Biofuels Have No Future

... other than as a thinly disguised agricultural subsidy program. Certainly they have no future in powering a significant fraction of cars or homes.

I know this statement will probably offend a lot of people who practice biofuels as a religion, but that's exactly what it is, religion. How can someone possibly think that converting additional land to agriculture, particularly when that agriculture is being used to produce something other than food, is good for the environment?

Even if we were to run out of or stop using every fossil fuel, biofuels (probably mostly from municipal solid wastes) would serve as nothing more than a source of organic elements for other processes like making fertilizer and reducing zinc with nuclear or solar energy. The zinc could then power electric cars. Another use could be carbon sequestration through the use of IGCC plants that collect their exhaust gases. But biofuels cannot replace a significant portion of our current fossil fuel use for energy production purposes without converting quite a lot of land (8% of Illinois to cover Illinois's own energy needs, for example) to non-food agriculture. And if the global warming doomsayers are right, we're gonna need all the productive farmland we can get for food.

Yes, I know switch grasses are great, yadda yadda yadda, but the 8% above assumes fairly productive switch grasses already (i.e. genetically engineered, replacing existing species) and no growth in Illinois's energy use. Oh, and I wasn't counting cars.

This doesn't mean I don't think people shouldn't invest in biofuels. Municipal solid waste and farm waste conversion is interesting stuff and will almost certainly find a use in the future, if only to avoid filling landfills with useful carbon and phosphorus. Just don't expect it to replace oil. Leave that to nuclear or solar reduced zinc.

BTW, if you like this stuff, The Ergosphere is full of interesting information.

I would be quite happy to be proven wrong. Have at.

Update: Patri proves me wrong in the comments. I should have titled this post "Agriculture Biofuels Grown On Farmland Have No Future." Let's just assume I did, ok? :deal:

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We'll cut down the

We'll cut down the rainforests to grow biofuels and save the environment. Duh.

Well, there is one

Well, there is one interesting bio-fuel scheme. It processes biomass with low temperature pyrolosis, "gassifies" it, yielding hydrogen and bio-char, i.e. charcoal.

The hydrogen has a variety of uses including ammonia production for fertilizer to replenish what was taken from the soil, as well as its common uses for fuel.

The bio-char is a fascinating substance that is a wonderful soil amendment which sequesters carbon for centuries or perhaps eons, raises PH so that soil chemistry is improved for most farmland, improves soil texture and structure so that it holds moisture better, drains better when too wet, reduces leaching of nutrients, and stimulates good soil bacteria and fungi that contribute to soil fertility. It has a unique property of capturing nitrogen by a combination of chemical and mechanical methods and only releasing it in the presence of enzymes produced by plant related bacteria. In other words it holds it until it is needed by plants. Incidental nitrogen such as that produced by lightning and falls in rain doesn't run off, it is captured for later use.

We have some nice examples of the long term benefits of bio-char in the semi-mysterious soils of the Amazon region known as terra preta.

I always like the comments

I always like the comments of those people who use biodiesel. They point out that restaurants/etc are more than willing to let them have their used vegetable oil for free. Which is fine, because there are currently so few people using biodiesel to make it a market.

But in the long run, what's cheaper to produce, diesel, or biodiesel? If we made a wholesale switch, would it be feasible to produce that much biodiesel? Would the environmental impact of that production have better or worse net effects than drilling for oil?

Few of the hippies in their volkswagons are asking (or answering) these questions. They've got a different use for "grass" :beatnik:

When I was a kid our family

When I was a kid our family used a lot of biofuel, in a device called a "fireplace."

This is wrong, because algae

This is wrong, because algae are a potential source of biofuel. And we could grow lots of algae without using up any farmland, by making use of the oceans.

not saying it would definitely work, but I wouldn't rule it out yet.

I was just reading something

I was just reading something today about an interesting technology that enables biofuel manufacturers to make biofuel out of the part of corn plants we don't eat. The article said that this waste is the single biggest such byproduct available. I mean there is a LOT of this stuff. The only reason they haven't been using it as an ethanol source until now is that it has been hard to convert it to a good enough sugar form to use.

Sorry to be so vague (I don't remember where I saw the article and am pulling this out of my... uh, memory). But I think it could show that farm waste conversion is viable. At least it impressed me, and I work in a petroleum-industry company.

speedwell - Biofuels from

speedwell - Biofuels from waste are a no-brainer. Wood pellets are made from wood waste, and ethanol can be made from agricultural waste, though methanol and methane are much easier to make. Unfortunately, the total amount of carbohydrate waste in the country, even if it were converted with 100% efficiency to fuel, could not displace more than 25% of our petroleum usage. And that's ignoring the fuel used to transport it to the processing location or the finished product to fueling stations or power plants.

More clever use of waste products is a given, and that will displace some of our current energy usage and prevent wastes from flowing to landfill or simply being incinerated without using the heat for anything productive, but it's not going to cause any miracles. We'll still need nuclear power, or we'll need to convert large areas of water to algae production like Patri mentions. I can't imagine that'll be all that environmentally friendly either. Almost certainly not as environmentally friendly as nuclear energy, though perhaps more regulatorily friendly.