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Biofuels False Promise: Breakthroughs May be Tougher Than Previously Thought

By Dave Cohen | Fri, 21 October 2011 12:43 | 12

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.

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  • Anonymous on October 21 2011 said:
    Excellent as usual. I don't see why biofuels wont work,but I am not surprised that they are not going anywhere at the present time. The team of Obama and Chu is not quite what the doctor ordered.
  • Anonymous on October 21 2011 said:
    The sad part of the biofuel scam and especially of algae biofuel is that it shows just how scientifically illiterate not only our populace is, but our some of our "scientists" as well. All life forms require phosphorus and all biofuels at a produciton scale significant enough to offset petroleum will require NPK fertilizer. The "N" and "P" of this equation are tied to peak resources - peak petroleum and peak phosphate - meaning we are developing a technology dependent on the resource its trying to replace. Biofuel production will necessarily compete with human food production and that story doesn't end well. Biofuel production on waste products is minuscule compared to the need and the availability and economic feasibility of waste usage. Biofuel development has extremely limited application, potentially reduces our time and ability - our technical window of opportunity to reach other viable replacements for petroleum.
  • Anonymous on October 21 2011 said:
    Biofuels are all simply inefficient solar collectors that produce a chemical output. They are inevitably more expensive and less scalable than garden variety solar panels. Only power source that aren't solar collection devices (e.g. nuclear (uranium or thorium) or geothermal sources) have the capacity to replace petroleum, and then only if battery technology improves.
  • Anonymous on October 22 2011 said:
    So, full disclosure, ivwas the founder and COO of a biofuels company, Qteros. There is some truth to the notion that it is a steep R&D climb for all these biofuels startups. The truth is, however, we spend about $70B a year on farm subsidies and another $20B on oil and gas subsidies. The money spent on biofuels/electric cars/wind/solar is a pittance in comparison not to mention the two wars in the gulf. We need a Manhattan project to get off Middle East oil and onto a variety of sustainable fuels. We can't afford not to and we cant afford to keep throwing our hands up when the going gets tough. Let's figure this out, solve the problem and make this country strong again.
  • Anonymous on October 23 2011 said:
    Hemp: Fuel Food Fiber Medicine Industry Compiled from Jack Herer.com Fuel: Farming 6% of the continental U.S. acreage with biomass crops would provide all of America's energy needs. 1 Hemp is Earth's number-one biomass resource; it is capable of producing 10 tons per acre in four months. 1 Biomass can be converted to methane, methanol, or gasoline at a cost comparable to petroleum, and hemp is much better for the environment. Pyrolysis (charcoalizing), or biochemical composting are two methods of turning hemp into fuel.2 Hemp can produce 10 times more methanol than corn. Hemp fuel burns clean. Petroleum causes acid rain due to sulfur pollution. The use of hemp fuel does not contribute to global warming. Also check into what Henry Ford made from hemp...the petroleum industry blocked any efforts at competation. Money talks and controls.
  • Anonymous on October 23 2011 said:
    Bio-diesel from corn (most common plant used) provides only 25% of what cannabis hemp would provide. Cannabis hemp would make bio-diesel economically viable, plus it's the most useful plant on the planet with literally thousands of uses. Food, fuel, fiber, plastic, insulation, building material, etc. For medicine it cures cancer (www.cannabiscurescancer.com), treats chronic pain, arthritis, neurological disease, damage from strokes, asthma, etc... When we free cannabis from the prison the NWO bankers have it in, the sacred herb will become the most powerful economic engine on the planet without a doubt! Now you know why they try so hard to keep it illegal - the laws against marijuana have nothing to do with protecting us from a dangerous drug.
  • Anonymous on October 23 2011 said:
    Standard definitions of biofuels describe methods of fermenting food crops like corn or sugar cane, organic wastes or fuel crops into either ethanol or biodiesel. Both biofuels and their respective batch production methods have issues and limitations. But there's more to the story of biofuels than ethanol or biodiesel. Much more! What biofuel is ready for a Manhattan project? What fuel can be produced in all 50 states from ANY solid, liquid or gaseous carbon 24 hours a day? What fuel is EPA approved for blending and use in gasoline and diesel engines, with no engine modifications? What fuel is 138 octane, and completely biodegradable?What clean fuel can put America back to work making a biofuel that doesn't suck?It's called higher mixed alcohol fuel. http://www.openfuelstandard.org/2011/10/higher-mixed-alcohol-fuel-introduction.html
  • Anonymous on October 23 2011 said:
    Look into DME(dimethyl ether). All diesel motors can run on it. Just need to be refitted with new fuel pump and fuel injector. China and European countries are moving on it.
  • Anonymous on October 24 2011 said:
    I'm sure of two things. Everybody commenting about knows more about bio fuels than I do. At the same time I know that Dave Cohen is probably right. Of course if he said that cannabis hemp cures cancer I would drop out of his fan club, but at the same time I acknowledge that in a democriacy people can broadcast anything they choose.
  • Anonymous on November 20 2011 said:
    Ok so I keep hearing pro's and con's on hemp fuels. Time to put it to the test. 1st http://wh.gov/gKH sign up legalize commercial hemp. No reason not to hemp isn't not pot, no THC.2nd make new petition to use the (next years, 2012) subsidy payment to oil corps for planting crop and building an oil press (for diesel) and build a distillery (for gas). Or just use the ones we have :-* Won't cost us a dime and we will see if this dog can hunt or not. ;-) Easy, just do it and stop yapping about it.
  • Dr Raymond J. RITCHIE on October 06 2012 said:
    I am an Australian plant physiologist who happens to work on bioenergetics of photosynthesis in algae and photosynthetic bacteria. I first worked on photosynthesis in algae in 1975.
    It is an elementary one page calculation to show that algal biofules are complete nonsense. What I cannot understand is why the urban fable persists. One reason I think is the american habit of not using metric units. If you use metric it is easy to show the numbers do not add up. Yabbering about US gallons per acre is a good way to hide all sorts of sins.
    Unfortunately there are a lot of vested interests in algal biofuels: at conferences and whatnot you get two responses. (1) people just do not understand why biofuels cannot work when you try and tell them and (2) some understand you perfectly well and tell you to shut up. They are not past playing the dirty on you. It really cheers you up.
  • Ho Tet Shin on January 19 2013 said:
    Dr Ritchie,

    Could you share your one page calculation on why algal biofuels are not practical?

    Presentations I have seen point to 80% photosynthetic efficiency losses from light saturation and photo-inhibition. If these are overcome in some way, would we not have a fourfold improvement in productivity, or is there some inherent reason why these two impediments cannot be overcome?

    Thank you in advance,

    Ho Tet Shin

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