04 September 2006

Biofuels: Scientific Optimism vs. Media Pessimism

Scientists and farmers are optimistic about biofuels. Bio-ethanol, butanol, and biodiesel, are good ways of running engines while recycling carbon. Being able to use cellulose to make biofuels would greatly increase the land area of earth that could be used for profitable agriculture, without reducing food production acreage. Various ways of breaking down cellulose to sugars have been discussed, but being able to do so without the use of expensive chemicals and enzymes would aid the economics significantly.

This scientific paper describes a major step forward in the use of cellulose to make biofuels. Here is the summary:

In summary, we found that cellulose undergoes crystalline-to-amorphous transformation in water at around 320 °C and at 25 MPa. The transformation is associated with a large change in mechanical and chemical properties, just like gelatinisation of starch. The newly found property of the most abundant and renewable biomass is of significance to its utilization such as biomass conversion. Besides, water at high temperatures and pressures exists in the Earth's crust, and our results have important implications in considering the fate of plant deposits such as fossilization14 or conversion to coal.15
I urge you to read the entire article at the source. Hat tip Green Car Congress.

Media pessimism toward biofuels is not difficult to find. In this "New Mexican" article, the author slants the mood toward biofuel pessimism by quoting scientific experts who take a decidedly pessimistic view toward biofuels, and ignoring the many experts whose calculations point toward optimism. Is this honest? No, but it is journalism as generally practised.

“The United States desperately needs a liquid-fuel replacement for oil in the near future,” says David Pimentel, an agriculture professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “But producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products.”

....Pimentel’s study, which was published last July, hammers ethanol across the board. He says it takes 29 percent more fossil energy to make corn ethanol and 45 percent more fossil energy to make ethanol from switchgrass than the energy produced.
The numbers for wood biomass are worse. According to Pimentel, it takes 57 percent more fossil energy to produce ethanol from wood chips than the energy produced.
Those numbers won’t get the U.S. out of the Middle East oil situation anytime soon, he said. In fact, “ethanol is contributing to us being there.”

For more optimistic scientific assessments of biofuels, see The Energy Blog.

Hydrocarbons and their relatives make excellent liquid fuels. To get those liquid fuels from renewable sources, rather than petroleum and coal, creates a better energy balance for the earth. Whether from oil seed or algae biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol/butanol, cane, beet, or sorghum ethanol/butanol--there are many choices for biofuels.

It is extremely premature for any scientist to definitively state that biofuels cannot be made into economic substitutes for fossil fuels. In this particular argument, Pimentel is definitely in the minority, yet the "journalist" chose to treat him as the foremost expert on the topic.

Given the rapid progress being made into the genetic engineering of plants and microbes, it is foolhardy in the extreme to predict what bio-energy will be capable of doing in the next ten or twenty years.

So what accounts for this contrived pessimism, on the part of the journalist? Either he truly does not know any better, or there is an ulterior motive for creating this pessimism "du jour." Creating pessimism within an electorate can be the same thing as creating motivation for change, in a shifty and indirect way. This would not be the first time journalists had taken that approach in the leadup to an election, for reasons of their own.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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