Biofools? – Creating biofuel value in a multifaceted world

July 8, 2008


Biofools is a term currently being used in public discourse to describe leaders supporting contemporary biofuel technology.  Agrofuels (first generation agriculture-driven biofuels) have this spurred environmental and social backlash.  Destruction of natural resources and famine has been realized by the hand of agrofuels.  Becoming privy to the work being done by Almuth Ernsting has given me new thoughts about which technologies we choose to fund and implement with respect to agrofuels.  Additional considerations regarding environmental and social issues beyond energy production must be viewed with a more focused lens before technological implementation.


The Gallagher Report released by the Renewable Fuels Agency last week has called for employment of the European “precautionary principle” with respect to agrofuels in England.  In short, Gordon Brown is expected to bring about a slowdown of first generation biofuels to determine sustainability.  Some fuels derived from sugar cane and animal fat are considered “sustainable,” but what does this mean exactly, and to whom?  Moratoriums on certain crops are not out of the question, however, and there will be an upcoming clash with the US.


Ernsting believes that this slowdown is not sufficient, and that a total moratorium on biomass-derived liquid fuels should be enacted. He states:


“…biofuels from agricultural and forest residues that should be returned to the natural cycle because they play an important role in maintaining soil fertility and bio-diversity. Biofuels from true waste, such as biogas from manure or landfill, or waste vegetable oil, are not agrofuels.  Biofuels from algae are not agrofuels either.”


Many definitions of sustainability revolve around energy production efficiency and exchange, but other concerns are often not considered.  One outstanding issue is the future use of GM plants and microbes to produce biofuels and the potential ecological impact.


Past science and society courses have told me that there is a lack of forethought with respect to biotechnology (we can do this, but should we really?) which leads to ethical dilemma.  Is a moratorium too extreme an action at this point, or just what we need?  Ethics tells us that the deontological argument is to respect our duty to planet earth and humanity to prevent deforestation and hunger.  However, ideological contrary to this is our perogative to preserve the order of the contemporary earth, which requires energy.  Teleology complicates these sentiments by guiding us to think that the lives of millions in starvation cannot outweigh our need for liquid gold.  However, if oil reserves are completely drained without the necessary preparation, how many more will die?


This being the case, second and third generation biofuels will have bigger shoes to fill regarding public sentiment, research, and investment.  Hopefully, slowing down production of first gen biofuels may divert more grants and investors their way.  Cellulosic ethanol production is ramping up, and demonstration plants are being built by companies such as Mascoma.  Some capital investments are aimed at procuring fuel technology without forethought to environmental and social impact.  The fuels investors of the future must take this in mind because sustainability is a multifaceted problem in which energy in and out is not the only determinant of success.


To view the entire Gallagher Report, click here




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3 Responses to “Biofools? – Creating biofuel value in a multifaceted world”

  1. A. Cherson Says:

    I don’t see biofuels as overtaking gasoline and coal as the baseline fuels of our age. I do consider them valuable as niche products for converting agricultural and other wastes into fuels for certain uses, providing emissions are kept clean, but certainly not as a universally dominant fuel. Look at Brazil, the ethanol king. They also happen to be growing Petrobras into a huge international, conventional oil company. The ethanol infrastructure problem is a major obstacle. Biofuels are a good choice for fleets of vehicles such as municipal vehicles (garbage trucks, buses, emergency), or long distance trucking, rail, and shipping, that can re-fuel at central locations (for instance why not have a series of biofuel filling stations along major interstate highways). I also think its great that farmers of otherwise fallow fields in marginal areas may now be able to come to market with a product. But to envision a world where baseline energy is based on food crops is just untenable. The problem with the biotech (microbial, algae) fuels is that we need to take action ‘yesterday’– with the tools currently at our disposal (something which is possible, by the way: see Lester Brown). Let’s not overexpand into something that will just get us into trouble and let’s certainly not sit around and wait for the ‘great discovery’ just around the bend (even though I highly support the continuation of all the research). When that day comes we can simply plug in the new production technologies and feedstocks into our existing infrastructures.

  2. Kaushal Parikh Says:

    This is the exit report that NREL published on Algae as a source for biofuels. Its a big file but it encompasses outlook of the government agency on the future of algae as a biofuel. Dr. John Benemann, who was the main author and principal investigator for the report has his personal view points listed on this blog entry (

    Just more view points to what we have already stated discussing. I am planning on writing a little entry, but still working on it.

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