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Biofuels Make Greenhouse Gases Worse

kdawson posted more than 6 years ago | from the no-free-lunch dept.

Earth 506

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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Hm... (4, Funny)

kmac06 (608921) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365786)

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

Re:Hm... (2, Insightful)

pizzach (1011925) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365860)

The closer to perfect something is, the easier to mess it up when you try to improve it. No wait...

Re:Hm... (4, Insightful)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365990)

"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.

Re:Hm... (1, Insightful)

graft (556969) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366134)

You've apparently never studied any economics, or even arithmetic. This is how it works: America requires X amount of oil. We can replace that with biofuels; however, to produce 1 gallon of oil equivalent for ethanol requires inputs of, say, 1.1 gallons of oil. This means, in order to have an entirely ethanol-based fleet, I need inputs of 1.1X amount of oil. This means by converting to an entirely ethanol-based fleet, I AM INCREASING MY DEPENDENCY ON OIL. There are two ways to do this: either (1) you reduce your oil consumption outright (by, e.g., promoting efficiency of your vehicles), or (2) you develop a sound alternative energy source. Changing your fuel vector (ethanol, hydrogen, etc.) does not cut it. P.S. I'll throw in some obligatory caveats - obviously inputs into ethanol production won't overlap entirely with oil - it'll require some natural gas, some coal, etc., but these things don't come any cheaper or less dear than oil.

Re:Hm... (4, Insightful)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366184)

Well of course at the beginning we will still need oil....we can't turn it off with the flick of a switch all at once...

But, if we hit the problem with multiple alternative fuel methods....we can do it. We can at least get down to levels of oil we in the US produce ourselves. We have a great deal of natural gas, we have lots of coal, and if we went more nuke, especially with breeder reactors, raise oil producing algae, etc....we'd start on the path towards energy self-sufficiency, and rid ourselves of that middle east monkey on our backs.

Re:Hm... (5, Informative)

Planesdragon (210349) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366308)

to produce 1 gallon of oil equivalent for ethanol requires inputs of, say, 1.1 gallons of oil.
1: Sorry, you got the ratio wrong. One gallon of oil produces, worst-case, the equivalent of 1.1 gallons of gasoline as ethanol.

2: Even this slim ratio applies ONLY when you use corn kernels to produce ethanol. Not the stalk. Not the cob. Just the fracking kernel.

Brazil gets a 300% energy efficiency for growing sugar cane to make ethanol. That's "spending 1 gallon of gas to get the equivalent of 3 gallons."

Re:Hm... (1)

milsoRgen (1016505) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366340)

your statement is flawed, otherwise i'd reply to it

Re:Hm... (5, Insightful)

kesuki (321456) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366432)

there are a lot of factors involved, but actually in brazil they don't use close to 1 gallon of oil to produce 3 gallons of ethanol. for one thing, brazil has a large manual labor workforce. low paying, that means, brazil can hire on hands to plant, and harvest the cane. the only fuel used is the transport machinery.

furthermore, the cane is burned to produce the ethanol, as well as electricity, the electricity created helps cover the cost of fuel to transport the cane, and ethanol around.

but there is still tragically a huge negative, the burning of cane has caused a huge increase of smog in brazil, you see when you burn the cane a lot of small particulate gets into the air. that's why in the us, they burn natural gas to make bio-ethanol, instead of the stalk and husk.

Re:Hm... (1)

Harmonious Botch (921977) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366146)

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... (4, Insightful)

homer_s (799572) | more than 6 years ago | (#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:Hm... (2, Funny)

msuarezalvarez (667058) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366236)

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:Hm... (1, Insightful)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366246)

"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."

Well, if that had been the path taken years ago, ok. But, there is absolutely no way we could let that happen now...realistically. It would throw the US economy into a death spiral, which would of course have the same effect on pretty much the rest of the global economy.

Man...can you imagine what life would be like, if energy were shut off? The death, destruction and pandemonium would not be something I'd like to see in my lifetime. I heard a bit of a George Carlin rant about something like this....

If the power went out...and suddenly, the prisons and the psych wards were suddenly all opened. Think about the carnage as all those 'nifty' people came out...all ready for a good time with YOU or your wife and kids? There would be no police....they'd be doing their best to care for their families? How many people do you know could survive without grocery stores....hell, in the the north, no heat during winter....we dont' know how to be pioneers anymore.

No....with things like that...there IS no way to do what you said...and let the oil market go and be managed as some dictators would do.

That paints a very scary picture...and I don't think there is a western politician/leader in their right mind that would entertain the thought of letting that happen on their watch. People might bitch and moan about this war or that.....or meddling in the wrong place, but, I'll bet you everyone's story would change immediately if you cut the power for a few days.....

Re:Hm... (1)

milsoRgen (1016505) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366320)

How many people do you know could survive without grocery stores
That's why I have this handy dandy rubber bound book [] .

Re:Hm... (2, Insightful)

misleb (129952) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366310)

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... (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366314)

I agree with you that dependence on foriegn sources of energy is a big mistake for the US. But, getting off of foreign oil and gas does not have to mean getting onto biofuels. Plants are just not [] all that efficient at turning sunlight into usable energy. We do much better doing that bit ourselves. It seems to me that the electrification of transportation and home heating make more sense. The place where we need liquid fuels is in aviation, and for that, using solar or wind power to produce the fuel directly from the atmosphere rather than going through plants makes much more sense to me. One can even find synergy [] between electric heating and fuel production I think.

Re:Hm... (5, Informative)

qw0ntum (831414) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366322)

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 [] 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:Hm... (2, Informative)

omeomi (675045) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366070)

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:Hm... (4, Interesting)

Brandybuck (704397) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366420)

Blame the environmentalists too. They're even worse than politicians when it comes to misunderstanding science. Their ideology causes them to discount any evidence contrary to their preconceived view of how the world should work. They're backtracking and spinning now, but a few years ago they were all gung-ho about biofuel farming.

Re:Hm... (1)

TubeSteak (669689) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366168)

The clearing of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. "So for the next 93 years you're making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions."
On what basis does he make that assumption?
If we're going to be honest with ourselves, in the long view 93 years isn't a terribly long time.

Maybe it's worth the 93 years of greenhouse gasses just to get everyone switched over to an ethanol system, even if we abandon those grasslands in 30 years because some other ethanol feedstock has become commercially viable.

IMHO, whatever the US does won't make a huge difference unless China & India get onboard.
They are going to be the main drivers of energy consumption, whether it is oil, coal, natural gas or [other].

Re:Hm... (1)

BorgCopyeditor (590345) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366212)

The problem wasn't that it was an effort; it was that it was a stupid effort.

Re:Hm... (1)

Brandybuck (704397) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366426)

Remember the mantra of the global warming doommongers: "We've got to do something! Anything!"

Vegetarians are bad for the planet too (1, Interesting)

goombah99 (560566) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366238)

If you accept the arguments here then you must also accept that vegetarianism, as practiced in the west, is even worse for the planet.

Each bite of vegetable travels on average 2000 miles. And the fuel used to power the travel came from even further away.

Vegetarianism requires conversion of forest to crop land which this article points out has a 93 year carbon-debt payback time for fuel production and of course an infinite period payback for growing vegetable since they don't carbon offset anything.

Vegetables use irritation which requires energy to move the water (most large scale irrigation is done in proximity to hydro electric dams for a reason: water+power.

Vegetables use irritation which makes the land salty and eventually depletes the soil.

Plowing weeding planting, ferilizing, storing and drying consume energy. In contrast with beef, the cows are self propelled, and can even deliver themselves to colllection points. 100% of the animal is used. And only the high density nutritious parts have to be shipped.

Beef will graze in forests and other areas without destoying them. They don't need irrigation, there is no huge loss of water to evaporation. No pesticides enter the water stream.

Most beef spends only a short portion of it's life cycle on a feedlot. And feed lot animals produce 1/3 of the methane as grain fed animals. The net methane production of cattle affecting the environment is a flawed notion when you consider there are half as many cows in the US as buffalo that used to roam.

Damn You! You're right (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22366312)

I'm sure you will get modded down for being politically incorrect but those are some seriously good points. Even though I have a few quibbles, I can't really say the net effect is not persuasive. Damn you! I now feel guilty eating those brazil nuts, tahini salad dressing, and frozen mangos. Over the years befor the new CFCs came to market, frozen peas alone probably cause huge releases of ozone destroying chemicals.

Re:Hm... (1)

Brandybuck (704397) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366372)

People confused their own narrow political world view for science. Will they learn from this blunder? Of course not.

Who would have thought? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22365790)

Knee-jerk reactions don't work.

A No-Brainer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22365802)

That's because all choices (corn as the worst) make sure oil is included in production. And substituting one hydrocarbon for another can't realistically solve anything as long as usage keeps rising.

Stupid Article (4, Insightful)

LaskoVortex (1153471) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365808)

The article cites no references nor names any of the "eminent" scientists. I smell political propaganda.

Re:Stupid Article (2, Insightful)

Vectronic (1221470) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365846)

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.

Re:Stupid Article (1)

smitty_one_each (243267) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366010)

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.

Re:Stupid Article (1)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366064)

"Oh we're not talking about Venezuelan Beaver Cheese Production in the pre-Spanish Years? Sorry." about Japanese Sage Darby?

Re:Stupid Article (1)

smitty_one_each (243267) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366266)

The essential paradigm of Japanese Sage Darby refers creating partially situated flavor identities out of actual or potential social cheese culture reality in terms of canonical forms of human contact, thus re-normalizing the phenomenology of fromage space and requiring the naturalization of the inter-subjective cognitive flavor strategy, and thereby resolving the dialectics of metaphorical thoughts and aromas, each problematic to the other, collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the parable of the model of the metaphor of the cheese [] .
Since you asked.

Names are easy... connecting the dots... (5, Informative)

denzacar (181829) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365906)

Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change []
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? []
Jörn P. W. Scharlemann and William F. Laurance

Re:Names are easy... connecting the dots... (5, Interesting)

Rei (128717) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366210)

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 [] 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 (5, Informative)

LaskoVortex (1153471) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365940)

Here is one reference [] . 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 [] 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.

Still works on a small scale though (4, Insightful)

Strider- (39683) | more than 6 years ago | (#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.

Re:Still works on a small scale though (3, Interesting)

TooMuchToDo (882796) | more than 6 years ago | (#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.

Re:Still works on a small scale though (3, Insightful)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366028)

"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....

Re:Still works on a small scale though (1)

Zach978 (98911) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366062)

burning food that starving people could be eating I guess

Re:Still works on a small scale though (1)

Torvaun (1040898) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366082)

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 the poor. Hence, ethical considerations.

Re:Still works on a small scale though (4, Insightful)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366160)

"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 least in the US, we actually PAY farmers subsidies $$$ to not farm parts of their land..etc. We give freakin' subsidies to corn, 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, it isn't like we'd be depriving someone of a meal.

Re:Still works on a small scale though (1)

fahrbot-bot (874524) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366158)

For example, the biodiesel I run in my Jetta is made locally at a rendering plant out of waste fats.

Actually, this is OK and they recommend that the future biofuels should be created from waste rather than sources. So, instead of growing plants simply for fuel (in addition to the plants we grow to eat/use), we should grow plants to eat/use and convert the waste into fuel. Two birds w/one stone and all that. :-)

Re:Still works on a small scale though (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366222)

Without objecting to the rest of what you said, organic waste isn't all that big a deal, it isn't bulky and it isn't very persistent. Better to burn it as vehicle fuel than have it rot into methane though.

lose-lose game ? (4, Insightful)

C0vardeAn0nim0 (232451) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365822)

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.

Re:lose-lose game ? (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365890)

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:lose-lose game ? (2, Insightful)

Fulcrum of Evil (560260) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365910)

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.

Re:lose-lose game ? (4, Insightful)

bendodge (998616) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366004)

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.

Simplistic FUD piece... (4, Insightful)

BiggerIsBetter (682164) | more than 6 years ago | (#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.

Re:Simplistic FUD piece... (1)

FooAtWFU (699187) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365876)

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.

Re:Simplistic FUD piece... (1)

Fulcrum of Evil (560260) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365938)

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.

Re:Simplistic FUD piece... (1)

FooAtWFU (699187) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366174)

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.
This is a point indeed. But giving midwestern agribusiness (like Archer-Daniels-Midland) $7 billion (in 2006) a year in subsidies to grow ethanol is largely unrelated to 'research' (unless you want to research politics and corruption).

Re:Simplistic FUD piece... (1)

John3 (85454) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366014)

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.

Re:Simplistic FUD piece... (1)

cayenne8 (626475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366274)

"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."

Well, to be fair, there has been a shortage of hops due to some disease that hit some growing places pretty hard past year or two...hence, raising the prices. So, to be fair, that has nothing to do with growing fuel plants. I hear hops plants are coming back...and they do actually grow to productivity pretty quick. Plant the rizhomes....first year, they mostly grow....but they start producing in 2nd year on....

Re:Simplistic FUD piece... (1)

AmericanInKiev (453362) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366104)

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 political arena, rather than peer review.

In RE conventions, I've never seen the tough questions on BioFuels answered - particulalry corn.

As for Sugar Cane, We once grew cane in Spreckles, Ca. got hit by blight, and hasn't been grown in 30 years or more. Again, I think the US doesn't have the climate and water for SugarCane-to-oil. Sugar's pretty valuable relative to corn, so the economics aren't as favorable. The reason "high-fructose corn syrup" is used is because sugar cane is more difficult to grow.

Brazil may have a operating vehicle for every 6 people averaging 6K miles per year, and a family for every 20 acres in a tropical climate; trying to power the US from Sugar cane, simply because a developing economy can do it, is not good math. While I don't have the particulars, I'm reasonably sure the energy consumption per capita isn't within an order of magnitude of the US.

Re:Simplistic FUD piece... (1)

graft (556969) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366112)

Whether or not it's "very well known", it is STILL being pushed as sound policy. Obama sez: "[I] will require 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be included in the fuel supply by 2022 and will increase that to at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol by 2030." Clinton sez: "60 billion gallons of home-grown biofuels available for cars and trucks by 2030." And none of these people are making caveats about how corn doesn't cut it, and we need to ensure the efficiency of the energy cycle, blah blah blah. So, since this IS being pursued as a good environmental policy choice in the US, perhaps it's worthwhile to critique it?

So... less = more!?! haha. (1)

slap20 (168152) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365836)

Its kind of surprising how many people don't realize this. The University I attend is extremely liberal and environmentally aware. They have banner and flyers and meetings about how E85 Ethanol and corn is going to save the world basically. They don't fully understand the complications of producing these things. They are so focused on the problem that they fail to see the big picture. And as stated above, the knee-jerk reactions rarely work.


No kidding, Shirlock (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22365844)

Who didn't see this coming? Turning beans into greenhouse gases makes the whole global warming thing worse. Like duh!

To confirm you're not a script, please type the word in this image: thinker

Citation please (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22365848)

The looks like propaganda.

SciAM / NatGeo (1)

milsoRgen (1016505) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365886)

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.

Even the state that has some of the highest potential of wind based energy in the U.S. is in the dark, so to speak. Thing are not looking good when it comes to energy policy here in the states.

Re:SciAM / NatGeo (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365930)

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 (4, Insightful)

milsoRgen (1016505) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366026)

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.

For small values of "most" (2, Interesting)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365896)

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.

Re:For small values of "most" (4, Insightful)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366012)

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.

Re:For small values of "most" (1)

Fjandr (66656) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366044)

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.

Not hard to believe (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22365902)

So long as this research isn't being funded (or bribed) by the oil industry or government officials who would rather stick with oil, I could be persuaded to believe this. Pretty much anything we use for fuel is going to have production and transport costs.

As far as fuel goes, we will always these problems until we figure out a decent way to run our machines using air, water, or the Sun. The reason it will take forever to reach such a goal is that there is no money in it: once you've bought the machine that runs on air, water, or Sun, you don't have to buy the fuel. Companies have no real reason to pursue this goal. No money.

Re:Not hard to believe (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365954)

As far as fuel goes, we will always these problems until we figure out a decent way to run our machines using air, water, or the Sun.

I have a special carburetor that will run your car on air, water and a small solar panel. I just can't seem to find anyone that will fund my research.

Re:Not hard to believe (2, Funny)

mikael (484) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365986)

Me too, but so far I've only had success getting the system to work on downhill journeys. Uphill journeys are still unsolved. I've heard other people have had success using flywheels to capture the energy from braking, but the only solution seems to be to make the hills higher on one side than the other.

If it weren't for corruption and ignorance (1, Insightful)

jdb2 (800046) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365924)

we'd be selling fuel to the rest of the world by cracking H20 into H2 and O2 via nuclear power. While the initial construction costs of a reactor are large, it pays for itself in the energy it produces. Also, over half of our budget goes to defense. If we were to spend just a fraction of that , heck a fraction of the cost of the "war" in Iraq which is projected to reach into the *trillions* , we could spend it on research and development of modern advanced reactor designs to fasttrack the deployment of safe efficient high temperature gas reactors, while at the same time having enough money to build conventional reactors at a regular rate. All the nuclear "waste" that we've produced , mostly in the form of depleted fuel elements , could be exhumed and reprocessed at some remote site using a fast breeder reactor. In the future, the investment in research would produce much safer versions. But oh wait, I forgot, plutonium ( at least the fissile type ) is a no-no in the U.S. although other nations have no problems. Oh, and then there's that problem of Joe stupid American ( by the way, I'm American ) who thinks that "nucular" power is so dangerous when in reality you get more radiation in the vicinity of a coal plant because of trace amounts of U-235 or even when you eat a banana because of the abundance of radioactive potassium isotopes in nature. Nuclear power has been available since 1938-- that 70 years! We could have built thousands of them by now, but due to corruption and ignorance, which unfortunately is a self sustaining cycle ( unless there's a major shock to the system, like, uh, the planet going to hell ) I'm afraid the status quo will remain for the foreseeable future.


Re:If it weren't for corruption and ignorance (3, Insightful)

tfiedler (732589) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365966)

I'm Joe American and I've never though nuclear power was unsafe or stupid, not even when I had to suffer through my own flirtation with liberalism in college (thankfully I came to my senses).

Nuke power is the most sane, environmentally safe method for us to meet our energy demands and we should be busy building plants now, not debating about it.

Trouble is, you gotta convince all of the treehuggers and pseudo enviros, best start at a Starbucks since that's where they all are -- with their disposable cups and all.

Re:If it weren't for corruption and ignorance (1)

tfiedler (732589) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366258)

Whoo Hoo! I got a troll moderation! Must have been one of the lefty tree huggers that didn't like what I said, so they decided to censor a dissenting voice. How typical.

Other possibilities (3, Interesting)

caseih (160668) | more than 6 years ago | (#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 [] and the Sandia press release is []

If we are wise, then I think the push to biodiesel or solar gasoline will ultimately be our ticket.

I had a sneaking suspicion (1)

thealsir (927362) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365944)

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."

Re:I had a sneaking suspicion (0, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22366030)

yeah, because waste cooking oil is available in such large quantities.

stop acting like you have some insight into this issue. if you did you'd never have made such a ridiculous suggestion.

Re:I had a sneaking suspicion (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366150)

It is not that the biofuels themselves don't displace some fossil emissions, but rather that that the land use changes brought about by large scale production of biofuels releases carbon from soils and forests that would otherwise hold it. When US corn crops are diverted to fuel, more land needs to be put under cultivation around the world to make up for the missing grain. Or, in the other paper, when forests are converted to palm oil production for biodiesel, the peat in the soil rots and the carbon enters the atmosphere. Brazil, for example [] , expects to have only one 40th of the energy input for castor bean biodiesel coming from fossil inputs once they can get the transesterification to go using ethanol rather than methanol and they may get away with not using land in a way that releases more carbon dioxide or forces other land to be put to use for growing food. But, most North American and European biofuel use is boosting rather than reducing carbon dioxide emisions because it is forcing land use changes globally.

Re:I had a sneaking suspicion (1)

jamesh (87723) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366218)

Now, something like the waste cooking oil I could see being useful

How much waste cooking oil are you using over there? I'm driving about 600-700km/week lately in a company vehicle, and going through quite a bit of fuel. At home, we (family of 6) use around 1L of cooking oil directly a week, and maybe another 1L indirectly (eg by buying foods that have been cooked in oil). Of that oil, probably only around 75% could actually be re-used. So that leaves a fairly large deficit...

Abstracts (4, Insightful)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365956)

Both papers are published in Science Express [] 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 [] are becoming quite low as a result of ethanol production. They are now at about 54 days worth of world consumption [] 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 (2, Insightful)

0123456 (636235) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365958)

It's not as though people who actually considered the overall impact haven't been pointing this out for years.

but, but, but, (1)

overcaffein8d (1101951) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365962)

what about getting cellulosic ethanol from algae/etc?

it hasn't quite been perfected yet, but i don't see a problem with it once it does. get yeast or bacteria to convert it and do the dirty work for you.

Cellulosic ethanol (5, Informative)

milsoRgen (1016505) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366122)

U.S. Production:
still in development; no current production

Sources of Cellulosic Ethanol:
  • Agricultural residues (left over material from crops, such as the stalks, leaves, and husks of corn plants)
  • Forestry wastes like wood chips and sawdust from lumber mills, tree bark
  • Municipal solid waste (household garbage and paper products)
  • Paper pulp
  • Fast-growing prairie grasses, such as switchgrass, which require less energy (tractors, fertilizers, etc.) and can grow on marginal land

Energy Balance
Fossil-fuel energy used to make the fuel (input) compared with the energy in the fuel (output)
1 to 2-36

Greenhouse gas emissions (production and use)
Gasoline=20.4, Cellulosic ethanol 1.9 (lbs/gallon)

Sources: U.S. DOE; U.S. EPA; Worldwatch Institute

Studies please? (1)

denzacar (181829) | more than 6 years ago | (#22365980)

I mean... its nice to see that they did them and all... but does anyone have access to the studies?

You know... for those among us that find paying $10 per article that you can only have for 24 hours kinda steep.

Biofuels' got carbon... (1)

halivar (535827) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366048)

...and carbon's what plants crave.

Hey, wait! Biofuels' got what plants crave!

From the Seattle Times... (1)

Assassin bug (835070) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366072)

"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 news with a grain of salt.

This is one of those studies... (4, Insightful)

WebCowboy (196209) | more than 6 years ago | (#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.

Re:This is one of those studies... (1)

caseih (160668) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366354)

Sure, but if that tanker was powered by biofuel in the first place (presuming we can make it without a carbon debt), then that fact becomes moot. As for the tarsands, the process itself is very environmentally damaging. Of course the need to even use the tarsands would, in theory, be eliminated by the use of sustainable biofuels. So actually fuel can be very clean. Especially when that fuel is used in its own production, rather than fossil fuels.

Yes and No (1)

Kagato (116051) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366096)

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 pipelines. So new well placed plants good.

Ethanol at least raised awareness (1)

sweet_petunias_full_ (1091547) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366098)

I'm sure someone will point out that corn-based ethanol, if not grown using sustainable agriculture will destroy topsoil and use up valuable water, but don't diss ethanol in general, there's plenty of possible improvements that are on their way that will improve full-cycle efficiency, reduce topsoil impact, improve genetic diversity, improve soil quality... but I won't go into them all right now.

I think one of the most valuable results of corn ethanol production has been the raising of the awareness level to the point where people understand that, yes, there is another way besides petroleum. They have witnessed at least some ethanol going into their fuel tanks and so Joe Public doesn't think ethanol or alternative energy is some sort of fringe idea.

Now we just have to find the best solution or solutions and switch (rotate?) as necessary to what currently makes the most sense and improve, improve, improve.

Time is of the essence because billions of people in the developing world are growing wealthy and will be trying to drive a car for the first time whether the planet likes it or not, and of course it's going to be much better if we have those choices worked out by that time.

Well by that logic ........ (1)

edwardpickman (965122) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366126)

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 really low energy density so dont hold your breath on that one. Diesels can be run on blends of biodiesel and regular diesel and cars can handle alcohol blends without modification, flex fuel cars can run up to a 100%. Where's the problem? Biodiesel can also be made from waste products and there are processes for turning grasses and such into alcohol with far less energy than corn. Even the worst biodiesel can't be as bad as any fossil fuel simply because fossil fuels ALWAYS contribute to CO2 where as biofuels at least part of the year store CO2. Petroleum based fertilizer? Bad idea. Believe it or not there are alternatives it's just cost and convienence that determines the type of fertilizer used. Some bio crops do require little or no fertilizer. If we just added 5% biofuel to existing fuel sources it'd save millions of barrels a year. Wants really save? Try upping mileage to 50mpg. Can't be done? I'll call BS on that one. They made cars in the 70s that better than 35 mpg, I owned one, used but I owned one. Hybrids can get that without recharging and rechargables can get radically more. That'd cut our fuel usage down by half. Gee then biofuels are suddenly contributing 10% of our needs. Battery technology is already good enough for easily 90% of our needs so try that number on for size, suddenly biofuels could largely replace oil with current technology. Can't drive your monster SUVs? My heart bleeds.

Several Things to Consider (2, Informative)

KnightNavro (585943) | more than 6 years ago | (#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.

Wake up and smell the METHANOL!!! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22366188)

Methanol made from ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) [] is far and away the best option, especially if one factors in the benefit to the environment of having no emissions and renewable, non-polluting production. There's just no comparison. Current biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, are an economic disaster and cause corn prices to rise so high that people starve.

Biofuels also starve poor people... (1)

TheNarrator (200498) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366214)

Bio-fuels make developing and developed world farmers switch from food crops to bio-fuels crops which drives up the price of food for the poorest members of society. In some cases farmers are even switching to thigns like Jatropha which are poisonous. It's really sick and twisted that we can drive our SUVs and feel good about being environmentalists by using corn that could be eaten by starving people in developing nations and be depleting topsoil at the same time.

Painfully obvious (1)

mortonda (5175) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366220)

As I've said before on slashdot [] , burning carbon that we produce is no different than burning what we dig up. If the current plant life cannot scrub the air, we are not carbon neutral.

The only interesting point in this is just the fact that ethanol is *worse* than oil, since it produces far more carbon in the manufacturing process.

It's like stopping a leak in a major artery by poking lots of holes before the artery - sure, no blood is coming out of the artery, but you're still dead.

A serious question... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22366234)

posted as AC because I know what tends to happen to karma with these kinds of issues.

Doesn't distilling ethanol (disregarding other transport and growing costs) still take more energy than you get from burning it?

I mean, can we burn ethanol to distill more ethanol than we burned to do it? And I realize that doesn't matter much if you use nuke power (or something) to distill, but I have a feeling that it would be mostly distilled using the same age old power sources or coal/oil/nat. gas/whatever the nearest power plant burns, thus making ethanol an answer only for energy storage, we still need a source, right?

More to the Story (1, Redundant)

MrCopilot (871878) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366242)

I had serious doubts about this study. I contacted Joseph Fargione, one of the authors. He provided the data to me and It makes some pretty broad assumption and bases its conclusion on the absolute worst case scenario. PLus emphasizes not at all the positive data found about cellulosic ethanol.

For more see Energy Biofuel and Carbon Emmisions []

Here is the cliff notes. Ethanol from switchgrass has zero to one year carbon debt payback. I asked Mr Fargione if he thought it was irresponsible to paint all biofuels with such a broad brush, go figure, No response.

We already have the answers (2, Insightful)

Ralph Wiggam (22354) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366282)

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 (2, Insightful)

fermion (181285) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366286)

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.

Duh (1)

yet another coward (510) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366306)

Burning biofuels produces CO2, as does burning fossil fuels. The production of biofuels requires clearing land and driving tractors, both of which also produce CO2. Cleared land is worse for fixing carbon from CO2. The amounts probably are bigger than the amount of CO2 produced by fossil fuel extraction. This story has been big in the news, but the finding seemed obvious with minimal thought.

Biofuels Bad if Done Wrong (1)

Ranger (1783) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366348)

I heard an interview with one of the authors on Science Friday [] . He said that if done wrong biofuels are bad, but if biofuels are grown on marginal land with the non-food crops it'll be a good thing. Their criticism was the way biofuels are being made now like from corn and soy and clearing forests for palm.

Re:Biofuels Bad if Done Wrong (1)

milsoRgen (1016505) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366376)

but if biofuels are grown on marginal land
You mean places where wildlife is currently allowed to congregate? Yeah, let's make sure the wildlife are fucked so we can grow our energy intensive food supply and plant materials to fuel our transportation networks?

I don't mean to sound harsh, but biofuels are causing us to lose site of the bigger picture. Namely efficient use of solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energies in which to power our homes as well as power hydrogen production for our transportation systems.

I wonder.... (1)

KillerBob (217953) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366362)

I wonder if they're counting the positive impact that the plants they make fuels like Ethanol out of are having, too.... most of the carbon dioxide that gets released by burning something like corn-based Ethanol was carbon dioxide in the first place, and was scrubbed from the atmosphere by the plant you ultimately turn into alcohol. Yes, the fermentation process releases CO2. Yes, burning the resulting alcohol releases CO2. But unlike fossil fuels, this is CO2 that was removed from our atmosphere in living memory. The plants we're distilling and burning are ones that get cultivated for months, not millenia.

Even granting the benefit of the doubt and admitting that burning fossil fuels may release less CO2 in the long run, the important point that TFA is ignoring is that it's CO2 that hasn't been part of our atmosphere for millions of years. It's not about eliminating greenhouse gases entirely. That's never going to happen without a fundamental shift in how we get energy in the first place. Switching to alternative fuels is about carbon neutrality, and that's something that has to be measured within the human lifespan. Actually, it's something that needs to be measured over as short a period of time as possible.

Steam Power!..... (1)

IHC Navistar (967161) | more than 6 years ago | (#22366374)

Maybe they could use the heat and methane collected from the massive piles of rotting political bullshit and use that to power, heat, and fuel the U.S.?

Here in the U.S., we could free ourselves from the fat tits of the Oil Sheiks in the Middle East in no time!

Fossil fuels don't need too (2, Insightful)

ChromeAeonium (1026952) | more than 6 years ago | (#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.
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