What Breakthroughs Do Biofuels Need?


Photograph by CinCool/Flickr




hat inventions and technical innovations are needed for biofuels to become a true challenge and sustainable alternative to petroleum-based transportation? This is one of the questions we put before two dozen experts from industry, universities, and environmental groups who gathered last month for National Geographic’s Biofuels at a Crossroads forum. How would you rate their ideas? Feel free to comment with ideas of your own.

Rate the Ideas

  • OPTION 1

    Better Plants

    Responding to concern about the land area needed to grow plants for ethanol and other biofuels, some experts said work needs to be done on developing crops that are higher yield or better at producing energy from sunlight.  “One of the things people are looking at is actually increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis that nature has already developed,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president, of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Through advances in synthetic biology over the next 20 years, I think you’re going to see plants that can use less fertilizer, use less water, and make better use of the sun to produce feedstock.” Thomas E. Elam, president of the agricultural consulting firm, FarmEcon LLC, although sharing little common ground with Erickson on current U.S. biofuels policy questions, agreed for the need for this kind of research. “Plants are horribly inefficient at converting sunlight into usable energy,” he said. “Solar cells are like 30 times as efficient. What can we do to double or triple the efficiency of sunlight falling onto plants and converting that into something that’s useful and storable?”

  • OPTION 2

    Work on Waste as a Feedstock

    “Mixed and variable” feedstocks, including wastes, for biorefineries is an area of focus for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which also would like to see more private research and development being done, says Zia Haq, one of the leaders of the agency’s biofuels program. As an example, he mentioned the effort by one of the leading U.S. ethanol companies, POET, to open its first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant next year, using “stover” or the husks and other corn waste as a feedstock for fuel. An important consideration, he says, is for a refinery to be able to use varying feedstocks year-round. “Remember, it’s a commercial facility, it has to operate 300, 365 days a year,” he said. “It can’t just take the corn harvest and stop when the harvest finishes.” We’ve written about efforts to convert waste into biofuel, including a project in Scotland to make use of the draff that’s left over from making Scotch whisky.

    Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) went further, saying we should be focusing on the ultimate waste product: carbon dioxide, and technologies for converting it directly into fuel. For a look at some of the research that’s being done, see: “Carbon Recycling: Mining the Air For Fuel.”

  • OPTION 3

    Better Ways to Measure Impact

    More important than any piece of equipment or physical process, we need an innovation in thinking--a standard way to measure carbon emissions and land-use impact of biofuels (and other energy sources), said Daniel Kammen, professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It doesn’t sound like hardware, but it actually is the ultimate way to talk about... the return we get on a given unit of land area from solar, from nuclear, or biofuels or this or that,” he said. He urged we “begin a conversation on how we build those metrics. We will not get full agreement but we will get to a place where there are at least reasonable standards.” He notes that the U.S. Clean Air Act never said what the final “numbers” would be, but an agreement for a process for controlling pollution based on the best science.

    Korin added that it was important to subject entrenched fossil fuels to the same kind of scrutiny we give the new alternatives. “It’s not fair that for petroleum or gasoline, nobody’s calauclating indirect emissions, but for biofuels and even for electricity--plug-in hybrid and electric cars--we’re looking upstream. We’re not looking upstream for petroleum. Either we look upstream for everything, or we don’t look upstream for anything, but make it fair.”

  • OPTION 4

    "Energy Farms" and Small-Scale Solutions

    A big challenge for the biofuels industry is the high cost of transporting feedstock long distances, said Esteban Chornet, chief technology officer, of Enerkem, a start-up company that is working to make biofuels and chemicals out of garbage and solid waste.  Most studies (notably those by the U.S. Department of Energy) conclude that biofuels plants have to be large in order to be cost-effective, in order to realize economies of scale. But Chornet notes that it’s difficult to obtain the necessary biomass to feed such large-scale plants relying only on the biomass located nearby. The challenge, Chornet says, is to develop products that would be cost-effective to produce and sell relying in a plant that is smaller scale, the right size to fit the availability of local biomass.

    Erickson floated a similar idea when panelists were asked to think about ideas for an X PRIZE-style competition for biofuels. His idea was an “energy farm” where the whole process--cultivation to refining--is in the same campus. “I think it would be interesting to have a prize for an energy farm, where you get a biorefinery company and an ag company together,” he said. “You grow the feedstock sustainably, make the biofuel, and you run everything on the fuel.”

  • OPTION 5

    True Choice at the Pump

    For biofuels to flourish, they have to be available to consumers, some experts pointed out. Currently, the pipelines and gas pump infrastructure is geared almost entirely to petroleum products (with ethanol a modest 10 percent blend-in to boost octane.) A key problem is that the majority of passenger cars in the United States are not designed to run on high blends of ethanol, even though the technology for flexible fuel cars is inexpensive and well-known. (Most cars in Brazil, for example, are flex-fuel vehicles.) “Let’s give the consumer a choice,” says Doug Berven, vice president of corporate affairs for biofuels company, POET.

    Korin’s group endorses the idea of an “Open Fuel Standard,” a policy requiring automakers to make “truly fuel competitive” vehicles, able to run on something other than gasoline. She says it can’t be just requiring a choice of gasoline or ethanol--it has to include fuels such as methanol, which can be made from feedstocks like natural gas.

daed lanth
daed lanth

Biofuels are a waste of time; I cannot vote on this issue. Any long term biomass site will suffer a massive soil degradation. The transport inefficiency is abysmal too. The only biofuel argument that makes any sense to me is algae production but the water use is really intense. The argument for direct solar exploitation seems to make more sense to me in the long run.

Russ Katt
Russ Katt

I find bio fuel from anything other than waste byproducts, repugnant, how does a sane society trade fuel for food. There is no such thing as waste land only wild areas, land that grows food, should grow food.  

molly cruz
molly cruz

I think whole gymnasiums should be built to profit on the power of man made energy; and pay their clients instead of charging them. Similarly, prisons should encourage their inmates to produce energy for entertainment electronics like tv and internet. There could be a community electric company, People Power; where traffic fines are worked off; as well as pounds!


Agree with Daniel. None of the above. Biofuel is by definition carbon-based, and will only exacerbate global warming. As a transitional fuel, however, it is definitely preferable to heavier petroleum-based fuels and coal.

Algae is another relatively positive option, since its production does not tie up valuable agricultural land.

Another huge issue with biofuel is sourcing. Growing crops for biofuel which could be used as food (e.g. corn) is morally reprehensible and simply thoughtless. There is lots of bagasse (sugar cane waste), cornstalks, wood waste, etc. to do the job.

Martin Kannegieter
Martin Kannegieter

I think the idea of using “gravity” is a little far fetched. You say in your message that it is “capable of producing an impressive constant force”. That is true, and is evident EVERYWHERE we look – it hold the ground down! What is not evident,is how this force can be used to generate power of any sort. The principle of hydro electricity does this quite well, using gravity to pull a lot of water through a large turbine, but it is a moving large mass of water – by gravity – that does this, not by it being stationary.
Generally speaking – Power = Force x distance x time.
In a turbine’s case, the “force” being torque, and the “distance” being the distance around the working diameter of the turbine, time – well that’s obvious.

I can only ask that you – Jean – clarify how you use gravity to generate power.

Also, power is measured in Watts, Horsepower (archaic as that sounds), BTUs/hour etc. Not tons, or just units of force, weight etc.

jean faucher
jean faucher

Take a look of this please.

Several machines have existed, and still this force is greatly exploited. You’re probably wondering: What will he propose that we do not already know?

If have is attentive to discoveries and developments in technology over time, have realized that at one time, the discovery of powerful machines such as steam, electricity and the internal combustion engine, among other have completely stopped the development of the use of the gravitational strength. In parallel, we developed the turbines more efficient to run generators. We do not neglect this force. We simply have not capitalized on the development machine using gravity. We just missed this machine without perceiving capacity.

To me, gravity is a powerful energy that we simply not channel to its full potential. The development of a new principle is not always obvious, even if it is simple. You and I know that many discoveries have been made by accident, but the majority were made by the engineering and research. We now need technical knowledge and mechanical performance to achieve this kind of machines, and we have for several dozen years.

I therefore propose the development of a machine that is part of the field of engineering, bringing together existing systems, that no rape laws of physics and using as main source of energy, gravity. I know, a new illuminated offers us a perpetual machine that produces a high usable energy. I do not understand why all this time, we are not yet able to build a machine that produces its own energy by using gravity. It is a machine that can not be described as perpetual motion, which uses a constant force present across the globe and inexhaustible. I say that this machine can exist.

You understand that I ask you to read the word to your attention, arouse your curiosity, and cause you to go further. This is not easy with all that we know today. What I propose in this letter seem to be irrational for you. The strength is there, the machine, not yet. When you think it’s hard to believe, but sometimes you do not see in simple principles, all the possibilities, but most of the utility and capacity of such a machine. According to the information I have accumulated such a machine is impossible. I know the principles of thermodynamic and friction that prevents us from believing in the truth of such a machine. As I mentioned above, I propose that no rape laws and principles of physics. I’m just saying that we missed this opportunity when it presented itself.

This machine be various sizes and powers. Based on existing technologies. Currently it is possible to build a machine capable of producing an impressive constant force. I think by that against physical limitations requires us to be a little more realistic.
More down to earth, I ask you, what power would the alternator be with one hundred tons of constant power?
Imagine a machine that just set up anywhere, significantly reduce production costs and some even eliminate the production of electricity by nuclear plant.

I can be reached at the following address. jeanfomachine@outlook.fr And thank you for giving me those few minutes.

Michael Daniels
Michael Daniels

Hemp seed oil. The only biofuel that can clearly return more energy then it takes to grow it.

James Jones
James Jones

my previous post was truncated

I worked on a GIS (Mapping) project for a contractor in the Marcellus shale in PA, and I live just north of the Barnett in TX

Once ALL the facts on fracking get out, it will be seen as an environmental disaster it actually is…

“An easing of export restrictions” read this: http://goo.gl/tcD1es nopales cactus to methane pilot plant in Mexico, the fuel cells RUN ON METHANE!! which the new fuel cells from
Redox power (google ‘em) generates electricity from

I look forward to buying a few fuel cells, I have 600 opuntia ficus-indica planted and plan to expand this to about one acre…

Disclosure: I have NO connection to the project in the link or Redox power.

Donald Berrian
Donald Berrian

How about none of the above! Corn based Ethanol damages the environment and shouldn’t be allowed, let alone mandated and subsidized. As for biodiesel, call me when someone comes up with a process the could be made economically competitive without subsidies in the foreseeable future. Until then, the research makes good material for PhD thesis and should be supported as fundamental research not pushed out before its time.


The effect of the current U.S. forced use of corn-based ethanol has had an major impact on our food prices, and prices around the word. Biofuel advocates may claim otherwise, but the statistical evidence for U.S. food prices is clear and irrefutable.

The biofuel advocate side claims that increasing energy prices are the real culprit. So, let’s take a look at energy versus food and overall inflation since the current forced-use ethanol program (the RFS) started up in January, 2008.

If energy prices are the issue driving the price of food higher, not the RFS, then energy prices would be increasing faster than food prices since the current RFS took effect in 2008. It may seem obvious to you that overall energy prices are increasing faster than general inflation and food prices, but are they? This proposition can be tested using Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

From January 2008 to June 2013, overall retail energy prices increased 8.4%. Overall average retail prices of all consumer goods increased 9.8%. All food prices increased 13.8%. Energy prices are not the driving force in post 2008 food price increases. In fact, energy prices have increased slower than both overall and food inflation since 2008, not faster. Food price inflation has greatly exceeded general inflation since 2008, and energy prices are a drag on the overall inflation rate. Food prices have helped boost inflation. Food is becoming less affordable, energy more affordable, relative to overall average consumer prices.

Are oil prices alone highly correlated with food prices? This can also be empirically tested. The correlation between the 2008-2013 monthly Cushing OK crude oil price and CPI retail food prices is 0.16. This far from a “strong” correlation. Since January 2008 the C