In the Storehouse of his bounty: is there enough feedstock for our bioeconomy goals?

December 22, 2022 |

A DIGEST CHRISTMAS MESSAGE

The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.”  – Deuteronomy 28:12

In the Digest this week we reported that CHS says 9 million more acres of soybeans are needed to supply the soybean and renewable diesel plants under construction. CHS says it would force farmers to move away from corn and towards soybeans to meet that demand. CHS warned that, even shifting corn acres is not enough, their bottom line: US farmers won’t be able to supply all of the future demand.

Which means we have not been getting through, bioeconomy friends, on the subject of making methane from biomass and using it as a feedstock for renewable diesel. 

We think that no matter your question, methane is the answer, for four reasons.

First, we know how to make it from biomass, at scale, it’s proven tech. Second, we know how to use book and claim systems to get methane feedstock to world-scale refineries with a minimum of carbon loss in transit. Third, upgraded RNG is more homogeneous than most mixed feedstock options for the bioeconomy. Fourth, we know how to make renewable diesel from methane, excluding carbon credits, at parity ($2.90 per gallon) with spot US diesel prices as of December 1st ($3.03 per gallon). See our coverage of T2C.

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We might ask, what is the carrying capacity of the Earth when it comes to biomass? How much biomass could there be?

Opinions will differ, but one way to estimate a theoretical maximum is to multiply arable acres by arundo yields. That would be right around 80 billion dry tons. We said theoretical, doesn’t mean actual, doesn’t mean the acreage is available, not used for something else. Of course, that theoretical number doesn’t take into account waste residues, efuels, or aquaculture, so there are pluses to go with the minuses. 

If we were to estimate 70 gallons of diesel fuel per dry ton of biomass, that would give us 5.6 trillion gallons of fuel, or 365 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.  That’s plenty.

Carrying capacity is not production capacity, or production either — it is a number that affords us a window into measuring the gaps as they really are, rather than the gaps that are caused by our imperfect infrastructure and the fidelity we show to outdated procedures. 

Challenges abound, nothing is as simple as it sounds on paper, solutions may not be at world-scale tomorrow, and if I think of any more humble caveats to add, I’ll amend this later. 

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How many calories could we manufacture here on Earth, excluding aquaculture. Is there enough for a bioeconomy of materials, in addition to providing food for all? What is the carrying capacity of food?

The simple way to calculate a maximum, in this case, would be to multiple 1.38 billion arable hectares by 70 tons per hectare sugarcane yields and a 16% sugar content in the stalk, and 1700 calories per pound of sugar. That’s a theoretical, not an actual, but it gives us 11,000 calories per day per person for a population of 10 billion. 

That’s enough for a bioeconomy, and plenty left over to diversify our diets with lower-yield goodies.

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For biomass we have hope and expectations, but not certainty. Something that is feasible may never be built, or we may not build enough, or quickly enough, or soundly enough. Our human story is littered with the consequences of actions taken too little or too late.

Yet, those are problems of execution and not of capacity. For now, let us have no more talk about a feedstock shortage. It diverts focus from the real problems, emboldens enemies, confuses allies, divides attention, siphons capital, and strikes at morale. 

What we have is what the novelist Graham Greene, in The Power and the Glory, described as “a failure of imagination.”

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We have talked of shortage when what we have are deficiencies. There are four. 

We are deficient in a means to move solids at a rate that is fiscally affordable or carbon responsible. We are deficient in reliable, high-throughput means of converting solids to liquids in situ. We are deficient in our attentiveness to the problems of supply so long as affordable natural liquids (for example, waste fats and greases) are still available. We are deficient in understanding how methanogens and methanotrophs can work in harness in the cause of carbon.  We put off the hard questions and lean on the easy feedstocks, the easy carbon credits, and expect a hand-out when we should be looking for a hand-up.

In Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he wrote that God will give us what we need according to the riches of his glory,” but let us not send to the Almighty to mend our engineering or deliver biomass from heaven. The time is nigh to address the deficiencies, let us mend, mend quickly, mend right, and have no more of this folderol of a feedstock shortage from the biomass analysts at Hooey, Claptrap, & Malarkey. The only thing worse than a greenwash is a hogwash.

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So, friends, merry Christmas, and in the New Year let us tend to the deficiencies yet with confidence in our resources. 

Let us remember that people will buy what is sustainable so long as it is reliably affordable and affordably available. They will pay a little extra for solutions but not for ingredients. They will swap feedstocks so long as their customers will embrace the alternatives. They will only change if they are convinced there is no alternative. 

As we said in Australia when I was a boy growing up, it’s hard yakka, tough work, this sowing and reaping of a bioeconomy. It is as uncertain as the rain, the harvest is a long ways off, but we will achieve nothing unless we take the seed, add our sweat, and work from dawn to sunset until the harvest comes. Ah, then, what a bounty we will have.

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