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Biofuels—The Next

Great Source of
Energy?

• A worker unloads kernels of corn from a truck into a delivery chute at a


bioethanol plant in …

A boom in the production of biofuel was under way in 2007, especially in the United
States, where in January about 75 refineries for producing the biofuel ethanol from corn
(maize) were being built or expanded. This construction, not including additional
facilities on the drawing board, was expected to double existing capacity, and the demand
for corn pushed its price so high that U.S. farmers planted more land to the crop than they
had in a generation. Biofuel was perceived as a beneficial alternative to petroleum and
other fossil fuels as the price of petroleum rose during the year to record levels and
worldwide concern increased about how greenhouse-gas emissions from petroleum-
derived fuels were contributing to climate change in the form of global warming. Despite
its perceived economic and environmental benefits, however, many critics were
expressing concerns about the scope of the expansion of certain biofuels because of their
potential to create new problems.

Biofuels are fuels that are derived from biomass—that is, plant material or animal waste.
Since such materials can be replenished readily, biofuels are a renewable source of
energy, unlike fossil fuels, such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Some long-exploited
biofuels, such as wood, can be used directly as a raw material that is burned to produce
heat. The heat, in turn, can be used to run generators in a power plant to produce
electricity. A number of existing power facilities burn grass, wood, or other kinds of
biomass.
• A cutting machine on a plantation in southeastern Brazil harvests sugarcane, the
primary source of …

• At a plant in Ipoh, Malay., a worker pumps palm-oil-derived biodiesel into a


tanker.

Liquid biofuels are of particular interest because of the vast infrastructure already in
place to use them, especially for transportation. The liquid biofuel in greatest production
is ethanol (an alcohol), which is made by fermenting starch or sugar. In the United States
—the leading producer—ethanol biofuel is made primarily from corn grain, and it
typically is blended with gasoline to produce a fuel that is 10% ethanol. In Brazil, which
had been the leading producer until 2006, ethanol biofuel is made primarily from
sugarcane, and it is commonly used as 100% ethanol fuel or in gasoline blends containing
85% ethanol. The second most common liquid biofuel is biodiesel, which is made
primarily from oily plants (such as the soybean or oil palm) and to a lesser extent from
other sources (such as cooking waste from restaurants). Biodiesel, which has found
greatest acceptance in Europe, is used in diesel engines, usually blended with petroleum
diesel in various percentages.

Other biofuels include methane gas, which can be derived from the decomposition of
biomass in the absence of oxygen, and methanol, butanol, and dimethyl ether, which are
in development. Much focus is on the development of methods to produce ethanol from
biomass that has a high content of cellulose. This cellulosic ethanol could be produced
from abundant low-value material, including wood chips, grasses, crop residues, and
municipal waste. The mix of commercially used biofuels will undoubtedly shift as these
fuels are developed, but the range of possibilities presently known could furnish power
for transportation, heating, cooling, and electricity.

In evaluating the economic benefits of biofuels, the energy required for producing them
has to be taken into account. For example, in growing corn to produce ethanol, fossil
fuels are consumed in farming equipment, in fertilizer manufacturing, in corn
transportation, and in ethanol distillation. In this respect ethanol made from corn
represents a relatively small energy gain; the energy gain from sugarcane is greater and
that from cellulosic ethanol could be even greater. Biofuels supply environmental benefits
but, depending on their implementation, can also have serious drawbacks. As a renewable
energy source, plant-based biofuels in principle make little net contribution to the
greenhouse effect because the carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) that enters the air
during combustion will have been removed from the air earlier when the combustible
material grew. Such a material is said to be carbon neutral. In practice, however, the
industrial production of agricultural biofuels can result in additional emissions of
greenhouse gases that can offset the benefits of using a renewable fuel. These emissions
include carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels to produce the biofuel and nitrous
oxide from soil that has been treated with nitrogen fertilizer. In this regard, cellulosic
biomass is considered to be more beneficial.

Land use is also a major factor in evaluating the benefits of biofuels. Corn and soybeans
are important foods, and their use in producing fuel can therefore affect the economics of
food price and availability. In 2007 about one-fifth of U.S. corn output was to be used for
biofuel, and one study showed that even if all U.S. corn land was used to produce
ethanol, it could replace just 12% of gasoline consumption. Crops grown for biofuel can
also compete for the world's natural habitats. For example, emphasis on ethanol derived
from corn is shifting grasslands and brushlands to corn monocultures, and emphasis on
biodiesel is bringing down ancient tropical forests to make way for palm plantations.
Loss of natural habitat can change hydrology, increase erosion, and generally reduce
biodiversity and wildlife areas. The clearing of land can also result in the sudden release
of a large amount of carbon dioxide as the plant matter it contained decays.

Some of the disadvantages apply mainly to low-diversity biofuel sources—corn,


soybeans, sugarcane, oil palms—which are traditional agricultural crops. An alternative
recently proposed would use high-diversity mixtures of species, with the North American
tall-grass prairie as a specific example. Converting degraded agricultural land presently
out of production to such high-diversity biofuels could increase wildlife area, reduce
erosion, cleanse waterborne pollutants, store carbon dioxide from the air as carbon
compounds in the soil, and ultimately restore fertility to degraded lands. Such biofuels
could be burned directly to generate electricity or converted to liquid fuels as
technologies develop.

The proper way to grow biofuels to serve all needs simultaneously will continue to be a
matter of much experimentation and debate, but the fast growth in biofuel production will
likely continue. In the European Union, for example, 5.75% of transport fuels are to be
biofuels by 2010, with 10% of its vehicles to run exclusively on biofuels by 2020. In
December 2007, U.S. Pres. George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence
and Security Act, which mandated the use of 136 billion litres (36 billion gal) of biofuels
annually by 2020, more than a sixfold increase over 2006 production levels. The
legislation required, with certain stipulations, that 79 billion litres (21 billion gal) of the
amount be biofuels other than corn-derived ethanol. In addition, the law continued
government subsidies and tax incentives for biofuel production. Some observers hoped
that the law would encourage the commercialization of technology for producing
cellulosic ethanol, for which there were a number of pilot plants in the United States. In
March the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it would be investing as much as
$385 million in six refineries for cellulosic ethanol.

The distinctive promise of biofuels not shared by other forms of renewable energy, such
as solar power, is that in combination with an emerging technology called carbon capture
and storage, biofuels are capable of perpetually removing carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere. Under this vision, biofuels would remove carbon dioxide from the air as they
grew, energy facilities would capture that carbon dioxide when the biofuels were later
burned for power, and then the captured carbon dioxide would be sequestered (stored) in
long-term repositories such as geologic formations beneath the land, in sediments of the
deep ocean, or conceivably as solids such as carbonates. With proper planning, therefore,
biofuels have the potential to help create the conditions necessary for a sustainable world.

Clarence Lehman is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and


Behavior at the University of Minnesota.