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Are Biofuels Really a Boondoggle? The Perils and Promise of Turning Plants into Gasoline

​Tea Party activists, environmentalists and petrolistas now condemn the industry in equal measure, but is there more to the story?

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At the same time, the car industry had a big problem with engine knocking due to low octane gasolines. Chemists offered two distinct solutions. One involved blending gasoline with ethanol at high percentages. The other and cheaper solution consisted of mixing gasoline with small volumes of refinery additives such as lead or later MTBE, a water pollutant.

Standard Oil (now Exxon Mobil) backed the lead solution as the only engine knock alternative, despite widespread public health studies on the metal's toxicity to the brain. The industry also suppressed studies that clearly showed that ethanol safely solved the problem, says Kovarik.

Due to its extensive investments in lead gasoline additives, Standard Oil also vilified a populist farm movement to produce Agrol, an ethanol/gasoline blend that sold at 2,000 service stations in the U.S. Midwest in the 1930s.

"To force the use of alcohol in motor fuel would be to make every filling station and gasoline pump a potential speakeasy," thundered one report by the National Petroleum Association.

As a consequence the U.S. ethanol industry -- it uses corn grown to feed livestock -- didn't take off until the ban on leaded gasoline in the 1970s and the world's first oil price shocks. The highly subsidized industry now diverts 40 percent of U.S. corn production to ethanol distillers and cost taxpayers about $6 billion a year.

It also accounts for serious amounts of soil erosion; nitrate run-off into the Gulf of Mexico; and increased food costs as well as feed costs for livestock. The majority of ethanol, in turn, fuels inefficient machines that actually convert less than 20 percent of heat generated by the fuel into mechanical energy.

The industry has also grown a field of loud critics. They describe farm-based alcohols as schemes to rob taxpayers or to take food from the poor to make fuels for the rich. They also challenge the energy returns, which are dismally low.

In other words, it takes almost as much fossil-based energy to grow, fertilize, water, harvest and distill crop-based fuels as they return in the form of bio-energy.

Algae, seaweed and cellulose

In recent years, scientists have switched their focus from crops and seeds to cellulose, the plant kingdom's most common building material. Cellulose is a strong sugar polymer that builds stalks, stems, trunks and blades.

Armed with enzymes, fungus and microorganisms, scientists promised a cellulostic ethanol revolution that would produce 500 million gallons of fuel a year by 2012. Yet the industry has barely managed 20,069 commercial gallons. Making hydrocarbons from carbohydrates, it turns out, is not for the faint of heart.

Nearly six years ago Amyris, a biotech firm,  vowed, for example, to make renewable diesel and jet fuel by feeding Brazilian sugar to microorganisms. But they couldn't replicate large lab yields in real commercial operations.

"Humbled by the lessons we learned," as one executive put it, Amyris now makes moisturizers for cosmetics. Other firms such as Cello and Range Fuels have gone bankrupt. Last year Shell and Ottawa-based Iogen killed a plan to build a cellulose ethanol plant in Manitoba. High corn prices, due to drought and high oil prices, have idled one-third of Nebraska's ethanol plants. And so on.

"It turns out the cellulose technology is difficult and multi-staged and it's like pharmaceuticals," explains Kovarik. "It's expensive to provide cheap oils."

Research on algae-based fuels has encountered similar hurdles. Although algae grows fast, sequesters carbon and produces a good oil, it currently costs anywhere between $300 and $2,400 to make one barrel of fuel.

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