Jul 30, 2008
World - Gold in Trash
First-generation bioethanol fuels are neither cost-competitive nor do they significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also require the use of food crops such as sugarcane, corn or soybean, which means they cannot be produced in sufficient quantities without threatening food supplies. Second-generation biofuels, on the other hand, could be the real alternative for the future because they can solve such problems and supply a larger proportion of our fuel supply sustainably, affordably and with greater environmental benefits. Moreover, since they use non-food biomass like grain stalks, shavings, switchgrass or husk, they neatly sidestep the contentious “food or fuel” debate. The problem is, extracting ethanol from such difficult feedstock. But now it seems a chemical company in England has circumvented that issue, too, by developing a method to produce ethanol in large quantities from municipal solid waste, organic commercial waste and agricultural residues amongst other things. The waste is first superheated to produce gases and then fed to naturally occurring bacteria that efficiently produce ethanol which is purified to make the fuel ready to be blended for use in cars. One tonne of dried waste can yield around 400 litres of bioethanol. It’s claimed this type of ethanol produces 90 per cent less net greenhouse gas emissions than petrol. The first commercial plant is expected to be set up in two years. According to the United Kingdom’s National Non-Food Crops Centre, this is a breakthrough in two areas: technologically because producers can use municipal solid waste which, at least partially, solves the problem of waste disposal and landfill area reduction; and commercially because we could now have the potential to produce large volumes of bioethanol viably across the world. Although some car manufacturers have already developed engines that can run efficiently on both bioethanol and conventional fuel, most automobiles still need to use a 10 to 20 per cent blend with conventional fossil fuels. Still, for motorists who are constantly facing rising prices at petrol stations around the world it should come as a welcome relief — especially if economies of scale can bring down a part of the cost of the fuel they consume. It’s also about time that manufacturers seriously start building more cars that run using only biofuels and substantially bring down vehicle emissions. Their oil lobbies are running out of excuses now.