08 February 2008

Biofuels Triumphant--The Folly of Pessimism

Biofuels have a magnificent future, in terms of replacing liquid petro-fuels for transportation, agriculture, heavy machinery, etc. It is important to keep in mind the rapid progress being made in the new science and technology of biofuels, when looking at research showing that [old methods of producing] biofuels are inefficient.
Several recent studies about the carbon balance of first-generation biofuels, including two analyses published in Science, are based on assessments of current land use practises. These studies are important, but the conclusions drawn from them are often seriously flawed. Moreover, if these conclusions are placed in a neo-malthusian perspective on population and natural resources, they cannot be taken seriously at all because there is no credible basis for neo-malthusianism in the first place.

...all these analyses are based on existing, primitive land use practises and on first-generation, inefficient biofuels made from crops like corn or soybeans. They do not take into account new energy crops (e.g. crops that yield far more biomass and are engineered to store far more CO2 than ordinary crops), the use of plantation residues, new bioconversion technologies, and the radical option of capturing and storing carbon from bioenergy production.

Those who use current studies about the carbon balance of today's incredibly inefficient biofuels to conclude that all biofuels are incapable of reducing emissions are making a grave mistake....Decentralised biofuel production plants that can be located close to the land to be cleared are already here. These plants draw on a process called fast-pyrolysis. It transforms any type of biomass into bio-oil, which can be further upgraded into transport fuels or used in power plants....The process works as follows: original biomass (e.g. a woodland) is used for the production of a biofuel such as pyrolysis oil....The fuel is then sent to a facility where it is used for the production of either electricity and heat, a fully decarbonized biofuel (such as biohydrogen) or a low-carbon biofuel....

...Current biofuel crops like corn or soybeans are truly inefficient because biofuels made from them only utilize a fraction of the biomass grown, that is, easily extractible starch or oil. These first-generation biofuels have no future and are no longer of interest to the bioenergy community....A large number of plant biologists and bio-engineers has already developed new crops that either yield far more biomass (which immediately clears much of the carbon debt), or that store far more CO2 than ordinary crops, or that contain in them codes for easy bioconversion.

...an area in which huge potential can be found is in the utilization of plantation and processing residues from existing agricultural operations and biofuel operations. Recently, we referred to the potential for the production of biohydrogen from palm oil residues. A palm plantation yields farm more biomass than is currently used in the form of oil. If these vast amounts of residues are used productively instead of burned or dumped as waste, the carbon balance of biofuels from the oil is seriously improved (previous post). There is similar potential is virtually all agricultural operations today. The same process can be applied in biofuel operations, where residues and byproducts (such as glycerine in biodiesel) is used as a feedstock for a myriad of green products that replace oil, coal and gas.

The fact is, the people who do studies such as the ones in Science, cannot possibly keep up with the rapidly advancing technology in biofuels. By the time they publish, their results are hopelessly out of date. While the energy return to energy invested ratio is only 1.5 for maize ethanol, for advanced ethanol and biodiesel production methods, the return can be over 10 to 15 times the energy invested.

Many advocates of biofuels favour them for the prospect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. We at Al Fin see that rationale as trivial and unimportant. Increased energy independence and sustainability are far more important reasons to develop advanced biofuels. The payoff will be most significant.

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Blogger Snake Oil Baron said...

I saw someone refer to this new criticism of biofuels just a few hours ago and it made absolutely no sense. Where do forestry wastes, sewage, crop waste, garbage, desert farmed algae (or winter farmed algae for that mater which has just been demonstrated) fit in the "land use" equation?

I am not certain of biofuels as a transportation energy (electrics, hybrids and capacitors being of interest) but the arguments against biofuels as any source of energy seem like they are being crafted by ten year olds.

Friday, 08 February, 2008  
Blogger SwampWoman said...

Crop *residue* (the non-harvested part)is an important part of soil health. They protect the soil from erosion and return nutrients to the soil, lessening the need for chemical fertilizers. The amount of water a soil can hold is dependent on its percentage of organic material. I'm less than enthusiastic about that prospect particularly as it applies to subtropical/tropical agriculture.

I'm *very* enthusiastic about the prospect of fuel from algae, garbage, sewage, and cellulosic crops such as switchgrass.

Saturday, 09 February, 2008  
Blogger Bruce Hall said...

Rather than "bio-gasoline", I would like to see more emphasis on "bio-diesel" and the inherently more fuel-efficient diesel system for vehicles.

One the stationary side, our landfills offer a significant source of fuel beyond methane. The use of plasma incineration [30K° F] reduces all materials to their basic constituents and is self-sustaining once the process has started... while producing significant amounts of electricity.

Saturday, 09 February, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for the excellent comments.

Baron, economics will sort out the uses of liquid biofuels. Aviation will need liquid fuels for a long time. Biofuels will provide a transition to all-electric ground vehicles--which will take decades.

SW, good point. Algae grow in the desert, in brine and saltwater, so crop residue is not an issue. High-rise urban farms with aeroponics should become economical this century--negating the issue of cropland and crop residue in one stroke. Much cropland should revert to wildgrass and forest eventually.

Bruce: Good point about diesel being more efficient than current gasoline engines. Algal biodiesel is much more efficient than seed oil crops. Algae can grow on desert lands in brine. Algae thrives on high CO2 environments (exhaust from power plants). And as you say, landfills and the constant flow of garbage can be a rich resource for fuels and electric power, using ever advancing technologies.

Saturday, 09 February, 2008  

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