This week Sao Paulo, Brazil is hosting one of the world’s largest gatherings of the international biofuels industry. The Ethanol Summit 2009 was kicked off in part by President Bill Clinton who noted that Brazil is known for producing the most energy efficient and cost competitive ethanol in the world using sugarcane. The downside, though, says Clinton, is that the country’s increase in ethanol production is a precursor to the continued destruction of the rainforests.
The issue of rainforest destruction (which many experts say is NOT a primary result of increased biofuels production) segues in to the debate of “good biofuels versus bad biofuels”. A bad biofuel may be one that uses food crops, excessive land and too much water. A better biofuel uses biomass, or waste, little water and little to no land.
Recently there has been a spat of companies announcing new technologies to convert biomass to sugar without enzymes. Eliminating this step speeds up the conversion process, lowers costs and improves net energy. In recent months, purse strings have been soldered shut, but Superman may have opened the purse a crack. Today, Khosla Ventures (Sun Microsystems claim to fame) and Burrill & Company announced their joint investment in HCL CleanTech, a start-up that has developed a process using concentrated hydrochloric acid to efficiently convert lignocellulosic biomass to fermentable sugars.
Greg Young, Director at Burrill & Company summed up the problem, “Accessing cheap sugar locked in biomass is one of the greatest challenges now faced by those pursuing renewable fuels and chemicals.” And his company is banking on having found the answer.
My real point is that we need more alternative vehicles on the road, such as flex-fuel vehicles (or hybrid FFVs) with engines that are tweaked to be most effective using higher blends of biofuels, not gasoline. FFVs are one of the best options we have today of weening ourself from fossil fuels. But if we don’t get these vehicles to market now (there are people who hope that now that GM has filed for bankruptcy and the gov’t is taking over some operations, this may actually happen) and develop the infrastructure, there is no point in developing advanced biofuels as there will be no consumer market. It’s high time that our country stop taking the easy way out and really, truly commit to developing and bringing to market not only advanced biofuels but advanced auto technologies.