Are Biofuels Ready for the Bigtime?

Electricity isn't the only non-petroleum-based fuel touted as changing the transportation landscape. What's happening with biofuels?

Electricity isn't the only non-petroleum-based fuel touted as changing the transportation landscape. What's happening with biofuels?

Electric cars are all the rage these days, but another alternative means of powering vehicles has been around for years, and it's still hovering in the background, despite the excitement over the latest plug-in hybrids.

Biofuels, or fuels derived from biomass, are great in theory. Sure, so-called "first generation" biofuels (think corn-based ethanol) are somewhat inefficient and often suck up land that could be used for food crops, but as a whole, biofuels are a handy alternative to traditional petroleum-based fuels, right? Not quite yet.

Part of the trouble is that we haven't yet weaned ourselves off of land-intensive biofuels. Consider: the European Union has an ambitious biofuels target requiring 20 percent of liquid transport fuels to come from renewable sources by 2020. As a result, European companies are snapping up arable land in Africa to produce biofuels; currently, a third of all land sold or acquired on the continent is designated for fuel crops like jatropha, oil palm, cassava, and sugar cane, according to a report (PDF) from Friends of the Earth. Countries hit hardest by these land grabs—Mozambique, Benin, Sierra Leone, to name a few—have to deal with problems like water depletion, soil degradation, and increased food prices.

Cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from wood, grasses, and the non-edible parts of plants, is more promising—since it is produced from non-food and waste products, it doesn't use up large swaths of arable land like first generation biofuels.

Cellulosic waste can also be used for drop-in biofuels, or biofuels that can be implemented within today's fuel distribution infrastructure. These fuels can be substituted for aviation or diesel fuel; traditional biofuels cannot.

But cellulosic biofuel production is lagging. A recent estimate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects cellulosic biofuel production to be 3.94 million gallons in 2011. That's just a tiny fraction of the 250 million gallon requirement given to oil companies by the Environmental Protection Agency. The problem? Producers can't get the capital necessary to rev up commercial-scale production.

And what about algae fuel, once thought of as the holy grail of biofuel production? Approximately 100 companies in the United States are working towards developing algae-based biofuels, and for good reason—algae can generate up to 300 times more oil per acre than conventional crops, it has a quick harvest cycle (as little as one day), and it can flourish in everything from seawater to wastewater.

The technology, however, is still far from maturity. According to a report from Berkeley’s Energy Biofuel Institute, the algae fuel development process could take up to a decade. Even though some companies have managed to successfully produce algae fuel in lab conditions, the report claims that the ability to generate fuel "under outdoor conditions, while achieving both high productivities and oil content, is still to be developed."

Does this mean we should give up on biofuels entirely? Of course not. We need all of the alternative fueling mechanisms we can get, and the corporate world knows it; just this week, CoolPlanet Biofuels, a startup that turns cellulosic waste into biofuel, got $8 million in funding. And as a recent Economist article points out, many vehicles may soon rely on electricity for power, but widespread electric air travel is still far off. That means airlines will increasingly lean on drop-in biofuels as oil prices rise in the coming years.

But the next time you come across a biofuel start-up touting its product as the Fuel That Will Change the World, just remember: It won't happen tomorrow.

Illustrations by Junyi Wu

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less