Innovation is key to the survival of our society, Pt. 3 “Wheat and flower power”

If no-one has picked up on it, I’ll make the point now that I did conveniently shifted between peak oil, peak natural gas and peak coal in the previous post. As far as I’m concerned, it is more or less irrelevant; oil may fade away first followed by gas then coal – or it all might happen in a different order. Bio-fuels might come along to assist oil, there-by buying some time, but let’s hope it doesn’t become a major player itself.

“Why not?” I hear you ask. Surely bio-fuels are the way of the future? No, I disagree. They will be, unless, of course, we’re able to change the way in which we see the world and how we do things. However, it is naive and as short sighted as visions of a fossil fueled future, that is to say, we cannot see the future through the smog. In this installment, I wish to explore bio-fuels (rather lightly, I will admit) and their limitations.

Bio-fuels

I’ve already discussed bio-fuels on a number of occasions (see here and here for recent examples), so I’ll try to be as quick possible.  Basically bio-fuels are fuels that we are able grow ourselves, ethanol and bio-diesel (methyl esters derived from vegetable oils). Ethanol comes from the fermenting of sugars (I noted CSR on the pump the other day) and the methyl esters are left once you have removed the glycerine from the oil (usually from canola). Bio-fuels work well and are already available for public use. They have also attracted an amount of Greenwashing that claim that they burn clean and the process of producing them also recaptures CO2 from the atmosphere. While there is some truth to this, it ignores some of the more uglier sides to bio-fuels.

The most obvious (and exaggerated by Monckton) problem with bio-fuels is that it’s production is at the cost of displacing primary food production. A while ago my father sent me an email regarding an article which explored bio-fuel production via algae which eliminated or at the least reduces this competition between food and fuel production. Spending a little time surfing the net, I came across Oilgae who are promoting as much and suggest that fuel production via algae is also more efficient that by other crops (see this page). As I’ve only read a handful about algae derived bio-fuels, I won’t comment greatly but to say that if these claims are correct, I strongly believe that the greater amount of our future bio-fuels should be developed from algae.

Back on the farm however, producing grain for food calories or fuel calories, producing vegetable matter for diesel combustion or human consumption; it seems logical that the energy content that ends up as a product and the CO2 collected and emitted in the produce would be more or less the same. What does change is the amount of food and the amount of fuel produced. I’m not sure about the reader, but personally I’d prefer my son’s tummy to be full rather than my car’s tank. In a meeting on Monday, I learnt that some associates had done some work on this and I will certainly include them as a reference once their work is published.

Looking at Wikipedia, on the page about World energy resources and consumption, the opening sentence states that in 2008, 80 to 90% of the 474 exajoules consumed across the world was derived from fossil fuel energy. Following my previous post, although the apex point of the various fossil fuels will be left to retrospect analysis, what is clear is that some point over the next decade (or possibly two – unlikely though) we will become aware of a slowing down of production of fossil fuels. As we’ve seen on a number of occasions – even just over the past few decades – when the market catches wind of change, it panics. As most of our current activities are shoulder-deep in this wonderfully easy source of energy, it will hit hard.

Without foresight and in the state of near panic, states will be quick to secure as much of the stuff remaining as they can and jump on the bio-fuel bandwagon to maintain as much of a business-as-usual approach as they can. What a quick flip over the entire history of our species will produce is a comprehensive list of conflicts relating to limited resources – that would ensue the apex as we slide towards fossil fuel depletion. The ever energy hungry we become (and terribly inefficient we remain), the greater the shock when we’re stuck with two options – food or fuel.

No, bio-fuels cannot fully replace our thirst of fossil fuels.  They will play a role in coming generations, but only after food security.

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