Cellulosic biofuels could make a bigger contribution to future energy and climate strategies, as long as environmental concerns are properly factored in, according to a paper by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center published late last month in the journal Science.
“The climate benefit of cellulosic biofuels is actually much greater than was originally thought,” said lead author Phil Robertson, Distinguished Professor of Ecosystem Science at Michigan State University. “But that benefit depends crucially on several different factors, all of which we need to understand to get right.”
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Robertson acknowledged one of the central challenges with biofuels: the massive amounts of land that would be required for large-scale development. “The sustainability question is largely about the impact of using millions of acres of U.S. land to grow biofuel crops,” he told the University of Wisconsin Energy Institute.
“Can we do that without threatening global food security, diminishing biodiversity, or reducing groundwater supplies? How much more fertilizer would we use? What are the trade-offs for real climate benefit, and are there synergies we can promote?”
Robertson’s research team focused on the benefits of cultivating native perennial crops, rather than annuals, growing them on marginal lands not suited to food production, and avoiding the use of nitrogen fertilizers that contribute to climate change and other environmental problems.
“With biofuels, the stakes are high,” he said. “But the returns are also high, and if we take key principles into account we can begin shaping the policies and practices that could help make cellulosic biofuels a triple win for the economy, the climate, and for environmental sustainability in general.”
Earlier in June, meanwhile, a research team at Stanford University pointed to a “new, more sustainable way to make ethanol without corn or other crops,” Stanford News reports, citing a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The technology, still in development, produces ethanol from three components—water, carbon dioxide, and electricity delivered through a copper catalyst—with no need for conventional corn feedstock.
“One of our long-range goals is to produce renewable ethanol in a way that doesn’t impact the global food supply,” said principal investigator Thomas Jaramillo, an associate professor of chemical engineering and photon science.
“Copper is one of the few catalysts that can produce ethanol at room temperature,” he added. “You just feed it electricity, water, and carbon dioxide, and it makes ethanol. The problem is that it also makes 15 other compounds simultaneously, including lower-value products like methane and carbon monoxide. Separating those products would be an expensive process and require a lot of energy.”