Producer's Notes - Biofuels: Beyond Ethanol

It doesn't need to be said that there's a heated debate about how to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions with actions that lessen our society's carbon footprint. Biofuels like ethanol or biodiesel are one option. They're touted as being carbon neutral because the CO2 they emit comes from crops which had previously sequestered them in the atmosphere. In contrast, petroleum produces CO2 emissions that had previously been buried deep in the earth's crust, adding to the other green house gases in the environment. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy - citing research by the Argonne National Laboratory – states that ethanol derived from corn emits 25% less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum and that the savings with cellulosic ethanol, made from a feedstock like switchgrass, are much higher, in effect producing no additional greenhouse gases.

So when QUEST decided to move forward on producing a story about biofuels, I welcomed the opportunity to assist Series Producer Josh Rosen in its crafting. Being QUEST, we weren't content to merely renumerate the different kinds of biofuels and how cellulosic ethanol is more efficient than corn-based ethanol. Instead, our story focuses on the pioneering work being done by researchers affiliated with the Joint BioEnergy Initiative (JBEI), a multi-billion dollar research initiative based in Emeryville, as they look beyond ethanol to the next generation of biofuels. So not only is JBEI looking at various feedstocks like switchgrass, rice, poplar and innovative ways to “deconstruct” the cellulosic material, it also attempts to synthesize fuels that work more efficiently in America's automotive fleet, still overwhelmingly reliant on gasoline.

But even top researchers at JBEI like Jay Keasling and Blake Simmons caution that this next generation of biofuels won't be coming online for years. Moreover, new research suggests that the net production cycle of biofuels, from the clear-cutting of trees to grow the crops to their transport to markets far away, may yield as many or more emissions as the use of petroleum-based fuel. A recent Op-Ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by UC Berkeley Alex Farrell cites the reason for this as primarily one of production-- the way we clear land for growing biofuels, as well as our emphasis on the use of food-based crops like corn and soybean, which aren't terribly efficient sources of ethanol to begin with.

Tad Patzek, also at UC Berkeley, has been an ardent critic of the carbon-neutral reputation of biofuels, garnering controversy for conducting studies that some other researchers have criticized for their calculations of emissions arising from biofuel production. (See Patzek's co-authored article on page 19 of the March 2007 edition of Energy Tribune). Earlier this year, a study by researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute suggests that biofuels are not created equal, as those made from U.S. corn, Malaysian palm oil and Brazilian soy yield more emissions than their petroleum-based counterparts, given the environmental damage they reap when grown for fuel. The study cites recycled cooking oil and biofuel made from grassy and woody cellulosic material as being more intelligent choices for cutting down on emissions.

And so the debate continues, struggling to keep pace with the technological progress made by scientists toiling away in their quest to find the holy grail of an efficient, cheap and environmentally-friendly biofuel.