Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, April 21, 2008

From the "Even I saw this coming" department...

Folks who are interested in preserving the environment are probably aware of oil substitutes like biofuels, or liquid fuels made from organic material. There has been a lot of talk about biofuels as a way to allow us to have our cake and eat it too (i.e. get off of fossil fuels but not have to cut back on fuel usage). At heart the idea is simple, and not entirely unreasonable: since fossil fuels are manufactured* out of organic material over millions of years, perhaps we could do the same thing in a much shorter span of time. Either way, what we basically have is a way of converting energy from the sun into a liquid form that we can burn in an internal combustion motor and- however you look at it- that's super cool. Of course, there are problems with this. Big problems. I've tackled one of them before: that producing biofuel out of crops is intrinsically inefficient and wasteful. As such, I have always doubted that biofuels would be all that effective at improving our energy situation.

Well, as it turns out, I was correct but, unfortunately, missed the more immediate implications. I was, and am, correct that growing crops to produce biofuel is a horribly inefficient and wasteful approach to generating power. What I missed, however, is that the first victims of this inefficiency would be the world's poor. As it turns out, the increasing use of biofuels is hitting them where it hurts the most- their stomachs:

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Friday that the growing emphasis on corn-based ethanol has contributed to higher food prices, and he said the nation should begin "moving away gradually" from ethanol made from food such as corn.

"As we pursue diversity in our overall energy mix, we must also pursue diversity in our biofuels," Mr. Bodman said at a conference in Alexandria, Va. "This means moving away gradually from ethanol produced from foodstocks like corn."

Mr. Bodman's remarks come as efforts to make motor-vehicle fuels from grains such as corn are coming under fire amid soaring world food prices and food riots in several countries. A U.N. report Tuesday called biofuels a "crime against humanity."

As I've said before, we can either make ourselves feel good about the environment, or we can actually do good for the environment.

I know which one I prefer, how about you?

* Manufactured by that enormous factory I like to call, "the Earth."

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Blogger Marf said...

Biofuels still produce pollutants as well.

I think the way to have our cake and eat it too is energy from solar panels, wind turbines, and hydroelectric dams. Once you have an abundance of energy in that form, it's easy to convert to other forms. Even if the conversion process is highly inefficient, if you have an abundance of energy it doesn't really matter.

For example, you can do electrolysis of water to get hydrogen. It's inefficient and you loose much of the energy in the process, but then you'd have a fuel to use in vehicles that can't always be connected to a power grid. And the exhaust is water...

Monday, April 21, 2008 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

As with so many things, we have to be careful with kneejerk naysaying. From what I understand, Drek is right about the inefficiency of biofuels AS THEY ARE NOW. But there's virtually no way to practically develop the innovations required to eventually make it efficient without getting it moving on a large scale. So arguing that it's not as efficient as fossil fuel industries have become is a little unfair to a nascent technology.

Monday, April 21, 2008 12:58:00 PM  
Blogger Marf said...

Steven is right, you have to allow a technology time to develop and become more efficient.

However, you can't totally ignore the more immediate effect of raising food prices either.

Biofuels may become very efficient with new technologies and techniques; after a third of the world starves to death in the meantime. (an exaggeration, to make the point)

Monday, April 21, 2008 1:23:00 PM  

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