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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?

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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

Articles
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

Lifestyle

Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

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via Twitter / Bye,Bye Harley Davidson

The NRA likes to diminish the role that guns play in fatal shootings by saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Which is the same logic as, "Hammers don't build roofs, people build roofs." No duh. But it'd be nearly impossible to build a roof without a hammer.

So, shouldn't the people who manufacture guns share some responsibility when they are used for the purpose they're made: killing people? Especially when the manufacturers market the weapon for that exact purpose?

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