Biomass Energy - Food or Fuel - A Global Perspective1,2

By Fribourg, Henry A. | NACTA Journal, June 2008 | Go to article overview
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Biomass Energy - Food or Fuel - A Global Perspective1,2

Fribourg, Henry A., NACTA Journal


The world has become addicted to liquid petroleum fuels. It has been advocated that the US should move toward energy security by reducing foreign sources of oil and expanding the role of biomass as a domestic renewable energy source. This path presumably would result in fewer carbon dioxide emissions and less environmental consequences than traditional sources, while promoting sustainable economic development. Some crops, such as corn (Zea mays) and soybean (Glycine max), have been suggested to replace imported oil as feedstocks for ethanol and biodiesel. Some other crops, e.g. switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), tree species, and organic byproducts or wastes, are under consideration as feedstocks. Major efforts to investigate the production and conversion of these renewable energy sources have been funded for several years, involving many scientists and engineers in numerous states and countries. Much research remains to be done before cellulosic ethanol will be ready technologically and economically as a suitable fuel substitute and most of the solutions that have surfaced will compete directly with resources needed for food or feed. The essay presents some of the unstated or suppressed assumptions underlying current programs and the seductively simplistic, sometimes misleading policies advocated, condenses pertinent scientific knowledge, suggests the urgent need to decrease demand for liquid transportation fuels, indicates that other renewable energy sources with great potential have not been exploited, articulates the need to modify current assumptions and investigate other options, asserts that substituting fuel security for food security is immoral, and challenges readers to become knowledgeable in these matters.


Biomass for energy - "Everything is related to everything else."

Indeed, that is the case. Using biomass for energy brings up aspects of geology and chemistry, thermodynamics, photosynthetic efficiency, transportation systems, land use policy, world population, ethics, politics, sociology, economics. I intend to show that there are many ramifications and consequences flowing from misguided but politically correct perceptions. These have led policymakers to render decisions and promulgate mandates that are unwise and will not lead to rational energy policies for this country, nor for the world. These political decisions were made without the full consideration of the unintended consequences that might ensue, and with disregard of applicable scientific principles that nullify some of the assumptions made.

There is no space to present many detailed data or conclusions, even to follow some topics down the paths they suggest. I shall raise topics. I shall articulate some of the implicit assumptions made, which then made conclusions inescapable even though not based on reality. It is my intent to challenge the readers to learn more about the themes that I shall identify. Accordingly, I propose to omit specific references, as would be expected in a scholarly paper. This posture will permit me to integrate opinions and statements from multiple sources. Instead, I have included in the List of References and Information Sources not only those from which I have abstracted information, but also others that I read and that I felt would be useful to the readers who wish to extend their horizons.

It is my sincere hope that readers will make up their own informed minds about the issues involved in the elaboration of a sensible energy policy, and then will take the kinds of actions that are appropriate in our country to change the attitudes of their compatriots, captains of industry, lawmakers and deciders. The subjects to be considered are complicated and intertwined, a great subject for a semester- or year-long seminar of an interdisciplinary nature. Untangling them brings the risk that simplification does not do justice to the intricacies of the problems.

The Transportation Energy Problem

What is the problem that the US campaign for the use of biomass as energy feedstock intends to resolve?

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