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Pros & Cons:Global Energy Day DebateQuestions Real Value ofBioethanol

Mon, 10/09/2006 - 11:45am

A professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, delivered strong remarks about bioethanol at last month's Global Energy Day in New York. Tadeusz Patzek argued that bioethanol from corn and cellulose plant sources will not produce a sustainable energy supply to reduce dependence on gasoline in any significant way. He charged that the U.S. uses 105 times more energy than it needs and said it must drastically reduce consumption for biofuels to cover a major portion of the demand.

Global Energy Day is sponsored by the Licensing Executives Society, a professional society of more than 6,000 members engaged in the transfer, use, development, manufacture and marketing of intellectual property. Patzek was one of several experts to speak about the issues surrounding alternative energy options including biofuels, solar energy, wind power and nuclear power development.

Patzek believes investment in solar cells and wind turbines will be more productive than biomass solutions to contribute to overall energy needs. However, Mark Austin of Xethanol, a company that produces ethanol in locations near large urban centers, defended bioethanol produced from corn and cellulose plant sources. Although acknowledging that biofuels are not going to be sustainable overnight, he maintains "there is a lot of bipartisan acceptance" for the role of ethanol. He noted that 95 ethanol plants are currently producing 4.3 billion gallons of ethanol, and that plants capable of producing another 1 billion gallons are currently under construction.

"Cellulose is the most abundant biomaterial on the planet and it is made of sugars," Austin explained. The problem is that nature has linked these sugars to other compounds, and the energy from them is not easily released. He described the scientific research now underway to find the best ways to process cellulose into bioethanol and said the projected cost to produce ethanol will eventually drop to $1 to $1.25 per gallon. "The bioethanol industry is still in its infancy," Austin said, noting that it took the oil industry 100 years to develop advanced refining processes.

Other speakers at Global Energy Day, along with the topics they addressed, are referenced below:

• Samuel F. Baldwin, the leading expert on renewable energy research at the U.S. Department of Energy, reviewed the growing problem of global warming and spoke about potential large-scale changes such as the movement of eco-zones and agricultural zones caused by global warming as well as less visible but significant changes such as the acidity of the oceans.

• Peter Dobson of Oxford University spoke about research conducted by a university spin-off company, Oxonica, that holds promise for finding new applications for nanotechnology in the energy arena. For example, the company developed a diesel fuel additive that produces an 11 percent fuel efficiency increase and a reduction in emissions. It is currently used by the Stagecoach bus company in buses across the UK and is beginning to attract attention from oil companies.

• Carsten Heide of the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center explained how his organization works on developing cleaner and more efficient energy technology. Much of this group's research is in biomass energy production, where the focus is on developing innovations that will respond to real market needs.

• Andrew Barron, associate dean for industry interactions and technology transfer at the Rice University Wiess School of Natural Sciences, talked about the potential for solar energy generation and other innovations. For example, research at Rice University has developed certain types of carbon nanotubes that can conduct electricity with no energy loss.

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