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Biofuel policymakers must wait for the science

The two-week meetings on climate change held in early December in Bali, Indonesia, did not include much mention of biofuel in the formal negotiating sessions. But the topic nonetheless was a hot one, and at least ten workshops, symposia and other such events were held on biofuel.

Many of the side-events tended to be negative, questioning whether biomass will make much of a contribution to fuel supplies and even whether biofuel will have any noticeable impact on climate change.

A careful assessment of the current lines of argument about biofuel, such as those carried in SciDev.Net's Spotlight on Biofuels, indicates that the topic is still at a rather immature stage, in terms both of science and practical applications. But, driven at least partly by increases in oil prices and concerns about climate impacts of fossil fuels, government policies may be running ahead of the science.

The editorial (see Let's look before we leap) was especially timely. Unfortunately it did not mention one of the most dramatic examples of such leaping ahead of the science, namely the European Commission  target of including 5.75 per cent of biofuels in member countries' fuel supplies by 2010. 

Unfortunately, that target was set well before the science had been done on how it would be met. It now seems apparent that the target cannot easily be met by domestic production, even though land previously allocated to programmes for maintaining soil fertility is now being allocated for growing biofuel.

But temperate-climate crops do not appear to be nearly as appropriate for biofuels as crops grown in the tropics, sugarcane being the most outstanding example.

Another dramatic example of policy running ahead of science is the ethanol production targets being established in the United States. Driven particularly by new and generous subsidies, the number of distilleries producing ethanol in the United States' mid-West increased from 81 in January 2005 to 134 today. 

One problem is that this substantial investment in infrastructure will lend force to the continued feeding of feedstocks into the distilleries, often at the cost of supplies for processed foods (most of which contain at least some percentage of corn/maize).

Perhaps worse, this subsidised investment is also driving ethanol production in a fairly primitive direction, requiring the use of crops like maize or canola, while new technologies are being developed that will enable a second generation of biomass energy that can be produced using crop wastes or indeed virtually any kind of biomass. Enzymes that will enable so-called 'cellulosic' forms of energy are now available and are being scaled up to a commercially viable state.

The consensus seems to be that such second-generation biofuels may well be available within five years, especially given the increased investments by governments and the private sector — note that Richard Branson's Virgin Airways has pledged US$3 billion in collaboration with Boeing and General Electric to develop biofuels for use in jet aircraft. 

Perhaps even more promising is the use of algae, which can be grown in ponds and seawater, thereby obviating any need of agricultural land. And even better, algae appear to be by far the most energy-productive form of biomass, once appropriate commercial processes have been developed.

So even though many questions remain about biomass as a significant contribution to the energy needs of modern society, substantial investments are being made in research and development and at least some of these may result in real benefits for at least some farmers. 

For those in developing countries, being able to add value in the region where the crops are being grown will be an especially important element, ensuring that the end product — ethanol or biodiesel — is available for export. This will help avoid many of the non-tariff trade barriers that are the bane of developing country farmers, and make the entire enterprise more economically attractive.

But the potential of biofuel will always be limited by its energy productivity.  Biofuel can be expected to make only a relatively modest contribution to the energy needs of modern society. Conservation, fuel efficiency, new technologies and so forth, must be part of a serious and concerted effort by governments, academia, and the private sector to devise a post-petroleum future that will enable human civilisation to continue prospering.