Tag Archives: biofuels

Ukraine and more biofuels – politics and energy research and development

My mind is on the Ukraine a lot these days. My dear betrothed lives there. For those of you living in a cave, Russia and NATO were having a little tiff over Georgia. Last month, a US official, Richard Holbrooke, predicted that Ukraine would be next. I think the situations are pretty different, and the Guardian agrees. From some reports I heard through the underground grapevine (who can you trust these days?) Georgia tried to expel some ethnic Russians. That’s why Russia stepped in. Or Russia cooked up the story as an excuse after they moved in. Who knows? But Georgia has allies and European ambitions… so we got escalations.

Will Ukraine try to expel its ethnic Russians? Doubtful. It’s a much bigger country with a lot more Russians. Could Russia claim this was happening as an excuse to annex Crimea (where they have navy bases)? Maybe. If Russia tries to annex Crimea for whatever reason, I don’t know what I’ll do.

I’m a scientist, not a soldier. And what side do you fight for? Besides, I don’t speak Russian well at all.


I had a faint notion in the back of my mind of going to Ukraine some day to see if I could start a biofuels R&D business. It’s a fertile country with a huge energy deficit and an underused intelligentsia. It seems like a prime location. But the political situation, clearly, leaves much to be desired.

A company spin out just started up here at the U. of Washington with what seems to be the basic business model that I think could succeed in that kind of environment. Rapid development of new algae strains for fuel production on land or sea. It sounds perfect. The don’t do recombinant genetics, it looks like just forward screening, but I think I would add some splicing if budgets allowed. But I would definitely consider rapid screening using micro-scale systems. How fast can a new algae strain go into production?

I would bet that the main practical problems will be political. A dollar can go a lot farther in Ukraine, but not if it gets taxed at the 40% tariff rate. And if government dissolves, then where is a company that depends on a laissez-faire tax system and a free energy market? Because those would be pretty important to this company.

You know… that could be an issue here.


More biofuels musings

I wrote up a little piece a bit ago on the complexities of the food-or-fuelchoice implied in the manufacture of biofuels.


Richard Jones at Softmachines.org wrote about biofuels a while back (Driving on sunshine). He has returned to the matter more recently. “It seems that some of the drawbacks were more easy to anticipate than others. What’s sobering about the whole episode, though, is that it does show how complicated things can get when science, politics and economics get closely coupled in situations needing urgent action in the face of major uncertainties.”

I love biofuels in principle. The idea that we could use the agricultural technology of the whole of human history to power the most modern inventions seems appropriate. But the economics are complicated. There is always switchgrass which promises to make use of otherwise useless land. And there’s algae on which I did my high school science project. There you can use huge regions of the ocean to produce energy. That won’t have unintended consequences.

In any case, I think there could be a future in biofuels. If it raises the value of agriculture, then we can see more agriculture. I think that could be a good thing for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Traditionally, agriculture was how cultures developed themselves. That seems like a worthy subject for development. I’m not sure right now, though. Corn ethanol, for instance, barely breaks even on the energy balance.

What that means (in simplified terms) is that you burn a gallon of gasoline to grow, process, and transport a gallon of corn ethanol. Ethanol is “green” except if you burned a gallon of petrol to get it. In that case it is utterly useless in energy terms. It makes a job or two, but you might as well pay people to not grow corn. Some of you might remember the discussion of the lucrative possibilities in getting paid to not grow corn in Catch 22. More recently: “Acreage Reduction Programs (ARP) paid farmers to set aside an amount of land on which they would not grow corn.”

Anyhoo, I have a dissertation to write and a second job to pay the bills. I wish I could believe that greenwashed fuels were the solution to the energy crisis.


Biofuels, economics and starvation – concerns for U.S. profit and conscience

I’m a chemist, and I love the idea of biofuels. America could do better on the energy production side of things, and biofuels seem like an opportunity. What we need is a replacement for petroleum, but what we have is an agricultural production capacity. Biofuels are also an opportunity for readjustment of markets. Right now, big farm production has pushed the third world out of the agricultural game – they don’t have the technology to produce cheap food. It’s cheaper to ship food from the US than it is to grow it almost anywhere else. Ironically, raising food prices and cutting US subsidies could end up really helping the poor, since they could then make a profit selling the food that they grow for themselves.

Think of it this way: cheap US food means that farming is financially useless in places without massive agribusiness infrastructure. Yet, growing food has been the way people have built their own economies since the advent of agriculture. It’s only recently with industrial farming that it has become necessary to trade factory labor for food.

Now, I hope that it is obvious that this is an oversimplification. The above implies  that it’s more complicated than simply making the choice to burn our corn instead or feed the poor. But there is some truth to that, too. The economic reality is that a price increase on food could end up being the best thing ever for poor communities. They can begin to farm their own food and supply their own needs. But if the price goes up faster than the demand can be met by local sources, then people will starve.

When people are going hungry, it is unacceptable to turn corn into fuel. It is unacceptable to be wasteful consumers of corn while our fellow humans contend with food riots. There are new projects on the books. Turning inedible plants and plant waste into liquid transportation fuels feels a lot more reasonable. Congress is investing in these options which I think is a wise move on the part of our legislators.