Feeding the biofuels beast

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Back in my school years, I learned that agriculture involved production of food, feed and fiber. These days of course, we’ve added production of energy to the list. And according to a recent study from the University of Montana, without significant policy change, food, feed and fiber could nearly drop off the list entirely.

The study, titled “Bioenergy Potential of the United States Constrained by Satellite Observations of Existing Productivity,” was published recently in Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society. Results of the study illustrate the need to develop alternative raw materials for biofuel production, rather than grain which is today’s primary feedstock, and to adjust our expectations. 

The researchers point out that the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 aims to increase annual U.S. biofuel production by more than three-fold, from 40 to 136 billion liters of ethanol by 2022.

In their study, they used satellite-derived net primary productivity (NPP) measurements of vegetated land in the United States to estimate primary bioenergy potential. Based on their data, the researchers conclude that although EISA energy targets are theoretically achievable, meeting these targets with current technology would require either an 80 percent displacement of current crop harvest or the conversion of 60 percent of rangeland productivity. This shift, they note, would dramatically reduce U.S. agriculture’s volume of food production while increased farming could lead to more polluted freshwater and accelerate global climate change.

“We learned that gaps exist in the ability to establish realistic targets for biofuel production, which the law fills with assumptions about technology developments and the availability and productivity of farmland,” says lead author W. Kolby Smith, a doctoral student in UM’s Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group (NTSG), in a news release.

Another of the researchers, Steve Running, NTSG director and Regents Professor of Ecology, stresses the need for alternative energy sources and realistic bioenergy goals. “While we encourage the appropriate use of agricultural residues, forest slash and beetle-killed trees for bioenergy, the nation needs realistic targets of the capacity for bioenergy production that would not compete with food production. Additionally, bioenergy may be more efficiently used for electric power production instead of liquid fuels.”

 One alternative biofuel source that offers potential is microalgae, according to ongoing research at Oklahoma State University’s Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center (FAPC). These types of algae can grow in water sources such as ponds or animal-waste lagoons “With microalgae, we can clean waste water while generating biomass,” says Nurhan Dunford, FAPC engineering professor and oilseed specialist. “Microalgae are capable of absorbing excess plant nutrients from waste water and use CO2 for producing oil, biomass and even useful high value compounds.”

The dry biomass produced by these algae can contain 30 to 70 percent oil, compared with about 20 percent for soybeans, Dunford adds, and these systems use far less water than traditional oilseed crops. “By use of microalgae, it would take only 1 to 3 percent of the existing U.S. crop area to replace half of the petroleum based transportation fuel with biodiesel,” he says. “More importantly, microalgae do not compete with cropland.”

Read more about the OSU algae research.

The University of Montana research report is available online from the American Chemical Society.

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Tom K    
March, 02, 2012 at 09:33 AM

We can use our lakes here in southern minnesota for microalgae production. After draining all the wet lands and pattern tiling all the land the lakes are ready for alae production right now.

Omaha, NE  |  March, 04, 2012 at 08:19 AM

You'd kill off your tourism in that area. Have fun getting that passed in your state house.

Mark Jenner    
Illinois  |  March, 02, 2012 at 07:01 PM

What is your point? You describe a study that assumes no change in technology? Really? In the dairy industry... Then you end with a discussion of microalgae, that isn't current technology? Food vs. fuel? Really? $10/lb cheese is $20,000/ton. Sorry I missed the point.

OKLAHMA  |  March, 03, 2012 at 09:26 PM


March, 04, 2012 at 05:46 AM

Energy prices and food prices are soaring. Measurements are demonstrating that the climate is far less sensitive to CO2 than we previously understood. Land is a fixed and precious commodity. But none of that matters. To prevent more CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere (with no net effect), let's BURN OUR FOOD! Biofuels are senseless. Let's harvest our plentiful oil and gas resources, and use our cropland for food, feed, and fiber. EISA was a mistake. Time to repeal it.

Bill Stanley    
Texas  |  March, 04, 2012 at 07:46 AM

The Renewable Fuel Standard requires a minimum amount of renewable fuels be used each year at increasingly greater amounts … 15.2 billion gallons of renewable fuel must be blended into transportation fuel in 2012 and 36 billion gallons by 2022. Of the 36 billion, the U.S. must produce 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, 15 billion gallons of traditional corn-based ethanol, 4 billion gallons of advanced biofuels and 1 billion gallons of biodiesel. Congress passed the law to force companies to develop technologies that are not mature. It mandated 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol be blended into transportation fuel in 2011. There was not a single drop blended during the entire second half of 2011. 250 million gallons are mandated for 2012. It is estimated that less than 4 million gallons will be produced. Because certain renewable fuels were not available, the EPA forced oil companies to pay about $10 million in 2010 and 2011 … costs that were inevitably passed onto consumers. www.newsandopinions.net

March, 04, 2012 at 06:09 PM

Congressional mandates for fuel additives haven't worked so far. If we have Congress repeal the law of gravity that would reduce the friction related drag on all of our transportation, saving massive amounts of fuel. Lets see how far ~that~ one goes.

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