Regarding the Los Angeles Times article published in The Japan Times on Feb. 7, “Studies say gas emissions raised by biofuel farming”: Current discussions remind me of early discussions in Europe about reusable glass bottles and plastic bottles. The logic then was that glass could be reused (good) while plastic was thrown away (bad) — until this too-simplistic view was reversed in a more in-depth environmental analysis. Although glass bottles survive about seven cycles, they require 10 times more energy to produce and are heavy, resulting in higher transportation and recycling costs, etc. The solution for high return rates was reusable PET bottles and a high deposit on one-way bottles.
Biofuels seem to go the same way under “cradle to grave” analysis. The first generation of vegetable oil biodiesel and ethanol from sugar or starch failed miserably despite billions in investment. Now the honeymoon is over: Free waste oil has become a commodity, prices for virgin feedstock have tripled over the past two years, and negative environmental impacts have been reported. The first generation has hit a brick wall.
Second-generation cellulosic ethanol from waste wood and other biomass is years away from feasibility and whether the energy balance to produce one liter of fuel ever becomes positive is still questionable.
But there is now hope with the third generation — rediscovered inedible high energy plants like Miscanthus, Jatropha and Castor beans, growing on semi-arid land in developing countries. Combined with latest conversion technologies such as catalytic depolymerization, which can also convert waste material like biosolids in the municipal waste of developed countries, these plants give hope that biofuels can help save our climate. We just have to think first and not act on impulse.