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Lee R. Lynd Presents Unique Insights into Biofuels Issues

March 25, 2009

Earlier today (March 25th) the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment held a seminar in which Lee R. Lynd, Professor with the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth University presented “Biofuels: A Strategic Perspective” (http://environment.umn.edu/events/view_event.php?type=event&id=423).  Lynd walked the audience through the thought process which led him to the conclusion that biofuels will play a major role in transportation fuels in a sustainable future.  Foremost among the constraints will be the need for transportable/storable energy.  In that respect, organic liquid fuels present much greater energy storage capacity than electric batteries.  Note that neither Professor Lynd nor myself indicated batteries would not play a considerable role in a sustainable transportation energy future.  Rather, biofuels, in particular cellulosic ethanol, has the energy storage capacity necessary to fuel many of the larger vehicles that fulfill considerable duties while also providing the energy capacity necessary to meet many of our driving needs.    Because of this energy storage constraint, Lynd argues, biomass energy research ought to focus on fulfilling transportation needs.

Lynd’s talk was not just an appeal for a particular research direction.  Instead Lynd interwove themes of innovation and change in every step of the bioenergy process and called for an evaluation into every aspect of land use.  Doing so, Lynd noted, would reveal not only that biofuels could sustainably provide over half of our transportation energy needs while still coexisting with food production needs, but that there is considerable room for achieving that goal.  Key among the shifts are two aspects: crop production and diet.  For years, at leat for most of the 20th century, the former has been directed by a policy of reducing surpluses or reducing labor demands rather than improving overall energy efficiency.  The current outrage over indirect landuse impacts has constrained discussion of shifting the later (diet) to make more efficient use of land.  In either case solutions require systemic changes to improve the efficiency of every step of the biofuel process. 

One must not forget, however, that efficiency does not always equate to sustainability.  Moreover, in the quest to create efficiency and maximize energy production (in all of its forms), many will be tempted to cut corners and/or seek short-term gains through the addition of other inputs or the coverup of sacrificing other values and characteristics.  A historical lesson may be taken from research and production techniques implemented on major crop commodities such as corn.  To improve labor and capital efficiency, numerous other inputs where artificially added (natural gas-based fertilizers) or sacrificed (soil organic content and erosion control) to achieve valued results (less labor, more corn).  Any sustainable bioenergy system must employ sustainability parameters and a system of easily implementable measurements to ensure production is truly sustainable so that our future of bioenergy crops not only achieve energy production goals, but do so while not sacrificing other qualities currently taken for granted.

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