Renewable energy enthusiasm is at an all time high. Unfortunately, the logistics of the energy source most widespread in commercial deployment, ethanol, are not as green nor as economically sound as one might hope. The biofuel ethanol is currently produced from sugar from crops such as corn and sugarcane. The high price of gasoline has created a catch-22 situation in which people want to buy ethanol to save money on lower gas prices, but if they do so they will raise the price of food crops and have to pay more at the supermarket.
Worse yet, ethanol's net carbon output is stated in some studies to be worse overall than gasoline's, due to the extra carbon cost needed to harvest the sugar crop and drive the conversion. And the social situation is no rosier; a UN expert called biofuels "a crime against humanity" and has stated that they are contributing to starvation and war worldwide.
With all the challenge associated with the current less-than-savory state of biofuels, some researchers are rising to the occasion and considering how to fix the biofuel infrastructure. The journal Nature Review Genetics carries a large study in next month's edition, which explores in depth advances and possibilities that genetic engineering holds to help produce cellulosic ethanol.
Cellulose is an abundant plant sugar which makes up the cell walls of plants. It consists of long chains of individual glucose sugar molecules which could be converted to ethanol, but it is difficult to break these chains apart. If it was easy to break apart cellulose, it would open the door to mass production of ethanol from crop waste, yard waste, and other sources, such as the non-crop plant switchgrass, greatly raising the promise of the resource.
Current cellulosic efforts focus on harvesting cellulose digesting enzymes from fungi and bacteria. While this is one possible method, the study suggests that another more promising method would be to genetically engineering plants to store cellulose digesting enzymes within safe compartments within the cell. When the plant was initially processed these enzymes would be released and would start breaking down the cellulose.
Other suggestions in the study are genetically engineering non-food cellulose source crops such as switchgrass to be taller. Another idea is to add more cellulose mass to plants by duplicating genes for cellulose production catalyzing enzymes. Yet another possibility is to reduce the enzymes that catalyze cellulose cross-linkages to make the cellulose easier to digest.
Another salient document to the future of the ethanol industry was published by the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP) this week. The GISP published a cautionary set of recommendations (PDF) about potential ethanol crop candidates. Since fast growth and endurance of a variety of climates are desirable characteristics for such a plant, it is unsurprising that GISP states that nearly all the candidates are invasive species, which could have the detrimental environmental effect of killing native plants and harming ecosystems. The exceptions, it states are food crops used for their cellulose, including wheat, peanuts, and soy
The GISP advocates risk assessments and cost/benefit analyses. They say that a certification system should be in place to ensure responsible agriculture. Finally, they suggest that when possible native species be used to produce the biofuel.
The AAAS journal Science published an editorial that is also pertinent to the future of biofuels. It discusses the bacteria that produce the cellulose-digesting enzymes. It says that other symbiotic bacteria could help to foster the growth of plants with useful chemical character. Further they could be used to sequester carbon. The key, the post concludes is to gain a better understanding of how the carbon cycle works in bacteria.
While ethanol certainly fairly deserves criticism for its current implementation, these new efforts promise a new responsible face for the ethanol industry. While they may take some time to be implemented, it is exciting to see the interest in the scientific community. The best part about these developments is if achieved, they would have the end effect of saving the consumer money, something the vast majority of consumers want.
quote: Due to the instability of food prices, farmers are switching to the increasing biofuel market.
quote: farmers are abandoning other crops intended for food and are instead growing fuel.
quote: (my wife breeds and trains horses)
quote: Immediately farmers stopped growing hay and are switching en masse to corn for ethanol...
quote: "our hay cost immediately went up by 50%..." "...people having to get rid of their animals because they either can't afford to feed them..."
quote: Just in the interest of demonstrating how immediate and how brutal the effect is of stupid agricultural policies like this.
quote: So you bitch about farmers using crops for non-food purposes, then you turn around and feed crops to animals that serve no real purpose? *cough* hypocrite *cough*
quote: Again, prices are going to even out. It's going to be hard in the meantime.
quote: It only takes a 6 year old to realize that we eat animals, animals need food, thus we need to use crops to feed the animals.
quote: Also (i dont know why I know this) but horses eat the entire piece of grass including the roots, cows do not, they only eat the tops of the grass. I once heard that although cows and horses eat around the same, it can cost up to 50% more to feed a cow, depending on the size.
quote: Biofuels are widely blamed for raising the prices of food crops; what is the solution?
quote: The big problem is that we depend on fossil fuels to produce our food, so how can our food solve our fossil fuel demands?
quote: The trick is to find solutions that don't require massive cuts in our standard of living, however.
quote: The problem is that "organic" farming methods have a substantially lower output per acre, which makes them both considerably more expensive and less feasible to feed a burgeoning world population.
quote: I disagree, the trick is to finding a way to transition smoothly to a high standard of living for everybody
quote: Here are a few solutions that arguably massively improve your standard of living: cycling, walking or taking public transport for recreational trips or social calls. Replacing a weekly junk food meat based meal with a fresh vegetable based meal.
quote: And please enlighten me as to who decides what a high standard of living is, and what that standard will be? You?
quote: You're going to get to tell me that in order to have a high standard of living and live my life your way, that I need to give up my car and not eat meat? Take it somewhere else Mr. Gore....
quote: You want to socialize the US into Vegans? Please.
quote: When was the last time horses were the majority of the animal population on a farm.
quote: Hell I would rather have the environment suffer a little than have people starving all over the world.
quote: ...ummm, what? People are starving all over the world because the environment is suffering.
quote: And we're still importing oil because it's still the most cost-effective (and currently most eco-friendly) way to drive our cars. If there was, honestly, a better way...we'd be doing it.
quote: I can assure you that the American oil industry would be happily pumping out our own oil if it was more economical to do so.
quote: And how is it "nonsense" that people are starving because of environmental problems? I suppose the fact that Africa's arable lands have been so poorly managed that they've turned to desert has nothing to do with the fact that the people who rely on them for farming are starving to death? Oh, I'm sure they'd be just as starving if they had nice black dirt there.
quote: If its illegal to drill in Alaska, its illegal.
quote: Look man, people like nature just fine. But we dont want to go back to the olden days of everyone living in a freakin' mud hut and singing peace songs around a campfire.
quote: The black plague that killed off 3/4's of Europe probably did the world a favor.
quote: You people are even more dangerous than Islamic terrorist extremists.
quote: but when you're talking billions of people trying to live on it, it is not quite so big after all.
quote: When did people become so Utilitarian? America is about freedom and going where u want to go and doing what you want to do. Going off on some stupid tirade about getting rid of things that people enjoy for the better of the whole is not the way america became what it is. Maybe you guys need to relax a little and stop trying to take away peoples freedom to do waht they want.
quote: Are you a moron? If i knew where you lived I would personally come to your house and punch you in the nose.
quote: I agree it's not the best policy, and is probably a little too gung-ho, but I have to say that at least farmers are making something of a little profit for once, after nearly a decade of sub-$2 corn.
quote: If there was no profit in it they wouldn't have been doing it. Especially not for 10+ years.
quote: Western farming, as we know, is totally unsustainable from a financial standpoint.
quote: "Problem is you don't want efficient food production. A highly efficient food supply means there is little to no margin for error....If your farms are highly efficient and produce exactly 100% of the food your country needs, and a surprise cold spell drops that to 80%, people will starve and die"
quote: Your point couldn't be more wrong. Efficiency in agricultural is defined in terms of production per acre (or hectare).
quote: Centuries ago, when food production was highly inefficient, hunger and famines were ubiquitous, coming for most people every few years. Now, if you live in a nation with efficient food production, you can live your entire life without ever knowing a day of hunger, or meeting someone who has.
quote: You do not want your food supply exposed to the whims of a completely free market.
quote: There's an old saying that if a farmer would win the lottery, they'd just farm it away...
quote: It’s estimated that 54 million American pets are obese
quote: Just saying... and keeping in mind that I consider horses who are not used as workhorses pets.
quote: you cannot deny that those millions of fat pets is quite the slap in the face to those starving in Africa - or in Trailerville USA.
quote: Who says the car has to be solar powered. Check out this marvel of engineering:
quote: Answer: Solar Power
quote: Drilling for more domestic oil is an extremely temporary solution.
quote: end this artificial dependency on foreign oil and this made up 'shortage'.
quote: The most conservative estimates suggest there is enough oil in the Alaskan reserves alone to power the world for the next 100+ years, factoring in growth rates. Thats not exactly what I would call 'extremely temporary'.
quote: Screw the grandchildren!
quote: I know fields are being discovered, but I don't think they are significant enough to be called a solution to the current oil crisis.
quote: No major oilfields have been discovered in North America in decades.
quote: Petroleum is on of our greatest natural resources. It should be tapped with care, not burned in the most primitive way of utilizing the energy it contains.
quote: We must seek alternatives with a zeal, instead of sticking our heads in the sand with crossed fingers, until it's the next generations problem.
quote: The US will get blackouts no matter what, because the Grid is primitive, unstable and unstandardized.
quote: Pumping huge amounts of nuclear powered energy into that old Grid will be a bad idea.
quote: Increase our domestic oil production to lower the cost of gasoline.
quote: It's stupid to not feed our need for oil
quote: The ultimate play of the cowardly liberal. You can't argue using facts and logic, so you hold the children in front of you as literal human shields.
quote: Increase the domestic production how?
quote: "I want more candy!!!""But we're running out sweetie.""I don't CARE! I WANT MORE CANDY!"
quote: This is going nowhere -
quote: But maybe driving our cars around with it is a bit much.
quote: *sigh* This is going nowhere fast.
quote: That's the most amusing I've read all day!"I want more candy!!!""But we're running out sweetie.""I don't CARE! I WANT MORE CANDY!"
quote: but to suggest that we're almost out of oil is idiotic.
quote: By drilling? By building more refineries?
quote: so it might not be idiotic to hurry up with the alternatives
quote: and use a little less of the oil we have, burning it to run cars and power our A/C's.
quote: one is that not that many new great places to drill have been found. (Before flaming on, please post links detailing these oil-filled sites).
quote: I never suggested that we were - just that we don't really know how much is left - so it might not be idiotic to hurry up with the alternatives - and use a little less of the oil we have, burning it to run cars and power our A/C's.
quote: We're running out sweetie
quote: Pray tell where we should drill? If you believe the only reason more wells aren't being opened is because "stupid liberals" wont give the permits, It think you are naive. There are many factors here - one is that not that many new great places to drill have been found. (Before flaming on, please post links detailing these oil-filled sites).
quote: While you are correct about Bush, the only push back against biofuels and insane energy policy is taking place from within the ranks of the Republican party.
quote: Simple answer? Kick the democrats out of office, and make it clear that the person you vote for knows that they were voted into Office to clean up the Democrats multi-decade trashing of Energy Sources.
quote: So it would seem that socialism = even more debt than we have right now.
quote: I just hope that one day we will measure the succes of a country not just in per-capita production.
quote: But I guess being egocentric and greedy is just too strong a trait in most people.
quote: and there is not much socio-economic difference.
quote: most other cities don't have the population density to support such system...and most Americans have chosen to live with space around them, rather than crammed into tiny apartments.
quote: By the way - I never said you should ditch the car completely. It is simply illogical to commute one person per SUV in a city. Illogical and lazy.
quote: We don't want urban Soviet style apartment housing
quote: Now a lot of you hard-righters probably don't have a passport, but you should come see how well public transport can actually work around the world. But I guess you aren't interested. Your loss.
quote: I won't lose any sleep over the US domestic situation. But I've got a feeling you guys are on the losing team at the moment. *slight smile*
quote: Oh wait - perhaps it's because public transportation in the US generally suck. There. I said it.
quote: I guess the voice of the - incredibly - hard right, is the loudest here at DT. Weird that no one can see just a shred of reason in the idea of public transportation...
quote: We have too little arable land to provide food for the population of the planet as it is
quote: If it was easy to break apart cellulose.........
quote: Better Schools, with smarter workers, so we can stop this exporting of all our stuff to overseas, and maybe improve the Economy= Better pay, = stronger dollar,
quote: Getting The Food Crop Monkey Off The Back of Biofuels
quote: ethanol's net carbon output is stated in some studies to be worse overall than gasoline's, due to the extra carbon cost needed to harvest the sugar crop and drive the conversion
quote: quote: ethanol's net carbon output is stated in some studies to be worse overall than gasoline's, due to the extra carbon cost needed to harvest the sugar crop and drive the conversion You'll be shocked to learn that the amount of *carbon* is exactly the same on each side of the process. Students who hope to pass their introductory chemistry classes know this.
quote: "I think that's a minor effect that biofuel has on the increase in food cost.How many of us has actually seen a gas station outputting E85?..."