Dr. Neil Geismar
Will we overcome obstacles to
producing renewable biofuels?
Biofuels have a complex reputation in the world of energy. Their
potential is promising: carbon-friendly renewable energy from
sources like corn, vegetable oils and lumber waste. Corn-produced
ethanol, for example, already makes up around 10% of gasoline at
the pump partly because it helps petroleum burn more efficiently.
But just as you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, if we burned
all our corn for fuel, we wouldn’t have any left to make tortilla
chips, popcorn and high-fructose corn syrup. Also, we would
To avoid burning more valuable food supplies, scientists have
developed a fuel produced from corn stover—all the husks, stalks
and leaves we don’t eat. Reusing this byproduct is an admirable
solution that has its own setbacks. For one, it takes a lot of the
stuff to produce at economies of scale. “One biorefinery designed
to produce 30 million gallons of ethanol annually would require
about 375 tons of corn stover,” said Mays Business School
researcher Dr. Neil Geismar. “To visualize that, imagine a stack
of corn husks 100 feet tall, 100 feet wide and 20 miles long.”
Storing and transporting material of that magnitude can incur
steep costs within the supply chain.
Dr. Geismar’s research investigated whether reducing these costs
could have prevented several recent failures by large
biorefineries. Rather than have farmers take their stover directly
to biorefineries, he proposed a network of depots that could
compress the material into pellets, which are cheaper to store and
transport. These pellets also have a longer shelf-life than does
raw biomass, which deteriorates between its harvest and its use.
“This supply chain structure reduces logistics costs, but the real
savings comes from creating pellets that do not decay,” Dr.
As America continues to test new energy sources to decrease
greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil, work like
Geismar’s will be critical in exploring ways to sustainably power