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Why are biofuels made from starch or oil rather than cellulose?

Why do all biofuels seem to be made from starch or oil rather than cellulose? If herbivore animals such as goats can turn bark & newspapers etc into energy, presumably by enzymatic and bacterial action, why can’t we design a process that will do the same? This would reduce the pressure on land, the inflation of food prices & get rid of rubbish.
Andrew Eastaugh from Suffolk (Age 45-54)


3 Responses

  1. Research is underway to use more cellulose, probably from grasses, to generate fuel. It is easier and faster to convert plant oils into diesel and sugars and starch into ethanol, but it is almost certainly better for the environment to use waste land to grow grasses than to use good land to grow oil crops.

  2. A large number of researchers are trying to do just this, producing the so-called “second generation bio-fuels” – but we haven’t quite got there yet!

  3. It is important to realise that deriving bio-fuels from cellulose will not by itself ‘solve’ the pressure on land. At the moment the ‘cheapest’ and most abundant source of cellulose is forest, and especially tropical rain forest. How will we ensure that tomorrow’s second generation biofuels will not be derived from large scale clear-felling of natural forests in poor and poorly governed countries?

    Land is a finite resource (‘they ain’t making no more of it’ Mark Twain said). When people talk about ‘waste land’ they usually refer to land that is not producing anything that they personally value. This is something we have to examine critically; it may have biodiversity value or it may be of productive value to some (eg poor or indigenous groups) or spiritual/amenity value to others. Think of the opposition to windfarms on high hills in the UK. In the past this was seen as ‘waste land’ from an agricultural perspective. Now these areas are protected as national parks. Growing (some of) our own second generation biofuels on our own land that is currently not in agricultural use, will almost certainly be controversial. It would be hypocritical to assume that it’s ok to import it from (‘out of sight’) developing countries without a very close examination of the social, environmental and ethical repercussions.

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