Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Marginal Lands Available to Grow Half World's Liquid Fuel Needs


Using marginal lands not suitable for food crops, 50% of the world's liquid fuels can be produced, according to U. of Illinois scientists.
Published in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study led by civil and environmental engineering professor Ximing Cai identified land around the globe available to produce grass crops for biofuels, with minimal impact on agriculture or the environment.
Under any of the projections, Africa has more than one third, and Africa and South America have more than half of the total land available for biofuel production. Thus, the locations of biofuel production potential and demand are not consistent, given that larger fuel demands exist in the US, Europe, China, and India. The transportation of this fuel between continents will cause additional energy consumption.
—Cai et al.
Many studies on biofuel crop viability focus on biomass yield, or how productive a crop can be regionally. There has been relatively little research on land availability, one of the key constraints of biofuel development. Of special concern is whether the world could even produce enough biofuel to meet demand without compromising food production.
The questions we’re trying to address are, what kind of land could be used for biofuel crops? If we have land, where is it, and what is the current land cover?
—Ximing Cai

The study does not look at possible genetic improvements in bioenergy crops or microbes. It particularly does not look at the use of oceans -- 70% of Earth's surface area -- to grow seaweed. Seaweed is a particularly prolific biomass crop which is well suited for several types of biofuels production.

But this is all beside the point. There is no need to produce 50% or more of the planet's liquid fuels from biomass. Imagine the impact on liquid fuels supplies if a mere 15% or 20% of liquid fuels were economically derived from biomass. The entire geopolitical balance of the planet would be shifted by such a renewable supply of liquid fuels.

Among policy-makers and pundits, there is a surfeit of "magic bullet" thinking -- the desire to solve huge problems with a single, top-down solution. No wonder the world is in such a mess.

Bioenergy solutions are best implemented incrementally, with minimal expectations. Any revolution that occurs is likely to be best observed by looking backward in time, after the fact.

More: Biopolymers that heal cracks

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