Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thin Harvest

Investment in biofuels is dwindling and scepticism is growing.

Venn diagram whose sets barely overlap (Credit: / Dave Simonds) Click to Enlarge.
Making fuel from the solar energy stored in living organisms by photosynthesis is a tempting idea.  It sounds inherently green, and so biofuel schemes—ranging from fermenting starch, to recycling cooking oil, to turning algae into jet fuel—have drawn more than $126 billion in investment since 2003, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), a research outfit.  The results, though, are like a Venn diagram whose sets barely overlap.  Those biofuels that can best compete commercially are not, in fact, green.  Those that are green cannot compete commercially. 

The biggest cause of ungreenness is that biofuels made from food crops—or from plants grown on land that might otherwise produce such crops—hurt food supplies.  A committee of the European Parliament agreed this week to cap the use of “first-generation” biofuels of this sort.  The current European target is for renewables to make up 10% of the energy used in transport by 2020. The new proposal says only seven-tenths of this can come from first-generation fuels.  The difference must be made up by more advanced ones based on waste products and other feedstocks that do not impinge on food production.  That could mean European demand for advanced biofuels of 14 billion litres by 2020, reckons Claire Curry of BNEF.

Only two such advanced fuels, she thinks, are capable of large-scale production.  One is turning waste cooking oil and other fats into diesel—a process for which Europe already has 2 billion litres of capacity.  The other involves making ethanol from cellulose by enzymatic hydrolysis.

Everything else, according to Ms Curry, is at least four years from commercial production.  That includes the much-touted idea of renewable jet fuel.
Finding more types of biofuel that hit the sweet spot in the Venn diagram may be tricky, though.  Campaigners generally find it easier to fulminate against those which damage the environment or food security than to explain exactly how they ought to be grown.  Another controversial issue is genetic modification.  This could improve yields, increase resistance to insects and permit biofuel crops to be grown on unirrigated, marginal land.  But any kind of GM crop is a tough sell to the green-minded.

Science still has plenty to offer, though. For example, researchers at the University of Manchester, the University of Turku, in Finland, and Imperial College, London have adapted an enzyme currently used to produce bio-butanol to make propane—a more useful product.

Read more at Thin Harvest

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