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Biofuels Coming With a High Environmental Price?

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 7 years ago | from the everyone-is-a-critic dept.

Technology 541

DurandalTree writes "With the spectre of global warming on the horizon, biofuels have been touted as the solution to motor vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions. But with biodiesel use on the increase, it appears a distinctively environmentally unfriendly footprint is being left behind by some of its prime sources; affected food prices are surging out of reach of the poor and rainforests are being destroyed to create larger plantations."

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Happened in the past with renewables (4, Insightful)

asadodetira (664509) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580139)

One of the the first renewable fuels was firewood, and using it in quantity caused quite an impact on forests.

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (0, Redundant)

Brill (691333) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580225)

what's your point?

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (4, Insightful)

ElectricRook (264648) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580393)

I think the OP means that those who don't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

To me, the problem here is that we need to let free market evolution select the fuel sources of the future. The current situation in the US is various government funded "intelligent design" ideas each of which will eventually fail. But as long as the government $$s flow, the failures will be masked.

I'm all for new or different technology, but these things have to grow from the ground up, working out the bugs as they grow.

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (1, Offtopic)

loganrapp (975327) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580735)

After watching Penn & Teller's Bullshit episode on genetically-altered foods here [] , I can tell you this shouldn't be a problem, but people want to trash good solutions because corporations automatically == evil to them.

The actual link for you smart folk (1)

loganrapp (975327) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580773)

Sorry, that's the "Pro" link, here's the one for those of you smart enough to not pay for it: link []

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (5, Insightful)

fozzy1015 (264592) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580271)

Getting off the fossil fuel teat isn't going to be easy. The basic fact is that fossil fuels are the accumulation of solar energy over millions and millions of years. Renewable fuels are the accumulation of energy over a few months. It's not so simple to simply grow our way out of this problem. The fact is that even with biofuels, the human race is going to be in for a rude awakening with regards to its energy consumption.

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (3, Insightful)

asadodetira (664509) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580433)

Agreed. In my opinion merely replacing fuels will not work. Taking multiple measures to reduce energy consumption will help more. Ideas for this can be obtained by looking how people live in places where fuel is expensive, for example the towns are designed so you don't have to drive as much or at all.

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (3, Insightful)

Burz (138833) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580607)

The main problem is that suburbia is inherently energy-intensive (i.e. wasteful). Americans aren't building new urban areas that would automatically cut down on waste (esp. for transportation and heating) because their culture doesn't include the city in the "American dream".

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (4, Insightful)

eggfoolr (999317) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580589)

Consumption is the key work there! As soon as a "green" solution is found everyone thinks they can return to their addiction to over use.

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580345)

Wouldn't the penultimate biofuel be used in a renewable reactor that produces ~1hp or a horse?

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (3, Insightful)

ElectricRook (264648) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580445)

Do you know how low-power, unreliable, dirty, dangerous, and expensive those things are? I own one.

BioFuel isn't a renewable (4, Insightful)

Philip K Dickhead (906971) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580713)

Not at the levels projected/required!

Corn is produced through an incredible usage of fossil fuels. From the fertilizers, through the mechanized Ag cycle. It's just awful! A petro-carbon boondoggle, for Monsanto and the usual Cheney back-room.

Then there's the "let's burn food!" aspect.

Re:Happened in the past with renewables (2, Insightful)

vague disclaimer (861154) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580771)

renewable is not equal to renewed....

Yes but... (1)

DanQuixote (945427) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580141)

at least we're finally starting to see significant efforts in the world, and doing nothing just because of the costs would still be more stupid that these problems.

Re:Yes but... (1)

supabeast! (84658) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580231)

Using biofuels is NOT a significant effort for the environment. Burning biofuels pumps out huge quantities of carbon just like burning petroleum products does. Significant efforts would be switching to electric cars powered by nuclear, solar, or wind energy.

Re:Yes but... (2, Insightful)

grimr (88927) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580323)

And growing biofules takes that carbon right back out again. The problem with fossil fuels is that we're taking carbon that was taken from the atmosphere millions of years ago over a long period of time and releasing it now in a short period of time. I do agree however that nuclear, solar and wind are the way to go. Hopefully the nuclear fission will be replaced by nuclear fusion in my lifetime.

Re:Yes but... (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580343)


Burning biofuels pumps out huge quantities of carbon just like burning petroleum products does.
You are conveniently ignoring that biofuels pull the carbon from the environment prior to use whereas petrol fuel uses carbon that has been sequestered so long as to be considered a "new load"

This just in.... (5, Insightful)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580195)

Nothing occurs in a vacuum any more. Efficiency and economic viability of any product is tied to the current supply chain, and any change in the balance of this order of magnitude will be felt everywhere. I always thought it interesting when there were stories on biodeisel being made from recycled cooking oil nobody ever mentioned that there is a fairly limited supply of said oil when compared with the demand for automotive fuel. Sure, there's lots going to waste, but making the waste product a viable commodity in a quickly growing market is bound to create scarcity. All of a sudden, stuff that's free because it is waste now has an actual market value.

Are we really so myopic that the lure of "free fuel" has completely distracted us from the fact that nothing on this planet is being produced in such quantity that changing the market for that product radically will not affect the marketplace?

I guess the answer is, "yes."

Re:This just in.... (3, Insightful)

Colin Smith (2679) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580263)

I guess the answer is, "yes."
Welcome to the realisation that most people are stupid and yes, they elect the government.

Re:This just in.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580849)

Welcome to the realisation that most people are stupid and yes, they elect the government.

That's why I want to move to Cuba.

And Who Didn't See This Coming? (1)

sycodon (149926) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580201)

Not at all unexpected if you only thought about it for a moment.

Algae (4, Insightful)

tinrobot (314936) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580211)

Growing fuel in the dirt is very hard on the planet. Not only does it suck up a lot of land (on top of what we already need to grow food) it also covers that land with one single crop that needs all sorts of nasty things such as pesticides and fertilizers.

The best bet for biofuels is something that has less of an impact on the soil and the planet, such as algae based biofuels. Algae is grown in tanks, so the process requires less land, and any chemicals used in the process can be contained so it isn't spread over open land.

Re:Algae (2, Interesting)

TheGreatHegemon (956058) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580309)

This is yet again why I so highly support bio-diesal.
Corn? You COULD use it.
Algae? You could use it.
Human waste? You could use it.
The fact that it can draw from sources that are less likely to drain the biosphere is one of the best things ABOUT biodiesal.

Re:Algae (3, Interesting)

kent_eh (543303) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580411)

Precisely. Methane is a bio-fuel.

I drive by a sewage treatment plant, and a landfill a few times a week, and wonder just how much methane is just escaping into the atmosphere. Methane which could be captured fairly easily, and used anywhere natural gas or propane are currently used.

Re:Algae (1)

ElectricRook (264648) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580489)

Drive by a landfill before sunrise... At sunrise, the air starts to circulate, and you don't get the full effect. On the morning following a still-air night, is when you discover the full effect.

Re:Algae (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580503)

Algae is grown in tanks, so the process requires less land.

The limiting factor, I would think, in any biofuel production where the ultimate energy source is photosynthesis, whether you are using photosynthetic algae, or land-based plants, or whatever, is the area covered and the solar energy received there. That algae happens to live in tanks of water rather than on the surface of the land doesn't change that. Now, if you've got some kind of life form that lives on deep ocean vents whose ultimate energy source is geothermal and not solar, I suppose you could change the equation a bit, but conventional algae doesn't seem to be the deal.

Of course, algae can grow in places where you can't grow any land plants, so it might avoid conflicting with food sources that way.

Re:Algae (1)

nofx_3 (40519) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580793)

I think you just got the point with your last statement. There are plenty of places where there is a huge abundance of sunlight, and very little possibility of growing plants, i.e. the desert. Not only are there no plants, but there are some areas where there is very little life in general. These places could be exploited for our benefit without interrupting human/plant/animal(non-human) habitats.

Re:Algae (1)

Manatra (948767) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580835)

Not to mention, since there are many types of algae that easily grows in salt water, you could use water from the ocean for the vats that will grow the algae. Thus creating minimal impact on fresh water supplies.

Re:Algae (2, Informative)

rrhal (88665) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580817)

You mean like 12.5% of the Sonoran Desert: []

Algea could make enough oil for biodiesel to replace petroleum for transportation in a fraction of the surface area that is going into corn production this year. And it wouldn't have to be good farm land either. This could be done for roughly twice what the US spends to import oil each year. There are no big technical hurdles to overcome.

Re:Algae (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580839)

I've read that algae has a higher energy density. The per acre output of usable fuel is much greater than corn, sugar cain, etc... So while it still uses space, it doesn't use as much. In addition, you have to grow corn on farmable land. As you point out you can grow algae in the desert or in a parking lot if you wanted to. It all takes up land but not all land is created equal.

Given the energy density algae is definitely a promising alternative.

Fairly simple economics (3, Insightful)

Aeron65432 (805385) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580213)

This was a case study in an economics class I was in previously. As the demand for biofuels increases, the cost is going to rise until supply reaches the same point comparatively. It will take a while for supply to rise to meet demand, and because of that, corn and other staples will be more expensive. It's the reason China banned ethanol production. It's the reason Castro blasted the United States.

Yes, switching to these kind of fuels will leave less of an environmental impact, but it will hurt poor people the most who consume corn frequently and will certainly lead to an increase in price in corn-produced food. [] (Think Corn Syrup in soda) This is why we can't radically switch to biofuels like some people are calling for.

Corn is massively subsidised (5, Insightful)

Colin Smith (2679) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580315)

The only reason it's so cheap is the corn lobby demanding big payouts from the government. It's not even particularly healthy, corn syrup isn't the best form of sugar for you. And it's a crap source for ethanol production too.


Re:Corn is massively subsidised (3, Interesting)

SydShamino (547793) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580499)

Go find a copy of King Corn [] . It's a pretty fascinating look at the US corn industry, including many of its problems. It doesn't talk too much about corn used for ethanol, but it does show why many of the food uses of corn today are bad for us. It's not just the corn used in corn syrup that's a problem, it's also the corn used as animal feed.

And I completely agree that rising corn prices are not a problem while the US government subsidizes production. Get rid of the subsidies, and then we can talk about the affect on food prices. If the poor really can't afford to eat because of rising corn prices, the subsidies on corn production could be replaced with an increase in funding for foodstamp programs, if nothing else.

Re:Corn is massively subsidised (3, Insightful)

Aeron65432 (805385) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580679)

Not only is it subsidized, it's protected by many tariffs and most importantly, there's the Cuban Embargo [] which blocks one of the largest sugar-growers in the world. As such, sugar is more expensive so we use corn for soda and food that would normally contain sugar. This puts another strain on the corn supply. If we really want to increase ethanol and corn use in cars, we need to lift the Cuban embargo to free up the supply.

Re:Corn is massively subsidised (3, Insightful)

dbIII (701233) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580747)

It's more than the childish behaviour of the USA towards Cuba - the USA won't take cane sugar from anyone without huge tarrifs and other restrictions. One of the major aims of the Australia-USA free trade agreement was to allow sales of Australian sugar to the USA, but that was blocked.

Re:Fairly simple economics (4, Informative)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580333)

It's the reason China banned ethanol production.

China didn't ban ethanol production, indeed, China has a rather ambitious ethanol production agenda. China, however, has switch focus from grain produced ethanol to cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from cellulose from sources like switchgrass, rather than from grain crops that are human food staples.

Just throw corn right out the door (4, Informative)

Mr. Stinky (753712) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580427)

The argument against ethanol because of corn is going to be off the table in relatively short time. Cellulosic ethanol is coming commerically viable now and it will turn your green-waste trash into fuel. The US Department of Energy gets this and has formerly denounced corn as the future of ethanol. So when you use corn as a reason against ethanol, consider the other sources of it.
Corn is not the future of U.S. ethanol: DOE 30990020070328 []

A cellulosic ethanol company who was recently awarded a $40M grant from the DOE in February: []

Re:Fairly simple economics (1)

berashith (222128) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580447)

Poor people have little to do with this. If someone is truly poor, then buying a coke would be a splurge anyhow, not a daily event. If this ends up driving HFCS out of the market and increasing the health of every person that has the crap forced into every product in the store, then i think the money saved on health is a just expense.

The wasted food that could have gone to the poor of the world is also nonsense. Plenty of corn in the US goes to waste every year. We are not allowed to feed the poor in many parts of the world as our genetically modified product isnt considered safe.

Look for these arguments until BP has their own brand of corn.

Re:Fairly simple economics (1)

Ucklak (755284) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580511)

Corn syrup and byproducts are in everything just as much as petroleum products are everywhere.

Face it, we exist on dollops of petroleum and corn daily.

Technology in its form today wouldn't exist without oil and our mass produced food is a result of corn products or corn fed animals.

My concern is what the northern citizenry do for heating in the winter.

Economics is fairly simple (3, Insightful)

dbIII (701233) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580671)

Economics is often wonderfully simple with models that sciences would discard as being too simplistic - consider that there is more than one possible feedstock and more than one possible end product. It's not even much of a conversion to run vehicles on methane.

The best example of where such a model falls down was the Australian wool industry. Wool was selling at a low price. Leading economists said the answer was simple - kill lots of sheep to make wool scarce. It didn't work, they forgot that cotton exists. I wish I was making this up but this piece of utter stupidity that ruined many farmers really did happen.

Re:Fairly simple economics (2)

R2.0 (532027) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580717)

Castro blasted the US because that is what he does; without the US as a bogeyman he would have met Batista's fate long ago.

Which leads to an interesting question: if the US didn't exist, would Castro have to create it?

People don't really care (4, Insightful)

nuggz (69912) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580227)

People don't care enough to change less.

The simple answer is to reduce energy usage, but people don't want to.
Stop travelling, have new stuff, heat/cool their houses, import food etc.
Myself I fully intend to visit a few more far off locations, I want a new couch and bigger TV, I want my house warm in the winter and cool in the summer and I want a broad selection of fresh fruits and vegetables year round.

That's gonna use a lot of energy, even if I gave up my car to walk to a market. People don't want to change, and they won't yet.

The latest trend I saw is directly blaming the "rich", which pretty much includes most of us with computers and the time to argue on slashdot. I don't see us making huge changes.

Re:People don't really care (0)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580307)

People don't want to change, and they won't yet.
Ya know what scares me? Even geeks, the very people who should be touting a technical solution to environmental problems, are saying crap like this now. Regardless of what Al Gore says, giving up our cars will not save the planet. Packing up our stuff and going to live in a tree is nothing but luddite logic. The only solution to climate change and other environmental problems is activate management using technology. That is, engineering on a global scale.

We need an international Apollo style program to control climate change.

Re:People don't really care (1)

spun (1352) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580363)

I agree that we need a real and united effort to combat global warming, but implying that conservation will do nothing is, quite frankly, irresponsible. Part of an "international Apollo style program to control climate change" will necessarily include energy use reduction as part of the overall strategy. Sorry, we are all going to have to make some sacrifices even if all that means is better insulation and walking the block to the corner store instead of driving.

Re:People don't really care (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580483)

No. You're wrong. Reducing individual energy usage has a much shorter name.. I wish people would use it instead of trying to pull the wool over other people's eyes. That word? Poverty. I can imagine that 50 years from now we'll have working nuclear fusion reactors or 100% efficient solar collectors and no-one will be allowed to use the power because the conservationists have so demonized energy usage and all the little people are huddling in mud huts.

Re:People don't really care (4, Insightful)

m0rph3us0 (549631) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580659)


No one gets that getting molecules to perform work for us is what makes us rich.

I can't wait til environmentalists find out how many "poor" people will starve once they mandate "organic" farming.

The cost of almost everything in a market-based economy is purely based in the energy consumption of its constituent parts.

Hippies would sure be surprised to find out how long shelter took to build before the industrial revolution. That is why everyone lived in cramped quarters.

Re:People don't really care (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580845)

I find it interesting that the same liberals who want to lift the poor out of poverty are the same people who staunchly oppose high energy use, fertilizers and pesticides. These are the very things that need to become widespread in order to eliminating poverty, and in my opinion eliminating poverty is going to be a boon to helping the environment. Technological growth is proportionate to the number of educated people. If we can get to the point where the poorest people in the world are attending school rather than scouring for food, we'll have a much larger base for expanding technology and fighting environmental problems.

Re:People don't really care (2, Funny)

planckscale (579258) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580405)

Someone needs to develop a computer sized CO2 "eater and digester" that geeks could mod and run to produce a non toxic by-product. That way, they could say, yeah my CO2 footprint is 4000 carbon credits a year, but check out my over-clocked CO2 converter that runs on water, fertilizes my hydroponics and leaves me with a -2000 credits per year!!

Re:People don't really care (1)

iamacat (583406) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580435)

Regardless of what Al Gore says, giving up our cars will not save the planet.

It just might. Perhaps if we start riding bicycles and mass transport like Chinese, CO2 concentration will reach equilibrium where increased photosynthesis by plants due to higher temperature + higher CO2 compensates for remaining human activity.

Re:People don't really care (1)

dr2chase (653338) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580737)

It would take more than just that. I'm riding my bike 1-2 days/week, meaning a 20-40% reduction in commuting fuel. However, my itty-bitty car burns maybe 300 gallons of gas in a whole year, versus several 250-gallon tanks of fuel oil to heat my house in the winter. 40% of 300 gallons is not that much. If I were living in the south, I'd save on heating, but lose on cooling.

One thing that would really help would be to convert as many of the costs of driving into incremental costs as possible. If, with each gallon of gas that you bought, you paid for the proportional auto insurance, plus your contribution into a Car Care Savings Account (for funding repairs, or subsidizing replacement) each gallon would be in your-face expensive. Total costs would not change, but your perception would, and people would drive less, take more trouble to car pool, etc.

Re:People don't really care (1)

Colin Smith (2679) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580533)

Ya know what scares me? Even geeks, the very people who should be touting a technical solution to environmental problems, are saying crap like this now.
Except that technical solutions can't fix social problems. The solution is economic. A switch to making energy a touch more expensive and human labour a touch less so. []

We don't have to give up cars or even change our lifestyles much.

We need an international Apollo style program to control climate change.
And that would be the really really expensive way to do it but I like your style when proposing to spend other people's money.


Re:People don't really care (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580577)

A switch to making energy a touch more expensive and human labour a touch less so.
So your solution to environmental problems is to enslave the human race. Great stuff.

Re:People don't really care (1)

blindd0t (855876) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580661)

So what you're saying is we need some sort of rivalry [] between two large and powerful nations to punctuate the engineering and development of such technologies, right? Not that I mean to troll or anything of the sort, but it sometimes feels like lighting a big fire under everyones' asses seems to be the only thing that does the trick. :-(

Re:People don't really care (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580705)

The engineers of the Apollo era were motivated by the same thing that motivates geeks today. The fact that rivalry was needed to get the politicians to pay the geeks to do what they do so well is irrelevant. If an international agreement for funding of intelligent climate management was signed, the geeks would work just as well.

Re:People don't really care (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580437)

The latest trend I saw is directly blaming the "rich", which pretty much includes most of us with computers and the time to argue on slashdot. I don't see us making huge changes.
FWIW I bought an old diesel Benz. As climate allows I'm burning a blend of diesel (petrol or bio) and straight veggie oil. Even easier on the environment than processing the oil to diesel and leaving a shitload of glycerin laying around with methoxide contamination (as is uber common in home setups). Add to this that the oil I'm burning is already a waste product of the fried food industry and I'm making my little tiny impact. Up on the list of things to do to the car is build a hybrid fuel system that allows for a clean easy to diesel fuel for start and stopping of the car with a heavier fuel once up to operating temps. Seeing as my commute looks set to go from 12 miles each way to a touch over 70 this will be a viable option.


Re:People don't really care (1)

uniqueUser (879166) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580573)

In order for us to live in balance with our environment, it is not matter of each of us reducing what we consume. If we all reduced our consumption of natural resources to a sustainable rate, we would all be living in trees. The real problem is that there is just too many of "US". We need to reduce our selves. No environment can sustain expentional growth forever. We WILL eventully live in balance. It is just a question of will we decide to, or will we be forced to. If we decide not, nature will force us, one way or another.

Re:People don't really care (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580617)

The simple answer is to reduce energy usage, but people don't want to.

The simple answer is to reduce the number of people, but they don't want to stop having sex.

what happened to hydrogen? (1)

bl8n8r (649187) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580233)

Why is biofuel taking off and leaving hydrogen in the dust? Is it the safety factor or the control factor?

Neither. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580335)

It's the corn lobbyist factor.

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (1)

MadUndergrad (950779) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580339)

Perhaps it's the fact that hydrogen is merely a means of storing energy, not producing it, and so is useless to us without a huge ramp up in nuclear fission or fusion energy?

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (1)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580385)

Because biofuel is actually energy positive - you get more energy out the tank than it took to put the fuel into the tank.

Hydrogen is a storage medium, not an energy source.

BTW - the "energy source" for biofuel is solar. In fact, if you discount nuclear, everything is solar. Well, actually, nuclear is solar, too, since that's where the elements were formed (though perhaps not _our_ sun - perhaps stellar energy is more accurate). But I digress...

Biofuel uses solar energy which is being collected now, instead of solar which was collected in the past and for which there is a finite amount. It's a bit circuitous, but the energy it takes to raise biofuel crops and convert those crops to a fuel product is less than the energy the end-fuel produces. Which is the key. Corn, for many years, took more energy to produce ethanol than you could get by burning the end-product ethanol. It's now (help me out /.ers) 10-20% energy positive. Other fules are more positive, and have the advantage of not using a feedstock as the crop source.

It will always take more energy to make a fuel out of hydrogen compounds than that hydrogen can release. TANSTAAFL.

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580507)

Source Science News
Corn ~15% of the energy used to grow the crop ends up in fuel as ethanol
Soybeans ~93% of the energy used to grow the crop ends up in fuel as biodiesel.

both are energy negative but one (corn) is a whole lot more so (see prairie grass to ethanol for a better ratio by converting cellulose).

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (1)

m0rph3us0 (549631) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580569)

Using corn and using a non-foodstock are the same thing economically unless the non-foodstock produces more energy per km^2.

Imagine that X is a non-foodstock that produces the same amount of biodiesel as corn.

The government will forbid the use of corn to make biodiesel, price of X will skyrocket. Farmers will switch to producing X, dropping the price of X and increasing the price of corn. This will continue until the price of corn and X are equal, or the government bans switching a farm from corn to X, then farmers will "stop farming", sell farm to cousin, and cousin will start a "new farm" producing X which he will sell to the farmer.

The exact same thing will happen except you'll introduce the added cost of converting farms to growing X and avoiding new government legislation to the market which EVERYONE will bear.

Because "the poor" will also bear this cost, they will be even worse off. But good feelings will abound from Al Gore, et al, for "doing something" for "the poor".

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (3, Informative)

vertinox (846076) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580847)

Hydrogen is a storage medium, not an energy source.

So? Neither is petroleum, coal, or biodiesel.

There is not a single energy positive creation source on the face of the planet. 99.9% of everything all our energy sources come from the sun (excluding geothermal and uranium) which oil and coal was from plants and animals from millions of years ago that got their energy from the sun, while biodiesel is from more recent plants.

The reason that hydrogen is not used is because it is currently inefficient to convert from your standard energy production methods. You could technically grow corn and burn it to make hydrogen just like biodiesel. It is just not that efficient to do so.

This might change and eventually someday be easier to just use direct solar power and remove hydrogen from water.

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580425)

Why is biofuel taking off and leaving hydrogen in the dust? Is it the safety factor or the control factor?

Biofuels are easier to store, easier to transport, easier to use in existing engines, not (with some exceptions, such as, IIRC, corn-based ethanol) either a net energy loss to produce or a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry the way hydrogen is. There are lots of reasons that biofuels are taking off.

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (1)

asadodetira (664509) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580557)

Happens that is very inefficient.
According to Ulf Bossel, fuel cells researcher, if you take into account all the conversion efficiencies of the process, hydrogen may not make sense as an energy storage solution. LINK: []

Re:what happened to hydrogen? (1)

Seumas (6865) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580657)

There's no hydrogen farmer lobby. There is, however, a corn and sugar lobby.

Thankfully, none of this matters. Senator Inhofe's staff today stated that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. So we can all relax!

Efficiency & infrastructure. (1)

Jaywalk (94910) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580841)

Hydrogen has two big problems. The first question is; where are we going to get all that hydrogen? If you said "electrolysis" I'm afraid you are going to have to go to the back of the class. Converting water to hydrogen by electrolysis and then pumping it through a fuel cell to get energy out again results in massive losses of energy. Like over half. And since you're pouring massive amounts of electricity into creating hydrogen, where are you getting the electricity from? Anyone who said "hydrogen" must leave the room immediately.

The other problem is that there is currently no (nada, zilch, zip) infrastructure for supporting hydrogen energy. Converting a gas station into an ethanol station isn't hard. Brazil already requires new cars to be "dual fuel" and capable of using ethanol or gasoline. Biodiesel is even easier since virtually every diesel vehicle actually runs better on biodiesel.

Hydrogen has a whole raft of other hurdles to cross as well but, until it crosses those two, it's not even really a serious contender.

Diesel (bio or not) is full of sulphur dioxide, et (1, Troll)

stratjakt (596332) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580247)

You ever see a rig take off from a light? That big black plume of smoke coming out of the stack is 100% shit.

Diesel engines are pollutin' machines. The industry just shifted the focus on "carbon", and morons buy it.

Remember acid rain? I guess that's not an issue anymore

We'd have never had a gasoline economy if the tea totallers had allowed Ford to build his first cars to run on ethanol. We never will, for the same reason. So there's some food for thought. We're too fucking uptight to let people under 21 buy alcohol, even if it is for their car. Closest we'll get is 85%

Diesel now has much less sulphur and particulates (4, Interesting)

SydShamino (547793) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580443)

Diesel engines are pollutin' machines.

Diesel engines are much cleaner now, if the proper technology is used to clean the exhaust. Unfortunately all that technology got clogged up by the sulphur in US diesel through last year, so none of it was used.

US diesel switched to a low-sulphur blend at the start of the year, and all 2007 model year diesel cars require it. It exchange, they now have the particulate filters that make diesels run cleaner. This does little to clean up the millions of diesel cars and trucks built before 2007, unfortunately, but it shows that the problem hasn't been forgotton.

Please don't attack diesel based on a complete lack of information and one anecdote. For more information, see the National Clean Diesel Campaign [] .

Re:Diesel now has much less sulphur and particulat (1)

stratjakt (596332) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580493)

All I see anymore is marketing crap disguised as "save the planet" feel-goodiness.

Yes, I've seen the commercial produced by the "americas oil industry" of a rig driving around making the world green and beautiful.

All diesel engines spew shit out, it's nearly impossible to have a complete burn.

And even low-sulphur diesel is many times worse than the exhaust from a gas engine.

Two-strokes - engine of the future? (1)

pkbarbiedoll (851110) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580629)

Direct injection two-cycle engines [] may be another tool in the war against pollution.

Re:Diesel (bio or not) is full of sulphur dioxide, (1)

QuasiEvil (74356) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580501)

Um, a large part of that black plume is just plain ol' carbon particulate. Not tremendously good to breathe in because particulate matter irritates the lungs, but not that bad in the overall scheme of things. As for your sulfur assertions - well, wrong. Diesel fuel is being transitioned to ultra-low sulfur (>15ppm) as of last year. The newest EPA Tier 2 gasoline standards set a flat cap for gas at 150ppm. New diesels will kick the crap out of gas vehicles for SOx reductions... Now I will admit, diesels do generate other weird exhaust by-products not created by gas engines, but as for your black plume and sulfur emissions, that's bunk.

When you consider the higher thermal efficiency of a diesel engine, the higher energy density of the fuel to start with, the fact it will run on dang near anything combustible, and the now the ultra low sulfur emissions, they really are just a better design.

Re:Diesel (bio or not) is full of sulphur dioxide, (0)

bugnuts (94678) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580505)

You ever see a rig take off from a light? That big black plume of smoke coming out of the stack is 100% shit.
I'm thinking the same thing about your post.

The "black" that comes out of the diesel pipe is a lot of soot for sure. It's mostly particulate matter, and contributes to smog and can promote asthma.

However, that has nothing to do with the environmental damage of CO and CO2, the "greenhouse gasses". Diesel doesn't contribute to a global issue nearly as much (being mostly localized). And if the diesel is made from grown material (which pulls the carbon out of the air), it has a net change of zero. I remember having a 15yo tell me the same thing once, basing all his knowledge on what he observed. I'm glad to see foolish youthdom is still flourishing. But you're still provably wrong.

Likewise, the sulfur in diesel which would cause acid rain, is also beside the point. It doesn't come with diesel as a necessity, and biodiesel also doesn't have sulfur as a requirement.

Lastly, alcohol can be produced from things other than sugar, resulting in methanol (which burns about as well as ethanol) and is toxic... so the modern teetotalers shouldn't care.

Duh. (5, Insightful)

aussersterne (212916) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580249)

This is one of those things that should be obvious but that's very difficult to explain to some less critical radical environmentalists.

Energy demand = Growing rapidly without forseeable upper bound

If you switch from fossil fuels to biofuels, all you do is change the problem set, from pollution and peak oil to deforestation and starvation. There is one solution and one solution only: energy efficiency and conservation. I suppose you could say there is a second, getting energy from outside the system (i.e. space) but that still leaves the problem of getting the energy back out of the system (i.e. pushing it cleanly and transparently back into space once used) so that we don't simply heat/pollute the globe beyond control.

Re:Duh. (2, Insightful)

DigiShaman (671371) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580691)

...but that still leaves the problem of getting the energy back out of the system (i.e. pushing it cleanly and transparently back into space once used) so that we don't simply heat/pollute the globe beyond control.

That's not a problem. Our planet releases excess energy through infrared radiation. And no, the Earth won't turn into something like Venus...

But I thought Algae was the future... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580259)

Algae grown on raw sewage.

Is that going to lead to a shit shortage?

Re:But I thought Algae was the future... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580593)

Not as long as Al Gore is still talking.

Indeed... (5, Interesting)

RyanFenton (230700) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580261)

Indeed - there's another resource we need to care about here. Viable soil is a renewable resource - but like fresh water, it has its limits, and is geographically quite limited in terms of cheap availability. By forcing the land to both feed everyone, and fuel all their vehicles, we place a much lower maximum on the population that can be supported by that land. More than that, by potentially stretching the demands on the land too far, we risk that farmers and companies may deplete or despoil the soil they use for short term gain before they decide to leave the market, making it difficult for anyone else to economically recover that same area.

That said, we could make better use of the oceans - but I trust our current free market much less there - the oceans have much more of a "tragedy of the commons" dynamic than elsewhere, with fragile ecosystems and high difficulty sectioning off properties. Algae on land-based ponds in otherwise nonviable landscapes would offer the most promise for producing biomass in a way that would not negatively affect prices for the poor. Algae can produce its own food, doesn't need to use much fresh water, can produce various kinds of oils, and could even be used as a part of foods if we are interested in exploring that. The only question is, will it be able to scale and pay for itself in terms of needing to control its environment to mass produce it? Given the history of livestock, I can't imagine algae can't be made efficient or be properly bred en mass.

That's just my idea though - and I'm fairly uninformed about the whole field of energy crops. Why are we currently pursuing the whole turn-food-to-fuel path anyway, given how wide open the algae field is?

Ryan Fenton

Re:Indeed... (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580541)

Why are we currently pursuing the whole turn-food-to-fuel path anyway, given how wide open the algae field is?

Cellulosic ethanol isn't really turning food to fuel, since humans can't digest cellulose. Grain ethanol is "food to fuel", but it seems to have waning interest outside the US, where the corn lobby sees ethanol subsidies as yet another teat to suck on.

Re:Indeed... (1)

RyanFenton (230700) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580703)

Ah cool - thanks for the input there. I'll have to keep an eye on both cellulosic ethanol and new algae developments.

Here's the Wikipedia article on cellulosic ethanol [] posted in another thread. Seems to have a lot of inputs - and the early estimates put the cost at 2.5 - 4 times the cost of corn ethanol. Hmmm - while I'm sure we could make a healthy market for this fuel if pressed, it first generation doesn't seem that viable. Collecting from non-crop lands would also add to the theoretical costs too.

If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on algae in terms of larger scale potential, and comparative simplicity in terms of the inputs and outputs if the crops were managed and even engineered well enough - but this certainly could potentially fill some openings in the energy market until something else comes along!

Ryan Fenton

Re:Indeed... (1)

TubeSteak (669689) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580799)

By forcing the land to both feed everyone, and fuel all their vehicles, we place a much lower maximum on the population that can be supported by that land.
The problem is distribution of food, not production.
Or at least that is what its been during the greater part of my lifetime.
A lot of food headed for the poor gets diverted once it is in-coutnry.

And I agree that algae is a better choice than corn, palm oil, or [other].
Algae needs sunlight, water & poo. Sounds fairly low-impact to me.

Biofuels are simply not environmentally friendly! (3, Insightful)

malsdavis (542216) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580331)

When will people listen???

Biofuels are simply not environmentally friendly in any way, shape or form. They are seen by some as a temporary solution to dwindling oil stocks. Not as the environmental saviour some idiots have imagined them to be.

We don't need to chop down the Amazon (1)

pkbarbiedoll (851110) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580667)

Switchgrass grows just fine with little tillage required. An added benefit is job creation, especially for small hobby farmers who could sell to processing plants.

Biofuels can be environmentally benign (2, Informative)

Burz (138833) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580823) depends on how you produce it.

Note that the linked articles are foreign, discussing production of biodiesel in places like Malaysia. US biodiesel production, OTOH, is a by-product of soybeans grown for human and animal consumption; the fuel does not compete with food here in the USA.

Now, if we started importing biodiesel the way we have with ethanol, then its an entirely different situation. Product from Brazil or Malaysia would almost certainly come from a process of deforestation.

The EU farms rapeseed specifically for biodiesel production, and it is pushed heavily as a rotation crop. They are introducing ways to make the byproducts edible (at least for livestock) although how beneficial this is remains to be seen. At least there seems to be no large-scale deforestation associated with EU rapeseed.

I'd also like to note that the EU some years ago blocked the import of palm oil fuels. Partly because of this, in order to have any biodiesel market at all, Malaysia and other Pacific rim nations have agreed to form a commission regulating the land use associated with the industry.

Well, we have to try our best? (2, Interesting)

iamacat (583406) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580355)

For any problem, first solutions prove to be questionable. First, and many existing nuclear power plants are obviously very dangerous - just consider Chernobyl. Yet, now we can build very safe nuclear plants that produce less radioactive waste than comparable coal plants. No matter what it is now, early adoption of biofuel will eventually encourage better solutions. In principal at least, plants get all their combustible content by capturing greenhouse gases from the air. If dry grass or agricultural byproducts can be burned, at least for home heating purposes, without much processing, we are reducing our output of CO2.

Re:Well, we have to try our best? (2, Insightful)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580789)

just consider Chernobyl
Unfortunately, that all so many people do.

Non-food biofuel. (4, Interesting)

Jaywalk (94910) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580423)

This isn't a new observation. If food is used to power vehicles, the increased demand is going to force up [] the price of food. On top of that, food products generally require arable land, which is in limited supply. In addition to making the morally indefensible decision to starve the poor to feed an energy habit, even committing all arable land to the project will still not answer the energy problem. To make biofuel in the amounts required means that you need to tap a source which can cheaply be grown in quantity without cutting into the food supply.

Which might not be as hard as it sounds. The University of New Hampshire did a study [] in 2004 where they concluded that biodiesel from algae could -- at least theoritically -- supply all the nation's fuel supply without require food oil (like soy or palm) to be used at all. On the ethanol front, cellulosic ethanol [] can be produced from high-cellulose plant products, like sawgrass or wood chips, without cutting into the corn crop. Some of cellulosic plants are beginning to approach commercial volumes of production.

It's not that biofuels are a bad idea, but not all implementations of those ideas are equally valid.

Use unused resources (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580487)

If you want to be serious about replacing oil with bio-fuel you probably need to use resources that are otherwise unused. For example in Sweden we use waste to create most of our heat, as well as some electricity. By now the waste burning plants and our other bio-industries produce more energy than all of our nuclear plants! And yet most Swedes are unaware of it. Which is probably because burning waste does not disturb anything else. Another set of resources that exists in many countries is salt water, sunlight and unused land. In theory, countries around the equator could grow algae in salt water and use it to produce enormous amounts of bio-fuel. This would go on without much interference with anything else.

There are things other than corn (4, Informative)

dbIII (701233) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580529)

Despite the trollmonkey headline, there is more to biofuel than it just being used as an excuse to apply porkbarrel politics to corn farmers. Ethanol is also being made from cellulose in the USA (sorry podcast has gone - was on ABC Radio Science Show at [] ) and there are other options such as methanol and methane gas from waste products as well as biodiesel from food processing waste. In sugar producing countries there is already co-generation by burning the leaves and stalks to produce steam and electricity so that is another thing to consider.

Somebody will mention the word "clean" at some point - it is not a word that really makes sense in the context of burning stuff in air (nitrous oxides are produced), and the clown that always mentions nuclear whenever energy is mentioned should also remember that mining and processing is not "clean" either.

cruelty to plants (1)

Kazrath (822492) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580551)

With all of this massive growning and killing and burning of plants I am going to have to take a stand. From this day forward I will only eat plants that were not grown in mass production thrown into huge warehouses and treated imhumanely. Save the plants!

Yeah I know sounds silly....

Monopolies are bad, news at 11 (0, Offtopic)

Nymz (905908) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580559)

To avoid saying the market is always right, I will simply say it's right 99% of the time. So when a special intrest group imposes it's will upon everyone, by coersion instead of persuasion, then the converse principal comes into play, that monopolies are always bad, or at least 99% of the time.

1) Spread FUD about competitors
2) Buy legislators, or wait for FUD saturation to accrue to the point where shameless politians will knowingly doing the wrong thing because it will appear that they are "caring" or "taking action"
3) Monopoly Profit!

For example, take the "alternative" bag industry, spreading FUD about plastic bags being bad for the enviroment. They fail to mention that the total paper process actually mixes more chemical contaminints into the enviroment, but somehow people start believing the overly simplistic "plastic bad" and "paper good" mantras. What follows are monopoly laws that force everyone to fuck the enviroment, in order to line the pockets corporations, so that the ignorant populace can continue to feel sanctimonious over the "evil" deniers.

My personal opinion is not to blame the corrupt polititians, they aren't dictators, they were elected by people. And not to blame corporations, they can't make you buy their products, their products are purchased by people. But to blame the people that are content being ignorant so they can continue to follow their "faith" (enviromentalism, communism, appleism, liberalism, islamo-fascism, etc...) And last but not least, some blame for the rest of us that tolerate all the intolerant behavior of the preceding groups of religious nuts.

Nuclear Power is the answer (2, Interesting)

pyite69 (463042) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580563)

Sad but true. The environmentalists who used to hate nuclear so much will end up being the greatest proponents.

The Solution to the Problem (4, Informative)

Cervantes (612861) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580655)

The summary is right... biofuels made from food are causing deforestation and a rise in food prices. The solution is obvious. The USA needs to get it's head out of the sand and legalize THC-Removed Hemp for biofuel production. Hemp is more efficient, has more crops per year, can fill the roll of many other crops that are less efficient, and won't increase the price of foods that shouldn't be associated with fuel anyways (corn? Come on. Painful example of how rampant lobbying can overcome a products inefficiency).

With legal, non-smokable Hemp, we could stop cutting down forests. We could cut back on the amount of cotton crops that have to be grown (and the corresponding amount of land that has to be rested because cotton crops sucked the life out of them). We could even use it for biofuel until we can get algae farms that are efficient. Hemp was made illegal because some big tycoon decided he wanted to protect his cash cow. It's time to get rid of that silliness, and start using our heads. Hemp is where it's at. Wake up, USA.

And, in conjunction with Hemp, let's work on algae... a great way to make use of inhospitable land, and possibly the best/most-efficient biological source that we can turn into biofuel to replace our dependence on dead dinosaurs.

FUD if I ever heard it (1, Informative)

bugnuts (94678) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580665)

Oil companies were saying "We'll need to build more coal plants to support the electric cars! You don't want more coal plants, do you?"

Now a shill is saying "We'll all starve if we use biodiesel or ethanol! You don't want to starve, do you?"

If a new car ran on 1/4" bolts, the price of 1/4" bolts would go up. But guess what, so would production. And it doesn't even have to be the kind of production that takes up food. Methanol could be produced by the corn stalks along with all sorts of other waste materials, and then the remainder used to enhance the ground again. Or you could use the corn oil for biodiesel and the starch for ethanol. But you don't even need to use corn, either. You can grown an amazing amount of corn in a very small area, without using all the idiotic equipment or chemicals. Who cares if it has some worms if it'll just be fermented or pressed?

This is what happens when money and politics (but mostly money) start to collide with society who's looking at the situation and saying "Hey, you can't do that!" There are big, big companies getting fat by polluting where we all have to live, and using our money to propagandize it so that we're happy to line thier pockets at our expense.

The biggest problem with all of this are the propaganda machines. They've been in full swing for decades now, and I'm getting tired of it. This blog was a shining example.

Biofuels are stupid - the solution is... (1)

vonkas (61496) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580707)

Biofuels - wrong direction! Having a high value commodity compete with a low value one from the same resource in a planning and regulation nightmare! Not even considering the pending environmental desaster. But we have the solution: Hydrogen. It's one of the few short-term energy carriers readily available - days to months conversion cycle versus yearly or worse for biofuel or millions of years for fossils and billions for nuclear! Accordingly affected is the enrgy balance on the planet. Hydrogen production has a very efficient conversion rate - way beyond the alternatives for transportable energy. It also has extremely high energy density, good for travelling distances. H is volatile in concentration but not for long as is disperses harmlessly in seconds. This technolgy is very challenging to energy companies as its generation is essentially low tech. Africa can have its own plants - not good for American economy and that is the reason why there is no push towards it. We'll probably miss out.

Re:Biofuels are stupid - the solution is... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18580855)

I know this has been pointed out before on slashdot, but Hydrogen is an insanely impractical storage medium that does nothing to address power generation. It's just an expensive, not very efficient, battery.

Simply put, if Bush is an advocate, it's almost certainly bad news. First hydrogen, then ethanol from corn. Both are gigantic distractions from viable solutions. Bio-fuels, when done correctly, are about the only chance we have to switch off of renewable fuels with current technology.

System replacement required (0)

prefec2 (875483) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580723)

Well it is obvious that we cannot produce the required amount of energy out of biomass or solar energy (including wind and water). A solution can only be to reduce the energy footprint of our major systems: transportation, heating, production and communication.

Beside the fact, that cars consume a lot of energy during production (so when they run longer, this is better for the environment), they also use a lot of materials. Iron is widely available, but other materials, like copper, are rare. In addition to that they need a lot of space to park and to move. This space has to be created and maintained, which is also costly (in resources and energy). Concrete needs cement and lime, which require a lot of energy in production. So a solution for this sector should be more efficient than cars. In cities this can be streetcars, which are even more efficient than buses. In regions with low population density, this solution will not work. Therefore cities should be prefered over the country side. Also a more dense living should be encouraged. But this could lead to ugly cities. This must be prevented, because otherwise humans go mad. A good solution is the use of houses with 4-6 floors (you do not need elevators in such houses at least not in all), plus parks and decentralized supply systems (e.g. supermarkets).

The next system to optimize is housing. Houses must be insulated. Today we can build low energy houses with almost no extra cost. Zero energy houses or houses which produce more energy than they consume are also possible, but more expensive today. So the housing problem is not a technological problem, but a political problem. To give you some figures. An average German house consumes only 1/5 of a US-house and even that amount is still too high. This is because not all houses in Germany use modern heating systems (99.x% efficiency) and insulation. Most houses have 10-20 year old (or even older) heating systems.

The last problem is production (and it is connected to the transportation problem). Most goods are not produced where they are used. Also a lot of parts are delivered cross country and around the world, which requires a lot of energy. In many cases it would be cheaper to deliver the knowledge somewhere and let them build the parts there.

Another point is the lifetime of most goods. The break after a couple of years and are not designed to get fixed. This is a big problem, because a replacement is expensive (in energy terms), because the material of the broken device has to be recylced. A better solution is to fix such devices. For instance a mixer. A cheap mixer (about 14 EUR) breaks, when used, very soon. I have seen our device going out of service after 6 month (twice). We got a new one for no cost, but on the resource side we allocated three devices. If the device would be fixable, the resource allocation would be somewhere close to 1 unit.

There are more points. But I think these few give you a picture of the things which lie ahead of us. We have to change our habits. Think different :-)

You know biodiesel is coming fast when ... (1)

vincecate (741268) | more than 7 years ago | (#18580745)

1) Biodiesel use in the US has more than doubled for 4 years in a row
2) You know 2 people who make their own
3) Hydrogen Economy and Ethanol Economy look silly next to Vegetable Oil Economy
4) Environmentalists are worried we are growing to much vegetable oil []
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