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Earth Science

Biofuels Make Greenhouse Gases Worse 506

Posted by kdawson
from the no-free-lunch dept.
vortex2.71 sends us to the Seattle Times for an account of two studies published in the prestigious journal Science pointing to the conclusion that almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these "green" fuels are taken into account. "The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they were burned was balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions — for refining and transport, for example. These studies... for the first time take a detailed, comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development."
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Biofuels Make Greenhouse Gases Worse

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  • Hm... (Score:4, Funny)

    by kmac06 (608921) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:34PM (#22365786)
    So an effort to fix global warming made things worse? How surprising.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pizzach (1011925)
      The closer to perfect something is, the easier to mess it up when you try to improve it. No wait...
      • Re:Hm... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by cayenne8 (626475) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:58PM (#22365990) Homepage Journal
        "So an effort to fix global warming made things worse? How surprising."

        You know....I'm willing to do this anyway...if it will still get us OFF the 'teet' of middle east oil.

        If we could just remove our dependency from oil and quit throwing money and worrying about the situation over there because of it....let that place dry up, and let them all do as they please over there. At the very least, it would be worth it in order to quit making peoples and countries wealthy that hate us in the western world.

        • You know....I'm willing to do this anyway...if it will still get us OFF the 'teet' of middle east oil.
          There are other ways of doing that: nuclear, or the massive oil fields in Alaska. But no politician seems willing to put them all on the table and compare the pros and cons of each.
          • Re:Hm... (Score:5, Informative)

            by flyingsquid (813711) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @02:26AM (#22367300)
            There are other ways of doing that: nuclear, or the massive oil fields in Alaska. But no politician seems willing to put them all on the table and compare the pros and cons of each.

            Nobody's really sure how much oil is in ANWR, but the estimates run from 5.7-16 billion barrels, with a mean of 10.4 billion barrels. To put things in perspective, Saudi Arabia has about 250 billion barrels of reserves, and Iran and Iraq put together have about that much. Kuwait and the UAE each have about 100 billion barrels. Personally, I'm in favor of developing ANWR if we can ensure that a close watch is kept on the oil companies to make sure they don't screw up the environment, but there's no way it will end our dependence on the Middle East.

        • Re:Hm... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by homer_s (799572) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:27PM (#22366180)
          It is not the 'dependence on middle eastern oil' that is the problem. It is 'installing dictators and propping up theocracies' that is the problem.
          If America is willing to let countries own their oil fields and do what they please, oil prices would be sky high (loons like Hugo would make sure that happens) and people would've invested money in alternative fuels - money that is going to 'protecting oil interests' now.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            So you are assuming that the countries which own oil fields are filled with idiots that when left to their own devices would simply raise prices until no one would buy it from them, ruining themselves in the process. Great basis for any argument!
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Znork (31774)
            oil prices would be sky high

            While I agree with your first conclusion, this one is doubtful. The loonies did try that once during the oil crisis (1973, iirc), and the result was simply a bunch of bankrupcies in the west and decreased sales and eventually lower price. As long as they actually want to maximize their income they cant raise the prices beyond certain levels (and that includes levels that would make alternative fuels more popular).

            So it's a mutual addiction; they want the money and the US wants th
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by misleb (129952)

          You know....I'm willing to do this anyway...if it will still get us OFF the 'teet' of middle east oil.


          And ON to a treeless North and South America. Yay!

        • Re:Hm... (Score:5, Informative)

          by qw0ntum (831414) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:47PM (#22366322) Journal
          I'm not surprised that biofuels actually make the situation worse. I've been saying that all along; our nation's approach to biofuels (particularly using corn) was a poorly thought out political move to cater to the corporate farm lobby. It was really convenient in that it allowed politicians to act "green" and look like they were moving away from supporting big bad Middle East oil (which is in large part financed by American companies under American-supported governments... that's a discussion for another day). Maybe this report will finally start convincing people that biofuels really, really aren't a proper solution to environmental problems. The only way to REALLY hit the root of the problem is to reduce consumption of stuff. I'm not going to pretend that's easy or even practical, but this talk about biofuels, alternative energy, etc. is just pussy-footing around the real issue that we as a species are consuming more than this planet can support.

          It's also important to note that the VAST majority of our petroleum imports don't actually come from the Middle East! The DOE says so [doe.gov] itself. Our top two petroleum importing countries are... Canada and Mexico!

          Biofuels were never about being a real solution. It was always about political capital for politicians and special interests. Now we at least have more science to show how messed up biofuels really are.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Oligonicella (659917)
            "... our nation's approach to biofuels (particularly using corn) was a poorly thought out political move to cater to the corporate farm lobby."

            Yeah. Let's forget about the hundreds of thousands of people in general (and here on /.) screaming that "we must do something" and "better to do something than wait for destruction".

            Not just for the corporates it weren't. Think Al Gore.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by inviolet (797804)

            It was really convenient in that it allowed politicians to act "green" and look like they were moving away from supporting big bad Middle East oil (which is in large part financed by American companies under American-supported governments... that's a discussion for another day).
            POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by omeomi (675045)
      So an effort to fix global warming made things worse? How surprising.

      Scientists have been saying all along that food-product based bio-fuels--corn-ethanol in particular--are a bad idea. It's the politicians and auto manufacturers that are too stupid to listen.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DurendalMac (736637)
      Not really. This article fails to take into account advancements that can create biofuel from almost any vegetable matter, not just specific crops. You could get biofuel out of your lawnmower bag.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by donaldm (919619)

      So an effort to fix global warming made things worse? How surprising.

      You mean we had an effort in the first place? :-)

      The problem with liquid biofuels (what the article is alluding to) is not so much the actual production of the fuel itself since that is dependent on the Sun and the quality of the soil or media that is used grow the product, it is the overall energy equation from the actual production to delivery verses the energy that the fuel produces and if you look at ethanol which the Article covers, the cost to produce and deliver in some countries is more than wha

    • Agri subsidies (Score:3, Interesting)

      by gnuman99 (746007)
      Come on guys. The politicians love the entire biofuel train and will disregard the negative consequences for as long as possible. The entire thing was so quickly accepted NOT because it will reduce emissions, but because it is a way to pump agricultural subsidies without actually saying you do.

      Agri subsidies have been a major problem between Europe+US vs. rest of the world. Due to subsidies, it is cheaper for people in Nigeria to actually buy corn and wheat from US/Europe than to actually grow it themselves
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tacocat (527354)

      If you read through the article they make almost no mention of BIO-DIESEL which is significantly different in it's manufacturing methods and land use. This article is largely focused on the failures of Ethanol being a suitable fuel.

      Bio-Diesel can be grown from a variety of plants ranging from palm trees (Southern), Soy Beans (Norther) and Algae (non-land use) which gives you a extremely wide range of climates available for the production of Bio-Diesel and a variety of farm land as well. This doesn't even

  • Stupid Article (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LaskoVortex (1153471) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:37PM (#22365808)
    The article cites no references nor names any of the "eminent" scientists. I smell political propaganda.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Vectronic (1221470)
      You could be right, although it is just as likely that the scientists just dont want to be known, not because the information may be false or inaccurate, but because of the public lashing they may recieve.
      • How so? This topic has always been the subject of dispassionate, even-handed debate, and characterized by respectful, collegial differences of opinion.
        Truly a wonderful community.
        Oh we're not talking about Venezuelan Beaver Cheese Production in the pre-Spanish Years? Sorry.
        • by cayenne8 (626475)
          "Oh we're not talking about Venezuelan Beaver Cheese Production in the pre-Spanish Years? Sorry."

          Hmm...how about Japanese Sage Darby?

    • by denzacar (181829) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:46PM (#22365906) Journal
      Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change [sciencemag.org]
      Timothy Searchinger 1*, Ralph Heimlich 2, R. A. Houghton 3, Fengxia Dong 4, Amani Elobeid 4, Jacinto Fabiosa 4, Simla Tokgoz 4, Dermot Hayes 4, Tun-Hsiang Yu 4

      1 Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA. German Marshall Fund of the U.S., Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute.
      2 Agricultural Conservation Economics, Laurel, MD, USA.
      3 Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, MA, USA.
      4 Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA.

      How Green Are Biofuels? [sciencemag.org]
      Jörn P. W. Scharlemann and William F. Laurance
      • by Rei (128717) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:30PM (#22366210) Homepage
        One thing that immediately jumps out at me:

        "Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%."

        Huh? Why would you grow switchgrass on corn lands? The whole point of switchgrass it that you can grow it on marginal lands, freeing croplands for food production. On crop lands, cellulosic ethanol is to be made from corn stover and the like.

        Here's [autobloggreen.com] an interesting analysis of the studies from a member of the UC Davis faculty. He strongly disagrees with the methodology used.

        Well, either way, I think we can all agree that corn ethanol from the corn itself is lousy, cellulosic ethanol from waste streams is good, and everything else is up in the air.
    • Re:Stupid Article (Score:5, Informative)

      by LaskoVortex (1153471) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:51PM (#22365940)

      Here is one reference [nih.gov]. Original references are usually much less alarmist than the stupid news stories created by journalists who don't understand what they are reporting. This is corn ethanol, which is known to be an inefficient source of energy, so the Science article comes as no great surprise--though it does contradict an earlier report [nih.gov] in PNAS. The journalism mistakenly groups all biofuels with corn here (unless the article irresponsibly leaves out other references). Independent studies would need to be done for every biofuel source to warrant the sweeping generalizations of the Seattle Times article.

      There should be a law.

    • by leftie (667677) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @12:26AM (#22366570)
      The key discussion is the current primary biodiesel production is on crop land. They're right. We're going to be needing all our crop land to grow food to feed a rapidly growing population.

      Biodiesel production from high oil content algaes doesn't need to use crop land. From a University of New Hampshire study...

      "...NREL's research focused on the development of algae farms in desert regions, using shallow saltwater pools for growing the algae. Using saltwater eliminates the need for desalination, but could lead to problems as far as salt build-up in bonds. Building the ponds in deserts also leads to problems of high evaporation rates. There are solutions to these problems, but for the purpose of this paper, we will focus instead on the potential such ponds can promise, ignoring for the moment the methods of addressing the solvable challenges remaining when the Aquatic Species Program at NREL ended.

      NREL's research showed that one quad (7.5 billion gallons) of biodiesel could be produced from 200,000 hectares of desert land (200,000 hectares is equivalent to 780 square miles, roughly 500,000 acres), if the remaining challenges are solved (as they will be, with several research groups and companies working towards it, including ours at UNH). In the previous section, we found that to replace all transportation fuels in the US, we would need 140.8 billion gallons of biodiesel, or roughly 19 quads (one quad is roughly 7.5 billion gallons of biodiesel). To produce that amount would require a land mass of almost 15,000 square miles. To put that in perspective, consider that the Sonora desert in the southwestern US comprises 120,000 square miles. Enough biodiesel to replace all petroleum transportation fuels could be grown in 15,000 square miles, or roughly 12.5 percent of the area of the Sonora desert (note for clarification - I am not advocating putting 15,000 square miles of algae ponds in the Sonora desert. This hypothetical example is used strictly for the purpose of showing the scale of land required). That 15,000 square miles works out to roughly 9.5 million acres - far less than the 450 million acres currently used for crop farming in the US, and the over 500 million acres used as grazing land for farm animals.

      The algae farms would not all need to be built in the same location, of course (and should not for a variety of reasons). The case mentioned above of building it all in the Sonora desert is purely a hypothetical example to illustrate the amount of land required. It would be preferable to spread the algae production around the country, to lessen the cost and energy used in transporting the feedstocks. Algae farms could also be constructed to use waste streams (either human waste or animal waste from animal farms) as a food source, which would provide a beautiful way of spreading algae production around the country. Nutrients can also be extracted from the algae for the production of a fertilizer high in nitrogen and phosphorous. By using waste streams (agricultural, farm animal waste, and human sewage) as the nutrient source, these farms essentially also provide a means of recycling nutrients from fertilizer to food to waste and back to fertilizer. Extracting the nutrients from algae provides a far safer and cleaner method of doing this than spreading manure or wastewater treatment plant "bio-solids" on farmland.

      These projected yields of course depend on a variety of factors, sunlight levels in particular. The yield in North Dakota, for example, wouldn't be as good as the yield in California. Spreading the algae production around the country would result in more land being required than the projected 9.5 million acres, but the benefits from distributed production would outweigh the larger land requirement. Further, these yield estimates are based on what is theoretically achievable - roughly 15,000 gallons per acre-year. It's important to point out that the DOE's ASP that projected that such yields are possible, was never able to come close to achieving such yields. Thei
  • by Strider- (39683) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:38PM (#22365812)
    While I've always thought that using cropland to produce biofuels is unethical and ineffective. On the other hand, small scale production can make a huge amount of sense.

    For example, the biodiesel I run in my Jetta is made locally at a rendering plant out of waste fats. So, not only am I being a little more carbon neutral compared to buying fossil fuels that have been transported long distances, I'm also keeping what would otherwise be wastes from going into the landfill.
    • by TooMuchToDo (882796) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:42PM (#22365858)
      Agreed. I use waste cooking oil (processed into biodiesel) in a garage heater (that will burn kerosene, diesel, etc) as well as in a fairly large diesel generator. I would never want to use biodiesel made from farmland, but waste cooking oil is a different story.
      • by that this is not und (1026860) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @12:14AM (#22366488)
        Yes, but you are using waste cooking oil from a source much larger than your personal household. So your source is a fluke that will never scale to a large population. And in fact, as soon as it scales up at all (as soon as more than a few people start doing what you are doing) there will be competition for the waste cooking oil you use. I assume you are collecting it from restaurants or somebody else is doing so for you. As soon as ten times as many people in your locality want that cooking oil, it will start costing you instead of being 'waste' that you get for free.

        So your fuel source is not viable for the future, and in fact you should keep quiet about it if you want it to continue to be a viable source for yourself personally.
    • by cayenne8 (626475) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:02PM (#22366028) Homepage Journal
      "While I've always thought that using cropland to produce biofuels is unethical and ineffective. "

      Ok...I can see ineffective...but, unethical?? What does biofuel have to do with being ethical??? You got me on that one....

      • by Zach978 (98911)
        burning food that starving people could be eating I guess
      • by Torvaun (1040898)
        Some people have the idea in their heads that if we have excess cropland to be used on biofuel, we could be using it to produce food that we could then send to developing nations that are having trouble feeding their people (Ethiopia comes to mind), or that could be distributed amongst the poor in this country. They might even think that artificially limiting the food supply by designating certain crop fields as being for biofuels will artificially inflate the price of food, thus making it even harder on t
        • by cayenne8 (626475) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:23PM (#22366160) Homepage Journal
          "Some people have the idea in their heads that if we have excess cropland to be used on biofuel, we could be using it to produce food that we could then send to developing nations that are having trouble feeding their people (Ethiopia comes to mind), or that could be distributed amongst the poor in this country."

          I don't get that then..at least in the US, we actually PAY farmers subsidies $$$ to not farm parts of their land..etc. We give freakin' subsidies to corn farmers....so, it isn't like we don't have a ton of potential farmland out there we could use in addition to the excess of crops we already produce. In the US at least, there isn't anything remotely looking like a food shortage, I think we could easily work on raising bio-crops without depriving anyone. If we went more towards ethanol from wastes products....algae farms....hell, even things like sugar beets, we could be more efficient than with corn, and take the pressure off that crop for raising food prices.

          If we removed the subsidies right now, that would relieve the pressure we're starting to feel a little bit of already in the US. Do that and lower tariffs on imported cane sugar, and we could easily start making cheaper, more efficient fuels (not to mention maybe we could get cane sugar in real coke again and other foods rather than fattening ourselves with HFCS.

          But really, c'mon...we already have more than enough food raised as surplus, even with subsidies....so, it isn't like we'd be depriving someone of a meal.

  • lose-lose game ? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by C0vardeAn0nim0 (232451) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:40PM (#22365822) Journal
    so, either we kill ourselves by burning coal and oil, or we kill ourselves chopping forests.

    you know what ? fuckit!!!

    if we're so stupid we can't find a stable balance to ensure the survival of the specie, so be it. let mass extinction come. and in 60 million years from now, some form of land dweling squid will be unearthing our bones, just like we do with the dinosaurs.
    • and in 60 million years from now, some form of land dweling squid will be unearthing our bones, just like we do with the dinosaurs.

      I dunno ... I'm betting on intelligent cockroaches myself.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      We can always use nuke plants (until we figure out fusion). Get some decent train infrastructure and see what that does to our oil usage.
    • by bendodge (998616) <bendodge@nOSPam.bsgprogrammers.com> on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:59PM (#22366004) Homepage Journal
      Clean energy was killed by the very environmentalists who tout it. I was talking to an engineer recently who worked on nuclear power plants, and he told me about a plant somewhere (can't remember the name) that planned to build 6 cores. I can't remember the exact numbers, but the cost went up exponentially every time they finished a core because of the paperwork and regulations. The first core cost millions; the last would have cost hundreds of billions. They had to quit building at three cores, but if the legislatures hadn't messed it all up, that state would be a power-exporting state today.

      Out here in Idaho, there are remnants of curiosities such as a regenerative reactor that worked once upon a time. (There's also a nuclear jet engine that didn't.) These reactors produce more energy for for the same amount of fuel and have less waste. But we can't use them, because (horrors!) they produce weapons-grade waste. I have a very simple solution to this dilemma: put it in a weapon.

      Now the environmentalists want to blow up the dams that supply almost all of the state! I mean, you can't get much greener than a dam. But I guess fish are more important than people. And it's not like there's shortage of uranium. There's a deposit under my house for goodness sake!

      If we could build more reactors at the real cost of building them, drill the oil in Alaska and give the tree-huggers desk jobs like everyone else, we'd be so much better off.

      -Super-cheap electricity would mean less dependence on foreign oil.
      -We have more oil here than in Saudi Arabia, so we could quit importing oil altogether.
      -We could have electric cars.
      -Less coal and oil burning would make the environmentalists happy and stop global warming (or global cooling, whatever it is this year).
      -Breeder reactors would produce little waste, and what little they do produce could make more nukes (best defense is a good offense; see "Cold War" on p. 187)

      Yes, I know I've posted this before, but it's worth repeating.
      • The only way that nuclear power production can be considered cheap is if you leave out the costs of building the reactors AND the cost of decommissioning the reactors after the facilities eventually they lose their licenses and have to be decommissioned. The cost of decommisioning nuclear reactors is ALWAYS left out of the equation by nuclear power advocates. ALWAYS.

        Including the multi-billion dollar cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors makes burning US currency to generate power look like a better idea
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by evilviper (135110)

        Now the environmentalists want to blow up the dams that supply almost all of the state! I mean, you can't get much greener than a dam. But I guess fish are more important than people.

        A significant portion of the humans on this planet survive almost entirely on fish. A damn might give your state a slightly higher amount of clean electricity, while it causes 1 billion people around the planet to starve.
  • by BiggerIsBetter (682164) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:40PM (#22365824)
    Yes, corn ethanol has a very low yield and has no business being used for fuel - this is very well known. As the article states, "Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which takes relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel." which is entirely unsurprising to anyone who's looked at this stuff before. Corn is only popular in the US, and only because it's subsidized.

    How about a discussion on SVO (Straight Vegetable Oil) from crops like Chinese Tallow, and the newer algae production processed instead.
    • by FooAtWFU (699187)

      Yes, corn ethanol has a very low yield and has no business being used for fuel - this is very well known. As the article states, "Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which takes relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel." which is entirely unsurprising to anyone who's looked at this stuff before. Corn is only popular in the US, and only because it's subsidized.

      How about a discussion on SVO (Straight Vegetable Oil) from crops like Chinese Tallow, and the newer algae production processed instead.

      Maybe because corn is used for ethanol in the United States, and it's a bigger more subsidized business than ever, and it's still clamoring for more money, and there are still assorted groups pushing for more of it used as fuel?

      I think that's worth a good chunk of criticism.

      • The point of studying the alternate methods of ethanol production is that they might actually be energy positive. It's not a bad idea to try and grow our oil, but it requies a process that works and can fill our demands without making food massively expensive.
      • by John3 (85454)
        So many farmers have started growing corn for ethanol that other crops are skyrocketing in price. Wild bird seed has nearly doubled in price in the past year, and hops and grains used for beer production have also gone way up in price. Hop production will take a while to get back as it takes several years for a hop rhizome to develop a fully productive plant.
    • On the contrary,
      Anyone who didn't see this coming hasn't been very acute.

      1. Corn Farmers in Red States suddenly get "Green" and ask for "Subsidies". Where have I heard that before.
      2. There isn't enough water in the world for people to drink, but suddenly there's enough to grow fuel for Hummers?

      This is an example of government picking winners. "Farmers" get extra votes in Washington (electoral college thing), so as soon as "Farmers" could benefit from a scientific theory, the theory get tested in the politic
      • by mechsoph (716782) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @12:23AM (#22366548)

        The reason "high-fructose corn syrup" is used is because sugar cane is more difficult to grow.

        No, the reason HFCS is in everything in the US is because our high sugar tariffs make the domestic sugar price double the global price. If it weren't for the tariff, we'd import cheap sugar from our friendly neighbors down south, and US Coke wouldn't taste so lousy.

  • This has been mentioned in issues of Scientific American and National Geographic before. Personally I believe we need better power transmission technologies so that we can tap into various solar and wind sources and transport the energy where needed.

    But even realizing local benefits of such power generation seems far fetched in todays current political climate. Here in Idaho we have much unrealized potential for wind energy. However the person in charge of our "Office of Energy Resources", Paul Kjellander.
    • Has publicly stated he only believes in, "The Three N's"... Natural Gas, Nuclear or Nothing.

      Aye, and there's the rub. Critical policies are being set by what certain people "believe", on what their "gut feelings" tell them.

      Forget the science, forget the facts. Who the hell needs those.
    • Re:SciAM / NatGeo (Score:5, Insightful)

      by milsoRgen (1016505) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:02PM (#22366026) Homepage
      Let me quote the october 2007 National Geographic:

      Brazil rivals the U.S. in ethanol production because sugarcane yields 600 to 800 gallons an acre, twice as much as corn.
      But there are also issues in the use of cheap labor, destroyed farmland/forests, and the use of petroleum based fertilizers. So even with the increase of of usable energy per acre in Brazil, that probably wouldn't translate to the U.S., as we have little things like a minimum wage and people who bitch loudly when vast amounts of land are razed for crop production. So either way you cut it, Biofuels are at best only a means of transition from a pure oil based energy network unto something more long term feasible.
  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:45PM (#22365896) Homepage Journal
    Maybe I have a skewed perspective, but in New England 'most' biofuel is firewood. I've been heating my house with it for a couple years and have plenty of trees to burn. But even when I buy a cord from the woodsman a couple miles away the amount of fossil fuel used to generate a cord of wood is probably about five gallons of petrol. I heat the house on two cords a year, and the same heating can be achieved with 1200 gallons of propane. It's not even close.
    There is some additional point pollution but I run a catalytic stove from Woodstock Soapstone which reburns the smoke so you can barely smell the woodsmoke outside (and I own enough forestland to eat my share of pollution). Besides that most of that 'pollution' was sequestered from the environment within the past thirty years.
    If they want to argue against most fermentation-based biofuels, fine, but most cultures burn wood and have before 1830 when the planet started heating up.
    • by mdsolar (1045926) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:00PM (#22366012) Homepage Journal
      That is biomass rather than biofuel. The issue in the US is that taking up cropland here means plowing up marginal land elsewhere. This disturbs soils which hold carbon and thus that carbon is released. With your firewood, this is not the case. The soil is not disturbed and your use of the wood is not causing others to be hungry. You should mention the benefits of excercise in splitting and hauling wood as well.
    • by Fjandr (66656)
      Like many other solutions, the difference is scale. On a small scale, wood-burning has a relatively small carbon footprint. On a large scale, you end up with deforestation and much more carbon entering the atmosphere than can be sequestered in the same amount of time, in addition to less biomass available for said sequestration.

      As with everything, it's all about balance.
  • Other possibilities (Score:4, Interesting)

    by caseih (160668) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:48PM (#22365928)
    Besides the problem of fertilizer production, irrigation, machines burning diesel fuel, the biofuel craze is increasing pressures on farm land, promoting deforestation, and contributing to global food price rises. But that doesn't mean we won't eventually get a biofuel that has more energy in it than we put into it. Once we reach this point, then the biofuel itself can fuel its production. But in the mean time there are some other intriguing alternatives.

    Just today I was listening to CBC's "Quirks and Quarks" talking to Sandia labs about using solar energy to convert CO2 and H2O into H2 and CO, which can be effectively combined to make hydrocarbons. Unlike bacteria or algae, this process uses a special solid substance that, when exposed to the intense light, has its oxygen molecules stripped off, releasing O2 into the atmosphere. Then this substance is taken out of the sunlight, exposed to CO2 and Water, and it rips the oxygen molecules out of those substances, leaving H2 and CO behind, both of which can be fairly economically combined into hydrocarbons like methanol and gasoline. What's intriguing is that the substance they are using to rip the oxygen out of the water and CO2 can do this over and over again. Right now they are using CO2 from sources other than the atmosphere, making this not carbon neutral. However they plan to work towards harvesting CO2 from the atmosphere. In the meantime, though, this is a great way of increasing the efficiency of energy extraction from, say coal. If, someday, we could capture all CO2 from coal plants and convert it to gasoline for use in autos, that would have an overall decrease in our CO2 emissions because the coal could now be used to generate electricity *and* drive cars, reducing the CO2 emissions from refined gasoline. Assuming we can control particulates, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxides from burning gasoline, in the future perhaps gasoline-burning cars will be the cleanest things on the planet! Certainly as the scientist pointed out, gasoline (hydrocarbons anyway) is the best way of storying energy. Generating electricity is nice, but we have to use it as we generate it. Batteries and H2 production aren't really that good at storing energy as densely. The radio program is http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/archives/07-08/feb09.html [www.cbc.ca] and the Sandia press release is http://www.sandia.gov/news/resources/releases/2007/sunshine.html [sandia.gov]

    If we are wise, then I think the push to biodiesel or solar gasoline will ultimately be our ticket.
  • that biofuels actually increased carbon emissions. Namely because of the emissions costs of processing all the fuel. Now, something like the waste cooking oil I could see being useful, but the corn lobby will make sure that method is not widespread.

    How I love politics. Politics getting in the way of reason, in the way of human survival. Nothing new. Or, in the Slashdot lore, "Nothing to see here, move along."
  • Abstracts (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mdsolar (1045926) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:53PM (#22365956) Homepage Journal
    Both papers are published in Science Express [sciencemag.org] rather than the regular journal yet. Here are the abstracts:

    Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt
    Joseph Fargione Jason Hill David Tilman Stephen Polasky, Peter Hawthorne

    Increasing energy use, climate change, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels make switching to lowcarbon fuels a high priority. Biofuels are a potential lowcarbon energy source, but whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a 'biofuel carbon debt' by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions these biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.

    Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change
    Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, Tun-Hsiang Yu

    Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.

    While this work is very useful, the immediate concern would seem to be that grain carryover stocks [earth-policy.org] are becoming quite low as a result of ethanol production. They are now at about 54 days worth of world consumption [earth-policy.org] compared to over 100 days in 2000. Much lower stocks would mean making a choice between starvation of people or reducing feedlot operations and meat availability.
  • Well, duh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 0123456 (636235) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @10:54PM (#22365958)
    It's not as though people who actually considered the overall impact haven't been pointing this out for years.
  • ...and carbon's what plants crave.

    Hey, wait! Biofuels' got what plants crave!
  • "When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gases substantially," said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University.

    Note that this lead author is quoted as stating "probably increase". I am taking note of this apparently overlooked qualification. I've yet to read the actual Science paper yet. Until I read the primary source, I'll take this n

  • by WebCowboy (196209) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:11PM (#22366092)
    ...that basically starts with a pre-conceived conclusion and looks for evidence to back it up, I suspect.

    The problem is that the net emissions from biofuel production cannot ever be determined accurately---it is totally impossible ot absolutely quanitfy it because it is always a moving target.

    The article goes on about rainforest being clear-cut to make way for the production of fuel plants. That kind of land makes really poor land for growing and there is no evidence at all that shows biofuel production has been cited as a reason for clearing a significant amount of new land. The "biofuel lobbyists" are right about one thing; the study is too simplistic to be an accruate assesment of the real net impact of biofuel production. What if the farm equipment itself was powered by biofuels? What if the waste biomass from preparing farmland and growing the crops was recovered and used for power generation? What if we used biomass from the ocean (this is already done on an experimental scale)? Have there been studies on the efficiency of biofuel-powered engines and on the overall emissions (sulphur, particulates and things that not only afect the climate but actually harm our health)? What about the impact of making fuel out of tarsands vs middle-east light sweet crude vs. crude drilled in the Gulf of Mexico? How can they put a number like "92 years of emissions"? It all smells pretty fishy to me.

    It's like the argument that biofuels threaten foodstocks. Well, we used Soybeans extensively for food products...and it makes a good biofuel...and plastic...and industrial lubricants...and a host of other things. What is wrong with doing that using corn too? Corn production in the US actually exceeds what the world NEEDS for food by quite a margin, as do the production of many other crops (wheat, etc). These crops have been very cheap since the depression (in fact for decades they went down significantly when adjusted for inflation) and only in the last few years have grain prices been coming up to where they really should be. Sometimes I wonder if there are lobbyists out there for the processed food undustry putting resistance out to any competing demand in order to ensure they can name their own bargain prices for high-fructose corn syrup, bleached and enriched white wheat flour and hydrogenated vegetable oil and keep the margins on twinkie sales up.

    Anyways, what is the big surprise here? Burning fuel creates emissions...surprise surprise! When you drive an electric car you are indirectly burning natural gas, or coal, or splitting uranium atoms. When you are using biodiesel you are burning soybeans or canola, along with whatever the equipment used to grow it uses. Same with ethanol except it's corn or switchgrass or sugarcane. Hello...if you want to reduce emmissions DON'T DRIVE SO DAMN MUCH! Get rid of your suburbans and buy a hatchback (a VW Golf diesel is better than a Prius if you don't live in a big city). Better yet, get off your ass and WALK once in a while.

    Actually having worked in power plants and refineries and such...I have a hard time believing ANY sort of fuel doesn't have a significant environmental impact. These guys obviously haven't seen how tarsands ar mined, or how much fuel an oil tanker uses, or how much power an offshore drilling platform uses.
  • The problem is most of the plants build up till this time haven't taken transportation into account. Many were build by co-ops (though many have been bought up by very large petrochemical companies) out in the middle of nowhere. So everything gets trucked in and out. It's very inefficient. So yes, old plants bad.

    On the other hand, many of the larger biofuel plants on the drawing board have been placed on train lines. Which is crazy fuel efficient compared to trucks. Even more efficient is building out
  • coal is the greenest fuel because it requires the least processing. The point is corn sucks as a fuel source and sugar cane requires vast amounts of land and fertilizer. Biofuels will never replace oil. Here's a big shocker, so what? We've never run our houses on one source of electricity so why should we expect to run our cars that way? Biofuels are a great way to offset oil use until something like electrics can take over. Just a reminder hydrogen isn't a fuel source it's a storage medium and it has a rea
  • by KnightNavro (585943) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:20PM (#22366136)
    There are a few thing to consider before dismissing biofuels entirely.

    First, this study states that the break even point is 93 years. That's a reasonable timeframe when assessing anthropogenic global warming. Most of the time, the warming potential of gasses is measured using a 100 year potential. As a long term investment, biofuels still pay off.

    Second, the study looks at corn as a fuel. Nobody except Iowans and pandering politicians think corn is a good biofuel. The technology for cellulosic ethanol is just around the corner. Biodiesel far more energy efficient than ethanol. Sugar is a far more viable alternative than corn, where it will grow.

    Finally, it looks like the study considers only a monoculture. Multiple crops on the same area of land is more efficient. Of course, far too much of our agriculture is monoculture.
  • by Ralph Wiggam (22354) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:41PM (#22366282) Homepage
    1) Nuclear power
    2) Fully electric vehicles

    Nucler power technology has matured in Japan and France while we've sat on our butts for 25 years. Solar thermal is also a promising new technology.

    Electric vehicles are just waiting on batteries which should be just a year or two away.

    Cellulosic ethanol, wind power, and particular fuel cells, are pipe dreams.
  • no free lunch (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fermion (181285) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:41PM (#22366286) Homepage Journal
    What the article and many others imply is there is no free lunch. Useful work comes at the cost of proportionately larger increases in entropy, and those increases are manifested often unpredictably.

    About a year ago Science also had a long analysis examining the impact of various plants to create biofuels. It concluded, essentially, that corn was the worst while natural weeds and crop waste was the best. This initial analysis did not effect US policy which is based on year over year profit rather than long term costs. The overcapacity we currently see in ethanol facilities is not a result of good analysis or market forces, but by the subversion of those market forces by government regulations, such as subsidizing the oil companies, for instance through the reduction of oil taxes, and the subsidy of corn as a biofuel over more advantageous plants.

    It is unlikely that greenhouse gasses are going to fall without a reduction of consumption. We are talking a higher fuel economy in all vehicles, and a large tax on those vehicles that do not meet those fuel efficiencies, as well as a loss of other tax benefits for such vehicles. We are talking large tax benefits for small businesses that meet rigorous emission standards. We are talking a reduction in consumption of product made in factories that have no concern for efficiency, and a willingness to pay more for products that are made in more environmentally friendly patterns.

    The only reason that such an article seems controversial is that consumers want a free lunch. People were hoping that corn would be a panacea, like nuclear power, too cheap to meter, with no negative consequences. It is like how some people drive on the freeway. With no regard to Newton's laws of motion. I guess they believe they drive fast enough so to be out of the domain of where such laws are valid.

  • by ChromeAeonium (1026952) on Saturday February 09, 2008 @11:57PM (#22366398)

    refining and transport, for example.
    Last time I checked, fossil fuels needed those things too, and usually from longer distances than biofuels would need. Did they take that into account?

    I also find it interesting how the article kept talking about how biofuels were responsible for rainforest destruction, when they need not be, and they weren't talking about the most efficient biofuel methods. Also, of course, biofuel techniques are far from perfected at the moment, so even if it really is worse right now, I don't think the technology's potential shouldn't underestimated.
  • Burning your food (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JungleBoy (7578) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @11:00AM (#22369590)
    I'm a huge advocate of studying and reducing carbon emissions, I even work for one of the IPCC lead authors. But biofuels have never sat well with me. Something about burning our food for fuel makes me nervous and for some reason I start thinging about Easter Island. And now it looks like subsidised corn ethanol is one of the factors jacking up beer prices [montanakaimin.com]. Thanks jerks.
  • by AaronW (33736) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @08:51PM (#22374724) Homepage
    A very good talk on this was given last Friday, 02/08/2008 on NPR's Science Friday [sciencefriday.com].

An Ada exception is when a routine gets in trouble and says 'Beam me up, Scotty'.

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