March 04, 2009
Researchers Expect Cellulosic Biofuels To Compete

A collection of expert papers argues that cellulosic technology for biomass energy will compete against other energy sources.

Cellulosic biofuels offer similar, if not lower, costs and very large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum-derived fuels. That's one of the key take-home messages from a series of expert papers on "The Role of Biomass in America's Energy Future (RBAEF)" in a special issue of Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining.

The journal believes that the collection, which includes a comparative analysis of more than a dozen mature technology biomass refining scenarios, will make a major contribution to the ongoing debate on the future potential of biofuels in the USA.

Professor Lee Lynd, the driving force behind the RBAEF project and a major contributor to the special issue, explains the background to the project. "The RBAEF project, which was launched in 2003, is the most comprehensive study of the performance and cost of mature technologies for producing energy from biomass to date" he says. "Involving experts from 12 institutions, it is jointly led by Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the Natural Resources Defense Council and sponsored by the US Department of Energy, the Energy Foundation and the National Commission on Energy Policy.

If these technologies were already mature and cost competitive then we'd already see some cellulosic biomass energy plants in production. A lot of money was available until fairly recently to rapidly construct ethanol plants using corn. Those investors would have jumped on cellulosic tech if it was really ready.

If these experts are at least correct about future costs (and I suspect they are) then more of Earth's landmass will become useful to humanity. More rain forests will get cut down as more land gets shifted toward production for human uses. Habitats for wild critters will shrink and more species will go extinct. I do not see how cellulosic technology is a net benefit for the environment.

Algae biodiesel seems at first glance to potentially offer a way to get energy from biomass without much environmental damage. The algae could be grown in big desert areas with water piped in. The land used for algae biomass doesn't need to be land that currently has a lot of biomass on it. So the competition between algae biomass and natural habitats doesn't seem as severe. So I look for hopeful signs that algae for diesel fuel production will become competitive. If the Light Immersion Technology of Bionavitas works as well as they claim the cost of algae biodiesel might drop soon.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 March 04 11:40 PM  Energy Biomass

Engineer-Poet said at March 5, 2009 10:11 PM:

Cellulosic fuels are only (potentially, given proper management) superior to petroleum and coal as sources of liquid fuel; for electricity they are vastly inferior even to photovoltaics, let alone nuclear.

Fat Man said at March 5, 2009 10:42 PM:

Why couldn't algae be an input for cellulosic biofuels. One of the problems with algae bio-diesel is the vulnerability of the lipid producing algae to being displaced by wild strains. If all you want is cellulose, then any old algae is OK.

Larry said at March 7, 2009 10:48 AM:

Lately the NYT has it that the rainforest is growing back far more rapidly than it's being logged, because agriculture productivity has grown so quickly.

Isn't the more likely biofuel going to be desert-grown algae, with few or no environmental impacts? Algae is not economic today any more than cellulosics, so we can only speculate...

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