Are Biofuels Ready for the Bigtime?

Posted by Ariel Schwartz


Electricity isn't the only non-petroleum-based fuel touted as changing the transportation landscape. What's happening with biofuels?

Electric cars are all the rage these days, but another alternative means of powering vehicles has been around for years, and it's still hovering in the background, despite the excitement over the latest plug-in hybrids.

Biofuels, or fuels derived from biomass, are great in theory. Sure, so-called "first generation" biofuels (think corn-based ethanol) are somewhat inefficient and often suck up land that could be used for food crops, but as a whole, biofuels are a handy alternative to traditional petroleum-based fuels, right? Not quite yet.

Part of the trouble is that we haven't yet weaned ourselves off of land-intensive biofuels. Consider: the European Union has an ambitious biofuels target requiring 20 percent of liquid transport fuels to come from renewable sources by 2020. As a result, European companies are snapping up arable land in Africa to produce biofuels; currently, a third of all land sold or acquired on the continent is designated for fuel crops like jatropha, oil palm, cassava, and sugar cane, according to a report (PDF) from Friends of the Earth. Countries hit hardest by these land grabs—Mozambique, Benin, Sierra Leone, to name a few—have to deal with problems like water depletion, soil degradation, and increased food prices.

Cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from wood, grasses, and the non-edible parts of plants, is more promising—since it is produced from non-food and waste products, it doesn't use up large swaths of arable land like first generation biofuels.

Cellulosic waste can also be used for drop-in biofuels, or biofuels that can be implemented within today's fuel distribution infrastructure. These fuels can be substituted for aviation or diesel fuel; traditional biofuels cannot.

But cellulosic biofuel production is lagging. A recent estimate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects cellulosic biofuel production to be 3.94 million gallons in 2011. That's just a tiny fraction of the 250 million gallon requirement given to oil companies by the Environmental Protection Agency. The problem? Producers can't get the capital necessary to rev up commercial-scale production.

And what about algae fuel, once thought of as the holy grail of biofuel production? Approximately 100 companies in the United States are working towards developing algae-based biofuels, and for good reason—algae can generate up to 300 times more oil per acre than conventional crops, it has a quick harvest cycle (as little as one day), and it can flourish in everything from seawater to wastewater.

The technology, however, is still far from maturity. According to a report from Berkeley’s Energy Biofuel Institute, the algae fuel development process could take up to a decade. Even though some companies have managed to successfully produce algae fuel in lab conditions, the report claims that the ability to generate fuel "under outdoor conditions, while achieving both high productivities and oil content, is still to be developed."

Does this mean we should give up on biofuels entirely? Of course not. We need all of the alternative fueling mechanisms we can get, and the corporate world knows it; just this week, CoolPlanet Biofuels, a startup that turns cellulosic waste into biofuel, got $8 million in funding. And as a recent Economist article points out, many vehicles may soon rely on electricity for power, but widespread electric air travel is still far off.  That means airlines will increasingly lean on drop-in biofuels as oil prices rise in the coming years.

But the next time you come across a biofuel start-up touting its product as the Fuel That Will Change the World, just remember: It won't happen tomorrow.

Illustrations by Junyi Wu