Magazine article Foreign Policy

Better Biofuels: The Next Generation of Energy Is on Its Way

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Better Biofuels: The Next Generation of Energy Is on Its Way

Article excerpt

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The financial crisis is taking up most of the media oxygen these days, but the aftershocks of two other acute crises, in energy and food prices, are still reverberating. The combined result is that energy and agriculture are becoming inseparable issues.

It sounds counterintuitive, because lower oil prices are making fuels from farm and forest land less competitive. This is true, but only in the short run. The crisis has boosted awareness that dependency on a limited set of resources, including financial products, must be avoided by all means. The best response is diversification--and biofuels will be a major beneficiary of this incipient trend.

Today's biofuels involve either ethanol or diesel, with the former accounting for roughly 90 percent of the market. Brazil, the United States, and China are the greatest producers. More than half of the world's bioethanol is generated from sugar cane; the rest, controversially, comes mainly from corn. Biodiesel is mostly derived from rapeseed and sunflower. Jatropha and other "wild" crops are barely in their infancy. On the whole, biofuel crops as a tool to lift small farmers out of poverty remain an unfulfilled dream.

The real promise for biofuels lies not in food or feed crops, but in nonfood organic material such as grass, wood, organic waste (this may include the inedible part of crops, such as stalks), and algae. The potential supply is large: About half of all biomass on Earth consists of lignocellulose, a structural material of plants that can be processed into fuel. …

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