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No.22 Dirt-Cheap Energy

September 16, 2009
by Molly Berman

The big idea: Ethanol radically altered our notion of fuel. No longer did we need to dig for oil. But ethanol requires enormous energy to produce and is usually made from corn, which is grown on arable land. That puts it in competition with land for food production.

Berkeley energy expert Alex Farrell suggests creating future biofuels out of feedstock from degraded lands or—even more radical—out of substances that require no land whatsoever, like waste or algae. “There are many, many different pathways to these preferable biofuels,” he says. Some methods may even suck CO2 from the atmosphere.

To help find these pathways, researchers led by Jay Keasling at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville—a collaboration of Berkeley, UC Davis, Stanford, LBNL, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Lab—are trying to convert lignocellulose, the main component of plant cell walls, into biofuels.

Farrell, whose recent predictions policymakers have been eagerly following, mentions free-floating microalgae that grow rapidly when given sufficient sunlight and nutrients. “You would grow them in the desert, near a source of carbon dioxide, like a coal-fired power plant, for instance, and much of CO2 would be absorbed by the algae. Their body mass would be used for electricity production, or if they were genetically engineered or otherwise modified, they might actually produce hydrocarbons or other materials … suitable as liquid fuels, maybe even hydrogen,” he says.

The advanced technologies needed to create new biofuels will require high initial capital costs. “Over the long term, we may be able to see a lower and more stable structure for biofuel production,” Farrell says.

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