Why We Won’t Grow Biofuels in 2029

Biofuels Watch has a little article entitled “Biofuels 20 Years From Now” which caught my eye not so much for its conclusion that we should grow non food crops such as the oily succulent Jatropha instead of maize, but for the woolliness, or at least the linearity of the thinking surrounding biofuels.

There are two things happening here, and neither of them are particularly productive. Firstly there is the underlying assumption that anything bio, i.e natural, must be better than something synthetic like, erm, oil (which is the product of something that did grow once!) which seemed plausible enough to convince politicians around the world to set targets for biofuel use. Of course it has finally dawned that oil can be pumped out of the ground in inhospitable areas if the world whereas the growing of biofuel plants requires the grubbing up of land that would otherwise be used for food production.

What worries me more is the sort of inflexible thinking that this article, and many others addressing future energy needs and sustainability embody. Switching from something edible to something inedible as a feedstock for ethanol production doesn’t solve the problem any more than living in a tree will mitigate climate change.  Growing stuff in fields is something we have been doing for ten thousand years, and it s such an easy trick that even ants can do it, so we need to think about doing something new, something that makes some use of three or four thousand years of civilization, philosophy and science rather than banging our heads repeatedly against the (cave) wall.

If we want to get smart about this, we need to take something that we already have lots of, and find a waste by product that we can utilise, trees for example. Now before anybody jumps up and down pointing out that you can’t make ethanol directory from wood, and all the maple trees in Canada wouldn’t make much difference, we do know that. That’s where the technology comes in.

As often happens with these technologies, you have to get from A to B (or in this case trees to ethanol) via a few other places, and most of those places involve biotechnology and synthetic biology to transform a waste material (and plenty of stuff is thrown away during paper making for example) into a more useful material. Often a second or third step is needed to get to B, but doing this using microbes is much more energy efficient and cleaner than processing biofuels in a refinery.

Get that right and there is no need to take up any additional land, or to plant any additional crops, and you can play this trick with a number of other materials. While some of the technologies I have been looking at (which is why I have to be deliberately sketchy above) are a few years away from commercial use, I’m pretty sure that biofuels in 20 years time will be produced in a far more sensible and efficient way than currently envisaged.

Predictably, Friends of the Earth are dead against this approach, rather short sightedly equating any new technology with unacceptable risk. It’s all very well to carp from the sidelines, but given the urgency of finding solutions to global problems such as water and energy, spending twenty years rejecting any technology based solution doesn’t seem particularly enlightened – even toddlers tantrums blow over quicker!

Comments 1

  1. Jan Meneve

    Why not using greenhouse gases as a source for chemicals and fuels ?
    Please find below an excerpt of our annual report 08 in this issue.
    Kind regards,
    Jan

    Plasma assisted catalysis – a new look at CO2 as raw material.

    Conversion of greenhouse gases to valuable raw materials for the chemical industry.

    The international strategy to combat global warming is
    primarily focused on reducing emissions of greenhouse
    gases. The conversion of harmful greenhouse gases
    to more valuable components, such as intermediate
    products for the chemical industry, is an alternative
    certainly worth investigating. Such a conversion offers
    not only a sustainable solution, but is also economically
    interesting. Natural gas and greenhouse gases are
    usefully applied in this way to replace expensive and
    unsustainable fossil fuels. The search for a second life
    for greenhouse gases is an especially relevant avenue
    of research for Flanders, with its high concentration of
    chemical companies, refineries and power stations, all
    of which are sources of CO2.
    Technologically, the conversion of greenhouse gases
    such as CO2 is not self-evident since they consist of
    inert molecules that are difficult to transform. Conversion
    in the traditional way used a large amount of energy
    and was not very selective. Atmospheric plasma,
    due to the presence of high-energy electrons, allows
    activation of inert molecules at room temperature and
    atmospheric pressure. However, combination with a
    catalyst is required to reduce the energy barriers and
    promote selective reactions. VITO is studying the perspectives
    of this technology mix, also called plasma
    assisted catalysis. Together with the Katholieke Universiteit
    Leuven, the University of Antwerp and FLAMAC
    (Flanders Materials Centre) and with the support of
    IWT Flanders (Institute for the Promotion of Innovation
    by Science and Technology in Flanders), it is presently
    developing a process for the plasma assisted conversion
    of greenhouse gases to chemicals with an added
    value for industry.
    A few of the promising reactions studied by VITO are
    the partial oxidation of methane to methanol, and the
    conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) to carbon monoxide
    (CO). Methanol and carbon monoxide are two
    intermediate products much sought after in the chemical
    industry. In addition to the process optimisation,
    supported by advanced numerical modelling, research
    is also focusing on the reactors themselves. VITO has
    already constructed a first plasma catalysis reactor
    for the research; two additional high-throughput prototypes
    should deliver more data on the new process
    during the course of the project.

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