By Barbara Bramble
Critics routinely dismiss the future of biofuels but, at the same time, fail to offer an alternative to fossil fuels.
Their arguments – that the cultivation of bio-energy crops should not compete with arable land, burden consumers with higher food costs or drive further loss of wildlife habitats – are the same markers used by advocates who are guiding the development of sustainable biofuels. And of course, biofuels must also play a significant role to reduce carbon emissions.
In short, we cannot let critics condemn the promise of all biofuels, when many segments of the industry are aggressively rethinking previous, unsustainable approaches.
At a time when the world is confronted with the realities of climate change – compounded by skyrocketing demands for energy, water and food – we must find commercial solutions to develop a future beyond fossil fuels. And biofuels can be part of the equation.
In fact, biofuels certified as sustainable, already offer a cleaner alternative to burning fossil fuels in our skies, as commercial flights use renewable fuels derived from biological oils and fats, agricultural waste and other sources. Experts have also found that biofuels approved for aircraft use are technically superior, as they have higher-energy content and a lower freeze point.
A fair question is: Can sustainable biofuels offer a counterbalance to petroleum-based fuels? Early-stage research not only suggests the answer is “yes,” but also promises to turn a land and water resource scarcity problem on its head.
The National Wildlife Federation is closely tracking research in the United Arab Emirates – the small Gulf state synonymous with oil exportation. Here, a team of researchers from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology are growing plants on desert land – irrigated by seawater – to produce both bio-energy and food. That’s right: The harmonious creation of bio-energy plus food, without competing for arable land or relying on fresh water.
This research presents an entirely new paradigm: Can we grow sustainable fuels, reduce emissions and help feed the planet, while preserving forests, wildlife habitats and freshwater resources? The prospect of utilizing arid land to simultaneously grow food and fuel using salt water could be truly game-changing.
Considering that 20 percent of the world’s land is desert and 97 percent is covered in seawater, this research poses a future where 25.5 million square kilometers of arid regions worldwide could become productive farmland, while protecting delicate ecosystems.
While the research is nascent, the potential is very real.
The facility is an integrated system using coastal seawater to raise fish and shrimp for food and to irrigate salt-tolerant plants rich in oils that can be harvested for fuel. A cultivated mangrove forest filters and eliminates nearly all the remaining nutrients – while providing valuable carbon storage in the root and soil system – before the water is discharged back into the ocean.
In a resource-constrained world – where energy, water and food are interlinked – we must advance innovations that promote economic growth and environmental stewardship. With continued research and cross-sector cooperation, biofuels may prove to be a viable part of a sustainable future.
Perhaps no industry has as much at stake in creating sustainable biofuels as the aviation sector.
Unlike ground transportation, which is undergoing an unprecedented transformation with the advent of electric cars, air travel requires high-energy fuels. And no, we won’t be passengers on solar-powered planes anytime soon.
In order to ensure commercial flight remains affordable, while reducing its footprint, aviation depends on a low-carbon fuel supply. That’s why the aviation industry supports the research project in the UAE, as well as others such as a pilot in South Africa, which is testing nicotine-free energy tobacco as a feedstock, and a test lab in the United States that is converting waste gases into commercial, sustainable fuels.
And this is just the beginning, as the science community enters into unexplored territories, where discoveries may go far beyond renewable fuels. This field of research may yield other valuable products, such as chemicals, nutrients and pharmaceuticals from degraded land, taking the pressure off of arable soils, as well as forests, wetlands, native prairies and other habitats.
These are innovative ideas the world needs more of – solutions that stabilize the planet’s atmosphere and preserve valuable ecosystems, while meeting the economic and social needs of our growing populations.
Image credit: Flickr/Adam Jones
Barbara Bramble is senior director of the National Wildlife Federation.