It doesn’t need to be said that there’s a heated debate about how to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions with actions that lessen our society’s carbon footprint. Biofuels like ethanol or biodiesel are one option. They’re touted as being carbon neutral because the CO2 they emit comes from crops which had previously sequestered them in the atmosphere. In contrast, petroleum produces CO2 emissions that had previously been buried deep in the earth’s crust, adding to the other green house gases in the environment. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy – citing research by the Argonne National Laboratory – states that ethanol derived from corn emits 25% less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum and that the savings with cellulosic ethanol, made from a feedstock like switchgrass, are much higher, in effect producing no additional greenhouse gases.

So when QUEST decided to move forward on producing a story about biofuels, I welcomed the opportunity to assist Series Producer Josh Rosen in its crafting. Being QUEST, we weren’t content to merely renumerate the different kinds of biofuels and how cellulosic ethanol is more efficient than corn-based ethanol. Instead, our story focuses on the pioneering work being done by researchers affiliated with the Joint BioEnergy Initiative (JBEI), a multi-billion dollar research initiative based in Emeryville, as they look beyond ethanol to the next generation of biofuels. So not only is JBEI looking at various feedstocks like switchgrass, rice, poplar and innovative ways to “deconstruct” the cellulosic material, it also attempts to synthesize fuels that work more efficiently in America’s automotive fleet, still overwhelmingly reliant on gasoline.

But even top researchers at JBEI like Jay Keasling and Blake Simmons caution that this next generation of biofuels won’t be coming online for years. Moreover, new research suggests that the net production cycle of biofuels, from the clear-cutting of trees to grow the crops to their transport to markets far away, may yield as many or more emissions as the use of petroleum-based fuel. A recent Op-Ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by UC Berkeley Alex Farrell cites the reason for this as primarily one of production– the way we clear land for growing biofuels, as well as our emphasis on the use of food-based crops like corn and soybean, which aren’t terribly efficient sources of ethanol to begin with.

Tad Patzek, also at UC Berkeley, has been an ardent critic of the carbon-neutral reputation of biofuels, garnering controversy for conducting studies that some other researchers have criticized for their calculations of emissions arising from biofuel production. (See Patzek’s co-authored article on page 19 of the March 2007 edition of Energy Tribune). Earlier this year, a study by researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute suggests that biofuels are not created equal, as those made from U.S. corn, Malaysian palm oil and Brazilian soy yield more emissions than their petroleum-based counterparts, given the environmental damage they reap when grown for fuel. The study cites recycled cooking oil and biofuel made from grassy and woody cellulosic material as being more intelligent choices for cutting down on emissions.

And so the debate continues, struggling to keep pace with the technological progress made by scientists toiling away in their quest to find the holy grail of an efficient, cheap and environmentally-friendly biofuel.

Producer’s Notes – Biofuels: Beyond Ethanol 14 March,2016Sheraz Sadiq

  • David Simmons

    Hey why don’t you air the 10 episodes that you already have from 1983 that David Blume did for you then and got pulled by %$#@ron??
    Probably still applicable to making ethanol as a fuel then as it is today.

  • Dr M

    yes. Are those tapes still in your possession? Blume is a great thinker, though sometimes too sure of himself. But what happened there with CCHHEEVVRROONN is crooked.

  • I have been wondering if we humans aren’t doing the earth a favor by bringing carbon back above the earth’s surface. Think about it: All of that carbon was above the surface to begin with and when those ancient plants/animals died, the ecosystems lost all of that carbon. Furthermore, the earth has been in a 3 million year cooling cycle, and we could be helping to stabilize the temperature by adding our global warming. Just a thought.

  • Richard Watterson

    I think if you have been there and done that you are allowed to be sure of what you have accomplished. This sop to the oil company’s continued domination of our energy future is a continuation of KQED’s bow to the oil company sponsors in the ’80s. A critical viewing of this, with quotes like “…we want to produce something that is just like the 91 octane of today”, and the focus on the intricate bioengineering and genetic modifications necessary to produce this witches brew makes it easily apparent what the agenda is. They simply want to produce gasoline from biological sources and fit it seamlessly into the current system of fuel production and distribution complete with all the environmental devastation and price gouging. Be prepared for drug company style, “we own the patent and we will make you pay” to keep prices high all to “protect the environment”. Blume’s vision on the other hand is of an inherently democratic distributed system where ethanol is produced by local operations in harmony with production of food and without ecological harm.

    It does only seem fair that KQED should answer David Blume’s criticism of their handling of his series. Are you embarrassed KQED.

  • It wouldn’t “yield as many or more emissions” if the trucks used to transport the material, and the factories used to turn the material into fuel, were also run by that same biofuel. In other words, if the you use biofuel to transport the material and to produce biofuel, as long as you are producing more than you are using, then it you are reducing net carbon output.

  • Tasman (Australia)

    In the video the name a potential enzyme used in deconstruction of cellulose. I am having trouble finding it is it possible to some how get access to the chemical details regarding that enzyme.

Author

Sheraz Sadiq

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor