Biofuels 'done right' can curb greenhouse gas emissions: study

July 16, 2009,
A team of experts determined that biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but only if made from certain sources such as these perenial grasses. Image: Courtesy of Climate Central.

( -- Biofuels derived from renewable sources can be produced in large quantities and address many problems related to fossil fuels, including greenhouse gas emissions, but only if they are made from certain sources, according to a new article by a team of scientists and policy experts that included several Princeton researchers.

“The world needs to replace with renewable energy, but recent research findings have thrown the emerging biofuels industry into a quandary,” said David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, a noted ecologist and lead author of the paper. “We met to seek solutions. We found that the next generation of biofuels can be highly beneficial if produced properly.”

The paper coincides with climate change policy debates in the U.S. Congress and tackles land use issues that have generated much controversy in recent years. Specifically, it addresses concerns that clearing land to grow crops or to grow food crops displaced by biofuel crops can release more greenhouse gases than petroleum use. Titled “Beneficial Biofuels—The Food, Energy and Environment Trilemma,” the paper will appear in the July 17 issue of the .

Robert Socolow, a Princeton professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said that through careful scientific reasoning the authors of the paper discovered accounting rules to determine which strategies for generating biofuels were promising and which were not.

“It is essential that legislation take the best science into account, even when that requires acknowledging and undoing earlier mistakes,” Socolow said. “Future carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will tell us when we’re kidding ourselves about what actually works. For carbon management, the atmosphere is the ultimate accountant.”

To balance biofuel production, food security and emissions reduction, the authors conclude that the biofuels industry must focus on five major sources of renewable biomass, the raw materials used to generate biofuels:

• Perennial plants grown on degraded lands abandoned from agricultural use
• Crop residues
• Sustainably harvested wood and forest residues
• Double crops and mixed cropping systems
• Municipal and industrial wastes

These sources can provide considerable amounts of biomass, at least 500 million tons per year, which could produce enough fuel to meet a significant amount of the U.S. demand for transportation fuels without releasing substantial carbon dioxide through changes in land use, the authors concluded. The researchers called for biofuels production to transition away from using such as corn to generate fuels and toward the more sustainable sources they identified, which can be produced with much less impact on the environment.

Eric Larson, a researcher at Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), said the new paper recognizes that converting farmland to grow a biofuel crop typically releases into the atmosphere. For instance, growing corn produces a significant amount of greenhouse gases through the use of fertilizers and tractor fuel, and processing corn into ethanol requires burning fuels for heat. Some of those emissions would be offset by the carbon the corn absorbs from the atmosphere as it grows, so there would still be some emissions benefit compared to using petroleum-based fuels.

However, forests in other countries would probably be cleared to grow food corn to replace corn from U.S. farms used for fuel, a so-called “indirect land use impact” of biofuels. The researchers calculated it could take up to a century or more for such a tradeoff to result in a net reduction of , because cutting down forests and tilling freshly cleared land releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“You have to consider the whole life cycle of producing biofuels and the repercussions of converting new land to biomass production,” said Robert Williams, a senior research at PEI. “In the petroleum industry they talk about the life cycle efficiency in terms of ‘well to wheels.’ Now we’re talking ‘field to wheels.’”

The discussions that led to the new paper began in June 2008 at a workshop on biofuels and food hosted by the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, a Princeton center headed by Socolow and Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the Princeton Environmental Institute. The group included 11 experts from various backgrounds who exchanged views about the sustainability of biofuels, food and the environment. The other authors of the paper were Tim Searchinger of Princeton; Jason Hill and Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota; Lee Lynd of Dartmouth; John Reilly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Chris Somerville of the University of California-Berkeley.

“This group included both skeptics and enthusiasts for biofuels, and there was a lot of back and forth,” Williams said. “Everybody involved had deep knowledge in aspects of the question. The discussion was guided by past research, and we spent a lot of time framing the scientific issues in ways useful for policymakers.”

Foley, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, said the consensus reached by the various authors of the article was remarkable. “Technology experts, energy systems analysts, climatologists, ecologists and policy experts all agreed: Biofuels ‘done right’ have a bright future in solving our energy and environmental challenges,” he said. “Both new and existing biofuel strategies have the potential for being among the green energy solutions we need today.”

Provided by Princeton University (news : web)

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3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 17, 2009
The result of grain use converts to CO2 whether we use it for food or fuel! Re-forestation shows better math!
not rated yet Jul 17, 2009
S.N.I. - Still Not Interested
3 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2009
The result of grain use converts to CO2 whether we use it for food or fuel! Re-forestation shows better math!

Grass is a more efficient photosynthesizer than trees. Use of biofuels like Ethanol certainly will emit CO2 but at a drastically reduced rate than standard gasoline/petrol.

The primary ingredient of gasoline/petrol is Octane, chemical formula C8H18. Other ingredients of gasoline/petrol range from 6 carbons to 24 carbons per molecule.

Ethanol, on the other hand, has the chemical formula of C2H60, otherwise written as C2H5OH (same diff.; one is standard UAC and the other structural for the same molecule).

Then we have a very efficient fossil fuel in the form of methane, chemical formula CH4. Of course, one cannot really refer to methane as a fossil fuel because it is generated by life all over the planet.

Point is, any of these are better in terms of CO2 emissions than standard gasoline/petrol.

One key is to use biofueled vehicles for the harvesting. This, too, will reduce overall CO2 emissions far more than using standard gasoline/petrol.
2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 19, 2009
What a waste of time. Why are scientists at odds with each other.
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 21, 2009
Partially the reason is that some get lots of grant money for toeing the political party line, and others don't.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2009
What a waste of time. Why are scientists at odds with each other.

It's pretty dumb to attribute the measured warming of the lower atmosphere over the past 100 years (see Mann) to an 11 year solar cycle.

The "research" refered to in the article appears to have begun with a conclusion ("we must justify producing bio-fuels") and then concentrated on selecting the least damaging method. Though it's not clear to me how a group of even knowledgeable people sitting around a conference table writing a paper is called "research".

Bottom line is, regardless of how the resulting carbohydrates are processed, photosynthesis is at best only 0.25% to 1% efficient overall in converting sunlight into potential kwh of dry biomass furnace fuel. Take that to effective 0% if it must be converted then to ethanol. Solar thermal, eg. the Stirling Engine Dish system now being prepared for deployment, at 31.5% efficient solar-to-electricity, is simply so much smarter I cannot find any reason anyone is still discussing "bio-mass energy". Other than burning waste products which cannot be recycled back to fields as green manure, they have no place in our energy mix.
3 / 5 (4) Jul 21, 2009
Partially the reason is that some get lots of grant money for toeing the political party line, and others don't.

That's pretty dumb. You might as accurately claim that medical researchers are just toeing a party line about some stupid theory that microbes and chemical imbalances affect human health just to get access to research grant money.
3 / 5 (4) Jul 21, 2009
The key point to recall about bio-mass "energy" systems is that they are all based simply on employing plant photosynthesis as a solar energy capture system. Photocells, solar thermal are all MUCH more efficient, less costly to produce per unit energy delivered, not subject to dying every time a frost comes, etc. etc.
2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2009
Partially the reason is that some get lots of grant money for toeing the political party line, and others don't.

That's pretty dumb. You might as accurately claim that medical researchers are just toeing a party line about some stupid theory that microbes and chemical imbalances affect human health just to get access to research grant money. one time a number did. I see that you are too young to remember the advertising that smoking was good for your health and for the digestion, and so forth... Ahhhh, the ignorant bliss of youth... ::rolleyes::
3 / 5 (2) Jul 22, 2009
You can roll your eyes back down again any time. I'm definitely old enough to recall the time when research was just learning that smoking caused cancer. And I do NOT recall there being any "rush" of the scientific community to produce documents which refuted that claim. A very few, of course, did, and in fact some of those are the same ones who now "find evidence" against GHG effects.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 22, 2009
And, those ones who did produce documents that made efforts to refute the carcinogen claims were paid very well to do it. Case closed.

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