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Technology Science

Biofuels Coming With a High Environmental Price? 541

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the everyone-is-a-critic dept.
DurandalTree writes "With the spectre of global warming on the horizon, biofuels have been touted as the solution to motor vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions. But with biodiesel use on the increase, it appears a distinctively environmentally unfriendly footprint is being left behind by some of its prime sources; affected food prices are surging out of reach of the poor and rainforests are being destroyed to create larger plantations."
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Biofuels Coming With a High Environmental Price?

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  • by asadodetira (664509) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:29PM (#18580139) Homepage
    One of the the first renewable fuels was firewood, and using it in quantity caused quite an impact on forests.
    • by fozzy1015 (264592) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:43PM (#18580271)
      Getting off the fossil fuel teat isn't going to be easy. The basic fact is that fossil fuels are the accumulation of solar energy over millions and millions of years. Renewable fuels are the accumulation of energy over a few months. It's not so simple to simply grow our way out of this problem. The fact is that even with biofuels, the human race is going to be in for a rude awakening with regards to its energy consumption.
      • by asadodetira (664509) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:59PM (#18580433) Homepage
        Agreed. In my opinion merely replacing fuels will not work. Taking multiple measures to reduce energy consumption will help more. Ideas for this can be obtained by looking how people live in places where fuel is expensive, for example the towns are designed so you don't have to drive as much or at all.
        • by Burz (138833) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:13PM (#18580607) Journal
          The main problem is that suburbia is inherently energy-intensive (i.e. wasteful). Americans aren't building new urban areas that would automatically cut down on waste (esp. for transportation and heating) because their culture doesn't include the city in the "American dream".
          • by Grishnakh (216268) on Monday April 02, 2007 @07:18PM (#18581253)
            The city was once part of the "American Dream" (before the 50s/60s, basically). But then, something called the "ghetto" arose, driving people to the suburbs so they could keep some of the advantages of the city while not having to sleep in their bathtubs at night.

            The reason Americans aren't building new urban areas isn't because of some great love of suburbia; it's because no one wants to live in a ghetto, and since most cities (especially those on the east coast) have turned into ghettos, it seems logical that any new densely-populated cities would probably turn into ghettos as well. (This may not actually be true, as there are cities on the west coast which buck this trend, but they tend to be very new cities, without generations of poor people who have grown up there to establish a ghetto. Nevertheless it is still the common belief that cities lead to ghettos.)
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              You miss the obvious point - large cities have become bastions of welfare recipients and bloated organizations. In the 90's the population of Philadelphia decreased by 10% while the size of the bureaucracy increased 10%. Hardly more efficient. And it taxes folks based on the level of 'services' you are getting. Anyone who has had to do anything with the City of Philadelphia knows this is a joke.
              If cities were truly models of efficiency, then maybe more folks would be attracted, but more exurbanites (lik
            • by edwardpickman (965122) on Monday April 02, 2007 @08:52PM (#18581985)
              "Ghettos" have been a fact of city life since preRoman days. In the US there used to be Irish Ghettos in New York. Most of London used to be a Ghetto. There's work and access to things in cities but for poorer people they aren't a healthy place to live. The real irony is apparently New York is the greenest city in the US when you look at the overall carbon footprint. Large buildings are more energy efficent and there are too many people to drive so they mostly use mass transit. It really puts into perspective how inefficent most of the world is. In the short term far more can be saved with increased efficency than replacing fossil fuels. The point is not to replace them but reduce the need then replace them. We can't produce enough biofuels to replace oil but if we cut the useage to a 1/4 of the current levels we can. Impossible? A hybrid with extra batteries gives better than a four fold increase. Some of the numbers I've heard are inexcess of 200 miles per gallon. The average person with normal driving could see a ten fold increase given that they would rarely visit a pump since they'd mostly be recharging at home. Yes that would increase electricity demands but adding even a modest number of solar cells to a roof would offset this. Every new house in the south west should have solar cells. The biggest savings are from compact florescents. If LED based bulbs could be made cheap enough it'd nearly eliminate the energy used by lighting. They use a few percent of the power of traditional light bulbs. How? They don't produce heat and that's where most of the energy goes not into creating light.

              There are solutions. It just takes a little effort.

              • by Grishnakh (216268) on Tuesday April 03, 2007 @01:22AM (#18583793)
                I mostly agree with you, but you're dead wrong about LED lights. Buy yourself a powerful LED flashlight and come back and tell me about it not producing heat.

                I don't have numbers in front of me, but my understanding is that LEDs are no more efficient than fluorescent lamps. They may or may not be more efficient than compact fluorescent bulbs (CF), because CF is less efficient than the traditional 4' or 8' long tubes, but it's not much of a difference. The main benefits to LED lighting are: 1) it's small and simple: just apply DC current and it works; fluorescent requires a ballast with complicated circuitry. 2) it's rugged, so it works well in a flashlight or car subjected to shock. 3) It turns on instantly, which is good in car brake lights for safety, or any other non-continuous use.

                I really wish more automakers would make hybrid powertrains available in more vehicles. The technology seems mature enough, but there's not enough selection. Besides, I'd like a used one to transplant into my older car.

                I'd love to have some solar cells on my house. The problem with them is that they're still very expensive, and unless you plan on living in the same house for the next 30 years, it just doesn't pay to invest in them.
            • by HW_Hack (1031622) on Monday April 02, 2007 @09:42PM (#18582343)
              True - inner city blight can be a cause of sprawl as can poor urban/city planning. In Oregon we have strong urban growth rules and boundaries which force more efficient use of urban land. We also have laws that force affordable housing into new developments even if they are upscale developments. Without such requirements sprawl and clumping of poor people into areas (ghettos) is a natural outcome. Our down town area is having a resurgance in the "Pearl District" .... which was once a delapadated area of old warehouses and old buildings ---- now rebuilt into condos + loft apartments along with new shops and restaurants. The city is also tearing down old housing projects and replacing them with affordable (small) single family dwellings built around parks - schools - shops.

              Such open housing areas (for poorer residents) are easier for police to patrol with fewer hiding places for bad guys and gangs.

              And yes - strong urban growth rules are politically explosive and devisive - and yes sometimes errors are made - but in general: our sprawl is contained - our housing is affordable - we consistently are rated with a high level of livability (Linus Torvalds has a residence here).
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Kevin Stevens (227724)
              Your assertion is not true. The ghettos only arose in the 50's/60's because before that, they were called "slums" and were filled with tenements. They were also filled with people who were considered of such a low class, that few ever wrote about them, or attempted to rally for their cause. That all started around the turn of the century (How the other half lives), and social programs took a lot longer to really take hold, and the ghettos we speak of today consist of housing projects built by the government
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Lars T. (470328)
              As if suburbia wasn't a ghetto of its own, where you can't do anything without a car for each family member.
          • I agree (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Socguy (933973)
            I agree but it's not just suburbia that is wasteful. We in North America, (and other parts of the world) have based our prosperity off the exploitation of cheap natural resources, while utterly failing to take into account the true cost that the exploitation. We developed all aspects of our society on the assumption that we will always be able to continue with an endlessly escalating usage of all our resources. Simply substituting one fuel for another, may buy us some time but it will ultimately fail to
      • by eggfoolr (999317) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:12PM (#18580589)
        Consumption is the key work there! As soon as a "green" solution is found everyone thinks they can return to their addiction to over use.
      • by afidel (530433) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:40PM (#18580925)
        Actually it's not possible at ALL, at least if we continue to consume at our present rate and want the rest of the world to live to the American standard of living.

        I ran the calculations a couple years ago and based on an average solar insolation rate of 5kwHr/day/m^2 for the the bands where the majority of the arable landmass is, and the 1.3 × 10^13 m^2 of arable land we get 6.5x10^13*365 or 2.37x10^16kwHr/year or 2.37x10^14MwHr per year. US demand was 3.3x10^12MwHr/year in 1999. The world has about 20x the population of the US, so worldwide demand if everyone lived like the US and population is steady would be 6.6x10^13, or about one fifth of the total insolation on arable land.

        That means we need better than 20% NET efficiency from sunlight to usable energy to maintain the world at current US consumptions rates. That is just not possible and proves that our way of life is NOT sustainable in the long run without drastic reductions in energy use or population.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by AoT (107216)
          The problem is that we have had three or four generations now raised on cheap energy. It's easy to build all these suburbs and exurbs when you know there is always going to be energy to haul your one ton vehicle (down from two tons a couple of decades ago) around the country.

          It's pretty amazing how much energy, resources and space we expend on cars. I only started noticing when I stopped owning one.(don't worry, no lecture, right now, about how everyone must, MUST I say! ride a bike)
          • by Sj0 (472011) on Monday April 02, 2007 @08:52PM (#18581979) Homepage Journal
            It's good that you skipped the lecture, because after a single day of trying to ride in -40C on the unpaved, unplowed bike path(I lucked out and there were a few car tracks I could at least ride in), and taking 2 full hours to reach my place of employment and arriving utterly and completely exhausted and drenched in sweat, I decided the 15 minute car ride was far preferable for all but the 3 months in which the weather permits bike riding.
        • by Engineer-Poet (795260) on Monday April 02, 2007 @07:23PM (#18581289) Homepage Journal
          US electric consumption is roughly 1/1000 of your figures. Net 2005 generation was 4038 billion kWh [doe.gov] (not MWh).

          The insolation in mid-Kansas is about 1550 kWh/m^2/yr. At 15% efficiency, this would produce about 230 kWh/m^2/yr of electricity. Divide 4.038e12 kWh/yr by 230 kWh/m^2/yr and you get 1.76e10 m^2, or 17,600 km^2. Total impervious area in the USA (roofs, pavement, etc.) is 112610 km^2 [ourwater.org], so we'd need to put PV on about 16% of what's already covered. This can be done when we re-roof.

          True, covering the rest of our energy needs would take more, but that's no reason to curl up in a fetal position and suck your thumb.
          • So if US=4038 billion kWh/yr then world @ US standards would be roundly 80,000 billion kWh/yr, or 80 million MWw/yr, or 80,000 GWh/yr, at 8760 hr/yr that means power of 9,000 GWe continuous, or about 6000 nuclear reactors at 1.5 GWe each (a large modern design).

            There currently is about 386 GWe of nuclear capacity in the world from 435 nuclear reactors operating in 30 countries supply 16% of world electicity with fairly rock-solid base load. We need to have about 14 times as many as we do now to meet world
        • Do the figures you mention refer to energy expenditure on transportation alone? Because for other uses there are many alternatives that do not make use of arable land. For instance, with a reduction in current costs we could have solar collectors in desert areas. Also, biofuels do not necessarily use land, one could make them from kelp or other water plants.

          A plant that has been proposed for making cellulose ethanol is a Brazilian water hyacinth [wikipedia.org], it has the advantage of being one of the fastest growing plan

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mdsolar (1045926)
          You can get to close to 15% efficiency using algae but at the cost of needing a concentrated source of CO2 http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/02/photosynthesi s .html [blogspot.com]. This is why shifting as much transportation to solar and wind as possible makes much more sense that biofuels. But, during a transition, getting a second use from the CO2 produced at power plants could make some sense.
          --
          Get Solar! http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/01/slashdot-users -selling-solar.html [blogspot.com]
        • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Monday April 02, 2007 @08:56PM (#18582017)
          That is the trick!

          Very few people are as wasteful as the US. This extends through energy use/waste and food use/waste. The whole system is propped up by agricultural subsidies which keep the system inefficient and unsustainable.

          The typical US diet uses a hell of a lot more arable land than the average diet. The resulting land use is a major land destructor and uses a lot more water, oil land input than it should. One of the biggest problems is high meat consumption.

          If people ate the grain fed to beef, instead of the beef, they'd only need to consume one tenth of the grain (ie grain to beef is only approx 10% efficient).

          Each pound of beef requires about 3-4 pounds of oil.

          Thus, switching to significantly reduced meat intake would use vastly less oil and free up a lot of land that could be put to other uses (eg. biofuels).

          Of course, the farming and oil industries don't really want you to change the current high consumption and are happy for you to keep funding this insane system through subsidy handouts.

      • by dasunt (249686) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:41PM (#18580933)
        Just switch to nuclear power. Sure, it will run out eventually (and eventually depends on what fuels you are using, what fuel cycle you have chosen, and if you want to consider exotic fuel sources like seawater extraction of radioactive materials), but if you do things right, you'll end up with many millions of years to find another technology and probably lower the deaths due to traditional power generation. Of course, nuclear is scary, so this won't happen. After all, nuclear has killed people. Luckily, all other energy sources (especially renewable energy sources) cause no deaths.
  • This just in.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Overzeetop (214511) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:36PM (#18580195) Journal
    Nothing occurs in a vacuum any more. Efficiency and economic viability of any product is tied to the current supply chain, and any change in the balance of this order of magnitude will be felt everywhere. I always thought it interesting when there were stories on biodeisel being made from recycled cooking oil nobody ever mentioned that there is a fairly limited supply of said oil when compared with the demand for automotive fuel. Sure, there's lots going to waste, but making the waste product a viable commodity in a quickly growing market is bound to create scarcity. All of a sudden, stuff that's free because it is waste now has an actual market value.

    Are we really so myopic that the lure of "free fuel" has completely distracted us from the fact that nothing on this planet is being produced in such quantity that changing the market for that product radically will not affect the marketplace?

    I guess the answer is, "yes."
  • Algae (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tinrobot (314936) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:37PM (#18580211)
    Growing fuel in the dirt is very hard on the planet. Not only does it suck up a lot of land (on top of what we already need to grow food) it also covers that land with one single crop that needs all sorts of nasty things such as pesticides and fertilizers.

    The best bet for biofuels is something that has less of an impact on the soil and the planet, such as algae based biofuels. Algae is grown in tanks, so the process requires less land, and any chemicals used in the process can be contained so it isn't spread over open land.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      This is yet again why I so highly support bio-diesal.
      Corn? You COULD use it.
      Algae? You could use it.
      Human waste? You could use it.
      The fact that it can draw from sources that are less likely to drain the biosphere is one of the best things ABOUT biodiesal.
      • Re:Algae (Score:4, Interesting)

        by kent_eh (543303) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:57PM (#18580411)
        Precisely. Methane is a bio-fuel.


        I drive by a sewage treatment plant, and a landfill a few times a week, and wonder just how much methane is just escaping into the atmosphere. Methane which could be captured fairly easily, and used anywhere natural gas or propane are currently used.

        • Re:Algae (Score:4, Interesting)

          by geobeck (924637) on Monday April 02, 2007 @09:00PM (#18582045) Homepage

          I...wonder just how much methane is just escaping into the atmosphere. Methane which could be captured fairly easily, and used anywhere natural gas or propane are currently used.

          If it's a well-managed facility, the methane is probably already being reclaimed. They do that at the Vancouver landfill. Surprisingly though, sewage treatment doesn't release that much methane, unless you have an anaerobic tank for biological phosphorus removal. Most of the carbon-based gas released is CO2 from the aerobic reactor.

          And before you point out the smell, methane is actually odorless. The smell most people associate with methane is hydrogen sulfide, which is often produced at the same time by anaerobic biological processes.

  • by Aeron65432 (805385) <(agiamba) (at) (gmail.com)> on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:38PM (#18580213) Homepage
    This was a case study in an economics class I was in previously. As the demand for biofuels increases, the cost is going to rise until supply reaches the same point comparatively. It will take a while for supply to rise to meet demand, and because of that, corn and other staples will be more expensive. It's the reason China banned ethanol production. It's the reason Castro blasted the United States.

    Yes, switching to these kind of fuels will leave less of an environmental impact, but it will hurt poor people the most who consume corn frequently and will certainly lead to an increase in price in corn-produced food. [wsj.com] (Think Corn Syrup in soda) This is why we can't radically switch to biofuels like some people are calling for.

    • by Colin Smith (2679) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:49PM (#18580315)
      The only reason it's so cheap is the corn lobby demanding big payouts from the government. It's not even particularly healthy, corn syrup isn't the best form of sugar for you. And it's a crap source for ethanol production too.

       
      • by SydShamino (547793) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:05PM (#18580499)
        Go find a copy of King Corn [kingcorn.net]. It's a pretty fascinating look at the US corn industry, including many of its problems. It doesn't talk too much about corn used for ethanol, but it does show why many of the food uses of corn today are bad for us. It's not just the corn used in corn syrup that's a problem, it's also the corn used as animal feed.

        And I completely agree that rising corn prices are not a problem while the US government subsidizes production. Get rid of the subsidies, and then we can talk about the affect on food prices. If the poor really can't afford to eat because of rising corn prices, the subsidies on corn production could be replaced with an increase in funding for foodstamp programs, if nothing else.
      • by Aeron65432 (805385) <(agiamba) (at) (gmail.com)> on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:19PM (#18580679) Homepage
        Not only is it subsidized, it's protected by many tariffs and most importantly, there's the Cuban Embargo [wikipedia.org] which blocks one of the largest sugar-growers in the world. As such, sugar is more expensive so we use corn for soda and food that would normally contain sugar. This puts another strain on the corn supply. If we really want to increase ethanol and corn use in cars, we need to lift the Cuban embargo to free up the supply.
    • by DragonWriter (970822) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:51PM (#18580333)

      It's the reason China banned ethanol production.


      China didn't ban ethanol production, indeed, China has a rather ambitious ethanol production agenda. China, however, has switch focus from grain produced ethanol to cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from cellulose from sources like switchgrass, rather than from grain crops that are human food staples.

    • by Mr. Stinky (753712) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:59PM (#18580427) Homepage
      The argument against ethanol because of corn is going to be off the table in relatively short time. Cellulosic ethanol is coming commerically viable now and it will turn your green-waste trash into fuel. The US Department of Energy gets this and has formerly denounced corn as the future of ethanol. So when you use corn as a reason against ethanol, consider the other sources of it.
      Corn is not the future of U.S. ethanol: DOE
      http://www.reuters.com/article/scienceNews/idUSN28 30990020070328 [reuters.com]

      A cellulosic ethanol company who was recently awarded a $40M grant from the DOE in February:
      http://bluefireethanol.com/ [bluefireethanol.com]
    • by dbIII (701233) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:18PM (#18580671)
      Economics is often wonderfully simple with models that sciences would discard as being too simplistic - consider that there is more than one possible feedstock and more than one possible end product. It's not even much of a conversion to run vehicles on methane.

      The best example of where such a model falls down was the Australian wool industry. Wool was selling at a low price. Leading economists said the answer was simple - kill lots of sheep to make wool scarce. It didn't work, they forgot that cotton exists. I wish I was making this up but this piece of utter stupidity that ruined many farmers really did happen.

  • by nuggz (69912) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:39PM (#18580227) Homepage
    People don't care enough to change less.

    The simple answer is to reduce energy usage, but people don't want to.
    Stop travelling, have new stuff, heat/cool their houses, import food etc.
    Myself I fully intend to visit a few more far off locations, I want a new couch and bigger TV, I want my house warm in the winter and cool in the summer and I want a broad selection of fresh fruits and vegetables year round.

    That's gonna use a lot of energy, even if I gave up my car to walk to a market. People don't want to change, and they won't yet.

    The latest trend I saw is directly blaming the "rich", which pretty much includes most of us with computers and the time to argue on slashdot. I don't see us making huge changes.
    • The latest trend I saw is directly blaming the "rich", which pretty much includes most of us with computers and the time to argue on slashdot. I don't see us making huge changes.

      FWIW I bought an old diesel Benz. As climate allows I'm burning a blend of diesel (petrol or bio) and straight veggie oil. Even easier on the environment than processing the oil to diesel and leaving a shitload of glycerin laying around with methoxide contamination (as is uber common in home setups). Add to this that the oil I'm burning is already a waste product of the fried food industry and I'm making my little tiny impact. Up on the list of things to do to the car is build a hybrid fuel system that

  • Why is biofuel taking off and leaving hydrogen in the dust? Is it the safety factor or the control factor?
    • Perhaps it's the fact that hydrogen is merely a means of storing energy, not producing it, and so is useless to us without a huge ramp up in nuclear fission or fusion energy?
    • Because biofuel is actually energy positive - you get more energy out the tank than it took to put the fuel into the tank.

      Hydrogen is a storage medium, not an energy source.

      BTW - the "energy source" for biofuel is solar. In fact, if you discount nuclear, everything is solar. Well, actually, nuclear is solar, too, since that's where the elements were formed (though perhaps not _our_ sun - perhaps stellar energy is more accurate). But I digress...

      Biofuel uses solar energy which is being collected now, instead
      • by vertinox (846076) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:34PM (#18580847)
        Hydrogen is a storage medium, not an energy source.

        So? Neither is petroleum, coal, or biodiesel.

        There is not a single energy positive creation source on the face of the planet. 99.9% of everything all our energy sources come from the sun (excluding geothermal and uranium) which oil and coal was from plants and animals from millions of years ago that got their energy from the sun, while biodiesel is from more recent plants.

        The reason that hydrogen is not used is because it is currently inefficient to convert from your standard energy production methods. You could technically grow corn and burn it to make hydrogen just like biodiesel. It is just not that efficient to do so.

        This might change and eventually someday be easier to just use direct solar power and remove hydrogen from water.

    • Why is biofuel taking off and leaving hydrogen in the dust? Is it the safety factor or the control factor?


      Biofuels are easier to store, easier to transport, easier to use in existing engines, not (with some exceptions, such as, IIRC, corn-based ethanol) either a net energy loss to produce or a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry the way hydrogen is. There are lots of reasons that biofuels are taking off.
  • Duh. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by aussersterne (212916) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:41PM (#18580249) Homepage
    This is one of those things that should be obvious but that's very difficult to explain to some less critical radical environmentalists.

    Energy demand = Growing rapidly without forseeable upper bound

    If you switch from fossil fuels to biofuels, all you do is change the problem set, from pollution and peak oil to deforestation and starvation. There is one solution and one solution only: energy efficiency and conservation. I suppose you could say there is a second, getting energy from outside the system (i.e. space) but that still leaves the problem of getting the energy back out of the system (i.e. pushing it cleanly and transparently back into space once used) so that we don't simply heat/pollute the globe beyond control.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DigiShaman (671371)
      ...but that still leaves the problem of getting the energy back out of the system (i.e. pushing it cleanly and transparently back into space once used) so that we don't simply heat/pollute the globe beyond control.

      That's not a problem. Our planet releases excess energy through infrared radiation. And no, the Earth won't turn into something like Venus...
  • Indeed... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RyanFenton (230700) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:42PM (#18580261)
    Indeed - there's another resource we need to care about here. Viable soil is a renewable resource - but like fresh water, it has its limits, and is geographically quite limited in terms of cheap availability. By forcing the land to both feed everyone, and fuel all their vehicles, we place a much lower maximum on the population that can be supported by that land. More than that, by potentially stretching the demands on the land too far, we risk that farmers and companies may deplete or despoil the soil they use for short term gain before they decide to leave the market, making it difficult for anyone else to economically recover that same area.

    That said, we could make better use of the oceans - but I trust our current free market much less there - the oceans have much more of a "tragedy of the commons" dynamic than elsewhere, with fragile ecosystems and high difficulty sectioning off properties. Algae on land-based ponds in otherwise nonviable landscapes would offer the most promise for producing biomass in a way that would not negatively affect prices for the poor. Algae can produce its own food, doesn't need to use much fresh water, can produce various kinds of oils, and could even be used as a part of foods if we are interested in exploring that. The only question is, will it be able to scale and pay for itself in terms of needing to control its environment to mass produce it? Given the history of livestock, I can't imagine algae can't be made efficient or be properly bred en mass.

    That's just my idea though - and I'm fairly uninformed about the whole field of energy crops. Why are we currently pursuing the whole turn-food-to-fuel path anyway, given how wide open the algae field is?

    Ryan Fenton
  • by malsdavis (542216) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:50PM (#18580331)
    When will people listen???

    Biofuels are simply not environmentally friendly in any way, shape or form. They are seen by some as a temporary solution to dwindling oil stocks. Not as the environmental saviour some idiots have imagined them to be.
    • ...it depends on how you produce it.

      Note that the linked articles are foreign, discussing production of biodiesel in places like Malaysia. US biodiesel production, OTOH, is a by-product of soybeans grown for human and animal consumption; the fuel does not compete with food here in the USA.

      Now, if we started importing biodiesel the way we have with ethanol, then its an entirely different situation. Product from Brazil or Malaysia would almost certainly come from a process of deforestation.

      The EU farms rapese
    • Biofuels are simply not environmentally friendly in any way, shape or form.

      I'm sorry, but what?

      If you want to be literal, then basically nothing we do is environmentally friendly. At least, nothing modern. In fact, the only environmentally friendly thing we could really do is to bury ourselves and become fertilizer.

      But a biofuel can be mostly environmentally friendly. There are problems with issues like nitric oxides, which are produced by burning many fuels - gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, and vegetable oil alike. But then, burning wood releases many things that we would prefer not to breathe, and it is a natural occurrence.

      One thing that you can say for biofuels is that they themselves are carbon-neutral. Other processes related to them may not be, of course. But if all of our energy was derived from biofuels, it would all be carbon-neutral.

      Arguably the best fuel to use for these various reasons would be hydrogen. It is not an energy source, but then, neither is biofuel, which is the liquid result of processing plants made mostly with solar energy. Hydrogen burns most cleanly (the outputs are water and heat) but of course the energy has to come from somewhere, and it has a laundry list of problems, probably the most serious of which is hydrogen embrittlement which destroys everything dealing with hydrogen eventually.

      An option I like a great deal for transmitting power is the use of compressed air. MDI's air car technology is quite environmentally friendly.

      But put quite simply, the biofuels are our best hope for reducing our environmental impact in the short term, and one article that says that one flawed method of producing biofuels is causing problems is quite simply not evidence that the entire concept is flawed.

      You make clever use of propaganda in your comment, but I notice that there is no actual content, no facts, no science. Please come back when you have some meat to place in your comment.

  • by iamacat (583406) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:53PM (#18580355)
    For any problem, first solutions prove to be questionable. First, and many existing nuclear power plants are obviously very dangerous - just consider Chernobyl. Yet, now we can build very safe nuclear plants that produce less radioactive waste than comparable coal plants. No matter what it is now, early adoption of biofuel will eventually encourage better solutions. In principal at least, plants get all their combustible content by capturing greenhouse gases from the air. If dry grass or agricultural byproducts can be burned, at least for home heating purposes, without much processing, we are reducing our output of CO2.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by QuantumG (50515)

      just consider Chernobyl
      Unfortunately, that all so many people do.

    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:57PM (#18581067) Homepage Journal

      For any problem, first solutions prove to be questionable. First, and many existing nuclear power plants are obviously very dangerous - just consider Chernobyl. Yet, now we can build very safe nuclear plants

      Chernobyl would probably still be running and providing power if they had not shut off all kinds of safety mechanisms at the same time like a bunch of fucking idiots.

      Yet, now we can build very safe nuclear plants that produce less radioactive waste than comparable coal plants.

      The saying more accurately says that we can build very safe nuclear plants that consume less fuel than coal plants spew into the atmosphere as a result of burning coal. Many people (correctly) point out that it is possible to scrub all of that from the air, but most coal-burning plants do not do this. Also it is not a matter of "now". We have known for decades how to build breeder reactors that will process the "spent" fuel back into usable fuel, and which are not capable of making weapons-grade material (the usual purpose for a breeder reactor.) This would reduce our fuel needs by something like three orders of magnitude and the fuel waste would be (IIRC) two orders of magnitude less long-lived. If you do the math you will see that if this does not actually solve the nuclear waste problem, it at least comes very close to it.

      We do not do this because of a flawed interpretation of a nuclear treaty. Bush (ObDisclaimer: I hate the guy, his family, and all for which they stand, which has nothing to do with America except the part about greed) has spoken in favor of the use of breeder reactors for processing nuclear fuel.

      In principal at least, plants get all their combustible content by capturing greenhouse gases from the air. If dry grass or agricultural byproducts can be burned, at least for home heating purposes, without much processing, we are reducing our output of CO2.

      Very true, but it is a horrible mistake to base anything you don't have to on topsoil. We are destroying soil at an alarming rate. Modern farming processes create monocultures in soil; all these people in the midwest who talk about how great their dirt is havefor the most part never seen real soil. Modern tilling techniques and the use of heavy equipment create hardpan under the soil, damaging drainage. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides kills off some of the biota in the soil (soil is sixty to eighty percent organic material, and up to 40% living material) but not others, creating monocultures which do little to protect plants and may even harm them. The result is a soil that does not drain properly, that requires the use of more and more chemicals, and which is additionally blown and washed away during winds and rains.

      But wait, there's more! Any kind of hard soil will run off water too quickly, contributing to floods. Any kind of soft, uncovered soil will be blown away - some of the soil lands back on your ground, some of it on your neighbor's ground, and some of it goes into the water once again. Both this source of soil in the water and simply washing it away with irrigation clogs streams and rivers, creating anaerobic conditions which kill both flora and fauna. This process continues all the way to the ocean, where ocean life near the land is often killed off by changes in salinity, lack of light due to suspended soil fines, and other issues.

      This last effect kills not only small, submerged plants and animals, but also plant life on the coast lines. The coast line in the Southern part of the US is especially damaged - a fact which has been blamed for much of the fury of the storm which tore New Orleans into small, floating pieces.

      Topsoil-based fuels are simply completely wrongheaded, a fact which Brazil will discover sooner or later...

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by iamacat (583406)
        Oh well, if all you care about is some cellulose to burn, you can plant a mixture of plants that will not be a monoculture. You can plant species that need minimum fertilizers and irrigation (you actually want them to be dry). You can burn weeds as well as your indented plants. You can make do with plants half eaten by insects. So overall, growing fuel might be a good way to give land a break from conventional agriculture.
  • Non-food biofuel. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jaywalk (94910) on Monday April 02, 2007 @05:58PM (#18580423) Homepage
    This isn't a new observation. If food is used to power vehicles, the increased demand is going to force up [asa3.org] the price of food. On top of that, food products generally require arable land, which is in limited supply. In addition to making the morally indefensible decision to starve the poor to feed an energy habit, even committing all arable land to the project will still not answer the energy problem. To make biofuel in the amounts required means that you need to tap a source which can cheaply be grown in quantity without cutting into the food supply.

    Which might not be as hard as it sounds. The University of New Hampshire did a study [unh.edu] in 2004 where they concluded that biodiesel from algae could -- at least theoritically -- supply all the nation's fuel supply without require food oil (like soy or palm) to be used at all. On the ethanol front, cellulosic ethanol [wikipedia.org] can be produced from high-cellulose plant products, like sawgrass or wood chips, without cutting into the corn crop. Some of cellulosic plants are beginning to approach commercial volumes of production.

    It's not that biofuels are a bad idea, but not all implementations of those ideas are equally valid.

    • Re:Non-food biofuel. (Score:5, Informative)

      by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:36PM (#18580873) Homepage Journal

      Which might not be as hard as it sounds. The University of New Hampshire did a study in 2004 where they concluded that biodiesel from algae could -- at least theoritically -- supply all the nation's fuel supply without require food oil (like soy or palm) to be used at all.

      Yes, and the US Government concluded the same thing in 1998 [energy.gov].

      US DOE's approach was to use algae grown in foot-deep "raceway" size pools built in ring shapes and agitated by paddlewheels. Local algae was found to be the best algae to use; just build ponds and the algae will come along and colonize them. Using specially selected algaes produced a single-digit percentage improvement in efficiency at best and actually worked less well than the local stuff in some cases.

      They found also that they could capture up to 80% of the CO2 output of a coal power plant and put it into algae growth. This approach is not carbon-neutral but at least the CO2 is used twice.

      Interestingly, the same algae can be used to create both biodiesel and ethanol, because the former is made from fats and the latter is made from carbohydrates - and algaes produce both in various ratios depending on species and environment. Remaining solids can be used (without processing) for fertilizer.

  • by dbIII (701233) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:07PM (#18580529)
    Despite the trollmonkey headline, there is more to biofuel than it just being used as an excuse to apply porkbarrel politics to corn farmers. Ethanol is also being made from cellulose in the USA (sorry podcast has gone - was on ABC Radio Science Show at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/ [abc.net.au]) and there are other options such as methanol and methane gas from waste products as well as biodiesel from food processing waste. In sugar producing countries there is already co-generation by burning the leaves and stalks to produce steam and electricity so that is another thing to consider.

    Somebody will mention the word "clean" at some point - it is not a word that really makes sense in the context of burning stuff in air (nitrous oxides are produced), and the clown that always mentions nuclear whenever energy is mentioned should also remember that mining and processing is not "clean" either.

  • by pyite69 (463042) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:10PM (#18580563)
    Sad but true. The environmentalists who used to hate nuclear so much will end up being the greatest proponents.
  • by Cervantes (612861) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:17PM (#18580655) Journal
    The summary is right... biofuels made from food are causing deforestation and a rise in food prices. The solution is obvious. The USA needs to get it's head out of the sand and legalize THC-Removed Hemp for biofuel production. Hemp is more efficient, has more crops per year, can fill the roll of many other crops that are less efficient, and won't increase the price of foods that shouldn't be associated with fuel anyways (corn? Come on. Painful example of how rampant lobbying can overcome a products inefficiency).

    With legal, non-smokable Hemp, we could stop cutting down forests. We could cut back on the amount of cotton crops that have to be grown (and the corresponding amount of land that has to be rested because cotton crops sucked the life out of them). We could even use it for biofuel until we can get algae farms that are efficient. Hemp was made illegal because some big tycoon decided he wanted to protect his cash cow. It's time to get rid of that silliness, and start using our heads. Hemp is where it's at. Wake up, USA.

    And, in conjunction with Hemp, let's work on algae... a great way to make use of inhospitable land, and possibly the best/most-efficient biological source that we can turn into biofuel to replace our dependence on dead dinosaurs.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MtViewGuy (197597)
      However, you still have a big problem: growing a lot of hemp still will tax agricultural resources of arable land, water usage, and argichemical usage, which is still not a very good idea.

      GreenFuel Technologies' idea of "growing" oil-laden algae in vertical tanks makes the most sense, since the algae can be harvested many times per year to make millions of gallons of diesel fuel/heating oil per 200 acre farm of these tanks, and almost just as much ethanol from the solid waste of algae processing.
  • by iksrazal_br (614172) on Monday April 02, 2007 @06:47PM (#18580993) Homepage
    Sugar cane not only has a greater concentration [wikipedia.org] of sucrose (about 30% more than corn) but it is also a lot easier to extract. Yet the USA places a 53 cent tarif on all imported ethanol. Powerful interests are at play, the greater good not being one of them. Brazil is lucky to be largely energy independant [yale.edu], which is in their politcal interest economically and security wise. The USA has double the oil [wikipedia.org] of brazil with a roughly only a 30% larger population, but instead of being anywhere near energy independent, the USA imports 20% of its oil from Venezuela of which whose leader calls the USA president "the devil." Expect the USA to screw their corn industry, play brinkmanship with oil producing countries and thereby rising the price of oil, and continuing tarifs on importing ethanol. Confused? Follow the money and you may not be.
  • by suitepotato (863945) on Monday April 02, 2007 @07:03PM (#18581133)
    Every time this subject comes up, people pipe up that we need to stop consuming, stop using power.

    Well, I don't intend to go back to living in a world of horse flop in the streets, coal in my stove, pumping water every day from a well a half mile away. Nor should I. Nor should anyone else.

    What is flabbergasting is that the same crowd that joneses for Star Trek all the time is so fast to posit that we need to live simply so that others may simply live. If there's anything Trek should have taught you is that life is not a zero sum game, mankind can design and reason its way out of situations it creates, and there are more than enough resources to go around and you just need to figure out what they are and how to use them.

    We are truly stupid if we turn backwards right when we figure out how to do high efficiency fusion, store energy as extra mass, and other off the wall things we've cooked up in sci-fi but haven't gotten around to figuring out in the basic physics departments. We will be condeming all future generations to poverty of not only economy, but morality and ethics, because with poverty of nations go all those things we so hate in our pasts: war, slavery, conquest, exploitation, disease, starvation. We have more than enough of those things left now. We have been fighting damn hard to change ourselves for a long time. To rise from that horrid muck.

    There's a difference between being more efficient and doing an about face in our march forward. And getting things done from building pyramids to cities needs energy of one kind or another. We can't simply stop using energy. We can make things use less and still use. We cannot stop using.

    Damn us all now if we reflexively retreat from advancement now like idiot children. Damn us to hell.
    • by evought (709897) <evought@pob[ ]com ['ox.' in gap]> on Monday April 02, 2007 @08:14PM (#18581695) Homepage Journal
      The argument for conservation is not that we turn the clock back--- people in the past weren't terribly friendly to the environment either--- that's a strawman. The argument is that we make an honest attempt to balance our books. We are profligate spenders and mindless consumers. We argue about biofuels and watch *NASCAR* for cripes sake. We ship oranges from Florida for processing in California and back for sale in Florida (yes, really). We ship Wisconsin cheese to New York and New York cheese to Wisconsin. We ship potatoes *to* Idaho! We commute hours a day to/from work to live in huge cookie cutter developments that waste heat/cooling/electricity while letting the urban centers decay. We grow corn on marginal land to feed animals in feedlots that are designed by evolution to graze for themselves--- then we use antibiotics to treat all the diseases they pick up in the feedlots and chemicals to treat the fact that they can't digest corn. We waste non-renewable petroleum on disposable plastic packaging and risk running out of it for pharmaceuticals. We don't need to haul water 1/2 mile from the well (though I've done it), we just need to stop being *idiots*.

      If we actually stopped and thought about what we were doing a small fraction of the time and budgeted what we had, we might have a chance of getting to that future you talk about. Otherwise, all that will happen is that new technology will beget *more waste*. How far has the space program gotten in the last half century? People flush the economy and ecology down the toilet and complain about research being a waste of money, so landfills fill up and space exploration languishes.
  • by haaz (3346) on Monday April 02, 2007 @09:55PM (#18582435) Homepage
    I am starting a biodiesel co-op here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin [mkebio.org]. I've read Monbiot's arguments. Every few months, someone brings them up. While I greatly respect The Guardian, they insist on printing his stuff. A lot of what I so vehemently dislike about Monbiot is not necessarily what he's saying. It is possible to easily produce sound counterarguments. Soy-based biodiesel and corn-based ethanol are temporary bases for fuel. Another reader pointed out that there is great potential for making biodiesel from algae. One plant apparently made it from turkey carcases. You can make biodiesel from a huge variety of sources, including fry grease.

    If biodiesel production causes food prices to spike, capitalists will find something different that does not cause this to occur. It may take longer than we wish, but it will happen.

    As for land-stripping, it is well known tht most stripping has occurred to plant inefficient farms. This was happening well before the recent enthusiasm for biofuels, and it will continue. I'd love to see it stop. But I'm not going to give up biodiesel to try and stop it or even help it. My fuel comes from America, not Saudi Arabia, Brazil, or even Canada, as does a great deal of our oil.

    The last thing I have to say about Monbiot, the most insulting, doubtlessly the one thing that will make people say "you lose this argument because you got personal, hell, you might as well just get it over with and violate Godwin's Law," is about his style of presentation. George Monbiot [monbiot.com] makes himself out being omniscient, and if only the world would listen to him, all would be well and people would live in peace. I had enough of that sort of person when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. They're everywhere there. It is, IMNSHO, this sort of person that enrages the reactionaries among us like no other, the ones who think that they know better than everyone else how to live, function, even breathe.

    Okay, let's put ALL biofuels on hold for five years. With that sweeping generalization, all work on it comes to an crashing end for five years. In April 2012, we will resume. And know what? We'll be right where we left off, only to find that we're five years behind, as we finally had the wisdom to listen to the one guy who knows better than us how to run the world. At least, we thought he was. You'd think we'd have learned by now to listen to people who claim to know better than everyone else, but our race is notorious for its memory deficiency. :::end of rant:::
  • Miscanthus (Score:3, Interesting)

    by slazar (527381) on Monday April 02, 2007 @11:42PM (#18583153)
    We should stop using corn to make biofuel and instead use Miscanthus.

    Miscanthus is a genus of about 15 species of perennial grasses. Miscanthus giganteus has been trialed as a biofuel in Europe since the early 1980s. It can grow to heights of more than 3.5m in one growth season. Its dry weight annual yield can reach 25t/ha (10t/acre). The rapid growth, low mineral content and high biomass yield of Miscanthus make it a favorite choice as a biofuel. After harvest, it can be burned to produce heat and power turbines. The resulting CO2 emissions are equal to the amount of CO2 that the plant used up from the atmosphere during its growing phase, and thus the process is greenhouse gas-neutral.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscanthus_giganteus [wikipedia.org]
    Educate yourself http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-570288889 128950913 [google.com]
  • by evilviper (135110) on Tuesday April 03, 2007 @03:56AM (#18584747) Journal
    It seems nobody (getting modded-up) here understands. Of course it's going to be difficult to start biofuel production, and any change of this level is going to cause short-term shortages, and higher prices.

    Nobody is going to starve. It's just that we've all become so used-to subsidized corn, that we never expected having to deal with market forces. Now that we do, everything is changing. Farmers are looking for new cattle feed, companies like Coca-Cola are looking for other sugar alternatives than corn syrup, et al. The market is starting to take action on this change, and there's no reason to believe it won't work just fine.

    That rain forest is being burned is a huge shame. However, biofuels certainly don't require the burning of rain forest, so they aren't really the cause. What's more, even in the current state of affairs, that kind of pollution is only a one-time issue, while that land will continue to produce biofuels for many, many years.

    Claims of limited arable lands are nonsense as well. Water can and is being transported to arid regions for crops. Every farmer in the developed world fertilizes their own fields, and there is no shortage of compost available. Once again, it will require some changes, and initially higher prices, but it really is the kind of thing the free market is perfectly good at handling, if you just give it a few years to work itself out.

    People are touting cellulose ethanol, which is a good option, but it's going to have precisely the same drawbacks, just less pronounced... Food prices rising because cellulose is currently used in hog and cattle feed. Expansion of farming to meet the demands. Rising prices of crops, as existing farmland is stretched to produce enough fuel. Increase in use of petroleum fertilizers, as cheap cellulose is no longer available for compost. etc.

    Things like algae for production of biofuels have plenty of potential, but it isn't just going to spring-up overnight. You really need to create a guaranteed demand for the product, before anyone is going to be willing to invest in such technologies. Indeed, the more expensive corn ethanol gets, the higher the potential profit in developing algae solutions.

    Just saying "to hell with it, developing biofuels is too challenging" is just going to prolong our problems. Giving up on a good option, because it produces complications like higher corn prices in the (very) near-term is horribly myopic. We'll be reaping the benefits of widespread production of biofuels for at least the next century, and probably longer. Those in the poorer parts of the world, affected by the food prices, will also.

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