Saturday, July 14, 2007

Biofuels, plug-ins, etc: shameless linkdumping

(Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's.)

Here's an interesting idea: the Japanese are investigating the potential of biofuel production from seaweed. Seaweed farming already produces several million tons of farmed product per year (the vast majority from China) and the same technologies that keep promising to make cellulosic ethanol profitable (just around the corner, honest!) could work the same magic on seaweed. The researchers claim that a 10,000 square kilometer seaweed farm could produce 1/3 of Japan's fuel demand per year.

The US demand is much higher, but the US has plenty of space: having the world's largest EEZ means that, even is seaweed cultivation is restricted to the area where US law applies you could meet US demand with less than 10% of the available ocean. I literally just started reading about this stuff -- does anyone know if seaweed cultivation requires shallow waters, or if there's some other bottleneck that would restrict large-scale production? In any case, a source of biomass that doesn't sacrifice food acreage is welcome indeed.

Back on land, a recent study shows that Miscanthus is a far more effective biomass feedstock than switchgrass. It's so effective, in fact, that trials in Illinois suggest that it could replace 80% of the state's liquid fuel needs with 10% of the land. As more effective breeding and cultivation methods are developed, it's expected those numbers will improve substantially.

Now, it's probable that neither of these options is going to be "cheap" in the sense that Americans and Canadians are used to. So the obvious response is to make cars more efficient, right? Good news: the Union of Concerned Scientists -- long the best source for fuel-efficiency and climate change data -- has modelled increasing the US fuel efficiency to 35 mpg by 2018, and the headline is that the US would gain nearly a quarter-million jobs while saving $60 billion at the pump.

Finally, it looks like GM isn't the only US automaker taking plug-in hybrids seriously: Ford seems to be getting in on the act as well, making a deal with SoCal Edison to provide 20 SUVs refitted as plug-in hybrids by 2009. At the risk of sounding repetitive, replacing liquid fuels with electricity wherever possible is the easiest, fastest way to curb oil demand and the accompanying CO2 emissions.

The rapid introduction of cars and light trucks that get 100 miles and more without consuming a drop of gasoline could eliminate much of US liquid fuel demand, while relatively small chunks of land or sea devoted to biomass production could fill the gap. This is the basic roadmap. How we generate the electricity -- wind, solar are obvious favorites of mine -- and where exactly we get the biomass -- miscanthus, seaweed -- are details. Important ones, but what's important is to get America (and really, the world) on the right path.

1 comment:

macadavy said...

I'm not a marine biologist but I'd be wary of using marine algae or 'seaweed' to solve the world's fuel crisis:

"I can only compare these great aquatic forests...with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of kelp. Amdist the leaves of this plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, the otters, seals and porpoise, would soon perish also; and lastly, the Fuegian[s]...would...decrease in numbers and perhaps cease to exist.”

—Charles Darwin, 1 June 1834, Tierra del Fuego, Chile
'The Voyage of the Beagle'

For example, the great kelp forests off the north-west coast of Vancouver Island are home to a thriving community of sea otters, transplanted from Alaska in the '70s to re-establish a population rendered extinct by a rapacious 19th century fur trade.