Biofuels could increase global warming with laughing gas, says Nobel prize-winning chemist

September 21, 2007

Growing and burning many biofuel crops may actually raise, rather than lower, greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the conclusion of a new study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, best known for his work on the ozone layer.

He and his colleagues have calculated that growing some of the most commonly used biofuel crops releases around twice the amount of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O, also known as ‘laughing gas’) than previously thought – wiping out any benefits from not using fossil fuels and, worse, probably contributing to global warming.

‘The significance of it is that the supposed benefits of biofuels are even more disputable than had been thought hitherto,’ Keith Smith, a co-author on the paper and atmospheric scientist from the University of Edinburgh, told Chemistry World magazine. ‘What we are saying is that [growing many biofuels] is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse.’

The work is currently subject to open review in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, and Crutzen himself has declined to comment until that process is completed. But the paper suggests that microbes convert much more of the nitrogen in fertilizer to nitrous oxide than previously thought – 3 to 5 per cent, which is twice the widely accepted figure of 2 per cent used by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to calculate the impact of fertilizers on climate change.

For rapeseed biodiesel, which accounts for about 80 per cent of the biofuel production in Europe, the relative warming due to nitrous oxide emissions is estimated at 1 to 1.7 times larger than the relative cooling effect due to saved fossil CO2 emissions. For corn bioethanol, dominant in the US, the figure is 0.9 to 1.5. Only cane sugar bioethanol – with a relative warming of 0.5 to 0.9 – looks like a better alternative to conventional fuels.

In the wake of the findings comes a recent report prepared by the OECD for a recent Round Table on Sustainable Development, which questioned the benefits of first generation biofuels and concluded that governments should scrap mandatory targets. Richard Doornbosch, the report’s author, says both the report and Crutzen’s work highlights the importance of establishing correct full life-cycle assessments for biofuels. ‘Without them, government policies can't distinguish between one biofuel and another – risking making problems worse,’ he said.

Read the full text of this Chemistry World exclusive at: www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2007/September/21090701.asp

The full research paper is available here: www.atmos-chem-phys-discuss.net/7/11191/2007/acpd-7-11191-2007.html

Source: Royal Society of Chemistry

Explore further: Team demos potential environmental sustainability benefits in full life cycle assessment of 2nd-generation biofuels

Related Stories

How gold can recycle biofuel waste into useful additive

May 23, 2017

Gold nanoparticles serve as catalysts for obtaining valuable chemical products based on glycerol. Scientists from Tomsk Polytechnic University and their international colleagues are developing gold catalysts to recycle one ...

Recommended for you

Scientists solve mystery of unexplained 'bright nights'

June 21, 2017

Dating back to the first century, scientists, philosophers and reporters have noted the occasional occurrence of "bright nights," when an unexplained glow in the night sky lets observers see distant mountains, read a newspaper ...

New research leverages big data to predict severe weather

June 21, 2017

Every year, severe weather endangers millions of people and causes billions of dollars in damage worldwide. But new research from Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and AccuWeather has found ...

Measuring biological dust in the wind

June 21, 2017

In the popular children's story "Horton Hears a Who!" author Dr. Seuss tells of a gentle and protective elephant who stumbles upon a speck of dust that harbors a community of microscopic creatures called the Whos living the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.