and continued rounds of funding. Unfortunately, the entire PETRO project was cut about a year ago.

But now private laboratories and universities are picking up where ARPA-E left off, further developing terpene-rich plants through bioengineering. One group even alluded to the idea that advancements in genome editing, like those seen with the CRISPR/Cas-9 editing tools, might be useful in this field to induce greater terpene production.

Another area where plants have been studied as a fuel source is for jet fuel. In North Dakota, chemical engineers used a combination of canola oil, soybeans and coconuts to create a fuel indistinguishable from traditional jet fuel. Similar biofuels have been used to fuel jets for commercial airlines using algae, palm oil, and even greek yogurt.

Advancements in Petroleum Alternatives

Instead of looking at plant oil as fuel, one company in Germany has started to convert carbon from air pollution into hydrocarbons to be used as a fuel source. The company, called Sunfire, has now partnered with Audi and Climeworks to create synthetic diesel, branded as E-diesel.

By taking carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, the company is able to create a carbon-neutral fuel source powered by renewable energy.

The process begins with the use of electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The separated molecules are then combined with carbon dioxide in a conversion reactor that then emits water, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen and carbon monoxide are then put into an F-T reactor to create the hydrocarbons burned in combustion engines.

The whole process is powered by renewable energy including solar and wind, creating a completely carbon neutral process. This environmentally friendly diesel is also much more efficient at 70 percent compared to the 40 percent efficiency of traditional diesel.


petroleum alternatives


The product, originally known as Blue Crude, was developed by Sunfire who received an initial investment from Norway to build its first plant. While Sunfire and Audi continue to develop the technology, there have been questions about whether it could succeed in the U.S. with diesel prices significantly higher than regular petroleum. However, in Europe, where diesel is more widely-used and cheaper, E-diesel looks much more promising.

According to proponents of renewables and petroleum alternatives, unless there are drastic policy mandates, the market won’t move away from fossil fuels, especially in the United States. New technology has led to the discovery of more oil and subsequent drops in oil prices, while the cost of lithium-ion batteries remains high.

In Germany, a piece of legislation was proposed that would ban all internal combustion engines by 2030, forcing citizens and the auto industry to hasten development of electric vehicles. But in order for that legislation to go into law, it would have to be approved by the EU’s legislative body. It’s also not necessarily a popular proposal, with Germany’s transportation minister calling it “utter nonsense.”

That sentiment shows the hurdles that would have to be overcome to change the direction of a massive, global industry. Not to mention the strain that producing lithium-ion batteries has on the environment from pollution during the process of mining elements like nickel, lithium, and cobalt. And while recycling these batteries is feasible, it could take decades before there is a significant volume of them to make an impact. It seems that a transition to bio-diesel and bio alternatives would be the most effective short-term solution, until we’re ready to finally abandon fossil fuels.

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Eliminate Trash From Your Life By Going Zero Waste

We live in a wasteful society that solves every inconvenience with a disposable product. Plastic bags, cutlery, Tupperware, packaging; all of these conveniences add up, don’t easily biodegrade, and are often unable to be recycled. Not to mention, all of these products are traditionally made from oil, creating an incredibly unsustainable, dirty, and environmentally devastating cycle. But there are people working to solve this crisis by eliminating trash from their lives and showing the world how to go zero waste.

The Zero Waste Lifestyle

One of the icons of the zero-waste home movement, Bea Johnson, implemented a minimalist mindset within her family, that cut her household’s annual waste down to about a 12-oz. jar of a random assortment of plastics. She has inspired her family to commit to this goal and in so doing, saved money, created a healthy lifestyle, and drastically reduced their carbon footprint.

Her first and foremost rule is to refuse anything you do not need. By saying no to disposable plastics and paper, you are doing your part in eliminating the demand for those products.

Johnson says zero waste doesn’t mean more, but rather less recycling, by preventing waste in the first place. The majority of plastics that can be recycled can only go through that process one time before they end up in landfill.

When it comes to household plastics, glass jars, bowls and bottles make convenient, reusable replacements. And when you go to the grocery store, buying non-perishable foods in bulk to fill those glass jars saves time, money, and the environment.


zero waste home


Zero waste home enthusiasts are thrifty when it comes to toiletries and beauty products. Without sacrificing hygiene, it’s possible to make homemade versions of toothpaste, make-up and facial lotions. Buying castile soap in bulk is their secret to replacing household cleaners, which can double as soap for the shower. And baking soda is another multi-faceted product that has endless applications for cleanliness.

After implementing these zero waste lifestyle changes in her family’s routine, Johnson found they were healthier due to a lack of chemicals in the household and more mindful eating habits.

She also found her family saved about 40 percent of their income compared to prior habits. This allowed them to save money to invest in renewable energy through solar panels, contributing to future conservation and savings. It also allows her family to take vacations more often, cultivating a conscious lifestyle that values experience over material goods.


Cities Implementing Zero Waste Living

A number of cities passed, or are in the process of passing, legislation that aims to target zero waste living goals within the coming years. Some cities, including San Francisco and Portland, are leading the charge, making most municipalities look downright wasteful.

True to its nickname, the Golden City has already achieved 80-percent waste diversion, while Portlandia barely trails behind at 70 percent. But when it comes to urban refuse terminology, zero waste implies only 85-percent waste diversion, not entirely trash-free.

In comparison, that percentile is lightyears ahead of most cities that size, as well as what most cities are even striving for in the coming decades. Dallas, Texas sluggishly plans to hit 60 percent over the next 12 years.


zero waste lifestyle


Even in cities with a reputation for being progressive, such as Boulder, CO, waste diversion isn’t where one might expect it to be. While the city is actively working to implement a bullish zero waste program, Boulder’s current system only diverts 34 percent of its rubbish. Although, with its latest plan, involving upgrades for its recycling center, financial incentives for businesses, regulations and advisory programs, Boulder hopes to reach 80 percent diversion by 2025.

The city says 90 percent of the trash that ends up in its landfill is either recyclable or compostable, meaning the zero waste goal is mostly a matter of policy and logistics. In the past Boulder implemented policies with reduced waste intention, including a 10 cent tax on all plastic bags, but some cities took that a step further, banning them entirely.


Zero Waste Girl 

Another luminary for those seeking an example in the zero waste movement is Lauren Singer, a.k.a. the zero waste girl, who has become Johnson’s disciple, spreading the good word about the zero waste lifestyle. Just like Johnson, Singer can fit her past few years’ waste inside a mason jar and has become somewhat of an internet celebrity for her refuse-free savoir faire.

While studying at university, Singer found herself internally passing judgment on a classmate for her callous use of plastic bags and disposable goods. As an environmental science major, she imagined herself on a moral high ground, appalled by what she saw.

Then she went home and realized her fridge was packed with plastic wraps, Tupperware, and disposable products. She immediately realized the hypocrisy and dismounted her high horse to join the radical green revolution.


Zero waste lifestyle


Singer’s youth appeals to the millennial generation that asks, “How can I do this when I live in a city, imbibe, and lead a busy lifestyle?” Her simplistic solutions proved anybody, no matter where you live or what you do, can significantly, if not entirely, reduce waste.

With the craft brewing (and distilling) movement becoming almost omnipresent, you can buy a glass growler and fill it up at the brewery down the street, and this is precisely what Singer does. This is almost always cheaper than buying beer at the store, as is everything that doesn’t have to be packaged. Johnson noted 15 percent of the cost every time you buy something goes toward packaging, so if you eliminate that element, you’ll save at least that much every time.

One brewery is also working on recreating the plastic six-pack rings that are so damaging to the eco-system by producing edible rings. Even when you cut up the rings and feel like you’re doing your part to save the turtles from suffocating, they eat them anyway. For so long, this has been such a destructive issue, that was solved with a relatively simple, zero waste solution that just required conscious effort.

You’ll find numerous organizations these days championing this mindful sentiment by spreading awareness and petitioning governments to implement these policies. This is a systemic problem, as we were brought up in a society of waste. Though most of us are unaware that we even do it; it’s ingrained in our culture. Once we start making and demanding change we can reverse some of the damage we’ve done and create a better future.

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