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The Forum > Article Comments > Biofuels: why we donít need them > Comments

Biofuels: why we donít need them : Comments

By Mike Pope, published 14/12/2009

Unless biofuels are able to compete with electricity there is no economic reason for their production for transport.

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These battery breakthroughs may not happen nor could new energy sources like geothermal. I also doubt whether internal combustion engines are on the way out. They may be thermodynamically inefficient but they are cheap and reliable. Liquid hydrocarbons like jet fuel will always be needed for high power-to-weight applications. I doubt whether Australians in the outer suburbs are ready for the cost or inconvenience of small electric cars or even plug-in hybrids.

I agree that biofuels create as many problems as they solve. That includes ethanol, biodiesel from animal and vegetable fats including algae, even methane biogas which I think will be on tonight's 'Top Gear'. None show any sign of making more than a token replacement of oil based fuel. We could possibly get away with making small amounts of fuel from coal provided coal wasn't used for anything else. That fuel would be just for aircraft and reserve tanks in plug in hybrids. The best alternative to liquid fuels for Australia appears to be natural gas. Yet we are flogging it overseas as fast as possible and offering billions to coal generators to switch to gas. I'd say we are about to see a major transport upheaval in the next few years.
Posted by Taswegian, Monday, 14 December 2009 8:41:15 AM
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You say "Electricity is far more efficient and very much cheaper to use than petrol or diesel, even at present prices."

But two-thirds of the fuel energy is wasted at the power station. At least existing hybrids reduce transmission and battery storage costs.

If there were any serious move to phase out dirty coal electricity I might see this sudden passion for electric cars as useful, but it seems very misguided in our present situation.

Can you substantiate the claim that electricity is far cheaper?

There is a simple short-term way to reduce our oil use. Drive smaller vehicles and drive them less. Most people on the streets are clearly oblivious to global warming, driving their large safari vehicles around paved suburbia.
Posted by Geoff Davies, Monday, 14 December 2009 9:26:17 AM
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Geoff Davies is correct, if you consider the generation of electricity, an electric car produces more CO2 per km than an equivalent petrol car. This would not of course be true if the power was generated by renewable or nuclear.

Some biofuels are worthwhile, typically the anaerobic digestion of household waste to generate gas. This reduces the volume of landfill and produces fuel from products that would otherwise be discarded.

However, the other fuels use precious resources for minimal benefit.
Posted by Shadow Minister, Monday, 14 December 2009 10:18:58 AM
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For reasons of production simplicity, (including simplicity of separation from the substrate), the ability to recycle nutrients and its non-competition with food production, local production of biogas from animal and plant wastes/byproducts is probably the best biofuel option (in terms of costs and energy profitability too) but this was not taken up in the article. Trucks can be run using current technology on compressed natural gas (or biogas).
Posted by michael_in_adelaide, Monday, 14 December 2009 10:57:36 AM
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Did I miss it or was there no reference to peak oil? It isn't a case of why we don't need them, its more to do with how we will keep agriculture surviving.

I cannot see how (at present) a farmer on 10,000 acres would use electricity - presumably solar sourced - to fuel tractors and other machinery, never mind the distribution of goods and inputs to the farm.

However the full extent of biodiesel potentials was not mentioned. Agreed that ripping out rainforest to plant palms in SE Asia to provide diesel to Germany is nothing short of lunacy, but there other scenarios.

I have been involved in algal biotech and I will say that to get from low volumes to production - look for example at Hutt Lagoon in WA on Google maps. This project is fully operational and has functioned since the mid 80s when we started with the smallest pond you see.

I am confident that algae is the most promising biofuel option because it doesnít compete with food production, can be grown in saline water, and produces 10-20 times the oil produced by other crops. At a current a $12/Kg it has a way to go but at $1/Kg it competes.

And here's the rub for the economists. We need to create fiscal environments where biodiesel will be "economic" - we need to SAVE AGRICULTURE not leaf blowers. My experience tells me that there are several lines of research that can be followed right now.

No need to be so dismissive Mike Pope.
Posted by renew, Monday, 14 December 2009 11:04:05 AM
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The author mention that France produces its electricity needs without fossil fuels. The author does not mention that the reason is that France produces about 80% of the need using nuclear technology. Does he think nuclear is a four letter word? With latest reactor designs there is sufficient fissionable fuel for 50,000 years.
Using all the grain and sugar produced worldwide for biofuel production would produce a minute proportion of the liquid fuel now consumed and everyone would starve. The argument is not complex.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel and is therefore limited and should be conserved to maintain populations in sub-arctic climates although that can also be achieved using steam or hot water circulation from nuclear stations.
Hot rocks do not show much promise. The steam temperature and pressure tends to be very low and to fall over time.
Electric vehicles with a range of 150-200km and a short recharge time should be the aim.
I drive a hardly distinguishable hybrid and find it excellent.
Posted by Foyle, Monday, 14 December 2009 11:13:25 AM
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