Biofuel Reality Check

(Flickr, by fredthompson)

Politicians, journalists, even scientists love to talk about the "promise of biofuels." But a thorough news feature in last week's Nature reveals just how empty that promise may be.

Shown above is a Midwestern plant in which corn starch is turned into ethanol. Global ethanol production hit 13.2 billion gallons in 2007, more than double the production four years before. In the U.S., almost a quarter of all corn production now goes toward making ethanol. But, as Jeff Tollefson points out in the Nature piece, the agricultural techniques used for ethanol's production "often damage the environment on a scale that far outweighs any good achieved through the biofuels' use."

Enter "second-generation" biofuels made from trees and grasses, which are cheaper and most sustainable raw materials than corn. A big push in the industry right now, according to Tollefson, is turning cellulose (from the cell walls of plants) into fuel. But there's a big catch to that approach, too:

The fly in this ointment is that the world cannot yet boast a single commercial-scale cellulosic-ethanol facility. Breaking cellulose down into sugars is not easy work, and can use up a lot of energy; what's more, not all the sugars produced are easily fermented.

Even if bioengineers successfully tinkered with those chemical processes, and even if they created a crop that could be an ample source of the cellulose, they'd still need to figure out how it could could all be done on a large scale. With all of the roadblocks, Tollefson argues that biofuels "will never take over the whole liquid-fuel market, let alone amount to a large proportion of total energy use."

The best option, he concludes, would be to increase our fuel efficiency:

In the same law that expanded the ethanol mandate, Congress also increased the fuel-efficiency requirements for vehicles by 40%...And as Ingram points out, “If we increase gas mileage by 1 mile per gallon, that is about equal to all the ethanol we are making right now from corn?

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