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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Researchers Scramble To Find Better Biofuel Alternatives

With the aid of high profile political and media events like the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Climate Change Summit, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming have become one of the hottest topics and most urgent international crises of this century. Around the world, researchers and scientists are rushing to find realistic solutions to our oil addiction and overwhelming, unsustainable dependence on traditional, fossil-fuel based energy. One of the most likely candidates for replacing our gas-guzzlers with more eco-friendly forms of transportation is the ever-expanding biofuels sector. While the current biofuels industry is far from ecologically perfect, one team of scientists from University of California Santa Barbara says we can do a lot better.

In a recent study published in in the environmental science journal Nature Sustainability, a team of researchers based at UC Santa Barbara (with additional research contributions from scientists at the University of Minnesota) argues that our current system for growing crops for biofuels has more drawbacks than benefits--but it doesn’t have to be this way. “It is difficult to make a biofuel that actually has environmental benefits,” says paper coauthor and Bren School of Environmental Science & Management ecology professor David Tilman. “When a food crop is used to make a biofuel, this, in essence, takes food away from poor people around the world, and, it turns out, offers little, if any, greenhouse gas reductions.”

Currently, some of our most prevalent sources of biomass are grown in extremely unsustainable ways. Lately palm oil has been particularly under fire for the vast deforestation and general environmental destruction that has followed its meteoric rise as an alternative fuel source, but it’s not the only major source of biofuel that has serious ecological drawbacks. Much lip service has been paid to the potential of algae as the magic catch-all biofuel solution, but the promise of seaweed as an energy fixer has been greatly overblown in many cases. Other mass-produced biofuel crops such as corn, soybeans, oil palm, and sugarcane occupy vast quantities of harmful nitrogen-based fertilizers and require vast swaths of land that could be used for growing much-needed food crops.

The use of nitrogen fertilizers in particular cancels out many benefits of growing crops for biofuels, what Tilman describes as a “two-edged sword.” He explains that nitrogen fertilizer “gives us higher yields, but it also releases lots of greenhouse gas and can pollute our well waters and rivers, lakes, and oceans.” Related: How Blockchain Is Changing The Face Of Oil Trading

In search of a better way to produce biomass for conversion into biofuels, Tilman and his research team conducted a 10-year experiment comparing the pros and cons of various methods of biomass generation, looking for the method that produced the fewest negative environmental and economic side effects. One promising crop tested in the experiment was deep-rooted prairie grass, which is better able to store carbon in the earth than other shallower-rooted annual crops. Prairie grasses are also able to grow in extremely infertile lands, meaning that they won’t need to take up valuable agricultural lands better suited to growing food crops. As the UC Santa Barbara study puts it, prairie grasses “could minimize competition with food and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with potential direct or indirect land clearing, enhance recovery of ecosystem services and provide wildlife habitat.”

The experiment also found that when it comes to nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation water--some of the factors that make biofuels less than environmentally friendly--moderation is key. The researchers were able to get the best results from plots where they applied moderate treatments with a low rate of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation water. These plots produced twice as much biomass yield and carbon storage as untreated plots and were actually much more successful than plots with intensive fertilizer and water treatment. As compared to the moderately treated plots, the intensively treated plots yielded much worse results: 30 percent lower greenhouse gas savings, 10 times greater nitrate leaching, and a whopping 120 percent greater loss in plant diversity.

The study highlights two important facts. One: the way we are currently approaching biofuels production is neither smart nor sustainable, and the industry is not fulfilling its promise of offering an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Two: there is a better way; the industry just needs to embrace it.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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