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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Fuels gold: Big risks of the biofuel revolution - earth - 22 September 2006 - New Scientist Tech

The gold rush has begun. Ditch oil and buy corn - as much as you can. It's a sure-fire investment. At least that's the message you might have picked up from the headlines in recent months. Soon, we're told, corn crops will be as valuable as black gold. Not because tortilla chips are the next big diet fad, but because corn and a handful of other crops are being hyped as the fuel sources of the future.

There are many reasons for this sudden excitement surrounding "biofuels" (see "Biofuel basics", beneath this article, for a look at exactly what this covers). Not only have soaring oil prices made biofuels economically viable for the first time in years, but they could also help countries reduce their dependency on fossil fuel imports. However, the real PR coup for biofuels is their eco-friendly image.

Supporters claim they will dramatically slash our net greenhouse gas inputs, because the crops soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Given this, it's no surprise politicians and environmentalists the world over are backing the idea, hoping we will all soon be using this green alternative to power our cars, buses and trains. Even former oilman President George W. Bush is behind them. In his State of the Union address on 31 January, he called for a national drive to run vehicles on biofuels.

But before you join in the celebrations, all is not as it seems. Scientists have begun to question the environmental and social arguments for bioethanol and biodiesel (see "Biodiesel backlash"), casting serious doubts on whether either can meet such high hopes. And environmentalists find themselves in a particularly excruciating quandary, with half the green community embracing biofuels to the last corn kernel, and the other half desperate to slam on the brakes. "Read More" click link below


Far from solving our problems, say the dissenters, biofuels will trash rainforests, suck water reserves dry, kill off species and raise food prices. They will also accelerate the corporate takeover of agriculture, create famines and could leave fuel importers as dependent as ever on other countries. Worst of all, many biofuels will barely slow global warming at all if the technology behind them does not improve. The biofuels supporters counter that it's still early days, and we should give this technology the time and investment to deliver on its promise. So who's right?

The controversy may be brand new, but biofuels themselves are an old idea. The Model T Ford, first produced in 1908, was designed to run on ethanol, and Rudolf Diesel, who invented the diesel engine in 1892, ran his demonstration model on peanut oil. Biofuels fell out of favour as petroleum-based fuels appeared and became cheaper to produce, but after the oil crisis of the early 1970s, some countries returned to biofuels. For example, Brazil has been producing large quantities of ethanol from sugar cane for over 30 years, and last year produced about half of the world's bioethanol (see Graphic). Brazilian law now requires that 20 per cent of fuel at the pumps be blended with bioethanol, which all gasoline-powered cars can tolerate. Over 15 per cent of Brazil's cars can even run on pure bioethanol.

According to a study published in June by the Worldwatch Institute, for Brazil to produce 10 per cent of its entire fuel consumption requires just 3 per cent of its agricultural land, so it's not surprising other places want to emulate Brazil's approach. The problem is that in most other countries, the numbers don't add up.
"Bioethanol production is forecast to double between 2005 and 2007, by which time it will consume a fifth of the US corn crop"

The same Worldwatch study estimated that to meet that 10 per cent target, the US would require 30 per cent of its agricultural land, and Europe a staggering 72 per cent. It's no secret why things stack up so differently. Not only do Brazilians drive far less than Europeans and Americans, their fertile land and favourable climate mean their crop yields are higher, and their population density is lower.

The US and Europe aren't the only ones hoping the Brazilian model will be a quick fix for environmental and fuel-security woes. China plans to cut oil imports and CO2 emissions by running its cars on ethanol made from cassava, while Cuba hopes to revitalise its moribund sugar industry by turning the crop into ethanol, and Hungary wants to replace Russian energy imports with corn-based ethanol.

What few yet appreciate is that biofuels are not all made equal. In the US, the immediate plan is to ramp up production of corn bioethanol. America's 100th corn-to-ethanol distillery came online in May, and a further 30 are under construction across the Midwest. Bioethanol production is forecast to almost double between 2005 and 2007, by which time the bioethanol business will be consuming around a fifth of the US corn crop. But when you try to assess the environmental benefits of bioethanol, things are not clear-cut. It takes a lot of energy both to grow corn and to convert it to ethanol, and cultivating a crop demands large quantities of fertiliser and pesticides, which themselves have environmental and energy costs. So is it actually worth it?

Several research groups have tried to take all this into account and compare fossil fuel emissions with those of corn bioethanol at every stage of production from seed to engine. The studies have been beset by scientific uncertainties, such as how much of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is produced by the nitrogen fertiliser used in growing corn. Opinions are divided as to what should and should not be included in the calculation, which means the results vary widely, but one study by David Pimentel at Cornell University in New York concluded that corn ethanol creates more greenhouse gases than burning fossil fuels.
"Biofuels will trash rainforests, suck water reserves dry, kill off species and, worst of all, barely slow down global warming"

Others aren't so pessimistic. In a review of several studies published in Science in January, Alexander Farrell of the University of California, Berkeley, estimated bioethanol would produce 13 per cent less greenhouse emissions than an equivalent amount of gasoline. However, Farrell arrives at this more favourable figure by assuming the leftover biomass from making the bioethanol is used as a dry fuel in a furnace or fed to animals, and not all bioethanol refineries do this.

Another reason a growing number of people oppose biofuels is that growing corn for ethanol uses up land that is currently supplying food to the world. Americans won't go hungry if surplus US corn is converted to ethanol rather than exported, but the resulting slump in the global grain supply will precipitate a rise in prices, and many see that as unethical. According to Lester Brown, veteran commentator and activist on food politics, the corn required to fill an SUV tank with bioethanol just once could feed one person for a year. He describes the boom in bioethanol as a competition between the 800 million people in the world who own automobiles and the 3 billion people who live on less than $2 a day, many of whom are already spending over half their income on food.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the competition has already begun. The FAO says the conversion of corn to ethanol is a primary reason for a sharp decline in world grain stocks and a commensurate rise in grain prices in the first half of 2006. The trend was echoed in a report to investors by the bank Goldman Sachs in July, which predicted corn prices will rise further as biofuels grow. Eric Holthusen, a senior official with oil giant Shell, recently described using food crops to make fuel while people were starving as "morally inappropriate".

It is striking how much land will be needed for biofuels to make a significant contribution to fuel usage. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July, Jason Hill and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, St Paul, calculated that even if the US diverted its entire current corn harvest to biofuels it would meet only 11 per cent of its current gasoline demand. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that to produce 10 per cent of the world's transport fuels would require 9 per cent of the planet's agricultural land.
"Producing 10 per cent of the world's transport fuels from crops would require 9 per cent of the planet's agricultural land"

Promoters of biofuels say such calculations are misleading. They claim high prices stimulated by demand for biofuels will encourage both more intensive cultivation of corn and the spread of corn fields onto land that is now idle. Unfortunately, both scenarios would undermine the already slender climate benefits of corn-based ethanol. More intensive growing means more chemical inputs, increasing the energy consumption and greenhouse emissions per tonne of corn. And Hill points out that clearing and ploughing virgin land will also release more CO2, quite possibly resulting in a net increase in greenhouse emissions from biofuel production.

So much for corn, but could other crops fare better? Lawrence Eagles at the International Energy Agency in Paris, France, says making ethanol from sugar cane is better for the environment than using corn because it avoids the first phase of the corn process - converting the plant starch into sugar. In terms of litres of fuel per hectare of crop, and net greenhouse gas benefit, sugar cane beats corn, says Eagles.

Some bioethanol producers have caught on to the idea. As a result, world sugar prices have doubled in the past 18 months, says Richard Oxley, head of industry consultancy Sugaronline. "All the major producers round the world - Brazil, India, Thailand, etc - are just rushing out and planting as much cane as they can," he says.

Trouble is, the high price is encouraging growers to clear land and plant sugar cane without regard for the ecological impact. Environmentalists fear that as demand for sugar cane rises on the global market, Brazilian farmers will push ever deeper into the Amazon rainforest, either to grow sugar cane itself or crops displaced by it.

As if that weren't enough, sugar cane plantations put huge pressure on water supplies - this is a thirsty crop. In countries without plentiful rainfall, farmers must draw water from rivers or underground reserves. So although irrigation isn't a problem in Brazil, other countries aren't so lucky. For example, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, farmers are scrambling to grow more cane to take advantage of the high prices, yet existing plantations already take two-thirds of the state's water and have lowered water tables by up to 50 metres in places.

Globally, no one is considering how much water biofuels will require, says Oxley. India is already drawing down its water reserves fast, and this will lead directly to dry wells, parched fields and empty granaries. While sugar cane may be a more greenhouse-friendly feedstock than corn for making ethanol, it is markedly worse in terms of its demands on the world's dwindling water reserves.

So are we utterly mistaken to think that bioethanol could usher in an era of greener energy? The way things are developing, it certainly looks that way, but it needn't be so.

The technology for producing biofuels is still in its infancy, and scientists working on it have grander things in mind. They want to perfect a way to make biofuels from non-food crops and waste biomass, saving the corn and other fuel crops for food use, and to do it without wrecking natural ecosystems. Given time, they think they can achieve this.

Already researchers are discovering clever ways to produce bioethanol without using food crops, and focusing instead on converting cellulose-rich organic matter into ethanol. Cellulose is the main structural component of all green plants. Its molecules comprise long chains of sugars strong enough to make plant cell walls. If you could break down those molecules to release the sugars they contain, you could ferment them into ethanol.

Developing an efficient process to convert cellulose into ethanol could open the door to many non-food materials such as switchgrass - a wild grass that thrives in the eastern states and Midwest of the US - straw, crop residues like stalks and hardwood chips. Its supporters say cellulose feedstocks could deliver twice as much ethanol per hectare as corn, and do it using land that is today neither economically productive nor environmentally precious. Some think municipal waste such as paper, cardboard and waste food could even be used as a feedstock.

A road map to making ethanol from cellulose set out in June by the US Department of Energy estimated the US could produce a third of its fuel needs in this way by 2030. It recommends genetically modifying crops such as switchgrass and poplar to make hardy, pest-resistant varieties that are very high in cellulose. This would mean low-maintenance feedstock, dramatically cutting energy and chemical inputs compared with existing feedstocks. The catch is that it would also require much more efficient enzymes to break the cellulose down into sugars, and better varieties of yeasts that ferment the sugars into ethanol faster and more efficiently than existing strains. "We can engineer crops to grow on dry and saline soil. This is going to be a revolution. For agriculture it is going to be a very exciting time," says Raymond Orbach, Under Secretary for Science at the DoE.

But so far most companies have been hesitant about investing in the research necessary to tackle these problems. So the DoE is setting up two new research centres, into which it will plough $250 million over the next five years, with the aim of developing the next generation of biofuel feedstocks. "It's too risky for the private sector. That's why government is doing this," says Orbach.

But one Canadian company is already on the case. Iogen, based in Ottawa, has built a pilot plant that has been producing cellulose ethanol in small quantities for the last two years. It uses a tropical fungus genetically modified to produce enzymes that break down cellulose, and can "digest" all sorts of biomass.
"Cellulose feedstocks could produce twice as much ethanol per hectare as corn"

Iogen recently attracted investment of $30 million from Goldman Sachs, and in January it announced it would investigate the feasibility of building a full-scale commercial plant in Germany in partnership with Volkswagen and Shell. If the numbers add up, Iogen could kick-start the revolution that may yet deliver us from our dependence on oil, without costing the Earth in the process.

From issue 2570 of New Scientist magazine, 22 September 2006, page 36-41
Biofuels basics

Biofuel is an umbrella term used to describe all fuels derived from organic matter. The two most common biofuels are bioethanol, which is a substitute for gasoline, and biodiesel, which speaks for itself. Both are seen as complementary ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions quickly with minimal modification to existing vehicles and fuel infrastructure.

Bioethanol is produced by processing starchy or sugar-rich crops such as sugar cane, wheat or corn. In the case of starchy crops, the starch is converted into sugars using enzymes. The sugars are fermented by yeasts to produce ethanol, which is then distilled. The resulting highly pure ethanol can be blended with petrol to various percentages. Most cars can burn petroleum fuels blended with up to 10 per cent bioethanol without any modifications to the engine, and some new cars can burn pure bioethanol.

Biodiesel covers the fuels produced by processing a variety of vegetable oils - including soybean, palm and rapeseed (canola) - and animal fats. The oil is treated in a process called transesterification. Oil is mixed with ethanol and a catalyst (usually sodium hydroxide) to break it down and then reform it as esters. Biodiesel can be used in place of normal diesel without modification to the engine. Although these oils can also be mixed with standard diesel without processing and burnt in a diesel engine, this is not recommended by most car manufacturers and this mixture is not, strictly speaking, "biodiesel".
Biodiesel backlash

Some time during the summer of 2002, Welsh police caught the first whiff of a new tax dodge. It smelt of fish and chips. Shoppers across south Wales had for some months been stocking up with suspiciously large quantities of vegetable cooking oil from the Swansea branch of Asda, part of the Walmart chain. But rather than taking the oil home for a deep-fried feast, they were pouring it into the fuel tanks of their diesel-engine cars and trucks.

The vehicles ran happily on the cooking oil, provided it was filtered and a little methanol added to help get going on cold mornings. With fuel prices climbing skywards, cooking oil had become cheaper than diesel at the pumps, and it was not long before word spread of the ingenious fuel substitute. Unfortunately, the crafty scheme was illegal because the drivers weren't paying fuel tax. The police hastily assembled a "frying squad" who literally sniffed out cars running on vegetable oil - the oil burns with a distinctive scent - and quickly cracked down on the practice.

Still, entrepreneurs realised these bootleggers were on to something big and set up legitimate processing plants to convert vegetable and animal fats into biodiesel. Biodiesel is not only cheaper than petroleum diesel, it is also more environmentally friendly. A wide range of vegetable oils can be used, including soya, palm, rapeseed (canola) and sunflower. All produce net greenhouse gas reductions similar to those from sugar cane ethanol and much better than corn ethanol. Jason Hill at the University of Minnesota, St Paul, estimates that biodiesel typically reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 41 per cent, more than three times the reduction from corn ethanol. What's more, many oil crops can be grown without major inputs of either agrochemicals or irrigation.

Germany is currently the biggest manufacturer of biodiesel. In 2005 it produced more than all the rest of the world put together (see Chart). But there are problems with the sudden rise of biodiesel as a substitute for diesel. Land use is still an issue. For example, sunflower and rapeseed, the main feedstocks for biodiesel today, produce fewer litres per hectare than corn produces bioethanol.

European Union law now states that all fuels be blended with 5.75 per cent biofuels by 2010, but member states don't have enough land to supply the feedstock locally, so massive imports of vegetable oils will be needed to help meet this target.

Enter Malaysia and Indonesia, which together dominate the world market for palm oil. Palm produces significantly better yields of fuel per hectare than other crops. Both countries are now falling over themselves to increase production and, in late July, announced a joint plan to set aside 40 per cent of their palm oil output for biodiesel production.

Last year Indonesia, which already has 6 million hectares of palms for oil production, announced plans to expand this by 3 million hectares, partly by converting 1.8 million hectares of forest in Borneo - almost the size of Massachusetts - into what would be the world's largest palm oil plantation.

The expansion plan was condemned by Friends of the Earth and WWF. The palm oil boom will "sound the death knell for the orang-utan and hamper the fight against climate change, the very problem biofuels are supposed to help overcome", says Ed Matthew, Friends of the Earth's palm oil campaigner. FoE claims palm oil plantations are the most significant cause of rainforest loss in Malaysia and Indonesia.

While the small-scale production of biodiesel from waste oil and low-level conversion of oil crops to biodiesel could certainly deliver a modest reduction in greenhouse emissions, it seems the environmental benefits of biodiesel don't scale up.
Fuels gold: Big risks of the biofuel revolution - earth - 22 September 2006 - New Scientist Tech


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've found this article to be fraudulent. If you want to know the truth about ethanol from all sorts of plants and it's sustainability, as well as it's high feasibility for short term replacement of gasolines shear destructiveness, see a man named David Blume. He is an expert in the field and writes a book called Alcohol Can Be A Gas. This article is fraught with errors, and brings into question the source of such an article to manipulate and mislead the masses.
For those who want to know the truth -

7/28/2009 5:49 PM  

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