Ethanol and biofuels have a bright future in Missouri

Production of both ethanol and biodiesel has drastically increased in Missouri since Congress expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007. However, even with the potential environmental benefits, the industry still faces some challenges.

The Renewable Fuels Association clearly defines the Renewable Fuel Standard on its website.

“(The) Renewable Fuel Standard directs EPA to promulgate regulations ensuring that applicable volumes of renewable fuel are sold or introduced into commerce in the United States annually.”

This standard affects producers and consumers alike by encouraging production of biofuels.

Jarrett Whistance, research scientist of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, said the Renewable Fuel Standard was enacted because of concerns over the environment.

“The idea was to use fuels that have fewer greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum based fuels,” Whistance said. “Based on their analysis, the EPA determined these biofuels, whether it’s conventional ethanol from corn or biodiesel, have fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”


Current Trends in the Renewable Fuel Industries

Missouri Soybean Association spokeswoman Christine Tew noted that biodiesel production is steadily increasing in Missouri.

“Missouri’s production of biodiesel was just shy of 200 million gallons last year, up from roughly 170 million gallons the year before,” Tew said.

These increased production rates signify the increased interest in biodiesel. Tew said that she has noticed Missouri farmers are also joining in on the biodiesel trend.

“Many farmers use biodiesel on their farms, in many cases by specifically requesting a biodiesel blend from their fuel supplier,” Tew explained. “We encourage consumers to do the same — to ask for biodiesel when fueling their diesel vehicles at stations across Missouri.”

The 200 million gallons of biodiesel produced in Missouri in 2014 came from various biodiesel plants throughout the state. The Biodiesel Magazine website showed that there were nine biodiesel plants in Missouri as of Oct. 6, 2015. With interest in biodiesel increasing and farmers beginning to use biodiesel on their farms, an increase in the number of plants in Missouri will soon be needed.

Much like the biodiesel industry, the ethanol industry is following a similar production growth. According to the Missouri Corn Growers Association website, there are six majority farmer-owned plants operating in the state. These plants use just over 30 percent of Missouri’s corn crop and produce approximately 300 million gallons of ethanol.

This level of production is higher than that of previous years and is expected to continue to increase.


Concerns with Biofuels

Since the expansion of the Renewable Fuel Standard, some problematic effects of using ethanol and biodiesel have begun to appear.

Intertek, a company focused on ensuring the quality and safety of products and systems, expressed concerns regarding the use of biodiesel on its website.

“Biodiesel blended into petroleum refined diesel fuel is increasing the incidence of fuel filter clogging. The growing number of diverse feed-stocks used for biodiesel increases the risk of filter problems.”

While acknowledging the problem that is arising, the company also stated that a solution is available.

“Periodical sampling and testing of fuel during storage can mitigate or prevent possible damage to filters and down-time for commercial and private vehicles.”

There have also been concerns about the use of ethanol. Fuel Testers outlines some of the concerns on its website.

“Ethanol is a strong solvent and cleanser, and while small amounts will keep your engine clean, excess alcohol will wear down engine parts.”

Fuel Testers acknowledged a solution to this problem on their website.

“Ethanol’s water-absorbing qualities are most problematic, but can be managed when fuel is stored properly and replaced often.”

These concerns threaten to bring the production of biodiesel and ethanol to a standstill. In addition, the biodiesel industry is experiencing some challenges concerning distribution.

“Infrastructure for distribution is a challenge facing biodiesel in Missouri,” Tew said. “At this point fewer than two dozen stations are listed as selling blends of 20 percent or higher biodiesel in our state.”

The ethanol industry is experiencing less difficulty with distribution, but some problems do arise.


A Hopeful Future

In spite of these concerns, production of both biodiesel and ethanol is expected to continue to increase in the coming years.

“We look to see biodiesel production continue to grow in Missouri, as well as to see demand for the environmentally friendly renewable fuel continue to increase,” Tew said.

This hope stems from an increasing concern for the environment and the idea of an endless source of fuel.

Sarah Humfeld, an instructor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, said sustainability is one advantage of biofuels.

“Biofuels, because they are generated from plant material, are potentially an unending source of fuel,” Humfeld said. “Biofuels are much cleaner because basically all you are getting from that plant is you are making ethanol and ethanol is a very pure substance so it is cleaner.”

Industry associations tout the benefits of ethanol. According to the American Coalition for Ethanol, “Fuel with 10 percent ethanol has been certified by the EPA to reduce carbon monoxide emissions by up to 30 percent. Higher ethanol blends offer even greater environmental benefits.”

More researching is being done to improve the efficiency of biofuel production

“The big breakthrough you should keep an eye out for is the ability to turn cellulose into ethanol,” Humfeld said. “Right now, basically all they are taking is the sugar from that corn and turning that into ethanol. If they can get to where they can turn the cellulose into ethanol, that will be a really big breakthrough, because then from each corn plant, you get a lot more ethanol out of it. That will be a game changer.”