Too eager for ethanol?

Just a quick one here along the lines of my biofools series. Anyone interested in biofuels should take a look at the LA Times Editorial from Aug 20 titles “Drunk on Ethanol” which discusses many of the negatives of growing corn for ethanol and of other aspects of the crop to ethanol pipeline. Also check out the letters to the editor following up on the piece (one of them by my sister, Lisa Coffman, Executive Director of the California Water Impact Network). My personal biggest concern is the environmental damage that could come from increased use of plants to produce ethanol. Such damage includes the conversion of rainforests into sugar cane plantations, the use of more and more pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers to go onto less useful land, and the excessive use of an already limited resource – water. Yes, if you do the calculations in certain ways, ethanol seems like a great idea. And it is certainly true that if we are going to make ethanol from crops we could do it more efficiently. But the way it is being done now – with corn sucking up water like their is not tomorrow we are heading down a bad path.

What would make more sense is to first make better use of all the wasted biomass from various agricultural systems and from solid waste. Lots of material is still being burned on farms for example (see pictures below of a fire near Davis — these are going all the time, even on “spare the air” days). Sure – one can make lots of money from corn to fuel right now. But that does not make it the right thing to do when there are plenty of sources of biomass being wasted all around us. Lets hope that more of the biofuels projects work on converting leftovers not new crops.

About Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis
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4 Responses to Too eager for ethanol?

  1. Kevin Z says:

    Emmett Duffy posted on < HREF="http://naturalpatriot.org/2007/08/26/the-ethanol-solution-a-hangover-before-it-even-begins/" REL="nofollow">ethanol hangovers<> a couple days ago.

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  2. in an effort to temper the ‘biofools’ euphoria, it is good to finally start to see the water issue make more appearances in the numerous discussions re: energy crops. It always seems funny to me that even in many ‘Industrial Ecology’ papers adn talks, biofuels related discussions are often presented in a way that makes the reader believe that the authors or presenters are discussing a closed-loop system; when in fact, oftentimes no mention is made about the fickle nature of the requisite external resource (water). simple mass-balance engineering equations should address this, but they are more often than not left out of the discussion.

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  3. Yes, the closed loop system thing is an issue. And of course it is not just water that needs to be considered in open systems. I am also concerned about what is going to happen when we turn more land in the world into monocultures of crops, be it corn or sugar cane or switchgrass. We have enough monoculture to go around, it seems. And, given that these biofuel crops will not be going to food, I would guess that the pesticide and herbicide and other chemical use will be heavy, which is unlikely to be a good things.

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  4. I’ll extend your view that ‘we have enough monoculture to go around…’ and add that monoculture just doesn’t work over a lifecycle of even a few generations. And this can be supported from whatever angle one might take when analyzing (ie. water, chemical inputs, energy requirements to sustain healthy yields, soil quality, etc.). Some say the answer is in biotech, but I think otherwise (I’m not bashing biotech, I just don’t think it is the panacea that many claim). Any crop, whether it’s ultimate end use is fuel or food, has a biological limitation. Natural selection has been at work much longer than human selection, and the end use that many of these crops have been optimized for over the millenia has been to provide for the energy requirements of individual 4 or 6 legged creatures. <> Not combusion, not feeding billions <>. So of course there has been progress as nothing we eat resembles the pre-human varieties, but monoculture and modification (M&M) is only a short term fix to a much larger problem.

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