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Smells Like Progress: Here’s a Biofuel That Doesn’t Stink

Will we soon be producing our energy with waste water? A new study has found that cellulosic biofuel, a fuel produced by breaking down woody plant matter, can be produced with extremely low environmental impact using waste water. This may not sound like much, but the use of this kind of water could have a major impact on the way this energy is produced.

Biofuels have gotten a bad rap lately, mainly due to the problems with corn ethanol, which starves the world’s poor by raising food prices and has been shown to actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. Yet misguided greens and big agriculture have successfully lobbied to secure billions of dollars in government subsidies for corn ethanol in one of America’s biggest energy boondoggles.

Cellulosic ethanol passes many of the tests that corn biofuel does not. It can be grown on marginal land so as not to displace food crops, it has relatively high yields (especially compared to corn ethanol), and it passes most green tests. Indeed, one of the biggest criticisms of this “second-generation” biofuel has been the relatively high amount of water necessary for its production. But as Triple Pundit tells us, a new University of Illinois study could put that objection to rest:

Divya Ramchandran, who wrote the study as his master’s thesis, noted the water efficiency issue: the production of ethanol from corn requires three to four gallons of water for each gallon of ethanol produced; that ratio spikes up to six to 10 gallons of water for each gallon of cellulosic ethanol. In world more stricken by drought, such ratios are a huge hurdle for cellulosic ethanol—and investors—to overcome.

Should Ramchandran’s work show promise, the future of cellulosic ethanol production could shine brighter, especially since plants used as feedstock for this fuel often grow in water stressed areas from India to the San Joaquin Valley. Some ethanol plants have promised to treat their wastewater and use it for irrigation water, but the possibility of using municipal or agricultural effluent could help this holy grail of clean energy scale without the troublesome impact on local water supplies.

Though this news is promising, it’s far too early to be calling cellulosic ethanol a “holy grail” energy source. Unfortunately, that is in effect what the government has been doing through it policy. Quotas from the EPA mandated 20 million gallons of the biofuel’s production since 2010, yet actual production has been near-zero, and the quotas were eventually struck down by a federal appeals court, which called those targets “wishful thinking.” Embarrassments like these serve as a reminder that propping up new technologies with mandates and subsidies before they’re ready for the market isn’t smart policy.

Rather than setting ambitious policy goals based on wishful thinking, we would like to see more research along the lines of this University of Illinois study to make sure the technology is viable. There’s potential here, but we need to see more results before we start hailing it as a game-changer.

[Wastewater treatment plant image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

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