In the August issue of Scientific American, David Beillo published an article called The False Promise Of Biofuels. I have a paper copy, but not an electronic copy ($ubscription), so I won't be quoting it extensively. Here's the summary, which is good enough for our purposes.
Despite extensive research, biofuels are still not commercially competitive. The breakthroughs needed, revealed by recent science, may be tougher to realize than previously thought.
Corn ethanol is widely produced because of subsidies, and it diverts massive tracts of farmland needed for food. Converting the cellulose in cornstalks, grasses and trees into biofuels is proving difficult and expensive. Algae that produce oils have not been grown at scale. And more advanced genetics are needed to successfully engineer synthetic micro-organisms that excrete hydrocarbons.
Some start-up companies are abandoning biofuels and are instead using the same processes to make higher-margin chemicals for products such as plastics or cosmetics.
About 40% of America's corn crop went towards ethanol production last year, which signals the end of this boondoggle. Arable land of course should be used to grow food, not fuel. Beillo quotes J. Craig Venter, who calculates that replacing all of our transportation fuel with corn ethanol would require a farm three times the size of the continental U.S. Ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks is just a flat out failure. You can do it, but the process is slow, expensive and thus will never scale unless some miraculous breakthrough is made. As for algae, it's worth quoting Venter again.
Algae can be grown in the desert instead of on arable land, nourished with undrinkable briny water or even sewage, so the approach does not displace food crops or consume precious freshwater. The efficient process [described in the article] promises as much as 4,270 gallons of oil per acre, depending on conditions. Replacing all U.S. transportation fuels with algal oil "would take a farm roughly the size of Maryland," notes Synthetic Genomics's Venter, compared with his estimate of farmland three times the size of the continental U.S. for corn ethanol.
"That's a pretty big difference," Venter quips. "One's doable, and other's just absurd."
If Venter is serious—I think he is—he has a mighty peculiar idea of what is doable and what is not. And all this so we can keep the Happy Motoring dream alive.
Obama's energy secretary Steve Chu threw all his replacing oil eggs into two baskets. His first strategy has been to throw a lot of R&D money at improving batteries for electric cars. Although there are now Chevy Volts on the road, the use of plug-in electrics vehicles (PHEVs) is still in its infancy, and given the cost of these vehicles (especially the batteries), this industry may never grow up. We'll see. It would take years and years for PHEVs to make a significant dent in the U.S. car market. There will likely be fewer than 1 million PHEVs on the road by 2020. There are about 250 million cars and light trucks on the road today.
Chu's second strategy was to pour money into synthetic biology. Chu's idea, which I described in The Secretary Of Synthetic Biology back in March, 2009, was to shoot a bunch of research arrows at a target, assuming the target exists, and hope you hit something, i.e. achieve a significant breakthrough which would allow us to produce relatively cheap fuels at large scales from genetically altered plants or microorganisms. Needless to say, Biello's point is that no such breakthrough has occurred.
Breakthroughs remain possible, and the scientific quest for a better biofuel continues, but investors and politicians might be wise not to stake much money or policy on a high-risk bet. As an option, nations could electrify transportation to reduce fossil fuel use. Until they do, corn and sugarcane will provide the bulk of any alternative to oil, further straining a global agricultural system already struggling to provide food, feed, and fiber for seven billion people, plus livestock—and counting.
"We can live with different kinds of transportation," says ecologist G. David Tilman fo the University of Minnesota. "We can't live without food."
It is anathema to politicians to promote policies which require any kind of behavioral change on the part of the American public. Obama chose Steve Chu because his science experiments were open-ended. It might takes years to achieve a breakthrough, or forever. Obama could say he his administration was working on the our oil problems without ever really doing anything about them, at least outside the new, relatively insignificant fuel efficiency (CAFE) rules which go into effect in 2016. That would be last year of Hopey-Changey's second term if he is re-elected. Steve Chu is a big supporter of fuel efficiency improvements because supposedly, such improvements buy him time to do his science experiments.
Meanwhile, Americans are once again enduring the high fuel prices they saw before the "Great" Recession. Unless there's a global depression, those prices are going to remain high and go higher. Thank you Hopey-Changey!
So what replaces oil? Why, more oil of course! This time the oil will come from "unconventional" sources like the Bakken or Eagle Ford shales. But that's a topic for another post.
By. Dave Cohen
Dave Cohen writes the blog Decline Of The Empire. His commentaries cover a wide variety of subjects, including the American economy & macro-economics, the oil markets, peak oil, politics & policy, environmental issues and global warming. Dave was writing search engine software before he gave up on the industry in 2005 after 20 years as a software engineer. Dave has a M.A. in theoretical linguistics and was working on a Ph.D. before leaving The University of Texas at Austin in 1985 to do research in Artificial Intelligence. He attended the University of Chicago as an undergraduate.