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Recent studies point out that the cost to grow and produce biofuels is worse for the planet than gasoline

Two studies published in the journal Science shed some light into the overall cost of biofuels. Taken into account is not only the greenhouse emissions generated by burning biofuels but all of the emissions generated when producing biofuels.

According to one article the estimated impact of using corn based ethanol is double the amount of greenhouse emissions currently being produced by gasoline over a 30 year time span. An alternative method of ethanol production using switchgrass is estimated to increase emissions by a whopping 50 percent.

With governments around the world pushing to establish hard mandates on the use of biofuels and other renewable methods of energy production, we could be setting ourselves up to cause more harm than good. The U.S. Congress has set a target to raise the use of biofuels from 7.5 billion gallons to 36 billion gallons by 2022. That’s a 480 percent increase. That would push greenhouse gas production in the U.S. up by an order of magnitude.

At the same time, in order to produce these biofuels, farmland is cleared for the growth of ethanol-reliant crops. Clearing land for farming has a cost in greenhouse emissions, as does growing and harvesting these crops. Add that in to the cost of refining and burning these crops and we are generating far more emissions than simply using gasoline and oil.

Scientists in the U.S. and Europe have written letters to their respective governments warning them that biofuels in their current form will only exacerbate the production of greenhouse emissions and push the world further towards climate change.

The United Nations stated it wants to continue with the production of biofuels and reap any potential benefits. The organization admitted however that biofuels are not the silver bullet they were led to believe.

Dr. Searchinger is advocating a switch in gears for the production of biofuels. The use of organic waste in the production of biofuels would get around the problem of clearing and farming previously unused lands which cause so much of the greenhouse emissions that hold back any potential benefits of using biofuels. Using organic waste could also be well on it’s way to becoming a reality thanks to recent breakthroughs in this field.



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The thing i like most about biofuels
By kattanna on 2/8/2008 10:46:51 AM , Rating: 3
is that the money i then spend on my fuel needs will then mostly be going back to our local farmers.




By JackBeQuick on 2/8/2008 10:49:33 AM , Rating: 1
Where does the money for your food go to?


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By masher2 (blog) on 2/8/2008 10:55:57 AM , Rating: 5
> "the money i then spend on my fuel needs will then mostly be going back to our local farmers. "

Who then turn around and give it back to the Sheiks in Saudi Arabia, when they buy their petroleum-based fertilizers and diesel fuel for their tractors and harvesters, as well as the energy required to run the plants which convert the corn into ethanol.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By Spuke on 2/8/2008 1:30:17 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Who then turn around and give it back to the Sheiks in Saudi Arabia, when they buy their petroleum-based fertilizers and diesel fuel for their tractors and harvesters, as well as the energy required to run the plants which convert the corn into ethanol.
You guys can rate him down all you want but last time I checked farm equipment still runs on diesel or gasoline. This is a true statement, like it or not.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By Ringold on 2/8/2008 1:40:32 PM , Rating: 2
I think some would counter that those, too, could run on biofuel. The fertilizers though was a solid point.

I'd of taken the free trade line of attack instead, but that would get me rated down too, probably even faster, so I'll leave the whiff of trade protectionism alone.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By jbartabas on 2/8/2008 2:49:29 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
I think some would counter that those, too, could run on biofuel. The fertilizers though was a solid point.


If you would produce significantly more biofuel-based energy than you'd need to invest for your production, not only you *could* run your machines on it but you'd probably would. I am not sure the benefit is large enough though with US corn.

As for the impact of the use of fertilizer on the net carbon budget, it is my understanding that it is usually included in the benefits studies.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By borowki on 2/11/2008 8:25:46 PM , Rating: 2
Of course not. Why would you use a fuel that's less efficient when you could sell that at a price artificially inflated by government mandates and subsidies?


By wackie999 on 2/13/2008 12:57:49 PM , Rating: 2
Brilliant.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By dever on 2/8/2008 3:40:23 PM , Rating: 2
Once again, government interferes with the market causing more harm than good. The pattern is obvious. When you concentrate power to make decisions to a handful of people subject to the influences of interest groups, the outcome will be worse than the clear voice of each individual being allowed to vote with their wallet.

This time, as often happens, the ones who are hurt the worst are the average to low income households. How? Higher fuel costs make all consumables increase in price because of delivery costs. Not only that, but with ethonal, we are taking your taxes to directly increase your price of grain through higher demand. This not only affects cereals and breads, but milk and meat by bidding up the price of feed.

Because food and fuel make up a larger percentage of the income of poorer people, they are the hardest hit by ethonal subsidies. On top of that, many of them contribute to the tax load that is causing this increase to begin with.

Ethonal is nothing but the worst form of corporate welfare, benefiting a few wealthy at the cost of many, many average individuals. (Lobbyists invoke the image of some farmer that looks like your great-grandpa to justify stealing your taxes. It's typical dirty marketing using the image of a child or elderly person to invoke sympathy.)

Scientific American had an article stating these same issues with ethonal a couple of years ago... and subsidies have only continued to increase.


By Ringold on 2/8/2008 7:14:41 PM , Rating: 2
You're exactly right. Agflation has been particularly devastating in low-income countries; it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that people are starving in less developed parts of the world because of our global warming vanity.

Speaking of global warming, that's a big reason why the whole issue is so dangerous. Environmentalists may believe they have noble goals but the 95% of the rest of the world is out to make a buck. When they fearmonger and put an idea out there, they can inadvertently create a special-interest monstrosity. These farmers have latched on to both the global warming and energy security crowds; most the population of some farm-belt towns, down to the school bus drivers, have put life savings in to community ethanol plants. I heard on the news a few minutes ago the ethanol lobbyists are already furious and fighting back over this report. Environmentalists, primarily, created a monster and now it's up to those who were rational all along to take on the near-impossible task of slaying the beast.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By kattanna on 2/8/2008 2:33:00 PM , Rating: 1
but a farmer already does that with any crop hes gonna farm. farming a crop instead that goes to a biofuel will then at least divert part of my fuel money through the farmer instead of directly to someone offshore. Economies are about the flow of money, and if i can keep my money flowing through our own for another turn or 2, then that sounds good to me. Who knows, while im sure it is completely wishfull thinking, if they could make enough money farming for biofuels, maybe they wouldnt need so much of my tax dollars as subsidies.

corn as a biofuel i dont see being around too much longer. There are simply too many issues with it, and many other choices, regardless of what the corn lobby will tell you, LOL.

and once they finish the cycle of using renewables in all stages of the process, then gone will be the need for foreign energy sources.

Im not a oil hater, i only would like to see us work more towards energy independence, as i would like to see for any country.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By dever on 2/8/2008 3:46:24 PM , Rating: 2
The problem with energy independence is not need for renewable energy sources. We have plenty of access to domestic petroleum if we were allowed to use it.

Of course, maybe this is a good strategy. Keep our domestic supplies untapped until we completely bleed off the mideast supply. The problem is, this may take a hundred years.


By kattanna on 2/8/2008 4:36:42 PM , Rating: 2
oh, dont get me wrong, im all for drilling for more oil, using our coal, and building more nuclear plants. In fact i wish we would build a whole lot more nuclear plants.

I'm also for more wind, solar, and other sources of power. In fact I'm all for anything that gives us the power we really need.


By borowki on 2/11/2008 8:46:28 PM , Rating: 2
The energy-independence crowd is just wonky in the head. As though America could safely ignore the Middle East in the age of nuclear weapons. Like it or not, our military will be involved in different parts of the world, as it has in the last century, with or without economic dependency. Aircraft carriers--that's our best tool of energy security, not corn.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By masher2 (blog) on 2/8/2008 4:05:03 PM , Rating: 5
> "but a farmer already does that with any crop hes gonna farm"

Right, but we *need* to grow food. We don't need to produce ethanol fuel. And when we use so much oil to grow corn, you may think buying ethanol rather than gas is a stick in the eye to the oil barons, but it really just hurts us, not them.

The key here is efficiency. Ethanol is a highly inefficient means of turning oil, labor, and a large amount of other resources into fuel. That inefficiency costs us money and ultimately, reduces the resources we could use to truly solve problems. It might be worth it anyway if it was buying us some energy independence...but it's not. Far better to use those billions of dollars of ethanol subsidies in researching a true solution to the problem.

A free market always finds the most efficient means of production. Government mandates interfere with that, and ultimately hurts us all.


RE: The thing i like most about biofuels
By kattanna on 2/8/2008 5:09:57 PM , Rating: 2
true, but you have to remember that when we started to harvest that "waste" product in our search for kerosene, it was HIGHLY inefficient then too. over the many decades since, the process has been highly refined.

Just imagine if we had kept refining ethanol production from way back then how much more efficient we would be at it today?


By masher2 (blog) on 2/8/2008 8:15:48 PM , Rating: 2
The difference is that the products developed from petroleum refining weren't widely produced and sold *until* they were cheaper and more efficient than the alternatives.

Our production of ethanol will continue to improve as well. However, it'd do so faster and with less wasted resources if the government would stop subsidizing it. Instead of wasting time with corn, we'd be devoting all our efforts to R&D on more efficient means of production.


By Hoser McMoose on 2/9/2008 8:25:25 PM , Rating: 3
We've been making ethanol for nearly 10,000 years! How much more time do we need?

The Economist actually had a good comment about it, that we use ethanol not because it was a good solution, but just because it's something we KNOW. Simple fact is that making ethanol to power a vehicle really isn't all that different from making ethanol to drink.


By borowki on 2/11/2008 8:22:04 PM , Rating: 2
And where do you think the money that goes to Middle East countries end up? In a black hole?


Generalization
By Griswold on 2/8/2008 10:50:37 AM , Rating: 5
Its no secret that algae-based biofuel is more efficient than corn based fuels because it doesnt require huge farmland to produce and grows much faster and is easier (as in, you do not need combine harvesters) to harvest.

The yield per are unit is upwards 20 times higher than the next best corn. However, there are still issues, like finding the best algae strain that has not only a high growth rate but also a high lipid content and likes to grow in efficient systems like a photobioreactor

But its still biofuel. So, how about we differentiate a bit there? Furthermore, you need to be more clear that ethanol is not producing more emissions when its burned, but the increase of emission comes from the whole process of changing land into farmland, sowing, harvesting and processing. Period.

So, the problem is not the alternative fuel itself, its how and where it is produced.

Algae is obviously the way to go.




RE: Generalization
By sonoran on 2/8/2008 11:30:05 AM , Rating: 2
If you want to grow algae I suggest the desert southwest. Here in Phoenix a pool can go from clear to solid green in days in the heat of summer.


RE: Generalization
By djkrypplephite on 2/8/2008 12:59:32 PM , Rating: 1
Ahh yes, Phoenix. Funny your name is Sonoran, that's my dorm. Holla.


RE: Generalization
By Ringold on 2/8/2008 11:59:37 AM , Rating: 2
I read in the Economist last year of strains being researched that'll produce gasoline directly themselves; that sort of technology really will be impressive, once it's viable. People just need a little patience so engineers and everyone else can get the work done instead of this mad rush to inefficient technology just for the sake of immediate gratification from being active irrespective of how effective that activity is.


RE: Generalization
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 2/8/2008 1:15:56 PM , Rating: 2
The most promising, sustainable biofuel production I've seen to date clearly is cellulosic ethanol:

http://www.dailytech.com/Cellulosic+Ethanol+Promis...


RE: Generalization
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 2/8/2008 1:42:33 PM , Rating: 2
Absolutely. With no shortage of waste to be processed this could provide us with a new form of "recycling" of certain substances.


RE: Generalization
By Hoser McMoose on 2/9/2008 8:43:40 PM , Rating: 2
Ethanol as a whole isn't really all that good of a choice. It has a lower energy content and can't be easily transported via pipelines. Ethanol mostly just became popular because it's something we KNOW. We've been making ethanol for thousands of years so we've pretty well perfected the process.

Biobutanol, biogasoline and biodiesel all tend to be better solutions as actual fuel. Methods of production for all of these vary, but they certainly could include the use of some waste materials.


RE: Generalization
By Rovemelt on 2/8/2008 12:52:36 PM , Rating: 2
I agree...we just need a different way to get the biomass and algae so far looks more promising than corn. The decision to use food as the biomass wasn't well reasoned. It's no surprise to me to see research showing biofuels (the way they are currently produced from corn) being worse for CO2 emissions than just burning fossil fuels. I imagine that eventually we'll figure out how to produce biofuels economically and in a more environmentally friendly way.


RE: Generalization
By The Jedi on 2/8/2008 2:20:20 PM , Rating: 1
I thought the idea was to copy Brazil which runs all of their vehicles on corn-based ethanol.


RE: Generalization
By mdogs444 on 2/8/2008 3:05:38 PM , Rating: 2
I thought Brazil was running off a form of Sugar Cane Ethanol?


RE: Generalization
By masher2 (blog) on 2/9/2008 12:28:39 PM , Rating: 2
It's sugar-cane yes...and Brazil only supplies 1/3 of its fuel from it. The rest comes from gasoline itself.


RE: Generalization
By Discord on 2/9/2008 12:49:08 AM , Rating: 2
I'm afraid that the problem is the alternative fuel itself and not just where or how it's produced.
It cracks me up that the general consensus of many of the regular "educated" posters on DailyTech is that manmade CO2 pollution is not the cause of global warming. Yet everytime the debate of Ethanol comes up it is the sole factor in determining if it is a viable replacement for gasoline.
CO2 is absolutely harmless to human beings (unless it displaces too much Oxygen which won't happen). Why are all the endless debates centered solely on this topic?
The fact is that, accordingly to the only published study I've seen on the subject, the resulting pollution caused by burning Ethanol will be more detrimental to human health than our current solution.
That reason alone is enough for me to completely disregard it as a viable replacement to petroleum (unless gas supply/prices get so out of hand we have no recourse).
It makes no sense to replace an energy source with another more harmful one, end of story.
Instead of wasting time and money on this we should be researching solutions such as Hydrogen. Another earlier DailyTech post has shown that it is possible to produce it with a positive energy return and the only negative pollutant is CO2 (which again is harmless to humans and does not cause the ice caps to melt).


State Funded Math Degree Again?
By bldckstark on 2/8/2008 12:45:36 PM , Rating: 2
7.5 billion to 35 billion is a 4.8 percent increase? I wish I got pay raises like that, but really isn't this a 467% increase? Or maybe a 4.7 times the current use?

What's worse is that this piece of info was posted at 9:26am, and nobody has noticed yet.




RE: State Funded Math Degree Again?
By bldckstark on 2/8/2008 12:48:10 PM , Rating: 2
Ooops. I read it as 35 billion, but is written as 36 billion. So it is 480% and or 4.8 times the current usage.


RE: State Funded Math Degree Again?
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 2/8/2008 12:55:53 PM , Rating: 2
Hah, your right. It was early. It's fixed.


By Master Kenobi (blog) on 2/8/2008 12:58:10 PM , Rating: 2
Or rather will be fixed, soon. My bad.


By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 2/8/2008 1:13:48 PM , Rating: 2
Ahah! :) And now the shoe is on the other foot!


By jbartabas on 2/8/2008 1:05:36 PM , Rating: 2
The DT article says:
quote:
Taken into account is not only the greenhouse emissions generated by burning biofuels but all of the emissions generated when producing biofuels.


To me it seems that Christopher assumes that previous studies only accounted for the emissions generated by burning the biofuels. This is wrong, and clearly stated in the introduction of the Science paper he cited:
quote:
Most life-cycle studies have found that replacing gasoline with ethanol modestly reduces greenhouse gases (GHGs) if made from corn and substantially if made from cellulose or sugarcane.


Previous studies that found beneficial effect of biofuel accounted for the life-cycle (and this is why corn induce only modest benefit, because you spend almost as much energy to grow and distribute it as you can recover from it).

What is new with the cited article is to investigate what happens when you convert area (change in land use) that were already significantly sequestrating carbon into biofuel oriented agricultural areas.

If you use only existing corn sites, you have a small or substantial in your carbon budget. But in the real world where the energy demand is larger than available production, the trend is to increase this type of production.

Note also that the US corn issue is the focus of the study, and that the problem may be significantly different with sugarcane which is much more beneficial to start with.

quote:
Ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane, based on estimated GHG reductions of 86% excluding land use changes, (7) could pay back the upfront carbon emissions in 4 years if sugarcane only converts tropical grazing land. However, if displaced ranchers convert rainforest to grazing land, the payback period could rise to 45 years. (1) The extraordinary productivity of Brazilian sugarcane merits special future analysis.


So biofuels are not bad by themselves, but as stated in the article they are certainly not (yet) the silver bullet.




By Master Kenobi (blog) on 2/8/2008 1:40:51 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
To me it seems that Christopher assumes that previous studies only accounted for the emissions generated by burning the biofuels. This is wrong, and clearly stated in the introduction of the Science paper he cited:

Many studies did only account for that, these are the studies typically thrown around in front of Congress or the United Nations. In this particular case though the article talks about "life-cycle" studies which are a different matter entirely. In a lifecycle comparison between oil and ethanol your right.

quote:
Note also that the US corn issue is the focus of the study, and that the problem may be significantly different with sugarcane which is much more beneficial to start with.

Sugarcane only works down near Venezuela where it grows quite easily. Up in the U.S. Sugarcane just isn't practical on a large scale like it is down there. Corn isn't a good alternative. Perhaps a geneticly modified strain of sugarcane that grows much easier in the U.S. Climate zones.

quote:
So biofuels are not bad by themselves, but as stated in the article they are certainly not (yet) the silver bullet.

Biofuels can be bad if approached in the wrong way. Mass farming of corn or similiar would end up causing more problems than simply expanding oil production.


By jbartabas on 2/8/2008 2:21:44 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Sugarcane only works down near Venezuela where it grows quite easily. Up in the U.S. Sugarcane just isn't practical on a large scale like it is down there. Corn isn't a good alternative. Perhaps a geneticly modified strain of sugarcane that grows much easier in the U.S. Climate zones.


One promising way for high latitudes regions could be ligno-cellulosic biomass, found in industrial and agricultural waste products.

The problem with this 'silver bullet' is that it's difficult to extract sugar from it, and efficient ways have been researched for a while ... it is not sure if it will become a credible alternative in the near future :-(


By Master Kenobi (blog) on 2/8/2008 2:39:01 PM , Rating: 2
Yea, it does look like the best method we have yet seen. http://www.dailytech.com/Cellulosic+Ethanol+Promis...


By Ringold on 2/8/2008 7:32:02 PM , Rating: 2
Sugarcane is grown in large amounts in South Florida; I think most Floridians are aware of the big influence they've had in state politics. Unfortunately, they've also ravaged the Everglades and if they had their way would probably eliminate them entirely. Now we pay billions for private groups and the Army corps of engineers to clean up after them.


Chicken before the Egg?
By barjebus on 2/8/2008 12:14:51 PM , Rating: 2
Isn't this a chicken before the egg type argument? It creates more green house gas emissions to create bio fuel, but if you were using bio fuel's in the first place to harvest your bio fuel, would you be creating more green house gases?

I'm not a fan of biofuels in the slightest, Nuclear is the way to go in my own mind, but I'm just pointing out that I'm sure there's a tipping point that comes when biofuels are prevalent enough to be used rather than fossil fuels, thus eliminating the problem of creating more green house gases than regular fossil fuel production and consumption.




RE: Chicken before the Egg?
By KristopherKubicki (blog) on 2/8/2008 1:17:53 PM , Rating: 2
As pointed out by masher, there's no free ride when it comes to any energy production. The fertilizers, machine equipment, infrastructure all must come from somewhere; and that's still "carbon" based -- and it's not a trivial footprint either.

I can't wait until someone proposes oxygen credits.


By Master Kenobi (blog) on 2/8/2008 1:45:28 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
I can't wait until someone proposes oxygen credits.

That might be funny if there wasn't a real possibility of someone trying it.


RE: Chicken before the Egg?
By Hydrofirex on 2/8/2008 7:11:20 PM , Rating: 2
I agree with you, however what about the new Hydrogen fuel cells that use bacteria to break down organic material. My understanding was that this could use waste byproducts such as raw-sewage to create truck-loads of energy that had the upshot of producing clean water.

HfX


The rush is political if anything.
By gochichi on 2/13/2008 12:32:05 AM , Rating: 2
All energy is solar energy. "Biofuels" just happens to be one more form of sequestering solar energy.

Pure gasoline, (minus the 10% ethanol) is some of the cleanest burning fuel you can find. Petroleum products, are also collected solar energy... collected and concentrated over many many years.

Politics aside, it makes sense to continue to depend on petroleum while heavily researching alternatives. Better yet, working on efficiency of the appliances that use the fuel (the cars, etc.). I think the US for sure needs to just plain cut waste. Not hybrid, not biofuels, just plain and simple personal transportation that weighs less is really what we should be focusing on.

Doing things "correctly" costs more money, and this is the only way we can keep the huge economy without sinking the planet. By "correctly" I mean paying people their due for their best work rather than globalizing the work to a cheaper labor market. Cheap fuel, and wasting much of it, makes for a huge economy as well... but it's quite simply not sustainable and really not very rewarding either.

We need a bigger economy but less things. That's going to be a tricky thing to accomplish. A good example that comes to mind is a Honda Civic... those cars are nicely built, cost quite a bit more than cars their size, last a long time and so on. They are built "correctly".

To this day, horse power, size outweigh fuel economy as features on a car. It doesn't help that America has a huge innumeracy problem. Changing the landscape of what cars look like and what they're for (aknowledging that it's transportation rather than status/entertaintment)would cause a huge economic upswing here. That would be particularly true if said cars were built right here.

To the "small government" crowd, if the government doesn't fix the problem, nobody will b/c nobody else can. The government needs to use their engineers to inform their politics though, it's extremely important that changes be thought through if there's going to be any hope of positive change.

What solution do I propose? Government should increase taxes on fuel, this would force the price of the barrel down. I'm talking about taxing a gallon of gas such that the price goes up to $5-$6 dollars a gallon. Suddenly and permanently. This new tax rate would force us to either A)get a sensible car (motorcycle even?) or B)force the price of the barrel back to reality and give us the end result of $3.00/gal gas while keeping the money here C)both.

Some democrats had suggested a huge tax on gas before, and most people thought that it was crazy. Instead, we put oil people in office (which is truly beyond me) and we now pay that same high price but it goes to companies that definetely don't have your best interest in mind.

Tax is a great solution, it allows for the free market to decide how it's going to get around it. It's a negative reinforcement in the technical sense, and that is known to work very well. Successfully hand-picking who gets this or that is far more complex, and will never work as well.




By Tacoloft on 2/13/2008 5:19:49 PM , Rating: 2
Tax is never a great solution...unless you are Dictator. And you are insane if you want to increase tax on fuel to drive it to $5-6 a gallon to force people into a supposedly "green" machine when all you are really doing is empowering those companies that are making all of the supposedly "green" hardware in the first place. It is in fact GE's and other companies best interest to get you the "carbon sinner" to buy new green products-- because they MAKE and SELL those products! Follow the money and you will see the truth.

I just wish that these companies would come clean and say" We want to biuld and sell more efficient products - not because of being green (which is BS) but because there is better technology that will do the same thing- plain and simple.
My solution to this would be to let investors and inventors go crazy and that if a company has patented something there is a time limit to in fact prove and put into production that patent-- if the company cannot within the specified time frame then it goes to the next in line who can claim to use the patent to the benifit of mankind. The ideas are out there but the damn lawyers and PC community have most hands tied...


By BarkyMcWoof on 2/9/2008 11:25:02 AM , Rating: 2
"The macronutrients required by plants are N (Nitrogen), K (Potassium) and P (Phosphorus). Oil is hydrocarbon, made from H (Hydrogen) and C (Carbon). There are no plant nutrients in oil." http://peakoildebunked.blogspot.com/2005/08/28-isn...
Natural gas and coal are used in the production of ammonia.
Anyone know anything different from this?




Biodiesel anyone?
By Denithor on 2/13/2008 4:15:53 PM , Rating: 2
Much more efficient than ethanol.
Can be distributed with the exhisting pipeline network.
Cleaner burning than standard petroleum diesel.
Can be refined from waste fast-food oil and many other fatty oil (plant and animal) sources.




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