More on Biofuels
Yesterday’s episode of NPR’s Science Friday, timely considering the New York Times article from yesterday, was on the subject of the next generation of biofuels. Ethanol produced from corn or sugar cane or diesel fuel produced from soybeans is the first generation of biofuels. The next generation of biofuels are more efficient than the previous generation, producing significantly more usable fuel than they require in petroleum to make them, and aren’t competitive with food crops for prime farmland.
Two of the specific approaches I found intriguing were this device which produces ethanol from all sorts of organic waste and using algae to produce oil. This last is particularly interesting since it can use the carbon dioxide produced by oil refineries or, presumably, power generation facilities as the part of the feed stock in the process.
Yes, there are problems with these various technologies but I think that’s part of what we need to do. We need to look at these as problems to be understood and solved rather than as insuperable obstacles calling for austerity and sacrifice. There are simple reasons for this. Sacrifice is an ever-diminishing world; solving problems is an expanding one. No one has ever built a cathedral, found a new world, or sent a rocket to the moon for the sake of future sacrifices but they might well to avoid future sacrifices.
Unfortunately, there is a Luddite strain in the environmental movement. That’s one of the things that leads skeptics to suspect that diminution of individual freedom by reducing personal transport or the creation of an all-powerful worldwide bureaucracy to control energy or land use are the objectives of the environmental movement rather than reducing global warming or cleaner air, water, and soil. IMO the best way of countering this skepticism is for advocates to embrace technology rather than rejecting it.
An important step in allowing these technologies to develop is eliminating the subsidies for the relatively undesireable first generation solutions like corn-based ethanol.
You can listen to the entire program here. There’s also a really fascinating video there on producing biodiesel from algae.
It might be interesting if the government came up with a more free-market approach to stimulate R&D in alternative sources of energy. For example, something like a promise to buy N barrels of nonfossil fuel from the lowest bidder. Kind of like a prize.