Friday, August 5, 2011

Biofuels – Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

There’s a lot of interest in the possibility of producing fuels from plant materials (biofuels) as a substitute for fossil fuels. Unfortunately, it’s proven to be more difficult to accomplish than anticipated, according to an article in Scientific American this month. The only so-called “success” so far is ethanol derived from corn, but that’s because corn-based ethanol production is highly subsidized by the government. More than a quarter of the U.S. corn crop now goes to ethanol production. Nevertheless, corn-derived ethanol is not going to solve our energy problem – it diverts too much corn from food products, it is not particularly energy-efficient, and it is not capable of matching the sheer volume of gasoline the U.S. uses per year. At best, corn-derived ethanol is likely to remain a fuel supplement, capable of supplying only a fraction of our fuel requirements. Several attempts to produce ethanol from biomass waste material or wood chips on a commercial scale have failed – the technology just isn’t good enough yet. And the production of fuel oils using algae or bacteria have also proven to be too costly yet - fuel oil at over $400 a gallon, anyone?

This does not mean we should give up. Most advances in science are incremental – one little step at a time. Perhaps there will even be a major breakthrough, like a bacterium specifically engineered to make and excrete fuel oil. Just don’t expect to see a biofuel-powered car in your local showroom any time soon.

Reference: Biello, David. The False Promise of Biofuels. Scientific American Aug. 2011, pp. 58-65.

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