Features

Apr. 21, 2008 – A new perspective on biofuel

By Steve Bauer
Managing Editor
In recent years, biofuels, such as corn ethanol and soybean diesel, have been hailed as one of the best answers to replacing gasoline, which has been shown to have a major impact on increased emissions into the atmosphere. Last year, rising corn prices and the growing demand for ethanol spurred U.S. farmers to plant more than 90 million acres of corn for the first time in 60 years.
But two major research studies have concluded that the production of biofuels might cause more harm than good, not just possibly to the engines of motorcycles and automobiles, but to the environment, and it’s sparked an intense debate over the true benefits of alternative fuels such as ethanol.
As previously reported in Powersports Business, the concern over ethanol use in motorcycles has sparked groups like the AMA and powersports OEMs to ask for more testing of the fuel on vehicles because of the potential corrosive effect the fuel could have on engine components.
The two studies, conducted by the University of Minnesota and a group of scientists lead by Princeton University scholar Tim Searchinger, both revealed that clearing land overseas to make room for growing more corn and soybeans actually releases more carbon dioxide into the air than average gasoline use.
Farmers in the United States, Brazil, Indonesia and other countries will need to clear forests, grasslands and peat lands on a massive scale to grow more of those crops, according to the research, unleashing far more carbon dioxide from natural vegetation than is saved by lowering emissions on vehicles. Converting those areas creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17-420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.
“When we divert our corn or soybeans to fuel, if people around the world are going to continue to eat the same amount that they’re already eating, you have to replace that food somewhere else,” Searchinger said. “That’s done in a significant part by burning down forests, plowing up grasslands, etc. That alone releases a great deal of carbon dioxide.”
In fact, Searchinger’s group’s study found that during a 30-year span, biofuels end up contributing twice as much carbon dioxide to the air as gasoline would, when you add in the global effects.
“Right now there’s little doubt that ethanol is making global warming worse,” he said.

Defending biofuels
Ethanol industry officials criticized the studies as “simplistic,” and argue the research did not include the economic benefits for those who grow biofuel crops or the environmental cost of continuing to rely on petroleum.
Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, says the world needs more energy and ethanol is filling a need. And as with any technology, as it matures it will become more efficient.
“We admit that ethanol production or renewable fuel technology itself is not perfect,” he said. “But it is evolving and becoming better.”
The Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council was so upset with the University of Minnesota study, they decided to withhold $1.5 million in additional research money to the school until they meet with university officials.
The associations feel the research study was “over the top” in its findings and say the study was anti-ethanol from the start.
“The university hurt the farmers’ feelings, OK? That’s probably the best way to say it,” Jim Palmer, executive director of the two groups, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Ecologist David Tilman, who led the university study, defends the research and says there was never an agenda to hurt corn and soybean farmers.
“The study was reviewed by independent scientists, a standard procedure, before being published in the journal Science,” he said. “The report is not ‘anti-ethanol.’ It recommends that biofuels be produced in the future from crop waste products, such as corn stalks, or from perennials, such as switchgrass and native prairie plants.”
The studies could not have been released at a worse time for the biofuel industry as the federal government recently announced a program to offer even larger subsidies to encourage corn-based ethanol. Plus the Bush administration is calling for a vast expansion of this industry as part of a plan to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent. The most recent U.S. Energy Bill set a target of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be produced in the United States by 2022. Of this, 15 billion gallons can come from corn starch. Meeting this goal would require devoting more U.S. cropland to growing corn.
“These studies are going to make a lot of elected officials stop dead in their tracks in supporting biofuel efforts,” said Craig Stearns, editor of Going Green, a magazine that focuses on the biofuel farming industry.
“You’ve got groups lobbying to get ethanol increased to 20 percent in gasoline, other groups asking for grants to allow biofuel farmers to buy more land for increased production, and this is all going to be greatly affected by the two research studies,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot of damage control in the coming weeks and months as this industry tries to calm both the public and the government.”
Stearns says that’s easier said than done, however, as both studies, conclude that even vast efficiency improvements in ethanol production won’t change the equation.
“Both studies point out that as long as the starting material is grown on farmland, biofuels will be bad for the planet,” he said.
Stearns says the focus of the biofuels industry needs a rapid change of direction, away from using cropland — which is where most U.S. biofuels come from today — and toward other sources of starting material.
“We could replace all of the ethanol that we use in Iowa just using waste that goes to the landfill today, and turning that into ethanol,” he said.
He adds that environmentally friendly biofuels could also be made from agricultural waste or grasses grown on land that’s not suitable for crops. The biofuels industry is heading in that direction, but the technology to make use of fuels other than corn and soy is still in its infancy.

Future implications
Although the two studies have set the stage for even more research into the issue, scientists and environmental experts believe the recent findings will have major implications for the use of biofuels around the world.
Paul Caplan, an agriculture science professor at the University of Iowa, says the new study will need to be verified with similar analysis but says the overall conclusion looks solid. And Caplan points out it’s not just an academic matter, either, as federal law says future biofuel sources will eventually need to be certified as benefiting the climate.
“If the new study holds up to scrutiny,” he said, “America’s main biofuel industry, corn-based ethanol, would flunk that test.”
Another growing concern regarding biofuel use, particularly ethanol, is the “dead zone” corn and soybean fertilizer runoff from the Mississippi River has created in the Gulf of Mexico. The runoff creates an enormous bloom each spring, and prevents animals that depend on oxygen, such as fish or shrimp, from living in those waters. In recent years, this so-called “dead zone” has grown to the size of New Jersey — about 7,700 square miles — each summer.
A 2007 study by the University of British Columbia showed that increasing production of ethanol will only worsen the problem.
“This biofuels policy, particularly the fact that they’re stressing corn, is just a death knell for environmental efforts,” said Simon Donner, a professor at the university who was part of the research group. “I think the outcome of most of the recent analyses, including ours, is that corn is just a bad idea,” Donner said. “It’s just not an intelligent crop to be using to create fuel.”
Donner says that while his study doesn’t advocate any particular approach to biofuels, it’s clear the current U.S. policy isn’t going to work.
“Our study is not passing judgment on other biofuels choices, but if the U.S. pursues this energy policy, it will only add to what was an already pretty difficult challenge of finding an alternative to fossil fuels,” he said.
Michigan State University’s Bruce Dale, who has worked on the development of ethanol from cellulose (grasses, wood chips and crop waste) for the past 30 years, says the industry is increasingly moving away from corn to cellulosic ethanol because it is more energy efficient and more environmentally friendly.
Dale adds, however, that without the success of corn-based ethanol, researchers would have had a much more difficult time in moving cellulosic ethanol forward.
Dale says there is a large effort to improve the economics of cellulosic ethanol, and it will eventually far surpass corn ethanol in terms of its usage.
University of Minnesota’s Tillman says these studies are meant to provide a wakeup call that there still isn’t a clearcut solution to the current energy problem.
“From a climate change perspective, current biofuels are worse than fossil fuels,” he said. “However, that does not mean we should just stick with fossil fuels. There is no silver bullet that can stop climate change. We will need many strategies to address this issue — all pursued simultaneously.”

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