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Biofuels are often believed to be a sustainable alternative to oil. To put things in perspective, I did the following calculations: A healthy adult typically eats 2200 kilocalories per day ie about 9000 kilojoules. Divide this figure by 24 hours and then by 3600 seconds and you get the average power consumption of an adult human body: 106 watts. About the same as a standard light bulb… French population is about 60 millions. Means that in terms of energy all the food eaten by the French is equivalent 6 billion watts = 6 Gigawatts. Interestingly this is the typical maximum power output of a large nuclear plant. France is self sufficient in terms of agricultural products (imports of foodstuff more or less equal to exports). This means that if the French stopped eating (which is very unlikely as it is one of their favorite activities lol), the biofuel that could be produced by the entire existing French farmland would be more or less equivalent to the output of just one nuclear plant.

Maybe by using so called second and third generation biofuels, you could boost the yields of biofuel crops and France could achieve a total energy output equivalent to 2 or 3 nuclear plants. Even in this over optimistic scenario, biofuel production would still only represent a small fraction of the French needs. The French farmland is among the most fertile in the world, France has a relatively low population density compared to neighboring European countries and yet you can’t expect French agriculture to meet more than a few percent of the French energy needs…

Now here is another mindboggling calculation I did: France could easily produce all the fuel it needs to power all its cars. How? Quite simply by applying the Brazilian solution: kill the entire rain forest of French Guyana (a 90,000 sq km piece of French territory in South America) and replace it with sugar cane. I am not sure the so-called ecologists would agree that “brilliant” idea.

Even if we find a way to boost the yields of energy crop like corn, sugar beet or sugar cane, this type of biofuel will always remain very marginal as a source of energy. In its present state, biofuel is clearly a hype that acts as a distraction that keeps mankind away from looking for a really truly effective solution. In fact, in the light of the 2008 food crisis, it seems to me that biofuel derived from corn, beet or sugar cane is much worse than hype. It is potentially one the most criminal ideas that went through a human mind since the Nazi era. Starving out impoverished populations to allow the wealthiest to drive their car… This is simply obscene and disgusting.

4th generation biofuels

Does it mean that biofuels have no future? Not sure. Several companies around the world are doing fascinating research aiming at producing 4th generation biofuel using algae or bacteria. The energy yield per square kilometer would be several orders of magnitude higher than what is achieved with corn, sugar beet or sugar cane. What is more, production could take place in desert areas instead of encroaching on fertile cropland. This way biofuel could be massively produced without starving the population.

One of the leaders in this field is Craig Venter, the geneticist that sequenced the human genome in 2001. Craig Venter seeks to genetically modify bacteria so that they can massively transform CO2 into biofuel. You can read more on the subject on Newsweek

Other companies like Valcent Products are presently conducting fascinating research aiming at using algae to produce biofuel. The yield per acre could be of the order of 100,000 of gallons of fuel per year compared to 30 gallon for corn based ethanol. You’ll find the details on CNN. You can also view these 2 videos on Youtube.



Extracting the CO2 from the atmosphere

Whether you use bacteria or algae to produce biofuel, you need CO2 as raw material. Initially, biofuel producing plants could be located close to coal plants and industrial zone and thus recycle CO2. However if we want to go one step further, we would ultimately have to extract CO2 from the atmosphere.

At first sight, this seems unfeasible. CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is extremely low: around 0.0385%. That’s less than half a gram of CO2 per cubic meter of air. This means you would need to process thousands of cubic meters of air to extract enough CO2 to produce just one liter of biofuel…

As surprising as it may seem, promising research is being done in this field and it appears that extracting CO2 from the atmosphere on a large scale could be technically and economically feasible. The U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory is looking into the possibility of using quicklime to capture CO2. What is really amazing is that the cost of capturing the CO2 produced by burning one gallon of fuel would be only 20 US cents… Virtually nothing compared to the price you have to pay nowadays for one gallon of fuel… You will find more details the Los Alamos National Laboratory web site.

Further readings:

Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage

Using Rock Dust Helps To Control Atmospheric CO2 Buildup and the Greenhouse Effect


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