Bio-fuels: A Band-Aid Approach

The world today is much different than it was a mere 200 years ago. Change is not surprising; it is a result of development, growth, and life itself carried out. Ian McHarg, in a speech entitled The Planetary Disease of Man stated, “We are engaged at adaptation for survival at every level — cells in you, tissues in you, organs in you, you in a community, you in an ecosystem, all ecosystems in a biosphere — all are engaged in trying to find a creative fit (I. McHarg 640).” A disconnect from the natural realm has led humans to live industrialized lives, thinking nothing of this fit in regard to the world around us. The human today is part of a very anthropocentric ethical system. The goal is to succeed in a society,
in a system, in which humans are highly regarded in comparison to everything else. Just below is a picture of Dubai, currently the fastest growing city in the world. This place was a “desert” much like Las Vegas just 10 years ago.

As a result of our growth as a global civilization, geographies are shrinking, as large distances are now smaller in relative perception to the individual. An individual travels greater distances in a day than many would travel in a lifetime 200 years ago. These innovations, however, have not only provided a primary source of disconnect from our ecosystem, but also have a highly negative effect on our environment, whether it be destruction of land through infrastructure development, or the most pressing problem of waste. The primary waste concern with transportation has to do with the power or the fuel of the product itself. The fuel of cars, buses, airplanes and other petroleum powered transportation vehicles is based around fossil fuel consumption. The emissions from the burning of petroleum have a highly negative effect on the biosphere, leaving a fast-paced, technology-driven civilization searching for answers.

Gravity

The scope of the problem provided by toxic emissions produced from oil based fuel engines is larger that most environmental issues. With over 51 million cars to be produced in 2009 (Cars Produced), even trace chemicals emitted from one vehicle have disastrous affects when applied at this scale. The primary toxic chemicals emitted from petroleum combustion engines are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and lead. However, the most disastrous emission
happens to be a compound that is expelled naturally from every animal. CO2 expelled from engines has contributed to an imbalance of a natural symbiotic relationship that every plant and animal enjoys the benefits of every day. The US in particular is the biggest culprit with net CO2 emissions annually reaching 5,984 million metric tons in 2007 (US Carbon Dioxide).

All these modes of transportation need infrastructure as well. Roads, railroad tracks, and runways are tearing up our environment, leaving the landscape with pock marks to remind us of our dependence. The focus of this essay however, is not to discuss the degrading effects of this infrastructure but to understand the scope of the problem systemically; a critical understanding of this component is crucial.

A modest move away from these vehicles, a common opinion provided by some popular quasi-environmentalists like Orson Scott Card, provide an answer, but how realistic is it? In a high-speed society, reliance on these quick-fix means of transportation is necessary for adoption by the average consumer just to keep up; no one wants to sacrifice their independence, speed and ability to come and go (quickly) as they please and it is a requirement in many cases. Individuals would fight to continue their lifestyle before even thinking of the repercussions revealed in recent years. As McHarg mentioned in his vital speech on Man, these so-called misfits are pathogens, a cancer on the biosphere (McHarg 635).

The reliance and dependence on cars, buses and planes also stems from a modern mythology, rich in false information and misreading of available information. The mythology is that the expense of being green is too costly and therefore unattainable. Anyone versed in economics, however, knows that once the technology is identified, and the means to scale it are developed, the more following and backing it receives the quicker the costs will decrease. This is the economic curve of scaling technology. Scaling is a large issue to tackle, however, pertaining to not only cost scaling, but also mass production as well as societal embrace. Shrouded in myth as well is the individual cooperation of citizens. The tendency of many individuals is to feel as though they cannot make a difference; however, every change has to start at an individual level and there is much that a person can do. The lack of change is in part due to a simple lack of relevant education amongst a large fraction of the population, coupled with the individual’s perception of the possible impact of their efforts. This same type of information-action disconnects shows up in nearly every environmental issue. Individuals need to realize that everyone is a part of the problem, and that everyone needs to do his or her part to amend it. This lack of effort just seems to be yet another incarnation of a societal system, induced by delusional self-oriented members of a society, which Hardin identified in the late sixties (Hardin, Garret J).

2008 brought a slight decline in CO2 emissions by comparison to the past years in the US; however, the oil price spike had to play a part in this decline. What happened as the oil spike subsided? Car use once again returned to a happy dependence found in oblivion to past events. This quick respite from excusing any task by just using a car was a time for green technologies to strike, and it was. Companies, industries, and corporations saw that Americans, as well as any other nation’s citizens, would not adhere to a price gauge without a behavioral change. These responses have paved the road necessary for forward thinking projects on ethanol and biofuel development to realize their full market potential, thus buying more backers and fueling a push for change. The individual still needs to understand that change is incremental and there will not be one cure-all. There will be many band-aids applied to the wound before a true solution is met. The video below is a speech given at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in April 2009 by the founder Amory Lovins describing a positive future, the speech is titled “Image a World”.

Development

In response to the environmental problems of today, many chemical, agricultural and biotechnology companies are marshaling their resources alone, and in some cases as collaborations, to provide solutions. Ethanol-based fuel is one of the most prominent biofuel research operations underway. It is currently one of the most effective fuel alternatives. As a fuel source, it can be blended with gasoline as anhydrous ethanol and can work in most standard cars on the road today. It is produced through hydration of ethylene, primarily in host crops of corn or sugar. Interest in ethanol as a fuel has been widespread since inception. Currently, Brazil has the largest percentage of supporting products and consumers of ethanol fuel; the country achieved that current status through a long and highly incremental change. Starting in the late seventies, Brazil passed policy mandating ethanol content minimums in gasoline. By 1977, Brazil mandated that 20 percent of gasoline be ethanol. Thirty years later, cars in the United States typically still only run on up to 10 percent ethanol. Brazil has also provided tax incentives over time to produce and purchase lite-ethanol vehicles.

The appeal of ethanol fuel is quite strong, though there are great negatives attached to the existing ethanol development practices. These negatives are amplified when large industrialized nations are trying to get up to speed at a rapid pace. Crop cycles are an agricultural practice that humans have understood for thousands of years. The crop must change every few years to avoid soil degradation as well as to replace vital nutrients necessary for growth. Whether corn produces food or ethanol, the crop can’t always be corn and impatient scaling can have disastrous outcomes as rain forest land and other important ecosystems are destroyed to keep up with demand as has been the case in Borneo and parts of South America.

The most important aspect of the agricultural issues surrounding ethanol development is the so-called food versus fuel quandary. Simply stated, the issue is: should a crop be used for food or for fuel? In a world with poverty and far reaching hunger, this issue has social and political ramifications. The 2007-2008 world-food crises were rooted in food scarcity, however, the crisis was in part self perpetuating: when the price of food exceeds the ability of the consumer to pay for it, the food gets moved to a location where a profitable sale can be made. This paradoxically causes the “scarcity.” The US’s greatest crop yield each year is corn. Corn also happens to be the currently most feasible way for the US to produce ethanol from crops. In three years US corn prices have tripled, maize prices have almost tripled, wheat is estimated up 127 percent and rice is up 170 percent. Through the years 1974 to 2005, food prices actually decreased. This spike in prices has produced more hunger and more discontent. The US and other large nations cannot switch as fast as they would like using existing ethanol development operations, so the search for alternative source development has become the focus for new research efforts by companies like DuPont and Genencore and collaborative efforts between the Department of Energy and oil-producing companies such as Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

Cellulosic ethanol development is a proposed new process for biofuel development. Cellulosic ethanol is quite different from typical ethanol. Cellulose bearing organic material, biomass, is used to produce fuel through an enzyme created for the specific process. Issues with cellulosic ethanol development are very clear. The yields per hectare of land are nowhere near as high, and the process is twice as costly in comparison to producing ethanol from corn (Gardner). Furthermore, the process is not streamlined in comparison to typical feedstock ethanol practices. However, cellulosic ethanol development is opening up a much wider range of potential crop fields used for biomass.

Switchgrass is a crop under heavy research. Switchgrass can grow very easily with little to no maintenance, it produces as large amount of biomass per hectare and it is a fast developing plant species. However, there are many skeptics of the use of switch grass biofuel development. Patzek mentions the corn and switchgrass industries and states that implementing the new 55 million acre switchgrass quota will inevitably eliminate space for other crops (Patzek, “Why Cellulosic Ethanol Will Not Save Us?”). Reaching the appropriate growth and manufacturing scale also poses a great issue. Some economists have argued for an incentive program (Morris 3). Scaling this macro in such a short period, however, almost always results in failure and collapse of the original thesis. It is important to remember that soil content and local weather impact which crops will grow on a given piece of land, furthermore much of our nations suburban housing is being constructed on what might otherwise be prime farmland. Go here for more thoughts and calculations on land use for biofuels.

Sequestration of CO2 is another grave concern with ethanol practices. In order to become carbon negative or at least carbon neutral, the life cycle of the whole system must be under critical review (McDonough, Braungart, “Waste Equals Food”). In switchgrass, sequestration is a concern with the root system left in place after harvest. The leftover biomass cannot be used for animal grain feed as it can in the case of corn and sugar cane. The leftover biomass must be burned, requiring more time and energy.

Conclusion

Considering all the issues with new and old practices in ethanol development, the benefits are still very great, especially on a local level. Using ethanol as fuel is a cleaner practice for fuel, and the engine technology is readily available and waiting for implementation. Cars developed with “flex” technology allow for greater mileage with nearly a closed lifecycle in terms of CO2 emission. The cooperation of car industries is essential to put this technology into action but individual vehicles can be converted affordably. Switch grass cellulosic ethanol development and algae biofuels are the most promising of the ethanol production methods on a global scale.

Switch grass ethanol extraction will play a vital role in the band aid global environmental recovery. The potential for the technology is far greater than initially speculated. The policies pertaining to development of such practices are giving an appropriate push for the technology. In contrast, global powers need to provide more policy cohesion in relation to this backing. As a crop that has the ability to maintain itself, switch grass crop implementation needs to pick up over the next few years. Country to country networking and decision making in the future can potentially yield to continents such as Africa to be more influential and vital in the growth processes and extraction methods.

The development of new ethanol practices must be clearly and plainly understood; it is likely that no single practice will be a cure-all. As mentioned before, these developments are all band-aid solutions until a new innovation is researched, designed, and implemented. Individuals are a crucial component to change and they must get past the perceived limitation of impact surrounding their efforts. Cooperation is the only way globally to correct the errors of our ways. Through proper knowledge and understanding of the issue everyone can help to avoid the bleak future that is waiting with failure.

Cited Sources

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