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!