Friday, October 12, 2007

Human Renaissance Part One-Biofuels

The age of fossil fuels has ended. The time of mindless consumption is over. We've all been lazy. But now its time to redeem ourselves. It may take extra time, effort and money to live and design with more sustainability, but isn't our planet worth it?

One solution is to promote research and development in the field of biofuels. It's quite sad that the word "biofuel" is still a misspelling in Microsoft Word. It should be part of our everyday vocabulary. In an effort to appease the oil companies, the Bush Administration, while finally acknowledging climate change, has allowed the oil giants to overemphasize the benefits of their primary biofuel - corn ethanol. In reality, it is clear that ethanol will not be the solution to our massive problems.

Corn ethanol is actually quite pathetic compared to other potential and viable biofuels. Ethanol is not worth the energy that it takes to create. In an amazing article (the cover story "Growing Fuel") in National Geographic this month, the magazine reports that for every 1 unit of energy consumed to produce ethanol, the result is only 1.3 units of fuel, fuel that is weaker than conventional gasoline. While we encourage an unprecedented level of corn production domestically and overseas where farmers have replaced some food crops with corn (risky business if prices fall), other natural materials exist that are actually worth pursuing.

Brazil has been producing ethanol for years, but it's sticky liquid is of another variety. Brazilians use sugarcane to make their ethanol with amazing results. For 1 unit of energy used to make cane ethanol the result is 8 units of fuel. Cane also emits 56% less greenhouse gases than gasoline and yields twice as many gallons of fuel per acre as corn ethanol. In Brazil, cane ethanol is even cheaper than gas. While the climate of the United States is far from conducive to growing sugarcane, cane ethanol is an example of a biofuel that is actually worth investing in.

For Americans the answers could be found in further developing the technology to harvest fuels from plant cellulose and algae. Cellulose are the sugar molecules that form plant cell walls. And if the processes can be developed to make ethanol from this material, that means that the typical agricultural byproducts - stalks, leaves, grasses, and sawdust - could be utilized to produce up to 36 units of energy with the input of 1 energy unit, all with 91% less greenhouse gas emissions. The drawback at this point is cost, but it sounds worth pursuing. Wired magazine also ran a nice feature this month on cellulose called Switch., as in switch grass, one of the crops that could be a major fuel source. Algae is the plant with the most potential. It grows in wastewater and needs little sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow. Under the right conditions algae can double in mass in hours. Algae produces starch which can be processed into ethanol. The research is far from complete in terms of actually mass producing algae biofuel, but while an acre of corn can equal 300 gallons of ethanol per year, preliminary numbers suggest algae could yield over 5,000 gallons.

For developing countries that rely on agriculture while not possessing the most ideally arable soil, there exists a crop of increasing popularity that could produce biofuel in sub-par conditions while not drastically affecting food crops. It is called jatropha and it has been reported on in the New York Times and New Agriculturalist. Jatropha, traditionally considered a weed in some areas, can grow in dry dusty climates with little water. The jatropha seeds are what are eventually produced into biofuel. It's tenacious disposition and the fact that it can be grown along rows of food crops makes it ideal for much of the developing world, especially northern Africa where it has seen some success in Mali. Though subsistence African farmers shouldn't spend all their incomes on jatropha seeds quite yet, studies have demonstrated that its cost and energy output seem reasonable. Who knows whether the promise of these alternative biofuels will come to fruition, but hey I'd give 'em a shot.

In my research surrounding biofuels, I've concluded that until further pro-biofuel research has been published, the best thing the average consumer can do is vote for change politically and vote with their dollars. Support candidates that aren't tied down to huge influences like the oil companies and buy products that are socially and environmentally conscious. People talk about what the best gas stations to fill up their tanks are, but I've found that there are none. All the companies have poor human rights and environmental records. I propose you drive less or carpool and pay attention to new technologies as they mature. To truly reverse the damage we have caused to our planet all of us need to get involved, not just some of us. Let others know how they can consume less or consume more responsibly. The costs of acting now may seem high, but they will be nothing compared to the burden we (and future generations) will experience if we don't act. Pay attention. Inform yourself.

Photos by Candace Feit, Dan Winters

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