Biofuels: Beyond the Headlines


The biofuel stories now have gotten
so polarized that you’re either with us or against us. You know, it does become black or white. Having headlines say, “There can be some problems with making biofuels some way,” would have been great.
Instead, they basically said, “All biofuels are bad,” which is not at all the case. There are ways to make biofuels that have
benefits and ways that don’t. And what society has to do is make sure that the ones that
are made for us are the ones that actually give us benefits. Our main point was, you really ought to pay
attention to how you produce the biofuels, not that biofuels are good or bad, in and of themselves. In a broad sense, there are two kinds of biofuels. One kind of biofuel is that we derive from
our current food crops. And that’s the kind we’re making right now. The shortcomings are it takes
a lot of energy to grow the corn, to grow the soybeans. It takes a lot of energy to convert
those into usable energy sources. When you’re done with all of that, 80 percent of the energy
in that gallon of ethanol is fossil energy it took to make the fertilizer,
to grow the corn, to transport the corn and convert the corn into ethanol. Only 20 percent of each gallon is new energy.
We’re not getting a very good return on our energy investment. The second major kind of biofuels are biofuels
that are made from perennial plants – from long-life plants that we can go out and harvest
on a regular basis. And you can convert that by a series of modern processes into
a liquid fuel. You can make ethanol out of it. You can make synthetic gasoline
out of it, synthetic diesel. Most people believe that within five or so
years, we’ll have commercially viable ways to take hay or wood chips or a high diversity
mixture of prairie grasses, take that biomass, mow it, cut it, whatever, and convert it into liquid fuels. Almost
all the energy that you get out is actually new, non-fossil energy, renewable energy. We’re really trying to think about taking account of all of the costs associated
with consequences of producing and using various fuels. You know, what’s really in society’s best interest? So that means taking account of the costs of the labor and the equipment, and so forth, but also
taking account of the environmental costs, including, you know, what effect does this have on carbon emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions? We need not just more energy. We need energy that doesn’t have
greenhouse gas impacts. And the biofuels made from perennial plants have
very little greenhouse gas impacts. In fact, some of them, we showed, are actually
what are called carbon-negative. At the end of the whole life cycle, you have less carbon dioxide in the air
than you had at the start of it. We’re having about a ton and a half of carbon dioxide removed
from the air every year by these plants. It becomes organic matter in their roots
and those roots are shed and that organic matter slowly builds up in the soil. Prairie lives basically forever. Once you plant it,
you can harvest it year after year after year. You do not need to replant it. It’s a very stable ecosystem that can be harvested
every year with no trouble. Because of the carbon dioxide that is taken by
the plants and stored in the soil, in the whole lifecycle of this fuel, there is
less greenhouse gas in the air when you’re done making it and burning it than there was beforehand. In addition to that, there’s a lot of waste
biomass that is not being used. We have a lot of paper that right now goes into landfills
that we could separate and use to make biofuels. We actually have a lot of manure that isn’t
being used as it could be. That manure actually has a lot of energy in it.
That could also be made into biofuels. We think we can probably have two times the energy
coming from waste that we can get from dedicated energy crops on degraded land. If producing biofuels involves a lot of clearing
of forests or native prairies, that’s where you’re going to get what we call
the carbon debt. If you produce the biofuels from waste material, we’re not clearing land. We’re getting a valuable product that
can be used to replace fossil fuels, and there it’s just pure gain. Although there’s a lot more work to be done
on these kinds of issues, there’s an immense potential with further research and some creativity to have us start solving the global climate
change kinds of issues through these approaches. Energy and the environment will really be one
of the fundamental challenges that society faces over the next 50 years. We can’t just say, “We need energy.” We need energy that gives us environmental
benefits at the same time. In the end, we’re going to have to have
a predominance on renewable energy sources. We’re going to have to have a sustained push
to get these renewables to replace conventional fossil fuels. I think these are problems that will be solvable.
I don’t see any issue with solving these problems. I just hope that we start trying to solve them very
soon.

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Comments

  1. Bio-Fuels are the ONLY way to save our planet..our ONLY home ..We need to wake up to this reality or there may be no tomorrow for our children..

  2. when burning both bio-fuels and hydrocarbons, one of the main problems was supposedly the release of carbon into the atmosphere, since this is still a problem with biofuels is the problem truly solved

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