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posted by martyb on Friday January 30 2015, @07:40AM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the a-fuelish-attempt? dept.

The New York Timesreports on a new study from a prominent environmental think tank that concludes that turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity is so inefficient that the approach is unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand and that continuing to pursue this strategy is likely to use up vast tracts of fertile land that could be devoted to helping feed the world’s growing population. “I would say that many of the claims for biofuels have been dramatically exaggerated,” says Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization based in Washington that is publishing the report. “There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.” The report follows several years of rising concern among scientists about biofuel policies in the United States and Europe, and is the strongest call yet by the World Resources Institute, known for nonpartisan analysis of environmental issues, to urge governments to reconsider those policies.

Timothy D. Searchinger says that recent science has challenged some of the assumptions underpinning many of the pro-biofuel policies that have often failed to consider the opportunity cost of using land to produce plants for biofuel. According to Searchinger if forests or grasses were grown instead of biofuels, that would pull carbon dioxide out of the air, storing it in tree trunks and soils and offsetting emissions more effectively than biofuels would do. What is more, as costs for wind and solar power have plummeted over the past decade, and the new report points out that for a given amount of land, solar panels are at least 50 times more efficient than biofuels at capturing the energy of sunlight in a useful form. “It’s true that our first-generation biofuels have not lived up to their promise,” Jason Hill said. “We’ve found they do not offer the environmental benefits they were purported to have, and they have a substantial negative impact on the food system.”

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  • (Score: 2) by buswolley on Friday January 30 2015, @08:13AM

    by buswolley (848) on Friday January 30 2015, @08:13AM (#139409)

    Biofuels were never green, just renewable...not even sustainable.

    Plastics. How do you make them or replace them without oil?

    --
    subicular junctures
    • (Score: 2) by tibman on Friday January 30 2015, @02:36PM

      by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Friday January 30 2015, @02:36PM (#139491)

      Surprisingly, you can make plastic from plants: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioplastic [wikipedia.org]

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      • (Score: 2) by redneckmother on Friday January 30 2015, @03:53PM

        by redneckmother (3597) on Friday January 30 2015, @03:53PM (#139520)

        Plant base plastics are attractive to rodents. Have you ever seen what a squirrel can do to an engine wiring harness?

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        Mas cerveza por favor.
        • (Score: 2) by HiThere on Friday January 30 2015, @07:55PM

          by HiThere (866) on Friday January 30 2015, @07:55PM (#139616) Journal

          Even Lead is attractive to rodents. And plant based plastics can certainly be non-nutritive to rodents, while Lead is actively poisonous.

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        • (Score: 2) by Hartree on Friday January 30 2015, @11:15PM

          by Hartree (195) on Friday January 30 2015, @11:15PM (#139674)

          Not all plant based plastics are. And the wiring that the SKWRLs like to chew on is mostly coated with petroleum based plastic.

          We use petroleum as it's a cheap and easy to process source for the small carbon molecules that get linked up to make plastics. But, it's certainly not the only source of them.

  • (Score: 4, Informative) by Covalent on Friday January 30 2015, @10:29AM

    by Covalent (43) on Friday January 30 2015, @10:29AM (#139431) Journal

    I did my master's thesis on biofuels. What you want to discuss is energy ratio: how much do you get out compared to what you put in. For corn ethanol the ER is nearly 1, so not significantly better than crude oil. But for cellulosic ethanol the ratio is closer to 10. Same goes for waste oils and switchgrass grown on marginal cropland.

    And this is with current technology. Improvements in cellulose degradation in particular might send these numbers much higher. Biofuels may not the complete solution to atmospheric carbon, but they can be a significant asset.

    --
    You can't rationally argue somebody out of a position they didn't rationally get into.
    • (Score: 2) by Covalent on Friday January 30 2015, @10:32AM

      by Covalent (43) on Friday January 30 2015, @10:32AM (#139432) Journal

      *I should have mentioned "waste" with regards to cellulosic ethanol. That is, using agricultural waste as your feedstock. We have to grow food anyway...why not use the stalks and husks for fuel?

      --
      You can't rationally argue somebody out of a position they didn't rationally get into.
      • (Score: 2) by GreatAuntAnesthesia on Friday January 30 2015, @11:18AM

        by GreatAuntAnesthesia (3275) on Friday January 30 2015, @11:18AM (#139438) Journal

        Yup. Poo, too. Sewage can be turned into fuel. And coffee grounds, and all kinds of biological matter. Some of these waste products would otherwise find a use in agriculture or gardening but plenty of it ends up on landfill. Turn it into fuel, I say.

        Corn as biofuel was only ever a big subsidy game, maybe even a false-flag by the oil companies to convince the world that biofuels don't work by pushing the least efficient and useful form of biofuel possible to the forefront.

        That said, I don't think biofuels will ever be a major part of the future energy economy. I predict all engines eventually going electric, with ICE engines (powered by biofuels) left only in a few niche applications and vintage machines. Hydrogen is going nowhere.

        Bioplastics, however, will almost certainly be something we eventually come to rely on.

        • (Score: 3, Informative) by bradley13 on Friday January 30 2015, @11:43AM

          by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Friday January 30 2015, @11:43AM (#139440) Homepage Journal

          False flag operation? No, you miss the simpler explanation: Agricultural subsidies are a huge money siphon, with lots of payback to the politicians. Best of all, the voters never object, because they think of the "family farm", even though it's the big corporations that get the money. That's what drives most of the ethanol programs, including corn.

          Processing agricultural waste? Sure, you can turn it into ethanol at some ratio. I don't buy the 10:1 - if current processes were that efficient, then ethanol would be commercially competitive, which it isn't.

          In any case, turning agricultural waste into ethanol is a sub-optimal solution. If you want to get energy out of agricultural waste, then burn it and drive a steam turbine. You will get a much higher percentage of the energy out, in the form of electricity, without using all sorts of nasty chemicals to break down cellulose.

          --
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          • (Score: 2) by Covalent on Friday January 30 2015, @02:59PM

            by Covalent (43) on Friday January 30 2015, @02:59PM (#139502) Journal

            Energy ratios are easily 10:1. MONETARY ratios tend to be much lower, which is why petroleum is still king.

            As for burning the solids, that's not a bad solution for replacing coal, but most of the transportation infrastructure is predicated on liquid fuels - so biodiesel and ethanol are likely to be very important players.

            --
            You can't rationally argue somebody out of a position they didn't rationally get into.
            • (Score: 2) by jcross on Friday January 30 2015, @04:00PM

              by jcross (4009) on Friday January 30 2015, @04:00PM (#139525)

              It's been a few years, but all the EROEI studies I read for biofuels conveniently ignored all capital expenses of processing it. I expect that's one reason why the money ratio doesn't match up.

              • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday January 30 2015, @06:54PM

                by Immerman (3985) on Friday January 30 2015, @06:54PM (#139590)

                There's a good reason capital costs are ignored in such analyses - they're irrelevant to steady-state operation. No serious long-term market analysis, in almost any field, considers capital costs. For the simple reason that you pay them once, and then amortize them over the entire lifetime of production. In almost every market the per-unit amortized capital costs approach zero - it's only the incremental costs which determine market viability.

                • (Score: 2) by Covalent on Friday January 30 2015, @07:08PM

                  by Covalent (43) on Friday January 30 2015, @07:08PM (#139598) Journal

                  Good point. In addition, we are completely ignoring the costs of climate change which, while difficult to calculate, are clearly not 0. If you factor in the cost of evacuating Miami, gasoline may well be more expensive than nuclear powered cars.

                  --
                  You can't rationally argue somebody out of a position they didn't rationally get into.
                  • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday January 30 2015, @07:45PM

                    by Immerman (3985) on Friday January 30 2015, @07:45PM (#139611)

                    Excellent point...and yet somehow I don't think nuclear powered cars would substantially reduce the chances of having to evacuate Miami. :-D

                • (Score: 2) by jcross on Friday January 30 2015, @08:08PM

                  by jcross (4009) on Friday January 30 2015, @08:08PM (#139624)

                  That's true, but they certainly don't amortize to zero. The amortized cost of capital is highly volume dependent. For instance, several people I know used to drive their cars on used fryer grease, then they started a biodiesel company and claimed that the EROEI looked awesome for waste oil of all kinds. And it does as long as waste oil has a very low cost. The problem is, there's not that much of it available, and when the demand for it took off, so did the price. If you built a factory large enough to process oil at scale, you'd have to start buying rail cars of canola/rapeseed oil to make enough fuel to pay off the factory, which is exactly what they ended up doing.

                  Now when you start talking about virgin agricultural oil, and you ignore the energy costs of things like tractors and combines, which are very expensive and used for only part of the year, it starts to look a little naive to ignore capex as a major part of the cost equation. Any modern farmer that ignored it financially would be out of business quick, and from an energy perspective, I'm guessing it costs a lot more to build a combine than all the diesel it will burn in its lifetime. This is even true for consumer vehicles that I'm guessing get more lifetime mileage. Hell, people have the same marginal-cost-only mental accounting about gas prices, thinking it's a huge factor when it's been something like 12% of the cost of driving for some time.

                  • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday January 30 2015, @09:57PM

                    by Immerman (3985) on Friday January 30 2015, @09:57PM (#139662)

                    That is a fair point - but anyone making capital investments for production levels beyond what the market can support (both on the supply and sales sides) is what is commonly known as "an idiot". If there's not enough used oil available to supply your factory, then you built too large a factory. If that combine isn't working continuously throughout the season (at least during the work day, and preferably for 2-3 shifts) then you bought too much machine and should have invested in more land and labor instead.

                    As for gas - perhaps it is only 12% of the total cost of driving, but add in insurance and maintenance - both also recurring expenses, and you're looking at much closer to the whole. I also suspect that to get that 12% number you need to assume that the car is replaced every few years, which is completely stupid from a business perspective. Unless of course you can sell it for an amount comparable to it's total remaining functional value (= purchase price * remaining lifetime / total lifetime, not bluebook which suffers from the notorious "loses half it's value once you drive it off the lot" effect) - in which case you still need to subtract the sale price from the total capital costs before doing the analysis.

            • (Score: 2) by opinionated_science on Friday January 30 2015, @09:05PM

              by opinionated_science (4031) on Friday January 30 2015, @09:05PM (#139637)

              Oil comes out of the ground. All the hard work took 100 million years to form all those long-chain hydrocarbons by heat/pressure/microbes?.

              Cellulosic ethanol (or any other fuel) is a process of degradation. Recalcitrance requires a consider pre-processing to let the enzymes do their thing.

              But the enzymes (cellulase) are not very effective, because the organism that make them don't need to them to be. Seen any trees go floppy? That's the combination of cellulose and lignin. That's what's in almost all the green you see out there.

              Waterproof and generally enzyme proof (for the time the organism is alive).

              The only way biofuels are ever going to be economically viable is if the entire process of energy extraction can be made optimal and deliver a significant fraction of the "potential" energy.

              Ethanol is a lousy target when the fundamental efficiency of gasoline ICE is ~30%. Making longer hydrocarbons for diesel would seem to be a better idea....

              Countries that have simpler fermentation based fuels (e.g. Brazil) can do so because sugar cane is easily grown and the microbe that converts sugar to ethanol (yeast) has had 500 million years to get good at it,

              It is simple information like this that is largely missing from the debate on energy. We need a bit of everything, and the plurality will hopefully take us towards a greater use of "renewables".

              With gas at $1.80/gallon though....

              Of course the politicians will fix that by upping the tax and making biofuels competitive again, so maybe they have a bright future!

          • (Score: 2) by Nobuddy on Friday January 30 2015, @08:21PM

            by Nobuddy (1626) on Friday January 30 2015, @08:21PM (#139629)

            One of the better researches done on this was someone that looked to where farm subsidy checks are mailed to. They took a map of the US and put a pin on the address the checks are mailed to. the map shows a dozen little red dots scattered across the midwest. Manhattan is a solid red blob.

        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday January 30 2015, @07:28PM

          by Immerman (3985) on Friday January 30 2015, @07:28PM (#139603)

          Well, for now at least hydrocarbons have a much higher energy density than any robust electrical storage device has managed, which is incredibly important for mobile application. Good lithium-ion batteries only manage about 0.9MJ/kg and 2.6 MJ/L, while gasoline is getting 44.4Mj/kg and 32.4 MJ/L. That's ~50x the specific energy, and ~12x the energy density.

          For driving around town electricity may well take over if we can bring the costs down far enough, which is a good start, but for long distance transportation (trains, semis, airplanes, and cargo ships) batteries can't begin to compete. And as fuel cells become more robust that will only increase the appeal by utilizing the 1/2 to 2/3 of the fuel energy wasted by an ICE. Of course with light vehicles that are prime candidates for batteries being responsible for ~59% of transportation-based fuel consumption that could dramatically cut consumption up front, and slashing the remaining 41% of consumption in half by switching to fuel-cell+electric drive would do a number as well

          Then there's power generation - an awful lot of remote/off-grid/transportable generators could be replaced with fuel cells as well - what other alternative is there? You're not going to be trucking in massive batteries, though bio-solids might be sufficiently cheaper to make up for the ICE inefficiencies. Modular nuclear is probably the only other viable option.

          Personally I suspect that we'll move towards fuel-cell backed batteries, at least until we invent massively denser electricity storage devices that don't rely on rare Earths (there's not nearly enough accessible lithium on the planet to replace all the world's gas tanks with LiIon batteries, and half the world's population doesn't even own vehicles yet). Enough capacity for a 20-mile or so range will be an 80% solution and allow for regenerative braking and other efficiency-boosting technologies, while cheap fuel cells will offer massively extended range that can be quickly refueled at any ethanol station.

      • (Score: 2) by HiThere on Friday January 30 2015, @08:01PM

        by HiThere (866) on Friday January 30 2015, @08:01PM (#139620) Journal

        Because the stalks and much other agricultural waste can be fed to cows and goats. Possibly also to sheep, though I've never heard of it being done.

        For that matter agricultural waste can generally be fed to crickets, which are a high quality protein, and if not desireable directly to humans can be processed as animal fodder. (Chickens really like crickets even without processing.)

        Now if you are talking about conversion of sewage, then I agree, that may be a very high use. And the result of the fermentation can be used as fertilizer. (This, however, requires that the input sewage not contain things like antibiotics, heavy metals, complex artificial chemicals, etc.)

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      • (Score: 2) by Hartree on Friday January 30 2015, @11:23PM

        by Hartree (195) on Friday January 30 2015, @11:23PM (#139677)

        How much are you going to have to increase the amount of fertilizers and other sources of humus if you're not plowing back the stalks and such?

        (I'm meaning it as a legit question. The organic material that would otherwise get put back in the soil has to be made up somewhere to keep the soil good. I'm guessing there are some good answers to that, I just haven't heard them. Mea culpa, to some extent. I work with biofuels researchers from time to time, but I've never had the presence of mind to ask them. We've got a pretty large miscanthus research project here at the university I work at.)

    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday January 30 2015, @06:48PM

      by Immerman (3985) on Friday January 30 2015, @06:48PM (#139588)

      Wait, crude is at 1? How do you figure? 1 is basically break-even (i.e. pointless), while oil is *massively* energy-positive on human timescales. Just pump it out of the ground and you get practically free energy sequestered millions of years ago.

      I certainly won't argue about corn though - from what I've heard you're actually doing good to hit break-even, but it's also one of the worst crops to brew "normal" ethanol from - not enough sugar to be worth the effort. Sugar-cane and other high-sugar crops are a much better option, but they don't grow well in the US.

      Cellulosic ethanol certainly has far more potential, especially since it could be made from agricultural waste, but how would that cater specifically to the powerful corn-subsidy lobby? From what I've read there's also the issue that, while cellulosic ethanol may be more energy efficient, it's considerably more expensive to produce. And so long as we live in a capitalistic economy, money is God.

      • (Score: 2) by Covalent on Friday January 30 2015, @07:05PM

        by Covalent (43) on Friday January 30 2015, @07:05PM (#139597) Journal

        Energy ratios are defined with respect to the fossil fuel equivalent. So gasoline is 1 by definition. If a biofuels produces more energy than is put into producing it (in gasoline equivalents) then it has an energy ratio greater than 1. If not, it's less than 1.

        --
        You can't rationally argue somebody out of a position they didn't rationally get into.
        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday January 30 2015, @07:37PM

          by Immerman (3985) on Friday January 30 2015, @07:37PM (#139606)

          Ah. That's a *very* different definition than you gave in the comment above
          >how much do you get out compared to what you put in.

          That's the definition I've always heard, and by that definition, from what I've heard, corn-starch ethanol is only roughly break-even - i.e. it makes a great battery, but it's unlikely to ever be a decent energy *source*.

        • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Friday January 30 2015, @07:41PM

          by Immerman (3985) on Friday January 30 2015, @07:41PM (#139608)

          To clarify:
          Assume you use one gallon of gas to generate one "gasoline gallon equivalent" of Ethanol: Energy in ~= energy out, so the efficiency ratio ~=1.

          For gasoline on the other hand you need consume only a tiny fraction of a gallon of gas to pump and refine a gallon of gas, so the efficiency ratio is much greater than one.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 30 2015, @01:33PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 30 2015, @01:33PM (#139460)

    It is a military subsidy. Ethanol offsets the amount of oil that has to be cracked into gasoline for domestic use, making more of it usable for kerosene products like jet fuel. The nitrogen fertilizer that makes corn, comes from natural gas which the U.S. has an abundant supply of. The ethanol subsidy is a convoluted way of insuring the fuel supply for the most energy hungry military in the world. I don't think most Americans would really have a problem with that.

    I do have a problem with the dischordant nature of the debate. If brand D and brand R are going to go all Sayers Law on the issue, one would think they would stumble near reason once in a while. It is worth considering whether the fastidious avoidance of reason by both parties is evidence of collusion. The other way of saying "politically polarized", is: "divided and conquered".

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday January 30 2015, @05:34PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday January 30 2015, @05:34PM (#139557) Journal
      Archer Daniels Midland is not a military asset.
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 30 2015, @07:02PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 30 2015, @07:02PM (#139595)

        Certainly they are. Armies move on their stomachs. I'm not suggesting the system of subsidies isn't rife with graft. I'm saying there are compelling arguments for maintaining diverse fuel production capabilities, even if they are expensive and badly run. I'm also saying that the reason they are expensive and badly run, is predominantly because the flaming poo flung by both ends is diversionary. They take turns being the distraction, but if you turn around the other is always right behind you. Not at an obtuse angle; right fucking behind you. American political debate is like watching a pair of skilled pick pockets working a crowd at a public safety conference.

        • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday January 30 2015, @09:22PM

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday January 30 2015, @09:22PM (#139640) Journal

          Certainly they are. Armies move on their stomachs.

          You're wasting my time. This has nothing to with the US military.

          I'm also saying that the reason they are expensive and badly run, is predominantly because the flaming poo flung by both ends is diversionary. They take turns being the distraction, but if you turn around the other is always right behind you. Not at an obtuse angle; right fucking behind you. American political debate is like watching a pair of skilled pick pockets working a crowd at a public safety conference.

          Well, that seems to completely explain everything without even a remote need to bring the military in.