Biofuels are one of the greatest green boondoggles—and that’s certainly saying something—but there’s a promising new alternative technology that could soon be coming our way, courtesy of Harvard scientists. Reuters reports:
Dubbed “bionic leaf 2.0”, the technology uses solar panels to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, the scientists said in a study published in the journal Science. Once separated, hydrogen is moved into a chamber where it is consumed by bacteria, and with help from a special metal catalyst and carbon dioxide, the process generates liquid fuel.
The method is an artificial version of the photosynthesis process plants use to make energy from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, scientists said. If it becomes economically viable, the technology could replace oil wells or plantations where food crops are grown for fuel, the study’s lead author said. […]
“The (land) footprint these solar panels need is about one tenth the size of what you would need for sugar cane,” [Harvard University Professor of Energy Daniel Nocera] said…”Bionic leaf 2.0″ converts solar energy into liquid fuel with 10 percent efficiency, far higher than the 1 percent efficiency seen in the fastest-growing plants that use a similar process, Nocera added.
By the researchers own admission, this isn’t a cost-effective solution at the moment—they say it would take a carbon tax to make it economically viable—but it still represents an important improvement on a woefully inefficient way of producing fuel. We currently devote huge acreages to crops being grown with the express purpose of being distilled into biofuels, and here in the United States that process is government mandated, thanks to the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard. The problem is, most of that biofuel comes from distilled corn, and corn ethanol exists in that rare policy sour spot where it makes no sense from just about every angle: it raises global food prices, starving the world’s poor; it costs American drivers billions of dollars at the pump; it kills wild bee populations; and perhaps worst of all, it doesn’t lower emissions. Even Al Gore recognizes that “[f]irst-generation ethanol was a mistake.”
These new “bionic leaves” are generations (plural) ahead of corn ethanol in terms of how they convert the sun’s radiant energy into usable fuel. They are emblematic of a creative and paradigm-breaking new approach to how we harness that energy; it’s not inconceivable that one day we’ll cut out industrial processes by growing products in fields. We won’t be holding our breath for their widespread deployment anytime soon—costs have to come down first—but we can look ahead with guarded optimism at this exciting new branch of research.
Policymakers around the world, take note: you’re better off funding the research and development of new solar technologies like this one than you are propping up the current crop of panels that can’t compete with fossil fuels without heavy government assistance.