What Breakthroughs Do Biofuels Need?
Check out the ideas from our panelists and rate them below.
What inventions and technical innovations are needed for biofuels to become a true challenge and sustainable alternative to petroleum-based transportation? This is one of the questions we put before two dozen experts from industry, universities, and environmental groups who gathered last month for National Geographic’s Biofuels at a Crossroads forum. How would you rate their ideas? Feel free to comment with ideas of your own.
Responding to concern about the land area needed to grow plants for ethanol and other biofuels, some experts said work needs to be done on developing crops that are higher yield or better at producing energy from sunlight. “One of the things people are looking at is actually increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis that nature has already developed,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president, of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Through advances in synthetic biology over the next 20 years, I think you’re going to see plants that can use less fertilizer, use less water, and make better use of the sun to produce feedstock.” Thomas E. Elam, president of the agricultural consulting firm, FarmEcon LLC, although sharing little common ground with Erickson on current U.S. biofuels policy questions, agreed for the need for this kind of research. “Plants are horribly inefficient at converting sunlight into usable energy,” he said. “Solar cells are like 30 times as efficient. What can we do to double or triple the efficiency of sunlight falling onto plants and converting that into something that’s useful and storable?” And below, Roger Sedjo of Resources for the Future argues for genetically engineered trees:
Work on Waste as a Feedstock
“Mixed and variable” feedstocks, including wastes, for biorefineries is an area of focus for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which also would like to see more private research and development being done, says Zia Haq, one of the leaders of the agency’s biofuels program. As an example, he mentioned the effort by one of the leading U.S. ethanol companies, POET, to open its first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant next year, using “stover” or the husks and other corn waste as a feedstock for fuel. An important consideration, he says, is for a refinery to be able to use varying feedstocks year-round. “Remember, it’s a commercial facility, it has to operate 300, 365 days a year,” he said. “It can’t just take the corn harvest and stop when the harvest finishes.” We’ve written about efforts to convert waste into biofuel, including a project in Scotland to make use of the draff that’s left over from making Scotch whisky.
Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) went further, saying we should be focusing on the ultimate waste product: carbon dioxide, and technologies for converting it directly into fuel. For a look at some of the research that’s being done, see: “Carbon Recycling: Mining the Air For Fuel.”
Better Ways to Measure Impact
More important than any piece of equipment or physical process, we need an innovation in thinking–a standard way to measure carbon emissions and land-use impact of biofuels (and other energy sources), said Daniel Kammen, professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It doesn’t sound like hardware, but it actually is the ultimate way to talk about… the return we get on a given unit of land area from solar, from nuclear, or biofuels or this or that,” he said. He urged we “begin a conversation on how we build those metrics. We will not get full agreement but we will get to a place where there are at least reasonable standards.” He notes that the U.S. Clean Air Act never said what the final “numbers” would be, but an agreement for a process for controlling pollution based on the best science.
Korin added that it was important to subject entrenched fossil fuels to the same kind of scrutiny we give the new alternatives. “It’s not fair that for petroleum or gasoline, nobody’s calauclating indirect emissions, but for biofuels and even for electricity–plug-in hybrid and electric cars–we’re looking upstream. We’re not looking upstream for petroleum. Either we look upstream for everything, or we don’t look upstream for anything, but make it fair.”
“Energy Farms” and Small-Scale Solutions
A big challenge for the biofuels industry is the high cost of transporting feedstock long distances, said Esteban Chornet, chief technology officer, of Enerkem, a start-up company that is working to make biofuels and chemicals out of garbage and solid waste. Most studies (notably those by the U.S. Department of Energy) conclude that biofuels plants have to be large in order to be cost-effective, in order to realize economies of scale. But Chornet notes that it’s difficult to obtain the necessary biomass to feed such large-scale plants relying only on the biomass located nearby. The challenge, Chornet says, is to develop products that would be cost-effective to produce and sell relying in a plant that is smaller scale, the right size to fit the availability of local biomass.
Erickson floated a similar idea when panelists were asked to think about ideas for an X PRIZE-style competition for biofuels. His idea was an “energy farm” where the whole process–cultivation to refining–is in the same campus. “I think it would be interesting to have a prize for an energy farm, where you get a biorefinery company and an ag company together,” he said. “You grow the feedstock sustainably, make the biofuel, and you run everything on the fuel.”
True Choice at the Pump
For biofuels to flourish, they have to be available to consumers, some experts pointed out. Currently, the pipelines and gas pump infrastructure is geared almost entirely to petroleum products (with ethanol a modest 10 percent blend-in to boost octane.) A key problem is that the majority of passenger cars in the United States are not designed to run on high blends of ethanol, even though the technology for flexible fuel cars is inexpensive and well-known. (Most cars in Brazil, for example, are flex-fuel vehicles.) “Let’s give the consumer a choice,” says Doug Berven, vice president of corporate affairs for biofuels company, POET.
Korin’s group endorses the idea of an “Open Fuel Standard,” a policy requiring automakers to make “truly fuel competitive” vehicles, able to run on something other than gasoline. She says it can’t be just requiring a choice of gasoline or ethanol–it has to include fuels such as methanol, which can be made from feedstocks like natural gas.
See more perspectives from the event: