What we don’t know (yet) about biofuels
EBI director Chris Somerville on the quest to create next-generation fuels
| 17 September 2008
Alternately hailed as an energy source that will save us from global warming, or condemned as a pork-barrel payout to agribusiness, biofuels get mixed marks these days in the public mind. For Chris Somerville, director of the recently created Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), whether and how these futuristic fuels can be “truly positive” for carbon emissions and our energy supply is, as the saying goes, “in the details.”
The institute he heads has a lot on its research plate: Which crops should be grown for biofuels? How would their large-scale cultivation affect land prices, food supply, and food prices? What’s their impact on soils, waterways, the air, and nearby food crops? Under what conditions would farmers choose to grow biofuel crops? When all the energy involved in their production is accounted for, is there a net gain?
It’s been a year and a half since EBI — a $500 million, 10-year research initiative to explore biological approaches to the production of clean, sustainable energy — was publicly announced. In this interview with Public Affairs’ Cathy Cockrell, excerpted here from a longer version posted on the campus NewsCenter this week, Somerville describes the web of scientific, technical, and social questions that EBI researchers — from Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the BP energy company — have begun to probe in an attempt to “truly understand” the potential benefits and pitfalls of large-scale biofuel production.
What EBI research teams have been assembled so far, and what questions are they trying to address?
Our goal is to try to understand, in the broadest sense, the issues, opportunities, and scientific problems associated with biofuels — whether biofuels are a good idea or not. And also to understand whether we can solve the specific technical issues that are associated. Over the past nine months we’ve implemented the first phases of the research program, so that we’re now supporting about 50 research groups across a very wide range of disciplines, all focused on one general topic right now — biofuels. Of the 50 research groups, 17 are in what we call socioeconomics and environmental science. These are topics for which there’s no conceivable patentability; they’re strictly there to help us understand the field.
Could you expand on the topics that these social-science and environmental experts are investigating?
One question is macroeconomics. Dave Zilberman, a Berkeley professor of agriculture and resource economics, is working on the general-equilibrium economic model for the world economy, to understand how large expansion in cellulosic biofuels would affect prices of other kinds of commodities on a world basis.
We’re also doing micro-economics. For example, Madhu Khanna, an expert in agricultural and resource economics at the University of Illinois, is trying to understand what the economic implications are regionally — and ultimately around the world — but right now she’s focused on the United States. So what does it mean to southern Illinois, for example, if a biofuel-processing plant goes in there? What does that do to the price of land, and the competition for growing various things, and the required investment in regional infrastructure?
We have two teams of academic lawyers, working with Madhu, trying to understand what the regulatory climate would be for biofuel production in the farming community. For example, farmers depend to a certain extent on crop insurance from the federal government to protect them against crop failures. Well, there’s no such thing as crop insurance for biofuel crops. So for the farmer growing corn for biofuels, there would be crop insurance — but for switchgrass there wouldn’t be. So that will affect not only the willingness of farmers to grow switchgrass but the prices of their biofuel crops, because there’s a risk associated with failure. It’s a very complex interplay of land use and costs.
We also have several big environmental- research groups looking at every aspect they can think of regarding these dedicated energy crops. So they’re looking at greenhouse-gas emissions, at whether any nitrogen runoff takes place, or whether there are nitrous-oxide emissions to consider with one approach or carbon-sequestration benefits with another. They’re looking at the pests and pathogens associated with energy crops, to see whether they might affect food crops as well.
We’re also doing a lot of lifecycle work. About seven faculty, altogether, are looking at full-lifecycle costs for projected types of biofuels made from dedicated energy crops. They’re trying to calculate the full energy inputs and outputs — including the costs of making and applying the fertilizer, of making the tractors . . . everything you could possibly insert into those calculations. But they’re also looking at greenhouse-gas inputs and outputs, because understanding the full environmental implications of biofuels is a very important aspect of this work.
Which crops are you concentrating on?
We’re not doing any work on corn ethanol or soybean biodiesel. We’re entirely about next-generation, dedicated energy crops such as Miscanthus. To get reasonable utilization of solar energy, you have to have very highly productive plants, and Miscanthus is very highly productive.
Corn, by comparison, is between one-third and one-half as efficient as Miscanthus in terms of total biomass accumulation, if you count the corn stalks and the grain. Miscanthus has quite a strong advantage, as well, in that it involves no fertilizer, no irrigation, no runoff, no erosion. So people are talking about bracketing corn crops with these energy crops, to try and capture all the nitrogen, and the soil and mineral nutrients, that are running off the corn crops before they get into the rivers.
What, if anything, does EBI hope to contribute uniquely to the biofuels question?
There’s a tremendous amount of activity in the field right now — small institutes and companies, hundreds of start-up companies, all chipping away at some piece of the puzzle. Something that we at EBI can uniquely do is try to integrate all that information. We don’t have an “invented here” syndrome; we’re just as interested in what people are discovering elsewhere as what we’re discovering here. We’re building a group of colleagues across all the disciplines, one that should be connected, through the normal academic networks, to knowledge creation elsewhere in the world, in all the fields. If we can integrate that knowledge, we think that will be probably our most unique contribution. That’s really compatible with what a big public university should do, in my opinion: integrate and rationalize, or make sense out of, information.
I think that’s actually much more valuable than making any specific discovery — understanding all the pieces as a whole. There’s no other organization that’s doing that right now.
What if the research indicates that, despite their early promise, biofuels are environmentally unsustainable?
Our big goal is to try and do something positive for climate change. There’s lots of coal, and there’s lots of oil. So there’s no reason to turn toward biofuels if you don’t care about climate change. But if you do care, we need to start looking for ways to decarbonize the energy supply. And it really matters to us whether biofuels are truly positive for carbon emissions. They need to be seriously positive to be interesting to us.
If we’re not convinced that this can be done in a really environmentally sustainable way that addresses the major challenge, there are other things we can do with the resources. Our mandate is to understand the application of modern biology to the energy sector. If we were to decide, after serious investigation, that we didn’t like the looks of biofuels — for environmental or some other reasons — we would turn toward some other aspect of the energy sector.
What is your assessment of the current national conversation on biofuels? Is public understanding more nuanced than it was, say, a few years ago?
Unfortunately, the press is not very good at distinguishing among the many different kinds of biofuels. “Biofuels,” in public discourse, means corn ethanol, sugar-cane ethanol, and rape seed or soybean diesel. We’re not in favor of three of those four. We think that sugar-cane ethanol is environmentally positive, but we don’t think the other three are.
It would be very useful to make a change in the lingo. We’d like to find a way to distinguish what we’re doing from what are currently considered “biofuels” — because we’re actually not in favor of some of those things. We’re specifically not in favor of biodiesel, or much of it. If you have some used cooking oil or tallow kicking around, putting it into biodiesel is environmentally attractive. But manufacturing it from rape seed or soybean — that’s actually a bad use of land.
From a hectare [2.47 acres] of soybeans, for example, you can get, maximum, about 200 gallons of biodiesel. From a hectare of Miscanthus you can get 2,000 gallons of ethanol. And that hectare of soybeans also requires a lot of inputs, and suffers from erosion and runoff. With a hectare of Miscanthus, on the other hand, there are no runoffs that we’re aware of, no emissions. I think it’s irresponsible to use soybean acres to produce tiny amounts of fuel, diverting land away from food production. We envision the energy crops we’re interested in being grown on land that doesn’t compete with food production.
What is the likely future of alternative energy, in the near and long terms?
There are some exciting technologies under development. The one that interests me most is what’s called “photoelectric chemistry.” I would distinguish that from photovoltaics, which involves using photons to make electricity: Photoelectric chemistry uses photons to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Some materials that can now be produced as coatings will do that, for a short period of time. My hope is that in the next 20 or 25 years, those photoelectric materials can be developed — making it possible to produce large amounts of hydrogen in a cost-effective manner on a very large scale.
In the long run, I feel fairly optimistic that photoelectric chemistry may offer a long-term solution. But we’re quite far away from it. We’re not going to be able to do that, probably, in my lifetime.
I should say that today, wind is mature. There’s a lot of opportunity to produce energy from wind, and there’s also a lot of opportunity to produce energy from geothermal right now. Those are ready to go, and we should be expanding those very strongly. I see biofuels as a stopgap — something that can help us deal with the challenge for the next 50 years, while we get some better technologies.
Not all biofuels are created equal
(Source: Madhu Khanna, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)