Technology with attitude

A Sea of Petroleum, A Pond of Biofuels


I missed this story when it first appeared a few days ago, amidst all the winds and fogs of war, so maybe you did too:

Producing biofuels such as ethanol from food crops isn’t worth the effort. That’s the conclusion of a new and painstaking study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers should instead concentrate either on producing ethanol from indigestible plant material such as cellulose, or on synthetic hydrocarbon fuels.

The comprehensive study finds that if all the corn (maize) produced in the United States last year were removed from food supplies and turned into ethanol, just 12% of US gasoline demand would be offset. Turning soybeans into diesel would account for only 6% of US diesel demand.

I can’t say I’m surprised. While the tiny ethanol and biodiesel industries have seen a mini-boom last year, the market took a sharp hit this past spring. Future growth may speed up again, but there’s a very real limit to how much biodiesel and ethanol we can produce without cutting into our food supply. What’s more, both biodiesel and ethanol are currently subsidized by the federal government – and that’s on top of the subsidies paid for corn and soy, our top two commodity crops.

According to this NY Times take on the report, both ethanol and soy biodiesel are already subsidized by the federal government. I believe those subsidies are in addition to the already-impressive subsidies directed towards corn and soybean production.

Producing ethanol from the cellulose of prarie grasses may be more promising. They are a nonfood item (at least for humans), are ecologically quite stable, and don’t require much pesticide. And according to the study, up to 30% of our transportation fuel needs could eventually be met by extracting oil from prarie grasses…

By 2030. Given technological advances we have not yet made.

Reports like this one illustrate how very dependent our society is on a sea of dwindling petroleum.