Hello after a long absence from diary-writing. I just read Jerome a Paris' piece about beer and biofuels, and I just wanted to get an idea out there: we need to start separating the concept of "biofuels" from the concept of individual "feedstocks" (sources) such as corn (ethanol) and soy (biodiesel).
UPDATE: Thanks to all the people who have taken the poll (if you haven't, please do so), the results of which beg the question- how many of you have made your feelings known to your congresspeople? We clearly don't like having our options limited to corn and soy.
--a bit more beyond the fold--
Suffice it to say, corn and soy are both TERRIBLE biofuel feedstocks. The yields suck. I'm not an ethanol expert, but I can tell you that the energy balance is not good with corn- slightly above, or slightly below 1:1, depending on who you believe (that's 1 gallon of "gasoline equivalent" out for every 1 gallon in). Soy for biodiesel is pretty awful as well, at 50 gallons/acre and a 3.2:1 energy balance, according to the DOE (sure, a lot better than corn ethanol, but that's not saying much).
What to do? Well, the answer's ridiculously simple.
If all the money that is going into these industries funded the following prioritization of feedstocks, we'd be in much better shape:
Biodiesel (my area of expertise)-
Immediate priority: utilize "waste" feedstocks, including used restaurant fryer oil, trapgrease, animal tallow, soapstock, and other types of grease. The fact is, there are literally BILLIONS of gallons of this stuff that are being wasted as animal feed and other lower-value applications. By the way, the energy balance on the fuel that my company makes from used fryer oil is over 7:1, and we are NOWHERE NEAR the level of efficiency we'd like to operate at (we're still using electricity for heat, for crying out loud). "Second-use" feedstocks are incredible. We need to use them, instead of subsidizing "first-use" food-grade feedstocks with very low yields. Something to remember: the government gives producers of soy biodiesel $1 per gallon. It only gives producers of "recycled" biodiesel $.50 per gallon. SUSTAINABILITY NEEDS A FRIGGIN' LOBBY, FOLKS!
Secondary priority: focus on higher-yield crops like Chinese Tallow Tree (500 gallons/acre, grows so well it is considered a pest in many areas of the U.S.), Camelina, Mustard Seed, Jatropha. Some of these crops have added benefits (i.e., mustard seed yields a meal after oil harvesting that is a great herbicide, and Jatropha grows in desert conditions). Put R&D into discovering other great, non-food crops. We haven't even scratched the surface yet.
Third priority: develop "uber" feedstocks that yield orders of magnitude higher, like microalgae, which can be grown on industrial waste streams, bio-remediating in the process. Even better are things like oleginous yeasts, and fungi that don't even need light. These things are all possible, and just need R&D dollars to get them going. The U.S. should be leading the charge.
Above all else: Get away from Palm Oil, whose import facilitates destruction of rainforest. Get away from food crops- soybeans should be grown for calorie content, whether for animals or people.
Now, I don't know ethanol the way I know biodiesel, but someone else undoubtedly can help fill in the blanks. I'll help get it started...
Immediate priority: utilize "waste" feedstocks, from industries such as soda pop, wine, beer, etc. In other words, follow the Parallel Products example. There's far more "sweet and starchy stuff" out there than is being used at this moment.
Second priority: focus on higher-yield crops like sunchokes.
Third priority: R&D on cellulosic ethanol, which has the ability to really take anything green and turn it into fuel, if I'm not mistaken.
There, see, no reason to throw the biofuels baby out with the corny tofu water.