The Path to Maximum Energy Potential Means Embracing Biofuels

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Can biofuels still be the magical solution to our energy problems? Thousands of scientists will admit that biofuels are no longer a new concept (in fact, it is a very old idea). From the ‘first generation’ ethanol to the ‘second generation lignocellulosic’ biofuels and the latest algae-based biofuels, scientists and researchers are trying their best to find the best biofuels solutions. But with controversy shrouding if they’re actually sustainable  means that biofuels are still debated hotly.

Opposition to biofuels mainly revolves around concerns that are mainly related to the sustainability aspects of their development and manufacturing. The main sustainability issues of biofuels are greenhouse gas emissions, excessive usage of land, water and fertilizer resources during production process; and the high production costs and a primary barrier to entry. However, with the technological advancements and improving policies of governments and international standards, the future directions for biofuels are still quite bright.

The technological advancement of second-generation lignocellulosic biofuels, mainly on the latest algae-based biofuels, has been developing rapidly in recent years. We should no longer judge the potential of biofuels development based on our previous perception on the conventional first-generation biofuels because the latest lignocellulosic biofuels are able to addressed different problems aroused from the production process of traditional first-generation biofuels.

Most liquid biofuels have 20 to 80% less life cycle CO2eq emissions (gram of CO2 emitted per kWh of power generated) than conventional fossil fuels. Second generation technologies can even deliver lower emissions than first generation processes over their life cycle by using by-products to power the biomass-to-liquid conversion process. For example, leftover plant fibers would be used in an onsite combined heat and power (CHP) plant to generate the heat and electricity needed to convert the biomass to liquid, either via gasification or chemical conversion.

Since second-generation feedstock requires much lower energy inputs, with fewer fertilizers and pesticides, emissions from the field during cultivation are lower. They are also higher yielding per hectare than food crops because the whole plant is used. In addition, it is widely reported that the newly developed algae-based biofuels have advantages over first-generation biofuel crops, including higher yields, faster growth and lower requirements for land. Significant investments have been made in the development of algal biofuels, particularly within the energy and aviation sectors (examples include Airbus, ExxonMobil and the US Navy). It is believed that by making use of advanced technologies such as genetic modification technology, more efficient biofuels will be developed in the future.

From the report ‘Biofuels: ethical issues’, Nuffield Council on Bioethics suggests some key principles on setting biofuels policies in order to deal with the issues regarding sustainability. One highlight of the principles is: biofuels development should not be at the expense of people’s essential rights (including access to sufficient food and water, health rights, work rights and land entitlements). The development of algae-based lignocelluosic biofuels definitely matches the above principle. Unlike corn/sugarcane ethanol, algae-based fuels do not compete for land use or food sources because the cultivation of algae can be done in photobioreactor and from sewage and wastewater.

An even more amazing concept is the carbon capturing technology during the cultivation process of algae. Algae live on a high concentration of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.  These pollutants are released by automobiles, cement plants, breweries, fertilizer plants, and steel plants. Therefore, these pollutants can serve as nutrients for the algae. The algae production facilities can thus be fed with the exhaust gases from these plants to significantly increase the algal productivity and clean up the air.

Along with the above technological advancements, policies of governments and international standards will also push the potential of biofuels development even further. The current frameworks of biofuels policies of most governments focus on increasing biofuel’s usage and production. However, it is more important to develop policies to reduce greenhouse gas emission of biofuels, instead of meeting national production and consumption targets. Different reports suggest that direct economic and regulatory incentives should be provided to encourage the technological developments of the biofuel supply chain instead of the production of biofuels. Policy instruments such as carbon pricing on suppliers, tax incentives or marketable ‘obligations’ to develop new and right technologies and environmental standards and regulations should also be introduced.

Policies are also very crucial for other issues such as excessive resources usage and fair trade. As a result, different scientists and groups such as Nuffield Council on Bioethics gave out different guidelines on the ethics of developing biofuels. From the report ‘Biofuels: ethical issues’, the council suggests some key principles on setting biofuels policies in order to deal with the issues mentioned above. If the governments strictly follow these principles and guidelines to set up their policies, developing biofuels will become more sustainable and social responsible.

It is essential to develop biofuels because biofuels should not be seen as a viable source for electric production. Rather, they are more a replacement for petrol/gas for transportation. For example, Lufthansa and Finnair have been recently running some test flights in Europe using a hybrid mix of biodiesel and aviation fuel. It is believed that the applicability in aviation and marine will be enormous.

The development of biofuels is under progress and commercialization of second-generation biofuels and algae-based biofuels are taking off. Theoretically, second-generation biofuels and algae-based biofuels will definitely be a very effective solution to our energy problem, especially on transportation. Therefore, it is still very important to keep putting resources on the correct research and technological development for biofuels. With good regulations and policies, the development of biofuels will be more sustainable since the resources are going to the right projects and developments are in the right direction. Hopefully biofuels can become a sustainable source of green energy for land, aviation and marine transportation.

 

As always with hot stories, there are two different sides to them. If you are interested in the other side of this story, read this blog by Fabian Aellig.

6 thoughts on “The Path to Maximum Energy Potential Means Embracing Biofuels

  1. Hi Adam. Thanks for the well researched article.

    A big issue with biofuels that we have faced in the US is that even though second generation fuels do overcome the food vs fuel debate of first generation fuels, it requires significant physical, chemical and enzymatic pretreatment steps prior to fermentation. This raises a lot of problems in high operating costs and scalability.

    Algae-based biofuels potentially have a bright future (I do love the idea that industrial pollutants can be used as food for the algae). However, the resources needed to not only genetically modify the perfect strain (with tradeoffs in yield), and to sustainably harvest the products have been barriers. Therefore, we’ve seen some high promise startups not be able to deliver at the scale and cost competitiveness of fossil fuels and exit the biodiesel business to find alternatives to capture value with their algae technologies, which thankfully gave them an exit rich ecosystem (ie Aurora).

    In your opinion, do you think these technical and commercial barriers will be overcome in the near future? And once it does, do you think biofuels, which require resource-intensive processes no matter which generation, would be the “magic solution” to our energy problems, which is a question you raise in the beginning of the article? How does it compare with other longterm energy solutions, ie solar, wind, etc?

    • A problem I personally have with algae biofuels is the genetic modification… It’s the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to discuss fully, but truth is, we don’t really know what will happen if these modified genes escape into the environment. Monsanto swore up and down that no genes would escape their GM fields, but testing shows that GM genes from their products have been blown by the wind into other non-GM fields (leading to lawsuits against farmer bystanders). What happens when GM algae escapes? I agree that growing algae for fuel in industrial or municipal wastewater sounds great (recycling, resource use, etc.) but unless it’s a closed loop system, won’t algae escape when the water leaves the system? It may be that we can use non-GM algae, but concerns about invasive species still would exist. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t necessarily do algae biofuels, or second-generation biofuels, especially since technology is still evolving as you point out in your article, but we should be really careful about what we’re doing.

      I also personally think that we should be investing heavily in energy efficiency (behavior, building, retrofitting, better systems design, etc.) and in creating smart energy policy (that includes locally sourcing energy which may include some types of biofuels), rather than going about everything in a piecemeal fashion.

      Anyway, just thoughts from a biofuels-wary person!

      • Hi Caroline,

        In my previous reply to Sunmin, I also mentioned about GM technologies. Like what you said, it is a topic that people or scientists want to avoid. However, there are actually some scientists are trying to address the issue that you mentioned.

        Allison Snow, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University, mentioned in her research paper that genetically engineered algae might be equipped with so-called “suicide genes” that would make it impossible for the algae to survive a release into the wild. (source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120820121044.htm)

        Of course, this is only still a concept and I am not sure how feasible this idea will be but i think it is a good sign that some scientists are trying to lead a correct direction. I really hope that scientists can develop GM technologies in a safe way and be careful on what they are doing.

        Sometimes, I don’t want to be too optimistic about these ideas but I think that we do still need to put some resources and effort on new technologies because the potentials of algae-based biofuels are not fully explored yet.

        yea, and as you said, I also hope that the governments can pay more attention in their policy making because that will be the key for leading our development to a correct direction.

    • Thank you for your comment, Sunmin!

      Technical and commercial barriers are definitely the main concern of the development of algae-based biofuels. I do have to agree that the future of 2nd generation biofuels is still a bit unclear at the moment but I am pretty sure that the research is still going on and the industry is pretty optimistic about the development of it because of the support from government and big corporates.

      I think it is possible to overcome these issues with new but controversial technologies like GM technology. Comparing with the other long-term energy solutions like solar and wind, I think Biofuels are actually having a quite different role since it is more or less a substitute of petrol or gas rather than an alternative solution of generating electricity. If we can come up with some practical solutions that can reduce the resources needed in producing biofuels, biofuels will be very crucial in marine and aviation.

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