Energy in the Desert: The Promise of Biofuels*

In the last Presidential elections the candidates promised to develop “green” economies by creating new domestic industries and thousands of jobs.  These investments were expected to help avert the then looming economic crisis while reducing green house emissions and foreign oil dependence through domestic alternative energy sources.  If a melting stock market and financial crisis were not enough incentive, oil prices soaring then to $140 a barrel and gas prices moving to $5 a gallon only underscored the need to “go green.”  Much, of course, has happened since then but today we see oil moving into the $120 /barrel range and fuel prices once again going above $4 a gallon. And the political drums are beating as well (do I hear $2.50 a gallon as a “must”?).  “Drill, Baby, Drill!” again is finding resonance with some as the campaign season heats up.  Known oil reserves are already being pumped at record levels and new reserves, unfortunately, are neither readily available nor sustainable in the long term.  Thus renewable biofuels can expect to come back to center stage as price and new technologies converge and our nation’s insatiable appetite for autos and trucks continues.

Most people, when they hear “biofuels” think of bioethanol derived from corn or other food crops.  Converting food to fuel raises serious social questions as countries such as Mexico rely heavily on corn as a main food crop and are highly sensitive to increased costs and perturbations in the market. Additionally national law that restricts corn ethanol to 15 billion gallons of fuel annually means ethanol will only meet roughly one-tenth of U.S. transportation needs.  Experts are looking at other feed stocks for biofuels, including other food crops (soybean oil, castor oil, canola, palm oil, etc), non-food crops (Camelina, Jatropha),

Bio diesel fuel grown from Jatropha

grease and waste oils (biodiesel), crop waste and woody biomass (cellulosic feed stocks) and algae.  In our region several of these—grease and waste oil in the short term, Camelina and Jatropha in medium term and ultimately, algae—are gaining greater attention.

Algae? (yes, algae–the other “green slime”).  Interestingly, algae have the greatest long term potential and, ecologically, a unique and innovative niche within our desert southwest.  Of all the biofuel feed stocks it has the largest theoretical yield of oil (estimated to be greater than 10,000 gallons per acre annually, compared to only tens to hundreds of gallons per acre annually for corn, canola, camelina and other feed stocks).  It grows readily in our desert soils with brackish water, and requires only sunlight and carbon dioxide as a nutrient. It’s estimated that 10 to 15 million acres of algae ponds properly managed would supply all of the U.S. transportation fuel needs now and into the future.  Note this is only a fraction of the estimated 970 million acres of arable land currently used for crops and grazing.  From that perspective it would have minimal to no impact on our ongoing agricultural industry.

Remembering that much of the Paso del Norte region was once under an ancient ocean, we have abundant brackish water in our underground bolsones (aquifers) as well as remnant indigenous algae strains waiting to be discovered and exploited.  Because algae uses carbon dioxide as a nutrient, this industry would be a major sequester of this green house gas and also could count as a major credit toward reducing global warming.  This latter point is gaining significant attention from industry and government as the world begins to develop carbon tax and credit policies. Also note that this works on both sides of our US-Mexico border, since the bolsones don’t recognize political boundaries.

Research institutions, organizations and startup companies are literally blossoming in our region to develop algae-based and other feed stock biofuels.  For example:

  • Global Alternative Fuels—a startup company located near Sunland Park, the company specializes in Biodiesel fuel derived from waste grease and oils.  Their product is being sold to Western Refining and being blended with petroleum diesel and sold in the region. To help their growth they were successful a few years back in obtaining a $20 million loan from the North American Development Bank, a NAFTA entity supporting environmental projects in the U.S.-Mexico Border region.
  • Researchers at UTEP’s Materials Research and Technology Institute are exploring new algae strains, growth and processing technologies for biofuel commercialization.  Similarly, NMSU’s WERC research center is looking at developing new algae biofuel processes and pilot-scale commercialization options.  Several projects are underway in collaborations that include researchers at Sandia National Labs and the Department of Energy’s facilities in Carlsbad, Artesia, and elsewhere.
  • Texas A&M experimental station in Pecos, Texas, working with the United States Army, General Atomics Corporation and others, have received funds from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to conduct research and develop key technologies for algae-derived biofuels.

Many challenges, technical and political, still remain in order to create the type of biofuels industry imagined for our bi-national region, but the potential to make the Paso del Norte region the national capital of the biofuels industry clearly exists.  Certainly, the opportunity and the need are present.  With appropriate national and regional leadership, investment, and innovation, we have the potential to stimulate a new, sustainable energy sector in our region.  Our vision and motto should literally be: “Grow, Baby, Grow!” –Paul Maxwell

*An earlier version of this article was published by the author in 2009 in the El Paso Inc.

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2 thoughts on “Energy in the Desert: The Promise of Biofuels*

  1. My latest posting on getting sustainable energy from the desert–in this case taking advantage of brackish water found in abundance just below the desert floors and algal micro-bio-organisms, indigenous to the southwest. “Grow Baby, Grow!”

  2. Hiya, I’m really glad I’ve found this information. Today bloggers publish only about gossips and net and this is actually frustrating. A good site with exciting content, that’s what I need. Thank you for keeping this site, I will be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Cant find it.

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