Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Call for a Global Biofuel Reform

Ever since the skyrocketing food prices of 2008 has lead to several widespread riots in various part of the world, can we still afford to develop biofuels as a more Earth-friendly alternative to crude oil-based fuels?

By: Vanessa Uy

After the governments of the world had been moved by former US vice President Al Gore in his “An Inconvenient Truth”, most of them did make efforts to start their various biofuel programs as a means to mitigate the effects of global warming. Sadly, all of the biofuel programs that they started - are in one way or another - been influenced by powerful agricultural lobbyists with vested interests. Thus the diversion of corn and other grains to fuel the rich man’s car that inevitably sent global food prices straight through the roof. Especially if it takes 22 pounds of corn just to produce a gallon of ethanol. But if we are to tackle the problem of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions caused by our global crude oil addiction, is abandoning our still fledgling biofuel programs a wise – even a sensible – choice?

What if there is a way to obtain our biofuels from plants or parts of plants that we humans neither classify as food nor eat. For a number of years now, a process exists that enables us to obtain ethanol – similar to what we get from corn under our existing biofuel program – except this time its from inedible parts of plants like wood wastes, left over sugarcane pulp, even from prairie grass. It is called cellulosic ethanol, a process developed by Dr. Lonnie Ingram to extract ethanol or ethyl alcohol from cellulose or the stuff that makes up most of the bulk of the plant besides water.

Normally, yeast cultures used in the production of ethanol from sugar can’t produce ethanol from cellulose. By using a gene-spliced e coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria, Dr. Ingram managed to produce ethanol from any part of a plant that is made of cellulose that are previously just thrown away or burned in a bonfire. The use of specialized e coli bacteria is necessary because “wild” e coli bacteria only turn the sugar components of the cellulose structure into lactic acid. This cellulosic ethanol process has just been recently scaled up to evaluate its economic viability.

If the cellulosic ethanol process works - just imagine - waste pulp from sugarcane processing can now be turned into ethanol instead of just being burned. Biofuelled cars will get their fuel from previously untapped overgrown wild prairie grass instead of crops destined for the dining table. Or the end the need to grow plants that are a source of biofuel – like rapeseed plants - in fields that are primarily used for growing food crops. The proverbial rich man’s car will never again be in competition with his poorer brethren’s daily bread.

But the obstacle of this very promising way of getting our biofuels is politics. If bioethanol-fueled cars get their fuels from wild overgrown prairie grass instead of corn, the corn lobby would be up in arms due to lost sales. And since the corn lobby values more the rich man with his bioethanol-fuelled car than a poor peasant because of the rich man’s buying power and possibly better credit rating, this might lead into an unnecessary civil strife borne of resentment. Let’s just hope that the powers-that-be sees the bigger picture.

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