The Biofuel Prayer

Over the past three years the lifecycle of American biofuels has gone from birth to collapse, with the majority of public and private ethanol and biodiesel companies now in bankruptcy. The reason is simple. There is no there, there. So it doesn’t matter if we have 3rd, 4th, or 100th generation biofuels. Alchemy cannot transform the brief absorptioneaster-island-head-1 of sunlight in plantlife into any meaningful quantity of energy. If in some other physical universe, which we do not currently inhabit, it was possible to transform young organic material into liquids without the expenditure of additional energy, then in that world biofuels might look interesting. Until then, plants are not energy.

But enough about the science of biofuels and today’s thoroughly depressing announcement from the Administration, to form an interagency task force with billions in new (plus bailout) investments in the sector. What’s more intriguing is to wonder why, after having completed a real-world test of the unsustainable biofuel business model–with its razor thin capital (and energy) profit margins–our society is going to bang its head against the same wall all over again. I mean really, why bother?

The answer may lie not in biofuels, but in oil. And, in our difficulty with large numbers. The energy content of young plantlife can be expressed in small numbers. But the energy content of oil is a large number. Modern society is so deeply inculcated and infused with oil that we are likely to project similar energy concentrations onto other energy sources. Oil towers over ethanol feedstocks, the way a skyscraper would shadow a house. A bushel of corn contains about 400,000 BTU. Thus, about 14 bushels are needed to match the 5.8 million BTU in a barrel of oil. But that’s over 800 pounds of corn. Moreover, oil is already in liquid form. Frankly, it makes more sense to burn corn in a furnace for heat, than to marshall an additional set of energy inputs to liquify it. And that’s exactly what many people do.

In this context, any renewed push by society to liquify plants starts to look ritualistic, not scientific. While the world remains quite rich in both gaseous and solid fossil fuels–natural gas and coal–the world is likely now in liquid energy decline. If that’s the case, let’s deal with it head on. Chasing the biofuel dream looks increasingly like a prayer. One wonders how people will think of us 100 years from now as we desperately run in silly circles, building monuments.


Photo: Easter Island