Biodiesel Bad?

A Newly Electric Green – Sustainable Energy, Resources and Design
New research from Cornell and UC Berkeley agriculture and engineering professors concludes that, when all of the elements required to produce biomass-based liquid fuels (such as ethanol and biodiesel) are added together, the energy requirements for production far exceed the energy produced.

...corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; [...] soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced [...]
In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix.
Although there are those who would dispute these calculations (update: and there are good reasons to believe that this is an overall poor piece of research) let's take them as given for the moment.

What's notable about all of the production elements listed as "requiring" fossil fuels is that pretty much all of them are amenable to changes that would greatly reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use. Pesticide use can be cut with organic techniques (or even carefully-controlled bioengineering); algae-hydrogen fertilizers require no fossil fuel inputs; pumps and other electrical farm machinery can be solar-powered; and the tractors and transport can be biodiesel-fueled. And that's if there's no shift to more radical farming systems.
Then there are the improvements to the energy potential of the biomass itself. A variety of techniques are being developed to improve the efficiency of biofuel production, from engineered enzymes to biomimicry of the natural consumption of carbohydrates to up biofuel production to 75% of the dry plant weight.

The Cornell and UCB researchers have clearly lost sight of the wide array of changes now underway when it comes to worldchanging technologies. It may be true that, today, biofuel production is a net loser in terms of energy costs -- but that doesn't mean that it will be true tomorrow.

No comments: