Monday, November 12, 2007


Producing Fuels with Biomass: The Obstacle No One Sees

Much work is being done on biofuels and hydrogen, which are in the spotlight because fossil fuels keep getting more expensive. But that also means that sooner or later farmers will be forced to abandon chemical agricultural inputs, because they’re made with oil and natural gas. What will they use instead? Of course they’ll go back to organic matter. As will the millions of people who will in the near future become backyard gardeners just to keep food on the table.

Can you see trouble brewing here? Fuel producers who use biomass will plant feedstock crops, but when they come back in a couple of months for the harvest, they’ll find their crops have already been cut by local farmers and gardeners looking for organic inputs. And food will trump car fuel, any day.

So, coming up with nifty new technologies to make ethanol or hydrogen or whatever is going to be the easy part. Building a biofuel or hydrogen plant will be relatively easy. The hard part will be coming up with feedstock.

Farmers will not give up crop residue on their fields or the animal dung in their barnyards for biofuels because those materials will be badly needed fertilizer. Think you’ll be able to use fallen leaves in your bioreactors? Fageddaboutit. Roadside weeds? No way. Wood chips? Makers of compost will snap them up. Food producers are going to compete head-on with fuel producers for biomass, and as drought conditions entrench themselves in the US due to climate change, it’s only going to get worse. Anything organic at all will be in high demand as soil amendments.

Yet if you read all the articles about biofuels and hydrogen, they just center on the technology and take feedstock for granted. But in the future the limited availability of feedstock is going to be the major stumbling block to making fuels using biomass.

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