Biofuels: Buy one get two free
Paper cups and napkins, and the leftover stems and stalks of crops, could be turned into biofuels without destroying rainforests or good arable land, or using large amounts of water and nitrogen-rich fertilisers, the experts say.
Their technique include methods used by Nazi Germany in the 1940s, and South Africa’s apartheid regime 40 years later, to produce transport fuel.
The researchers, Dr Oliver Inderwildi and Sir David King of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, say that this process, combined with modern technology, could turn the leftovers of food production into fuel and electricity.
Dr Inderwildi said: “Because carbon dioxide in the air is converted to fuel, then back to carbon dioxide by cars and planes, the system is a perfect carbon cycle.
“It has huge potential for rural areas, creating jobs in new biofuel factories and local bio-refineries without needing the vast and damaging corn monocultures of the US.
“With the world’s population growing so quickly we cannot continue to use food crops for fuel but instead must turn our crops into both food and fuel.
“This system isn’t a silver bullet and we still need to find the best ways of breaking down the inedible parts of crops. But it is a start and could eventually mean turning our card and paper lunchboxes into energy.”
The new research, Quo vadis biofuels? is published in this month’s edition of Energy and Environmental Science, the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Part of the system is already being used by the South African company Sasol to make kerosene for jets at Johannesburg Airport, although Sasol uses high-emission coal rather than crops or waste materials.
Dr Inderwildi and Sir David King, who was the UK government’s chief scientist from 2000 to 2007, say perennial grasses and algae could be used to make harm-free biofuel using the same system.
Switchgrass, for example, grows on poor agricultural land and needs little fertiliser yet it absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide and can be converted into fuel. Algae can be grown in plastic bags filled with waste water, minimising the impact on land use.
The scientists stress that biofuels alone will not reduce transport emissions sufficiently and that investment in vehicle efficiency and electric cars is urgently needed.
Damage-free biofuel production has a significant role to play however. Sir David said: “This produced biofuel system could provide a massive boom for the developing world, providing Africa with fuel locally and encouraging sustainable development there and elsewhere. Its secondary effects still need to be assessed but there is no doubt that the potential of this carbon-saving system is huge.”
Michael Evans at Madano Partnership, 020 7593 4000
Notes to editors:
- For a copy of the paper, visit http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/Journals/EE/article.asp?doi=b822951c or call Cath Harris.
- Both the Third Reich and South African Apartheid governments used part of the carbon cycle to produce transport fuel from coal. The technology for making this fuel is called Fischer-Tropsch, after the scientists who developed the process in the 1920s. The system uses heat, pressure and a metal catalyst to turn carbon monoxide and hydrogen into fuel. The Nazi regime used the technique to make fuel in World War II and the Aparthied governments of the 1980s to dodge international oil embargoes.
- Sasol, a major South African energy firm, uses the same process to produce synthetic jet fuel from coal. The fuel was approved for use in international commercial aviation in 2008 and was the first fully synthetic fuel to be sanctioned for this purpose.
- The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment is a unique interdisciplinary hub where international academics from a range of disciplines are working with the private sector and government to find solutions to the major environmental challenges of the 21st century. The School was founded in 2008 by a benefaction from the Smith Family Educational Foundation and will be the foremost institution of its kind in the world. The School’s work covers environmental economics, finance, international development, law, politics, and all areas relevant to the response of the private and public sectors to environmental problems. Units from across the University of Oxford are involved in the creation and ongoing work of the School. Professor Sir David King is the Smith School’s first director. Sir David was the UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor from 2000 to 2007.
Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford,
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