Ending the fuel versus food debate

Posted on Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Don Smith. / Photo: Owen Egan

BioFuelNet seeks to turn waste into resources

By Neale McDevitt

As one of the worst droughts in 50 years devastates farmland across the American Midwest, some experts have leveled criticism at the biofuel industry that annually diverts some 40 per cent of the U.S. corn yield toward the production of ethanol. And, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently downgrading estimates for the 2012 corn harvest to the lowest level since 1995, a situation that analysts predict will drive up prices for food and livestock feed, the debate has polarized people. It’s become food versus fuel.

“And that’s the crux of the issue right there, isn’t it?” asks Don Smith rhetorically. “When you have biofuels using food crops or competing for good land that could be used to grow food crops, it’s going to make for an interesting dance.”

And it’s a dance that Smith, the James McGill Professor in the Department of Plant Science, is trying to eliminate altogether.

This past May, Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology announced the formation of three new Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE), including BioFuelNet Canada, an ambitious network that brings together more than 100 Canadian biofuels researchers from some 25 institutions across the country. Smith was named BioFuelNet’s Scientific Director.

One of the primary objectives of BioFuelNet is to develop alternative sources of biofuel to such traditionally popular ones as corn, sugarcane and palm oil – all of which are important components of the world’s food stream.

“We’re looking at sources for fuel that are as varied as forestry and agricultural residue and fast-growing plants such as switchgrass, as well as those from algae, processed paper waste, sewage and trash,” says Smith. “For example, instead of using the food part we’re looking at using the lignocellulosics part – the plant stems and leaves, etc. This structural material is mostly cellulose and lignin, with cellulose being the most abundant biomolecule in the world – so there’s a lot of it out there.”

The challenge for Smith and his colleagues in the BioFuelNet network, however, is that cellulose is significantly more difficult to break down and convert into ethanol than, say, corn. “Corn is so popular because you’re working with starch, not cellulose. The conversion of starch into glucose and that glucose into an ethanol that you can run a car with is dead easy,” he says. “But cellulose into glucose is a tougher trick.”

One of the main focuses of BioFuelNet is to develop processes to efficiently convert lignocellulosics into biofuels by employing everything from enzymes and fungi to thermochemical processes to break down the stems, husks and leaves.

“But the point is you can use this cellulosic material and that material can be the refuse of plants left behind once you have harvested the grain,” says Smith.

This vision extends well beyond the farmer’s field, however, to also include the waste left behind in forestry operations, the pulp and paper industry and even the organic material found in landfill. “It’s hard to see how that can be a bad thing if you can take a waste stream and make it into a resource,” says Smith.

And he must be confident that these processes will be refined and developed. BioFuelNet’s stated objective is to have 25 per cent of the fuel used in Canada come from advanced biofuels within 10 to 20 years.

When asked if he could envision a day in which we only use biofuels, Smith pauses briefly. “There’s all kinds of estimates out there and the most optimistic ones suggest that we could do it all,” he says. “Could we actually do it? I don’t know. But I believe it’s a goal we should shoot for.”

 

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