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Flora As Fuel
A Biofuel Boondoggle Boon

Scientists have discovered a new method for converting plant matter into biofuel. Ars Technica reports:

[R]esearchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison have figured out a chemical treatment that, given a bit of time, can completely dissolve any plant matter including wood. The end result is a solution containing mostly sugars, along with a few other organic molecules—some of which can be shunted off to synthesize the key ingredient of the chemical treatment itself.

These sugars can then be converted in to ethanol. The upside is that we could more easily convert non-food crops—even trees—into biofuel, and use more of our corn crops for food. Biofuel feedstocks could be increasingly grown on marginal land, leaving the better tracts to food crops. That would help undo America’s biofuels boondoggle, and could help bring down global food prices.

Like many of these discoveries, this new process isn’t ready to compete with corn-based ethanol on cost, but that could change. This kind of research can help right our very wrong biofuels policy, and that’s worth recognition.

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  • Kavanna

    If it’s waste byproduct, and not food, hoo-ray!

    • gabrielsyme

      Waste byproducts are the principal sound basis for creating biofuels. Some forestry models might also make sense. However, any planting done to make ethanol, whether a food crop or not will inevitably displace other crops, raising worldwide food prices and consequently starving people. If there were a firm regulatory framework that meant such biofuel crops would only be planted on marginal lands (and I’m sceptical such a framework could be reliably developed or implemented, given the realities of government), this would result in a huge amount of natural habitat being brought into cultivation. Such newly-cultivated fields typically release a large amount of greenhouse gases, largely offsetting the carbon benefit. And the other environmental costs to such a programme would definitely make such an industry a net negative for the environment.

  • Andrew Allison

    No, no, no! Ethanol, however produced is, as TAI has frequently proclaimed, an environmental disaster. Given the abundance of fossil fuel, why on earth would anybody want to produce more ethanol?

    • rheddles

      If you don’t like ethanol, how about whiskey?

      • Andrew Allison

        See above.

        • TommyTwo

          Oh no! I’m sheeing double. No more drinkin. I tink I need a lie-down.

    • TommyTwo

      Because you can’t drink foshil fuels. Cheers!

      • Andrew Allison

        I prefer my ethyl alcohol flavored with juniper, peat & barley occasionally, whiskey (the “e” stands for an extra distillation, aka Irish) in coffee. The fact that they all sell for $20/gallon may say something about the cost effectiveness of using it as motor fuel. Nothing good ever came from fermenting corn or rye LOL

        • TommyTwo

          I’m willing to agree to whiskey > ethanol > fossil fuels.

          Anyhow, as long as we haven’t managed to outlaw corn, fermenting it is the best way we can directly consume it. Surely you don’t want me to eat it as if I was a farm animal or to blimp up on HFCS?!

          • Andrew Allison

            Well no, in the same way the the most carbon-efficient way to drive an engine is direct combustion of naturally produced fossil fuel, and yes the highest and best use for corn is from cob-to-mouth (whether yours or a cow’s). :<)}

          • TommyTwo

            I have no objection to my hamburger’s previous incarnation having eaten corn. (However I draw the line at that yellow vinegary substance Americans call “mustard.” No future hamburger of mine may ingest this abomination.)

          • Andrew Allison

            A out-of-the-closet gourmand! Coleman’s Rules. BTW, if you are into sashimi, Coleman’s makes a very good substitute for wasabi in a pinch. Permit me to offer a hamburger suggestion: try equal quantities of ground beef, pork and cooked rice along with the egg, onions, and seasoning.

          • TommyTwo

            Thanks for the hamburger suggestion; it certainly seems much more practical than my current method of kidnapping residents of that Hanseatic League city. I find it amusing, and perhaps even ironic, that a post on biofuels has germinated into a foodie discussion. Anyhow, chin-chin for now.

  • Honk


  • BobSykes

    First, the crop or pretreatment is not the issue. Land is the issue. All forms of biofuel divert land from food production to fuel production. The claim that this new process will save farm land is an outright lie.

    Second, Allison is right, all forms of biofuel production are an environmental disaster. They lose energy, and if you actually believe AGW nonsense, they increase carbon dioxide emissions.

    Biofuels, like solar and wind energy, are criminal fraud and persist only because of the crony capitalism that has corrupted our government.

  • Boritz

    The upside is that we could more easily convert non-food crops—even trees—into biofuel -TAI
    Technical breakthroughs are frequently presented on these pages as if they exist in a political vacuum. Watch for the farm lobby to block any progress. It’s not like all of a sudden it’s incredibly stupid to do what we’re doing with corn and ethanol. It has been stupid all along but it’s what the pols and lobbies want. If someone invents a car that runs on water it won’t hurt the ethanol lobby one bit.

  • Neowolf

    Sugars can also be directly converted to gasoline-like hydrocarbons via hydrodeoxygenation, using hydrogen derived from natural gas. Virent (also a Madison company) has demonstrated this technology.

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