First we learned that biofuels are inherently inefficient compared to solar powered electric vehicles such as having solar panels on your garage roof to charge your car. And of course they contribute to global hunger. Now it's clear the production of biofuels in the US is degrading grassland.
The ramp up in biofuel production has thus far been a major misfire in the fight against climate change.
Thanks to a new study from South Dakota State University, we can add another negative from biofuel policy: Accelerated destruction of grasslands in America’s Western Corn Belt (WCB) region — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.
According to Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly, the study’s authors, conversion of grassland to corn and soy production between 2006 and 2011 has proceeded at a pace comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In Iowa alone, the losses are approaching 12 million hectares (almost 30 million acres) of tallgrass prairie.
Here's a solution to using arable land for biofuel. Collect duckweed from polluted lakes
... duckweed, an aquatic plant that floats on or near the surface of still or slow-moving freshwater, is ideal as a raw material for biofuel production. It grows fast, thrives in wastewater that has no other use, does not impact the food supply and can be harvested more easily than algae and other aquatic plants.
They describe four scenarios for duckweed refineries that use proven existing technology to produce gasoline, diesel and kerosene. Those technologies include conversion of biomass to a gas; conversion of the gas to methanol, or wood alcohol; and conversion of methanol to gasoline and other fuels. The results show that small-scale duckweed refineries could produce cost-competitive fuel when the price of oil reaches $100 per barrel. Oil would have to cost only about $72 per barrel for larger duckweed refiners to be cost-competitive.
Growing the plant for fuel could at the same time address the serious problem of livestock-based wastewater pollution.
Industrial-scale hog farms currently store animal waste in large open-air “lagoons” that contribute to air pollution. Duckweed can use the nutrients in that waste to reduce that pollution and clean the water.
Dinoflagellate algae is an even better biofuel source which doesn't compete for cropland.
The scientists carried out the whole production process in exterior cultures, in natural conditions, without artificial light or temperature control, in cultivation conditions with low energy costs and subject to seasonal fluctuations. Detailed analysis of all costs over 4 years gives promising results: microalgae cultures are close to producing biodiesel profitably even in uncontrolled environmental conditions.
"If we make simple adjustments to completely optimise the process, biodiesel obtained by cultivating these marine microalgae could be an option for energy supplies to towns near the sea," points out Sergio Rossi, an ICTA researcher at the UAB.
Among these adjustments, scientists highlight the possibility of reusing leftover organic pulp (the glycerol and protein pulp that is not converted into biodiesel) and using air pumps and more efficient cultivation materials. [emphasis mine]