Could Some Midwest Land Support New Biofuel Refineries?
January 16, 2013
if you take farmland currently used for food and instead plant crops for fuel, you reduce food supplies and drive up prices.
Philip Robertson and colleagues at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station have been looking at plants that don’t require farm fields. “First, we discovered that the grasses and flowers that take over fields once you stop farming produce a fair amount of biomass, especially if you provide them a little bit of fertilizer,” Robertson says.
“Is there truly a climate benefit to doing this, or are we just robbing Peter to pay Paul?” Robertson wanted to know. After all, if you leave those lands alone, the plants will soak up carbon dioxide and store it in the soil, and that’s good for the climate.
Their answer: Using these crops for fuel is much better for the atmosphere than burning gasoline.
They figured that it would become too expensive to transport this heavy and bulky plant material more than 50 miles, from field to refinery. “At the end of the day, we discovered we could produce enough biomass to supply 30 or so of these potential biorefineries,” Robertson says.
a lot of this acreage is in the Great Plains, which wouldn’t produce a reliable crop year after year. “One year you may have high rainfall and high crop yields and be able to sustain your facility, [but] the next year you may have a drought,” Liska says.
the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industry trade group, says nobody has plans just yet to use this kind of plant material to make biofuels. Instead, the young industry is eyeing other sources of material to use as a feedstock. “Every region of the country has some form of biomass — so the Northwest would have sawdust and wood waste; the California area might have rice straw or wheat straw,” Erickson says. Refiners in the Midwest are looking at corn cobs, and a plant that’s actually operating in Florida uses dead citrus trees. “As this technology progresses, we’re going to see a great diversification of biomass supply,” Erickson predicts.
But biofuels could at best provide only a tiny fraction of our energy needs.
Plants are very inefficient when it comes to capt uring solar energy.
“If you were to take every gram of crops produced anywhere in the world for all purposes — and that includes every grape, every ton of wheat, every ton of soybeans and corn — and you were to use that for biofuels and essentially stop eating, those crops would produce about 14 percent of world energy,” says Timothy Searchinger, an associate research scholar at Princeton University.
the more we try to expand biofuels, the more we risk displacing crops for food, or chopping down forests, which store a huge amount of carbon.
Searchinger says Europe has recently recognized those potential hazards and is scaling back its biofuels ambitions.
“They realize that it was a mistake, and their compromise for the moment is essentially to cap what they’re doing, and then they promise by 2020 to phase out all government support for biofuels.”