Cellulosic Ethanol – Clean but Worth Unproven
By Stephen Leahy
Jun 30 (IPS) – With biofuels being blamed for rising food prices and offering limited environmental benefits, diverse luminaries like former U.S. vice-president Al Gore and Microsoft’s Bill Gates are throwing their considerable support behind cellulosic ethanol, a second generation biofuel.
The big benefit cellulosic ethanol has is that virtually any plant material — left-over corn stalks, sawdust, wood chips, native perennials grown on marginal lands — could be turned into ‘green gold’, a low-emission fuel for the transportation sector.
“Cellulosic ethanol would reduce carbon emissions 88 percent over gasoline,” says Bruce Dale, a chemical engineer at the Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory at Michigan State University.
Dale recently published a life cycle analysis comparing various fuels on a carbon emissions per kilometre basis in the prestigious journal Science.
“Any form of ethanol is greatly superior to gasoline in this respect,” Dale told IPS.
And he calculates that cellulosic could supply all of the U.S.’s gargantuan appetite – 200+billion U.S. gallons — for liquid fuel without pushing up food prices because it will use non-food crops grown on marginal lands.
But, he cautions, the cellulosic green-gold revolution will have to proceed carefully to avoid mistakes such as palm oil biodiesel production in south-east Asia that has been labelled as ‘deforestation diesel’ by environmental activists.
European subsidies for biodiesel prompted an enormous boom in planting palm oil trees in Indonesia and Malaysia in the past few years. Forests were clear-cut and peat swamps drained to plant hundreds of thousands of hectares. Cutting the forests and draining the swamps emitted far more carbon than could ever be saved from using biodiesel, a number of recent analyses show.
“Biofuels for transport is the wrong approach entirely,” says Andrew Boswell of Biofuelwatch, a British environmental NGO.
Vast monocultures of oil palm, soya, sugar cane and maize for biofuels results in massive losses of biodiversity and rural livelihoods, serious impacts on water, soil, and food security, Boswell told IPS.
Biofuelwatch and more than 150 civil society organisations have called on the European Union to abandon their targets for biofuel use.
A May 2007 UN Energy report concurred stating that biofuels are more effective when used for heat and power rather than in transport. Boswell does not see cellulosic as much of an improvement as a fuel for transport.
Converting biomass into fuel means less biomass for soil which is crucial to maintaining soil fertility. Growing crops and cellulosic processing plants also require huge amounts of water. There are also biosafety issues since the cellulosic process uses genetically engineered enzymes and genetically engineered crops as feedstocks, he said.
“Investments in energy-efficiency, plug in hybrid cars and more transit would be cheaper and more effective,” said Boswell.
“Cellulosic ethanol is just the next big money-maker for the agro-chemical and biotech corporations,” he said.
While large companies like Dow Chemical, Monsanto as well as Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell among many others are certainly involved, not a single cellulosic plant has gone into production yet despite 50 years of research.
“It’s much more difficult and complex to get ethanol from cellulose,” says John Ferrell, co-director of the National Biomass Coordination Office within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
For complete story see Cellulosic Ethanol – Clean but Worth Unproven
See also Radio Ecoschock’s brilliant podcast on the whole biofuel not so green issue: BUSH’S BIOFUEL SCAM
4 thoughts on “Greenest Ethanol Still Unproven”
I read a story in the media recently about a company that wants to sequester CO2 by connecting coal-fired power plants (for example) to an algae farm. The algae would absorb the CO2 as they grow. So far so green.
Then the article went on to say that the algae would be used as a source of biodiesel. Wow! This just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?
What the article didn’t say was that burning the biodiesel would release the CO2 that had been ‘sequestered’ in the algae. No so green after all!
Many of these alternative fuel concepts are great stories, and I think that one important thing to remember is that we don’t currently have the infrastructure for a environmentally friendly energy industry. As such you will find many arguments against alternative resources citing valid scientific research that shows these methods to be more harmful to the environment. Let’s not forget the laws of Supply and Demand – basically, if we continue on the right path of building demand for environmentally friendly energy than these arguments will work themselves out because the money that is behind all large scale developments (which will never be made to care about the environment) will care about very much about wasted opportunity and will naturally gravitate to the least wasteful resource.
for instance, anonymous said: “What the article didn’t say was that burning the biodiesel would release the CO2 that had been ’sequestered’ in the algae. No so green after all!”
This is true, but because of the basic laws of economics, this CO2 that is released by burning biodiesel will soon be a valued resource instead of harmful waste, and there are already companies in place working on the technology to do so… I’m thinking of a small Whelsh team that patented a product recently which they called “Greenbox” I believe… but I’m sure that there are more.
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