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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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The Promise And Controversy Of Bamboo Biofuels

  • A new paper from GCB Bioenergy suggests that bamboo, being a fast-growing plant that absorbs carbon dioxide, could be a promising source for biofuels such as bioethanol and biochar.
  • Critics argue that even if biofuels have an efficient production process, they can still have significant environmental impacts.
  • Concerns about food insecurity are also raised, as industrialized bamboo production for biofuels could compound existing problems caused by industrial agriculture.
Bamboo

A new scientific paper from GCB Bioenergy has found that bamboo could be the next big thing in biofuels. The authors argue that industrialized agriculture of bamboo for diversion to fuel mixes could be a win-win for the environment, as bamboo is fast-growing, absorbs carbon dioxide, and provides substantial quantities of oxygen to the atmosphere. Various transformative processes including fermentation and pyrolysis could then be used to convert raw bamboo into diverse bioenergy products, with bioethanol and biochar being the primary outputs.

The research is still in its early phases, and lead author Zhiwei Liang, of the Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Science, says that “since the chemical composition of bamboo varies across different species, future research efforts should focus on gathering a more extensive collection of quantitative data for selecting species advantageous for minimizing biomass pre-treatment time and cost.”

While bamboo would be a nearly inexhaustible source of biomass, there are concerns about the overall viability and logic behind pouring resources into bamboo biofuel research. For one thing, it’s deja vu all over again. For decades, algal biofuel was touted as the next big thing to save the planet, with much of the same reasoning as you just heard related to bamboo. But after years of research and billions of dollars invested, algal biofuel is dead in the water. In fact, research now suggests that biodiesel from microalgae may actually produce more carbon than petroleum-based diesel due to its highly energy-intensive production process.

Furthermore, lots of environmentalists argue that even when biofuels have an efficient production process, they still aren’t good for the environment. Since they are combusted like fossil fuels, they create considerable carbon emissions, but they are also considered to be “inefficient land hogs.” Industrial biomass production such as corn and wood pellet production are drivers of serious environmental harm including deforestation, water pollution, and the creation of toxic dead zones across the country and the Gulf of Mexico thanks to the heavy use of pesticides. 

Furthermore, intensive biofuel production elevates food insecurity. Industrial agriculture is already recognized as being environmentally devastating due to its overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and depletion of soil fertility and natural carbon sinks. But when industrial agriculture isn’t even being used to grow desperately needed food products, the problems are compounded. “It takes about 100 acres worth of biofuels to generate as much energy as a single acre of solar panels; worldwide, a land mass larger than California was used to grow under 4 percent of transportation fuel in 2020,” the New York Times reported last month. 

Industrializing bamboo production for biofuels would likely be no different. One thing algal biofuels had going for them was that their production doesn’t require large areas of land, but clearly that didn’t work out either. 

Nevertheless, an increasingly big market is opening up for ‘renewable’ biofuels in the United States thanks to increasing policy support including increased biofuel quotas from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the jury is still out on whether biofuels are actually good or bad for the environment. While researchers continue to search for improved technologies and new sources for biofuels and government backing continues to grow, a conversation about whether it wouldn’t be better to abandon the whole venture is also getting louder. 

A new proposed Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) from the EPA includes a notable increase in ‘renewable fuel’ quotas for the national fuel mix to supplement petroleum-based fossil fuels. “Renewable fuel” is a catch-all term used by the government to encompass “fuel produced from planted crops, planted trees, animal waste and byproducts, and wood debris from non-ecological sensitive areas and not from federal forestland,” according to a summation from Grist. 

Under the new EPA proposal, renewable fuels would see a 9% uptick (about 2 billion gallons more than current quantities) by the end of 2025. All told, the EPA is targeting the inclusion of over 22 billion gallons of different renewable fuel sources in the national energy mix by 2025. 15 billion of those gallons would come from corn-based ethanol alone. Corn ethanol is a “first-generation” biofuel, which means that it provides few emissions benefits and competes with food crops. However, the corn lobby is extremely powerful in the United States, and they’re big fans of increased biofuel mandates. 

“Relying on dirty fuels like factory farm gas and ethanol to clean up our transportation sector will only dig a deeper hole,” Tarah Heinzen, legal director for the non-profit environmental watchdog group Food & Water Watch recently told Grist. “The EPA should recognize this by reducing, not increasing, the volume requirements for these dirty sources of energy in the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

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By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com  

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