Biofuels the only way forward

Brazil's biofuels guru Jose Goldemberg (TWAS)

A bird in hand is worth two in a bush.  Brazil’s energy researcher Jose Goldemberg, who received the Ernesto Illy Triest Science prize from India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday (19 Oct), at the TWAS meeting, told me the saying is worth remembering while discussing the vexed biofuels issue, especially their risks and benefits.

By now, Brazil’s success story with using ethyl alcohol produced from sugarcane biomass as a blend with gasoline to reduce the fossil fuel consumption is well known. I caught up with him on Wednesday night about the current raging global debates about food versus fuels.

Goldemberg dismisses  as “not serious” the argument that growing  biofuels crops would take away land for growing food crops.  Currently 10 million hectares – one-hundredth of total crop area worldwide – are used for biofuels. Even if land for biofuels production were to increase from this one per cent to 10 per cent, “there will be no problems for the next ten years,” he says.

Current ‘first-generation’ biofuel technologies that make the alcohol primarily from sugarcane (Brazil) or corn (US) are simple and cost-effective and will serve the world well until 2020. “We have a window of opportunity,” he emphasises.

Goldemberg agrees that the “final solution” for biofuels technology lies in the second-generation biofuels that use waste plant biomass that is rich in cellulose. But one molecule of cellulose has about 10,000 molecules of glucose – and so breaking it down with enzymes is where much of the problem lies.  One also needs ‘catalysers’ to speed up the breakdown.

The problems with second-generation biofuels lie in impurities such as dirt that come as a package deal with the biomass – except that the kind and amount of impurities vary and disrupt the breakdown.

Second-generation biofuels will come eventually, maybe by 2015, but not in “the next two to three years,” as over-optimistic experts predicted, says Goldenberg. Till then, use what is available – the first-generation biofuels, he advises developing countries.

Here’s the opening video from this year’s TWAS meeting and some excerpts from the award ceremony:

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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