It looks like one Nobel Prize winner groups biofuels with another, ahem, organic and somewhat odorous material. Prize winner Hartmut Michel, who's the director of the Molecular Membrane Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics, has gone on record criticizing the use of biofuels for alternative energy because of their lack of efficiency, according to ClimateSanity.

For instance, the amount of usable chemical energy storied in German biodiesel, which is made with rapeseed, ranges from 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent, and that doesn't take in consideration the energy used (and lost) in ploughing the fields used to create the plants in the first place. Michel also went on to take to task the use of materials such as sugarcane and microalgae for biofuel production.

Those who miss chemistry class can read the ClimateSanity post here, but the CliffsNotes version will say that Michel believes it's a bad idea to depend on biofuels as an alternative energy source because of a combination of the high amount of energy needed to make the raw materials and the potential food shortages created by diverting such plants away from the global food supply. We've heard these arguments before, but not often with Nobel attached to them.


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  • 79 Comments
      Smith Jim
      • 2 Years Ago
      I did a rough calculation of how much solar PV it would take to run an EV 15,000 miles per year (the number of miles the EPA uses for it's annual cost estimates) and I compared it to the amount of land it would take to grow enough corn to make enough corn ethanol to fuel an E-85 vehicle. It takes about two acres of corn for the E-85 car and 24 square meters of PV for the EV. That's a ratio of about 350 to 1. This is just a ballpark number but.... WOW!!!
        Joeviocoe
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Smith Jim
        Solar vs. Biofuel is not a fair comparison really. Biofuel is an energy dense, liquid, easily transportable, combustible fuel. Electricity is not easy stored or mobile, but very versatile and efficiently used. For automotive application, it can be a tough choice... since there are drawbacks to using an energy storage system like a battery. Biofuels can utilize existing engines and infrastructure technology. The question remains, is it worth it to use more land to fuel existing technology, or use less land and sacrifice range and utility (for the moment) with a higher upfront cost but lower operating costs???? For those who cannot afford an EV, have no place to plug in, but still don't want to buy petroleum... biofuels may work. I got myself a Jetta TDI, and found a way to use biodiesel. I would like to drive an EV instead, but can't right now.
        fred schumacher
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Smith Jim
        Considering the low efficiency of photosynthesis and the high efficiency of an electric drive train, your results are exactly understandable. The 800 pound gorilla in the room, however, is energy storage.
        Dave D
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Smith Jim
        I've seen a number of studies about this and they all agree with your numbers. Well, the same ball park as your numbers...pun intended :-) The problem has always been the storage for holding the energy so it's available when the car needs to charge at night. We need some good grid smoothing so that we can feed this in during the day and have an available source of NG turbines that start to spin up at night to balance it out...with some good storage to buffer in between times or when the sun is not shining enough during the day.
        Joeviocoe
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Smith Jim
        "This is just a ballpark number but.... WOW!!!" A ball park would take up much more than 2 acres... but I get your point :P
        JakeY
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Smith Jim
        I think that's exactly what Hartmut pointed out. The conversion efficiency of biofuel is just too horrible to make any appreciable amount without using vast amounts of land (even for newer biofuels like algae). Add the fact you still release CO2 burning it and it makes even less sense. The only thing it has going for it is that it's renewable (assuming it's at least slightly energy positive after you factor in the non-solar energy used to grow the feedstock). That said, biofuels from biowaste still make a lot of sense, but the amount will be limited compared to biofuels from purposefully grown feedstock.
        Chris M
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Smith Jim
        More importantly, those solar cells can be mounted over roofs, buildings, parking lots, or any other available land area, but the biofuel crop can only use land suitable for farming.
      Ryan
      • 2 Years Ago
      Just make it illegal and there will be a TV show made about people making lots and lots of it in the woods and backyards all over Appalachia... You will see big trucks using it to get around paying the gas tax too. Anything to reduce the money the 'government' gets.
        Joeviocoe
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Ryan
        Moonshine is HIGLY volitile... and thus... those kind of operations tend to be done in the back woods. But cooking biodiesel is much safer (even than making ethanol). Sure there is a bit of methanol and lye used, but storing the end product is much safer (high flashpoint, less toxic). People do it now, in their garages. The biggest obstruction is getting a restaurant to supply the waste oil consistently. They contract with larger companies, and taking from marked waste oil bins is considered stealing.
      Thomas
      • 2 Years Ago
      It requires a fair amount of energy to extract, ship and refine petroleum into fuel - how is this different? Let's see, biofuels democratize the creation of fuel, makes it much less toxic and is carbon neutral... that sounds terrible to me.
      diesel912turbo
      • 2 Years Ago
      Ethanol is a bad idea, biodiesel is worth research. Diesel is the most reasonable alternate fuel. Our infrastructure could be easily adapted.
      winc06
      • 2 Years Ago
      Thanks for the climate sanity url. Nice to to see a site that provides some facts to chew on. That short little run down on the efficiency of photosynthesis is eye opening to say the least. Previous estimates of the amount of water and arable land to replace our petroleum use with biofuels are pretty convincing too. We have not enough of either of those raw ingredients to make enough. It really is down to alternative energy sources and conservation/efficiency. Or the great global warming die off will solve everything.
      EVdriver
      • 2 Years Ago
      So called bio-fuels - especially ethanol from corn - are one of the most idiotic ideas of all time. As the Nobel prize winner stated correctly, this fuels overall efficiency is in the [0,1..0,01] percent range and EROEI is around or below(!) 1. This says all, "bio-fuels" never was and never will any solution, this is just a very painful and expensive diversion and way to the wrong direction. Anyway this is well known for at least 8 years now, no news here.
      PeterScott
      • 2 Years Ago
      EROEI is is really what matters. But the issue of photosynthesis efficiency is really almost irrelevant. The energy from the sun is free for our purposes. What matters is the energy inputs we must supply to help the biomass grow (plowing/seeding/fertilizing/pest control/irrigation), the energy for harvesting and the energy for conversion into a usable form of energy. All the inputs must be weighed against the usable output energy to calculate the NET energy return, often referred to as EROEI (or EROI). Most biofuels struggle to maintain EROEI of 1 when inputs are scrutinized, meaning they are completely wasted efforts. Furthermore they only get slightly positive in energy balance by including non energy byproducts. Bio-fuels are not world solution to energy problems, but there may be small niche cases where it can make sense. Due to extremely favorable growing conditions, Brazilian sugar cane is widely considered to be net energy positive. The widely quoted number is 8:1 which makes it a viable energy source, but subjecting this to greater scrutiny would likely show that number as lower, and this is not applicable outside of Brazil. US sugarcane ethanol was hovering near 1:1 making it pointless outside of Brazil. Basically I mostly agree that Biofuels are largely a dead end, but there may be a few special cases where they make sense.
        Letstakeawalk
        • 2 Years Ago
        @PeterScott
        "EROEI is is really what matters. But the issue of photosynthesis efficiency is really almost irrelevant. The energy from the sun is free for our purposes." What an excellent argument for solar hydrogen! Wind too, for that matter, since wind energy is likewise essentially free.
          PeterScott
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Letstakeawalk
          Infrastructure is not free though and you have to include that in your EROI calculation.
        fred schumacher
        • 2 Years Ago
        @PeterScott
        EROI is not all that matters and an EROI under one does not mean a completely wasted effort. If it were, then feedlot beef would be an unmarketable product. Instead, the opposite is the case. The EROI of beef is under 0.1 but beef is a very popular and highly desired product. Entropy ensures energy loss at every step of a conversion process. The real question is, does the conversion process deliver a more useful product, one that is worth more than the feedstock.
        JakeY
        • 2 Years Ago
        @PeterScott
        "EROEI is is really what matters. But the issue of photosynthesis efficiency is really almost irrelevant." I don't agree. Efficiency of photosynthesis determines the amount of land use required to make that energy (see Smith Jim's post below). And as long as land remains a valuable resource (even though it's not an energy source), it does matter, and I believe that's the core argument of Hartmut in pointing it out. The other issue is water use (which is also non-energy).
          PeterScott
          • 2 Years Ago
          @JakeY
          Don't discount the final line I posted. "Basically I mostly agree that Biofuels are largely a dead end, but there may be a few special cases where they make sense" Land use means Biofuels are not world scalable energy source. It is a dead end on the global scale. EROEI means they are not even a small scale source in most localities. IE is mostly dead end even on the local scale where land use may not be an issue. This should be obvious even before land use problems become an issue. But in a specific locality niche (Brazil - Cane sugar ethanol), it can be a significant transportation fuel source.
      EV News
      • 2 Years Ago
      And that's not to mention that Bio Fuels are used as fossil fuel substitutes in Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) which are only approx 15% energy efficient at the wheels. Bio fuels like E85 have 30% less energy density than fossil fuels so actually make ICEs even LESS fuel efficient!
        fred schumacher
        • 2 Years Ago
        @EV News
        Trials at Minnesota State University, Mankato have shown that unmodified 2006 model year vehicles running a mix between 20% and 30% ethanol have equal or slightly better gas mileage than straight gasoline. This synergistic effect only applies in this narrow window and not at lower or higher levels of ethanol. The exact cause of this effect is still unknown, only that it exists.
          fred schumacher
          • 2 Years Ago
          @fred schumacher
          The ethanol optimal blend study is available at http://www.osti.gov/bridge/servlets/purl/989409-SP4XO0/989409.pdf I heard Dr. Bruce Jones give a report on this a couple of years ago. It was 2007 model year cars, not 2006. For more information on research being done at MSU-M go to Dr. Jones website: http://cset.mnsu.edu/amet/bjones.html
          • 2 Years Ago
          @fred schumacher
          Do you have a link for this? I can't find any reference to these trials online.
      Jeff Zekas
      • 2 Years Ago
      Biofuels are a renewable, local resource-- THAT is their main advantage, especially, say, if the U.S. goes to war with China, and needs fuel (the first action of our enemies has always been to control the sea lanes). As for "Nobel Prize Winner"-- just cos you have a Nobel Prize (or a Phd) does NOT mean you are an expert on fuels. In the end, it is the OPINION of one individual against another, with dubious "facts" slanted in whichever direction various opponents desire. At least, this is my observation, after being involved with politics for over 50 years.
        Marcopolo
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Jeff Zekas
        @ Jeff Zekas The military is one potential user of bio-fuel. The PRC has indeed diverted funds from solar and wind to biofuel production in the vast interior, specifically for the PLA's defense considerations. However, the comparison of the USA and China isn't valid. US defence relies upon a high tech, low troop ratio, to aggressively attack and defeat belligerent powers by reducing capacity to attack the US homeland, in conjunction with it's network of allies. In comparison, the PLA defence strategy is to defend the PRC by mobilizing it's vast ground forces and decentralizing supply targets by diversity or resources. The US can actively defend strategically important infrastructure, the PLA's priority is to create infrastructure to vast or diverse to easily destroy completely. The PRC never regarded the US as a threat, it's defense priorities lie to the nations west and south. That may change as the contest for resources increases.
      Rob J
      • 2 Years Ago
      While I agree with everything in his post, I certainly don't agree with the blanket statement that biofuels are not worth looking into. Energy returns vary greatly by source, but there is no reason that VAST improvements could not be made with simple policy changes. I suppose I am biased though, I worked in a lab researching 2nd gen bio-fuels from poplar trees and we have consistently been able to show that with the planning, you can get energy returns of up to 2.5x what you put into it.
        Marcopolo
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Rob J
        @ Rob J, The real problem with biofuels, is the energy yield is far too low, and the the vagaries of agricultural crops too difficult. Bio-fuels can be made from waste materials, or surplus crops, but not on an industrial scale, in most locations. It's also possible to produce under laboratory conditions, some quite optimistic results. Regrettably these never translate into any economically viable large scale projects. Research into feedstock should not discounted, and Shell/Virent/Gargil are in a race with several other mega corporations to find a feedstock compatible with The Virent-type process. Basically, the holy grail of bio-fuel feedstock would be a sterile tree, which could grow in desert and semi-arid marginal land, root fed and fertilized by desalinated water, and yielding a fruit 3 times a year, able to be machine harvested, and keeps fruiting for 70 to 100 years. The oil extracted from the fruit would have to be very high in calorific yield. ( Producing Virent process feed stock at under $30 per barrel. Obviously , such a plant doesn't currently exist. But that's the basic formula to attract enough political and financial investment to make large scale Bio-fuels a possibility. Sounds far fetched ? Well, it certainly is ! However, considering the size, finances, resources and logistical capacity of the corporations involved, it suddenly becomes less fetched.
          fred schumacher
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Marcopolo
          Trees and perennial grasses produce primarily the same three products: cellulose (6-carbon sugar), hemicellulose (5-carbon sugar), and lignin (a binding resin). Biomass production is dependent on soil type and terrain, total water available and timing of it, insolation strength, growing season length and total growing degree-days, and carbon pathway type (C3, C4). Which crop is best suited to any particular area will be based on those variable. Sometimes trees are better, sometimes grasses. Grasses have the advantage of operating under a short cycle, improving cash flow for the operator, can be C4 photosynthesis pathway plants, which are more efficient, and sequester their carbon underground where it is more stable and could produce a cash return for carbon credits (most perennial grasses have over half their biomass underground; whereas, trees place the majority of their biomass above ground). For either trees or grasses, it is important to interplant nitrogen-fixing plants, such as legumes for grasses and alders for trees.
          Marcopolo
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Marcopolo
          @ Ziv and fred schumacher Thank you for your replies. There are a lot of natural crop and crossbreeding programs being research since the development of the Virent process. The biggest problem is up-scaling and cost of production. Switch grass and annual crops that must be plowed, planted, harvested and transported in bulk, are all economically unsuited to fuel production (except in unique circumstances like Brazil etc.) A tree, harvested three times a year, produces a product which has the benefits of matching the industrial system. Under the right conditions, trees ( 15 ft ) reproduce a similar process to an oil well ! The tree's production is controlled by it's root fed supply of nutrient and water. The plantation (and individual tree have an assessable investment value. Capital investment decreases each year of production while profits increase. Production can be controlled and the vagaries of nature minimized. The plantations energy needs can be met from its own production. It's these sort of factors that most bio-fuel fans don't seem to understand.
          fred schumacher
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Marcopolo
          Miscanthus giganteus is a sterile naturally occurring hybrid of M. sinensis and M. sacchariflorus. Its sterility is a major reason for its extremely high biomass yield, since it doesn't have to translocate any nutrients into fruiting bodies. A phenological sterility can be induced into switchgrass, Panicum virgatum, increasing biomass yield, by taking advantage of switchgrass's high cold tolerance and moving a southern ecotype north. Trials in Quebec have confirmed this phenomenon. An added advantage is the high level of long-term carbon sequestration both of these perennial, low fertility demanding, grasses can accomplish.
          Ziv
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Marcopolo
          Marco, I usually agree with you, but... LOL! I think some crops, such as miscanthus not only yield a positive energy ratio, but they also are viable on lands that would otherwise be held in Conservation Reserve Program or simply lie fallow in relatively low rainfall areas which are usually thought to be marginal with regards to crop yields or grazing. After Wang et. al. destroyed Patzek and Pimentels' papers a few years ago, I haven't seen too many blanket denials that even corn can get a positive energy yield, and as Rob points out, there are a lot newer crops being looked into. I don't doubt that one day fairly soon, we will be seeing a biofuel industry growing that will outshine even Brazilian biofuel ratios of 9:1 on energy yield vs. energy input. So I guess I agree more with you final paragraph and less with your first one. But I admit that I am biased, I am from Montana and a viable miscathus industry could really revitalize some communities in the more arid parts of the state. And I am really curious to see what impact it would have on wildlife. It seems like it would be great for birds, and small mammals, but would that mean grackles and rats or songbirds and weasels? Only way to find out is to see what happens.
      Letstakeawalk
      • 2 Years Ago
      Nobel Prize winner Al Gore has admitted that his support of ethanol was a mistake.
      fred schumacher
      • 2 Years Ago
      Part I: Of course, when including the photosynthetic efficiency of plants and the low fuel efficiency of present day transportation, biofuels are going to come up looking hugely inefficient. But let's take a look at another system several orders of magnitude more inefficient than biofuels --- our own human bodies, which depend on massive amounts of embedded energy and water and can output a measly 50 watts on an ongoing basis. There is a lack of systematic thinking and creativity on the subject of energy use in general and biofuels in particular. Modern human society cannot survive without the harnessing of energy external to our bodies. In the 18th century, we switched from renewable animal, solar (including wind and water), and biofuel power to fossil fuels, which being finite, will ultimately end. Twelve millenia ago we undertook an even more massive change, the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, and that's where we need to begin to understand where we are at today. Since then, we have used primarily annual plants to synthesize carbohydrates and protein and convert them into a form usable by humans and their livestock. All the advances over time have not changed this essential dynamic. The problem is that annuals are disturbance plants requiring high fertility and maintenance. Perennials are low maintenance plants but produce most of their biomass in a form not usable by humans. We are reaching the limits of annual plant agriculture to meet the needs of a huge human population made possible by exactly those plants. Ironically, biomass research can point a way out of the cycle we have been trapped in. We need to decouple synthesis of organic molecules from conversion of them into usable form. Let plants, primarily perennials, do the synthesizing, and let us, using industrial systems, do the converting. After all, cellulose is a long chain carbohydrate polymer of glucose molecules, the form of sugar our bodies convert food into for use at the cellular level. For example, Miscanthus giganteus trials at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have shown four times the biomass yield of corn, without any fertilizer, water or tillage input. That's a lot of glucose, with a lignin byproduct that can form the feedstock to replace petrochemicals. Why feed 18% protein content alfalfa through a cow to get milk, when that protein could be more efficiently accessed directly? This is a revolutionary paradigm shift in agriculture with numerous synergistic benefits. The only place there is money to do the basic research is in biofuels.
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