The food or fuel debate rumbles on with new figures indicating that a quarter of the US entire grain crop was turned into ethanol last year.
According to the Earth Policy Institute, which analysed US Department of Agriculture figures, the amount of grain being transformed into fuel for cars has tripled since 2004 with 200 ethanol distilleries now operating in the US.
But the Earth Policy Institute maintains that even if the entire US grain crop was converted into ethanol (leaving none to provide bread, rice, pasta or animal feed), it would meet only 18% of the country’s automotive fuel needs.
The US is also the world’s largest grain exporter – more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined – so what happens to grain prices in the US has wide ranging consequences.
When grain prices rose in 2006-2008, low-income grain-importing countries were hard hit and the number of those going hungry in the world reached over one billion for the first time.
The 107 million tons of grain used in US ethanol distilleries in the US last year would be enough to feed 330 million people for a year. Or put another way, the amount of grain needed to produce enough biofuel to fill the tank of an SUV would feed one person for a year.
Continuing to mandate and subsidise the production of biofuel using food crops, as the US Government is doing, is likely to reinforce rising hunger levels, says the Earth Policy Institute.
Meanwhile, the trade association for the algae biofuel industry, the Algal Biomass Organization (ABO), has responded strongly to a report published by US researchers questioning the green credentials of the industry.
The study by US researchers at the University of Virginia claims that production of biofuel from algae consumes more energy, has higher greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than other feedstocks.
The ABO, however, says the report’s findings are based on “obsolete data and grossly outdated business models” and has overlooked “tremendous improvements in technology and processes across the production cycle”.
Many algae companies have moved away from the approaches detailed in the University of Virginia report, instead focusing on production facilities that are co-located with large CO2 emitters and use non-potable, non-agricultural water.
Ways of reducing emissions and reusing energy, through biodigester biogas combustion coupled with the carbon recycling, are also now being employed.
“The truth is that the algae industry is already well beyond the obvious improvements these authors suggest, and as we add these new efficiencies algae will become much more environmentally beneficial,” says Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.
For further information:
A. F. Clarens, E. P. Resurreccion, M. A. White and L. M. Colosi. Environmental Life Cycle Comparison of Algae to Other Bioenergy Feedstocks. Environmental Science & Technology (2010) DOI: 10.1021/es902838n
Algal biofuels not as green as claimed? (22-Jan)
US invests $80 million in advanced biofuels, but is policy flawed? (14-Jan)
Report raises fresh concerns about biofuels (16-Nov 2009)
Biofuels can be ‘done right’, say US scientists (24-Jul 2009)
A principled approach to biofuels (26-Jun 2008)
26 January 2010