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.
Well, it sounds a bit crazy but amazingly it turns out to be true. I originally overheard this at a recent conference on biofuels where some venture capitalists hosted a lunch to discuss new possible sources of biofuel production. And a representative of a major international fishing company said they had been approached by a small Pacific Island nation promoting the following idea. The plan is to harvest ALL biomass in their territorial waters surrounding the island and to turn this biomass into fuel. The way they see it, fish, seaweed, algae, and other organisms contain vast reservoirs of material that if processes efficiently could become a significant new source for ethanol production. The questions they were asking related to how much it would cost to simply design giant nets that could collect everything in the water. Apparently, they were even interested in what it would take to collect algae and other microbes.
The way they see it, biofuel production may be more financially rewarding than selling fish and if they could make use of all the other stuff in the water, they might have enough biomass to produce vast amounts of fuel.
I personally love this idea. People are struggling to squeeze the last little bit out of the light that hits the surface of the land on the planet in terms of balancing food and fuel production. So why not simply collect biomass directly from the oceans and turn this into raw material for biofuels? The key question is – how much material could one get? It turns out, quite a bit. It is estimated that the microbial content of ocean surface water is enormous (in particular if one includes the viruses). All one would need is a way of filtering these organisms out of the water (or maybe precipitating them) to supplement the biomass found in the seaweed and larval invertebrates and other organisms. And much of this material will be much easier to process than plant biomass since one will not have the problem of converting lignin and cellulose into usable carbon compounds.
So I believe the time is ripe for an ocean biomass conversion program to be begun to supplement that biofuel production on land. Seems to me like BP and Chevron and the oil companies should be looking into this since they already know a great deal about harvesting material in a marine environment.
NOTE – this is the first posting in a new biofool initiative here at the Tree of Life. Though I support some aspects of the biofuel movement, other parts I think need some reworking. Stay tuned for more brilliant commentary on the issue.