Thursday, May 10, 2007

Which biofuels? (1)

Another trip to the redundant restatement of the bloody obvious department, but here's a point that sometimes gets missed in much of the discussion about biofuels. It's important to distinguish a range of currently large scale aproaches that are currently available and feasible, and the conversion of cellulosic biomass - a technique that may be practicable some years hence if it gets adequate support now.

Biofuels have been high on the news agenda this week after the publication of a UN report expressing concern about their impact (see UN waffles furiously about biofuels, UN warns on impact of biofuels and the report itself).

Moving beyond generalisations such as "the worst idea humanity has had in a long time" (as one leading ecologist has put it), campaigns such as this one in the UK targetting 'deforestation diesel' are well and good.

By contast, conversion of cellulosic biomass may (and this is yet to be proven) offer part of a relatively low-impact, large-scale answer to low-carbon energy future. However a lot of basic research still has to be done. At present, note Chris Sommerville and Donald Kennedy in Science, the U.S. government spends on all of plant physiology just one-hundredth of the research budget of the National Institutes of Health. They say that the importance and the scale of the challenge means research budgets should be greatly increased.

[P.S. See also Which biofuels? (2)

No comments: