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Science Wednesday: The Biofuels Challenge—Searching for Sustainable Fuels for Our Growing Transportation Needs

2009 April 8

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the author: Mary Ann Curran is a senior research chemical engineer in the Sustainable Technology Division at EPA’s National Risk Management Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She leads the Agency’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Research program. She conducts research on LCA methodology and application, focusing on biofuels and nanotechnology.

image of author standing in front of buildingLiving and working in the heart of the corn belt, I am continually confronted with the promotion of corn ethanol as the green solution to gasoline. As a researcher in Life Cycle Assessment, however, I know there is a lot more to the story.

Although biofuel energy is renewable, there is some controversy that it is not sustainable due to the harvesting of biomass and the byproducts produced during combustion. With ever evolving technologies and choices in feedstock, biofuels can vary enormously in the type and intensity of environmental harm they may cause. Biofuels must be viewed in the proper perspective.

There is no single replacement to gasoline or diesel that will completely satisfy our need for transportation fuels or settle our concerns of global warming and dwindling oil supplies, but biofuels can make a significant contribution. It’s likely that solutions will be regional ones, depending on what biomass is locally available.

Research is needed to look for better biomass feedstocks and better ways to convert them to bioethanol and biodiesel. Efficiency and decreased demand through conservation must also be part of the solution. Whatever choices we make, they are sure to have far-reaching effects. The global discourse that will certainly continue should not lead us to a biofuel solution that in the end is more environmentally harmful than sucking crude oil out of the ground and cooking it.

I recently ventured far outside my native Ohio to attend the World Biofuels Markets Conference held in Brussels. The Conference started with a presentation by Sir Bob Geldof (most well-known for co-organizing the 1985 Live Aid concert). Sir Bob cautioned that in our enthusiasm surrounding the potential for expanding the world’s use of biofuels, we need to proceed in a smart way “with the competing criteria for sustainability brought into the mix.” I like that.

To learn more about biofuels, I recommend listening to a presentation by Dr. Steve A Kay, UCSD, recorded on November 3, 2008, entitled Biofuels: Hype or Hope.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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