Biofuels hit the wall

Just a short while ago, biofuels seemed like they’d be a great alternative for some petroleum based fuels. But in the last year, we’ve seen the demand for corn skyrocket, and issues are being raised about balance between biofeuls and the demand for food supply. This story from indicates that there appears to be a finite limit to biofuels close at hand.


by Nao Nakanishi

HONG KONG – The earth is too small to accommodate all the biofuels projects envisioned for the globe, and this raises doubts whether green fuels will ever play a big role in weaning the world off crude oil.

The idea of producing an endless supply of inexpensive fuel from what sprouts from the soil seemed almost too good to be true for a world worried about global warming, caused in part by the burning of fossil fuels.

And perhaps it is. It has become increasingly clear that it will not be possible to grow enough crops to cover global demand for food and fuel, especially as water is becoming scarce and pressure is mounting from the environmental lobby to conserve tropical rainforests and wildlife.

Over the past year, a biofuel boom worldwide has already sharply boosted agricultural prices, sparking worries over food supply as the world’s population continues to grow.

David Jackson, an analyst at LMC International Ltd in London, calculated that the world would need an additional 100 million hectares of farmland if all countries were to blend 5 percent of biofuels into the cars — as many envisage by 2015.

The required land, about half the size of Indonesia, would match roughly the total additional land available for farming on earth, including remote areas of Africa or Brazil.

“There’s no perfect solution for ethanol or biodiesel from food crops, or from agriculture,” Jackson told Reuters. “In total the amount of land available is roughly 100 million hectares worldwide … But that’s not all going to be developed.”

The analysts said that while sugar was the most land-efficient feedstock for ethanol, it needed plenty of water.

It would take several years before the commercial use of the next generation technology, which would turn agricultural waste into fuel ethanol, they said.

For biodiesel, there is also no alternative feedstock to edible oils, such as palm oil or soyoil, in the foreseeable future, despite an enthusiasm for non-edible oils from oilseed plants like jatropha in countries such as India and China.


Another reason why the green dream is fading lies with the rocky economics of biofuel.

Oil prices have soared 40 percent this year but once-lowly palm oil has jumped by two-thirds. So now palm oil costs an astonishing US$735 a tonne, making crude a bargain at about US$593 a tonne.

Even in the United States, the world’s top ethanol producer where the government provides generous subsidies, profits are squeezed at biofuel plants by high corn costs and low ethanol prices.

In Southeast Asia, home to the world’s top producers of palm oil — the most land-efficient vegetable oil — many biodiesel projects have been also put on backburner due to the poor returns.

“While there has been a lot of optimism and bullishness for biofuels in 2006 … a lot of announced plants have not transpired into actual construction,” said Cherie Tan, vice president for corporate banking at Rabobank in Singapore.

“Many investors people have a wait-and-see approach now.”

Tan estimated that less than a half of biofuels projects in the region had materialised, with total annual capacity in the region estimated around 250,000 tonnes.


The rise in raw material prices for palm and corn is also setting off alarm bells for governments worried about the rising cost of basic foods.

Frank Gunstone, honorary professor at Scottish Crop Research Institute, said the world would need an additional 10 million tonnes of vegetable oils a year to meet demand from both the food and fuel sectors.

Global output of vegetable oils rose to 153 million in the last crop year from 100 million tonnes 10 years earlier. But the annual increase was 9 million tonnes at best, falling short of the required 10 million this decade.

“The shortfall will impinge on prices and is already doing so,” Gunstone said.

To avoid the competition from the food sector, D1 Oils Plc a UK-based biodiesel maker, has picked jatropha, planting 175,000 hectares worldwide, including in India and Africa.

Graham Prince, a spokesman for D1 Oils, said though jatropha could be grown on barren, marginal land, it has yet to be developed into a commercial crop. Its leaves, nuts and seeds were toxic, yields random and it required hand-harvesting.

“We are right at the beginning of the history of jatropha as a commercial crop,” he said.

“But just in the first step we have taken, we have seen a more than 50 pct increase on the performance of the wild seed … This gives us a lot of hope of what jatropha could do in future.”

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
October 10, 2007 12:54 am

What about algae?

October 10, 2007 4:04 am

BioDiesel from algae, using enhanced growth from power plant CO2 and “waste” heat would still be attractive as it is not nearly so land intensive. Time will tell.

Stan Needham
October 10, 2007 6:19 am

There’s a lot of research going on that will likely relegate corn ethanol to nothing more than a footnote in history.
Personally, I’d like to see more research on Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), and it appears that Congress agrees.

October 10, 2007 8:53 am

Work is being done on figuring out how to efficiently use cellulose (plant stem) rather than starch (seed) as a biofuel feedstock. This *may* make biofuels economically feasible. Algae require lots of water and land surface to capture enough sunlight, probably too much to be economic. Light attenuates rapidly in shallow ponds filled with algae; upright stems do a better job by thickening the height dimension.

Larry Grimm
October 10, 2007 11:00 am

No matter how you look at it or find plants that can grow on marginal land, it still takes water for plants to grow. Does anyone doubt the problems we are facing regarding water shortages? Only 2% of all the world’s water is fresh water. 1% is tied up in the icecaps. “Mother Earth” isn’t doing (or going to do) a dang thing to increase this percentage. Nor are we doing much. Going with biofuels will only exasperate our problems with water. Biofuels is a great subsidy for the big corporate farming interests in the short term, but boy will it make a mess of things in the long term.

Bob L
October 10, 2007 1:49 pm

I once heard that an infusion of iron in an area of the ocean would prompt an algea bloom that would suck up CO2 and spew forth O2. If this is the case, would it be possible to one day actually farm the oceans to grow algea and then harvest that algea to produce bio diesel?
Talk about your two birds with one stone!

Steve Moore
October 10, 2007 3:07 pm

Some people just refuse to learn.
I remember reading articles and essays 30 years ago that pointed out the problems with bio-whatever that folks are now “discovering”.

October 10, 2007 5:46 pm

Wave pumped reverse osmosis making the deserts bloom with jatropa and algae ponds. These technologies exist and it’s not so much cost as not enough profit margin. AGW may be bullocks, but the arabs are not computer generated. We must find alternatives for this reason alone.

October 10, 2007 6:12 pm

The issue with biofuels is not whether technology x or y is viable or superior, it’s where as a pratical matter do biofuels actually come from and what is their impact.
You need to be aware that, like renewable energy which is overwhelmingly hydroelectric despite what you may hear, currently biofuels are mainly landfill gas. So any numbers you may hear about biofuel supply are misleading and even deceptive.
Having said that, biofuels supply can be increased in two ways. One is to process otherwise ‘waste’ bio-materials into fuel. This is superficially attractive until you understand that there is far less of this waste than you are led to believe and other initiatives, such as recycling, have had a major impact on the supply of waste and hence their availability as biofuels. landfill gas for example, is largely a legacy of earlier more wasteful times.
In summary, the biofuel potential in waste is both less than you are led to believe and rapidly runs into finite supply and economic competition with other uses.
Which leaves new supply as the source of biofuels, which is where the real problem is. New supply of bio-materials can only come from land not currently utilized to supply food or other bio-materials, or from more intensive agriculture. And bear in mind that demand for food is rapidly increasing driven by increasing populations and affluence.
Bringing ‘new land’ into production necessarily takes it away from some other use. Most of those uses will be more or less natural ecosystems although not necessarily pristine. And in our globalized world it will happen far from where we see the impact. In the same way developed countries have become ‘clean and green’ by exporting their polluting industries to place where they pollute far more, biofuels will be sourced from natural environments in the developing world, bulldozed to make land available to produce biofuels for western demand.
I happened to have travelled through one of the biggest palm oil plantations in Asia. Palm oil is booming as it is a prime source of biofuels. These plantations are huge. The one I saw was several hundred square kilometers. A few years earlier it had been mostly undeveloped tropical rainforest. Now it was uninterrupted monoculture. An ecological disaster.
As we drove through the plantation, my driver said that a couple of weeks earlier he had seen a dead tiger beside the road. I asked, was it hit by a vehicle? He replied, that it might have been, but it was all skin and bone and was clearly dying of starvation. Starving predators come to roads because they find roadkill carrion there.

October 11, 2007 11:58 am

I recall many years ago some prominent authors claiming we’d all be starving by the 1990s because agricultural output couldn’t keep up with demand for food. Seems like people aren’t starving these days from a shortage of food, but because of disgusting political situations they happen to be stuck in. Now we’re all supposed to be forever hooked on oil because there’s not enough corn in the world.
Prices are supposed to rise and fall to allocate resources to their most valued ends, and to increase the potential returns in respective industries to attract more investment to increase supply. We didn’t die of starvation due to food shortages. Something tells me to the extent biofuels can take over for petroleum, they will, and will do so with minimal fuss and as always happens in the economy, in those areas where the benefits of using them outweigh the benefits of using fossil fuels.
Thinking in terms of replacing fossil fuels on a one for one basis, and pointing to current shortages based on what might be demanded in the future, simply belies an ignorance of how the world economy actually functions.

October 11, 2007 5:58 pm

I for one, am a big supporter of alternative fuels. If we can find a way to clean up the earth, we should do so. It would be great to have a cleaner environment for our future and our children. Check out my blog if you need any web reviews
All the reviews I provide are for free, on any web product =]

October 11, 2007 7:54 pm

Just a couple years ago there was a lot of buzz surrounding a new nano-printing technology where solar cells could be printed onto nearly any type of substrate – not sure where the technology stands now but it did look promising.
Maybe an X-Prize contest for a cheap nano-printed 4×8 solar panel retrofit kit. No battery storage, just send the power directly to the household power utility box. If the kit can be produced for $3000 and be simple enough for weekend warriors to install then it might just work.

October 12, 2007 6:30 am

I was checking around the web yesterday for complete home solar kits, upwards of $30 grand. Why are things with no moving parts so expensive?

October 15, 2007 7:26 pm

consider the potential energy in a barrel of oil..what amount of Palm oil would need to be produced to obtain an equivalent amount of potential energy? you would also have to consider the amount of energy required to get to the oil, extract it and refine it
compare this to the process required to obtain a like amount of energy from Palm oil (or any other bio fuel) just a question i have no clue can you put the same amount of effort into bio fuels as you would fossil fuels and realize the same results???

October 16, 2007 5:52 pm

Brazil seems to still be going strong with their efforts. Brazil may be in a unique situation due to their sugarcane industry, but so are we as well in some places.
Also I find it funny that gas companies have had no problem making money cutting my gas with alcohol for decades (this was even before MTBE elimination). Yet when I go to use it as a main source, its too impractical to use.
Even though it may ultimately only satisfy a small segment of fuel consumption, there is still good reason for us to diversify our energy sources. Diversity will offset the volatility and dependence (aka gouging) that happen by using a single primary energy source. There are very few practical ones out there. Nuclear and ethanol are about the only real things we can add to oil and coal.

Tony Edwards
October 21, 2007 3:23 pm

Jay, the entry in the Open Choke blog
gives a good description of the energy imbalance.

%d bloggers like this: