2007/09/23

Biofuels, Food, Solar Energy, Oil and Biorefineries

Achieving balance is challenging when large corporations, multiple governments and millions of people are involved in the balancing act; this balancing act is especially confusing when related to emerging industries such as alternative energies and the biorefinery sector.

Energy, food and profit are seeking a new balancing point in the global economy. The emergence of China as a major consumer of gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products, along with continued uncertainty in the Middle East and other oil producing regions has caused significant increases in the price of gasoline in the US and the cost of a barrel of oil around the world. Because of higher oil prices and the desire by many countries or regions to have more control over their energy supplies, much work is being done and billions of dollars are being spent to develop cost-effective energy alternatives to oil.

Articles about alternative energy and biorefineries are becoming more common. Wired Magazine recently did an informative series of articles that are a good read for people outside those industry sectors.

A high visibility intersection of alternative energy and biorefineries is bioethanol from corn kernels. Most of the liquid biofuel produced in the US is corn ethanol. Corn ethanol is being viewed by some as counterproductive from both cost and environmental standpoints. There is enough contradictory data regarding corn ethanol that it's not clear whether the government grants and price supports should be support more development of corn ethanol facilities or if that money should be shifted to cellulosic or other liquid biofuels, or possibly to solar or other energy sources.

Bioethanol can also be made from the cellulosic parts of the corn (the stalks and cobs) as well as from other forms of cellulose such as wood or switchgrass. Cellulosic ethanol currently costs significantly more to produce than corn ethanol. Much work is being done to develop technologies for cellulosic ethanol which will cost less than or the same as corn ethanol technology. However, cellulosic ethanol technology has been under development for thirty years, so there's no reason to expect a breakthrough in the next year or two. Inherent inefficiencies of the biological conversion process from solar energy to plant energy and the limited amount of currently unused arable land indicate that bioenergy is unlikely to be a primary source of energy for the needs of a developing world.

A wiki website is being developed to compare the pros and cons of the various sources of energy, including solar, wind, bio, fossil fuel and nuclear. Stay tuned to this blog for more information about that website and how you can be involved with developing the website.

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