Steven Chu's Fourth Generation Biofuels

I was trying to think of a suitable topic for April Fools Day, and for some reason Steven Chu's Helios project and Fourth Generation Biofuels came to mind.

According to Dave Cohen, Steven Chu sees no particular urgency to our current problems. His way of dealing with potential shortfalls is described as follows:

The answer is let efficiency take care of it, at least in the foreseeable future 5, 10 or 15 years from now. Chu’s reasoning is based on his miscalculation that we have between 10 and 40 years before oil & natural gas production, taken together, will peak and decline. Efficiency is supposed to double the time we have to find replacement fuels, so Chu has recast the problem to give himself the 20 to 80 years he requires to find a way to replace oil.

Chu’s long range solution involves applications of synthetic biology to create 4th generation biofuels (Biopact, October 8, 2007).

The problem with Fourth Generation Biofuels is that they are way, way, way off in the future, if they can be done at all. This is a graphic from Biopact description of fourth generation biofuels.

The plan is to somehow improve the whole process through bioengineering to do what nature does not do now. Is this a sensible way to approach a very real current fuel problem?

According to Dave Cohen, "Chu wants nothing less than to alter the Earth’s primary productivity, its energy flows, to achieve greater efficiency in the conversion of sunlight to chemical energy than Nature has after 3.5 billion years of evolution." How likely is this to happen, especially in the timeframe we need to solve our problems?

Chu's confirmation testimony indicates that the research is not very far along. According to an account of testimony at Chu's Senate confirmation hearing:

Chu explained that the two-year-old program is striving to develop fourth-generation biofuels. To date, researchers at the lab have “trained” bacteria and yeast to take simple sugars and produce “not ethanol, but gasoline-like substitutes, diesel-fuel substitutes and jet [fuel] substitutes.” He says a cadre of “brilliant” scientists who had previously spent most of their careers in basic research is now “very focused on making this technology commercially viable.” . .

Currently, no particular plants are being focused on, but they could include anything from algae and corn stover to grasses and lumber-mill dust and scrap. So Chu reassured Lincoln that her state grows suitable raw materials.

But the real key to making these next-gen biofuels, Chu says, will be figuring out how to design feedstock plants that would grow using fewer energy inputs and prove more robust in the field. The program’s also investigating pretreatments for plant-based cellulosic feedstocks. Their goal: to facilitate the ability of single-cell organisms to break these materials down by separating out and discarding the molecules that plants make to protect themselves from attack by microbes and fungi.

Such a multi-pronged approach looks to optimize all phases of biofuels production with no preconceived idea of which area is likely to offer the biggest payoff. And that, Chu said, “is why I’m so optimistic some real progress can be made.” And rapidly.

This is a link to the Helios research center at Berkley lab, that Chu was formerly the head of. According the website, the goal of Helios is

The primary goal of this effort is to develop methods to “store” solar energy in the form of renewable transportation fuel. Several approaches under investigation include the generation of biofuels from biomass, the generation of biofuels by algae, and the direct conversion of water and carbon dioxide to fuels by the use of solar energy.

This is a link to a speech by Steven Chu called The Energy Problem: What the Helios Project Can Do About It.

If we had 20 to 80 years to solve our problem, there is at least a remote chance the research into fourth generation biofuels and the Helios project would be helpful. But in the timeframe we are talking about, it seems to me that we should not be putting many eggs in this basket.

As far as I know Mr. Chu and his lab have not yet been able to make any biofuel process with net energy gains higher than hydroelectric, nuclear, hydrocarbon fossil fuels, or wind power energy processes. Neither is corn ethanol less expensive per BTU produced than gasoline.

A billion dollars and decades have been spent on safe fusion to electricity modeling and experimentation, yet nothing has come of it. A government researcher recently reported cold fusion reactions occurring at room temperatures every day. I think there was some confusion of thermodynamic definitions in this case. In the parallel universe of government research labs; writers may use words that have diametrically opposing definitions.

If your lab comes up with a biofuel that is too expensive to be sold in a free market, then you need a press release to tell the people it is an inexpensive process. At the same time you need Congress to initiate stricter quotas and increased government subsidies to make the people buy it.

But the real key to making these next-gen biofuels, Chu says, will be figuring out how to design feedstock plants that would grow using fewer energy inputs and prove more robust in the field.

Zerofuel - must be the target. A bio-fuel that grows using zero energy inputs - then ERoEI will increase exponentially - problem solved. With a catchy name like "Zerofuel" of "Lighter Fuel" then the public and politicians will believe that anything is possible - and getting people to believe is half the bottle.

I suspect that Dr.Chu is not as hopelessly misinformed as he seems. He has left his physics lab, and is now physician to an ailing body politic. As such, he must learn about placebos, and hand-waving and gassification of intellect. He must be a student of Voltaire--whose 18th century thought is not far off the mark in our ever-so-sophisticated 21st century:

“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”

He also has quickly learned another of Voltaire's charming aphorisms:

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong”

Hide and watch -- Steven Chu will make April Fools of us, not the other way around!

Public charlatans whose job is to distract. Chu has four years to keep dropping his drawers and distract people from focusing on reality.

Here's another one:

The Civil Heretic - Freeman Dyson.

Dyson remains an armchair astronaut who speculates with glee about the coming of cheap space travel, when families can leave an overcrowded earth to homestead on asteroids and comets, swooping around the universe via solar sail craft. Dyson is convinced that our current “age of computers” will soon give way to “the age of domesticated biotechnology.” Bio-tech, he writes in his book, “Infinite in All Directions” (1988), “offers us the chance to imitate nature’s speed and flexibility,” and he imagines the furniture and art that people will “grow” for themselves, the pet dinosaurs they will “grow” for their children, along with an idiosyncratic menagerie of genetically engineered cousins of the carbon-eating tree: termites to consume derelict automobiles, a potato capable of flourishing on the dry red surfaces of Mars, a collision-avoiding car.

What is a reasonable person to make of this garbage?

April fools indeed, fools the entire year and more fools who pay any attention to them.

Problem is that biological systems aren't capable of handling the rates of energy use that machines are - see how hot a car engine gets and the coolant system it uses - without a biological equivalent to a coolant system and without a fuel source equivalent to what a car engine has then no biological system can crank out a continuous 20-50 horsepower like a car engine does - it will overheat even if it could get the energy from somewhere and convert it. No doubt nanotechnology and other genetically engineered stuff will do some pretty interesting things, but for moving things around mechanical systems remain a better choice. Dyson is definitely wrong here.

Thank you, jensv,

I like references to basic principles.

What is a reasonable person to make of this garbage?

I read the Dyson profile with interest as well. He is a universally acknowleged smart fellow, so I paid some attention to his objections.

If you parse the basic thrust of his 'global warming heresy', it doesn't seem all that controversial. Dyson agrees that CO2 concentrations are increasing rapidly and that people are the cause. He argues that because the climate system is complicated we don't understand these impacts and it may not turn out to be as bad as we think. He seems a little late to the table with this.

Dyson has a point though, particularly when he refutes Al Gore's slides linking hurricanes and tornadoes to climate forcing. These are complicated systems, and it is truly speculative to say climate forcing will result in more hurricanes. Gore's slides on ice sheets are a bit more persuasive.

All this said, Dyson is no climate expert himself. He operates from his (well-informed) hunches and biases. What is his horse in the fight, aside from the joy of simple apostasy? The passage above reveals an important belief: that of human perfectibility. If we all accept we'll have to Power Down, how will we get around to all the cool stuff Dyson wants to see?

The polarized debate about what to do about climate change often seems to stem from the advocate's belief about human perfectability (or not, per Sowell), and data is simply a prop for the initial position.


One would certainly like to hope that Steven Chu's actual policies will turn out to be better than the fourth generation biofuel approach. Maybe there is more going on behind closed doors that we are not aware of.


I would not presume that because you don't know the details of the development of current cellulosic and algae biofuel technologies, that "4th generation" (inexpensive) cellulosic biofuel technologies do not already exist. There is a lot of work going on in the background and some of these technologies appear to be really, really good.


Hi Retsel,

"...these technologies appear to be really, really good."

Here's how I see it:
Energy extraction or "production" or whatever one wishes to call it, is only one of the overlapping aspects of (I like the phrase) - "global problematique".

With an infinite amount of energy in a useful form (for all the machines), then what?

We still have the limits problem. And the limits are already here, witness starving people, etc. And pollution, mass extinction, etc.

If people like Chu, however, well-intentioned, are not able to contemplate the bigger picture, they contribute to...well, what to
call it. Let's call it more and greater human suffering.

Contemplate it and also incorporate the view into their efforts.

What might be some examples of doing this?


You are confused. 4th generation biofuels has nothing to do with being inexpensive. That is a third generation biofuel issue.

The difference is that 4th generation biofuels are to be plants that have been re-engineered to do things plants have never evolved to do, including sequestering more carbon and turning much more solar energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis. Trying to do things like this is a whole new ball game. If this can even be done, we are talking a very long time frame.

I wouldn't be so sure about that time frame, Gail. In just the last few years they've bred plants, through gene-splicing to be drought-resistent, insect-resistent, aluminum-toxicity resistent, and to grow taller, and faster.

There are an AWFUL LOT of very smart people working full-time in hundreds of Universities, and Private labs on this as we speak. The stuff they're doing, every day, is pretty amazing.

Hi All.

The best estimates we have right now are Peak Oil between 2008 (Host of folks) and 2020 (IEA) to 2022 (Neftex). We would need to replace 7 million cars each year with Hybrids (5M for Plug-Ins) to make up for just a 1% annual decline, which is basically the entire domestic auto production. The IEA projects 6% accelerating to 10.7 annual decline by 2030. And the IEA ‘s projections are optimistic. There are many brilliant folks on the planet, however, it won't make a hill of beans how bright they are if they are not coordinated and working at a speed necessary to deal with the approaching decline. Think of the industrial effort and coordination applied during WWII. In 1940 the U.S. produced 3.6 million cars. During the 4 years it took to win the war, they produced just 132. All industrial output was refocused overnight to win the war.

The problem is that all of these bright people seem to be missing the secondary effects when oil starts declining or demand outstrips production with no spare capacity. There will be a sudden rush to conserve the remaining oil (resource nationalism), destabilization of emerging nations, and yes, many opportunities by groups to create oil/price panics with relatively small acts of terrorism.

I've worked in politics and when you are in charge, you never want reveal problems for which you have no solutions; because if you do, there is a good chance you will get blamed for them. So it is possible they are working on Peak Oil in the back rooms and will roll out a coordinated program in the future. I've just not seen any hint so far that their concern matches the magnitude of the problem.

Quote : ... through gene-splicing to be drought-resistent ....

This is beautifull tech ! These plants don't even need water , simply put : a Zeitgeist Wonder.
Examples of this marvel thinking seen here in the rather dry Saudi desert . Proof of concept / snark

in the 1990's and maybe still, The Kingdom of Norway got most of her wheat from the deep desert of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at that time Lake Layla (nearby these circle fields) had water , but sadly not any more ...
I have a hunch that KSA is draining their watertable to the level of nill. Go use Google Earth or even simpler Saudi Circular Crops from space, the map is interactive so zoom out with slider and say "aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh"
There are thousands of these circular cropfields. Impressive up to the level of idiocy.

We are talking about the same thing, even if you don't want to characterize it in terms of cost. Again, just because you don't know whether a 4th generation technology exists, does not mean that it doesn't. Time will tell.


“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”

Good quotes. But this is not quite on target. Nature isn't going to cure the disease, nor is anybody else apparently. That's the problem.

Clearly intellect isn't everything. Neither Chu, nor Obama, nor any of the crew are short on smarts. There has got to be some form of intoxication going on, power or whatever, that blinds them to the simplest of things.

Global warming might be a little hard to grasp and controversial because of potential escape clauses, but what is so hard to understand about depleting energy (and other) resources? (There are no complicating feedback loops at play.)

Or, they know, but are content to play the game for the short term. Even then, they could still be playing it wrong if the short term is shorter than they figure.

It's hard to figure out what these guys think to themselves. It doesn't really matter I suppose. The machine has its own logic and recruits those who are willing to take it where it wants to go.

Hi davebygolly.

re: " hard to understand about depleting energy (and other) resources? (There are no complicating feedback loops at play.)"

My guess is:

1) Chu et all have not really grasped oil in anything like a holistic manner. For example, to spend a week or a month completely getting around via foot or bicycle. This would be a good intro.

Then, they have not really taken a hard look at the meaning of Hubbert, let alone Campbell and co., Tony, and others. What does it mean? What does it actually mean in some terms that relate to them?

2) This point you make is an excellent one. There is nothing all that difficult about depleting energy. In a way. (See above.)

That's why they think they can "solve" it.

It's just another "problem", like all the other ones they're used to solving.

And they are used to doing so in an environment that provides them all the "goodies" to use for their endeavors. Labs, equipment, lots of energy, etc.

They don't really see this more "mundane" aspect of their personal environments.

In addition, there's a psychological and/or emotional issue. Let me try to express is this way: My guess is none of them have any concept, for eg., of what it's like to invent math on your own because you live in desperate, grinding poverty and lack access to any school. (And, have no way to participate in a feeling of sharing in a culture of, say, mathematics.)

So, the facility with any given subject matter a sense, the icing on a cake. They don't see the cake.

3) They haven't contemplated the extraordinary difficulty of the problems that arise, should the huge-and/or-infinite-usable-amounts-of- energy "problem" be solved.

Look what's happened already - when Nature "solved" it. Once.

It's only when they start to think about this that they will be able to make a constructive contribution to what humanity faces.

I fervently hope Chu and people like him will do so.


I think you just got around to saying what I did. I'm not entirely sure what "machine" you are referring to, but I take it to mean the whole of the Earth enterprise, including its people. And yes, Nature will very much provide the cure, and it may not be precisely what we want or expect. We may power down, we may die off -- it doesn't look like it's going to be a rational decision, though. So Chu's role is to amuse us, and make us think we are doing something.

By the way, E.M. Forster wrote one science fiction piece The Machine Stops that is very much worth a read. It was written in 1909!

And yes, Dr. Chu knows better than to hold public opinions at variance with the established power structure -- which at the present seems to know only oil.

Davdbygolly, IMO

depleting energy (and other) resources? (There are no complicating feedback loops at play.)

is a bit of an oversimplification. And let me argue why. Timing plays a crucial role for the consequences of peak oil. (although, more time is not a guarantee. Of course 20 additional years wasted in BAU wouldn't get us any closer to a solution).

In any case, timing (assuming a growing awareness and willingness to address the problem) is quite important. And complex feedback loops are at play and will be. These feedback loops could earn us more time/less time to prepare and change, and it's hard to know which. Here are some obvious complex feedback loops in energy depletion:

* Price: more specifically the relationship between oil price/the economy/consumption and investment. When oil hit $120 no-one could predict where the inelasticity of the price would give in. And the last months have shown that the relationship between oil price, consumption, production and growth is not easy to grasp. Has a lower consumption earned us more time to prepare or less? (the answer to that is not even clear. Less investment in oil, ok, but wind still grows at rates close to 20%. More awareness? perhaps. More easy-oil used while hard-to get is delayed? Yes ... and how about less wasteful lifestyles for unemployed?). Just some pointers to highlight that the interaction between high prices / low prices / economics are hard to grasp and can buy us time (or not, I don't know the answer).

* Technology: Without falling into the cornucopia side of things, there are roughly more scientists alive today than there ever existed in the whole of human history (typical of exponential growth). That's no guarantee of course. Many of them are wasting their time, making things worse, and more importantly many of the scientific discoveries often create new unintended problems. Yet simple technology (improved treadle pumps, solar cooking, solar pasteurization, desalinization with micro-wind, etc) also forms part of scientific investigation and could ease the transition.

* Psychology & Leadership: As Jarred Diamond has pointed out, many societies that "survive" have leaders which are directly threatened by the problems society faces. Evaluating how our resource depletion problems will affect decision-makers is hard to gage. Maybe in the US it's easier, but there are many countries and cultures interacting.

Anyway, just some pointers to say it's not as easy to grasp as it seems. Especially on a whole country or society level. Of course in a 100 year perspective it's all very easy to grasp: non-renewables deplete! duh! But policy-makers or politicians are appointed/elected for 4-8 years, and that's where they have to manoeuvre. In that time-scale I'm afraid things are complex and feedback loops are present (and it's hard to know what exact moves pave the way for a brighter future).

Now that's what I call really funny dark humour.

The central problem with solar energy IMO is that it is so dilute. Plants accumulate and store it, but it takes a long time for them to do it. Any system that is man made will require that the earth be covered with that system. Which is more efficient? IMO plants are since they are already adapted to the environment. The systems to regularly harvest them are in place. An earth covered with solar panels or algae bio generators is not a place where I would want to live.

Are we really going to let cellulose consuming bacteria loose on a mass scale so that we can have bio gasoline? What if they got out and attacked grain and turned it all into bio gasoline? It boggles the mind.

Just because someone wins a Nobel prize in one area does not mean he is clever in another area. Especially an area which is dominated by politics and has such immediate and wide spread implications like energy. Chu does indeed make a good April fool.

I sure wouldn't want to bet agin'em.

I wouldn't want to live on a planet covered with solar panels or algae biogenerators either, but it is not correct to say that natural vegetation is more efficient. Plants have evolved to be efficient at getting their genes passed on, not at storing energy they don't need for this. Plus, there is the energy cost of gathering up all this "diffuse" energy stored in plants.

"First generation" (they are quite confusing and unreal those generation terms) is still getting better:

IEA Confirms GHG Reductions With Corn Ethanol Use
Ethanol cuts GHGs up to 55% over gasoline
OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - April 1, 2009) - A new International Energy Agency (IEA) report confirms that new efficiencies in farming and production techniques show corn ethanol dramatically reduces harmful greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) - moving toward 55% cuts by 2015 - when compared to gasoline.

Highlights of the recently released IEA report, 'Examination of the Potential for Improving Carbon/Energy Balance of Bioethanol,' include:

- GHG reductions over gasoline will more than double by 2015

"The GHG emissions savings from ethanol and use have more than doubled between 1995 and the projected level in 2015."

---------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1995 2005 2015----------------------------------------------------------------------------Grand Total GHG Reduction From Corn Ethanol 26.2 % 39.0 % 54.9 %----------------------------------------------------------------------------

If you go back to the Original Report by (S&T)2 Consultants Inc., one finds that this result is based on looking at "experience curves" for other processes, and assuming this will be similar.

It seems like the experience curves that the consultancy are looking at were developed during a period of adequate and increasing fossil fuels. Once fossil fuel use truly starts to decline, it seems like these experience curves are likely to turn around the other way. If nothing else, there is a lot of hand waving in this type of analysis.

There is always hand waving everywhere; ppl are so friendly these days! But I think that the guys at IEA are not that stupid to publish a study if it were all bogus.

Ummm ... you're new here, aren't you... or have I just been April Fooled? :-)

Hi Gail,

re: "Once fossil fuel use truly starts to decline, it seems like these experience curves are likely to turn around the other way."

This is an excellent point, Gail.

At the risk of making yet another suggestion for you (suggesting work for others - but you are so qualified!), I'd really like to see you expand on this and write it up for an article.

There are specifics that support your general idea.

Thanks for the suggestion!

This is all a distraction from the real plan, which is to create cellulosic ethanol from all the dollars the Federal Reserve is going to print.  We will shortly have wheelbarrow-loads of currency to buy loaves of bread, and after the next devaluation the paper will go into our cellulosic ethanol converters and come out as SUV fuel.  Problem solved!


That can't be right, because if they do that, there won't be any money left to burn. And the government promised us....

What dollars?

All the ones the Chinese are about to unload!  Just you wait and see!

Supposedly China owns ~10% of U.S. public debt, so while it would hurt, I don't think that China alone could torpedo the states. Even then, owning foreign debt is wise in light of China's reliance on exports. They know that a global recession will hurt their economy more than any other, so investing in foreign debt from a country likely to pay it off (Personal savings rates are back up) during that time is a pretty good investment in terms of minimizing risk. If China were to dump treasuries, they would probably take a big loss on them, which at this time probably isn't the best move given their economy.

In all seriousness this time, China appears to have gotten itself stuck, and is playing the same game as the banks trying to get out of mark-to-market rules:  refusing to recognize that they cannot sell these assets for anything like the face value.  Of course, this also means that Chinese talk about moving out of the dollar or a new global reserve currency is empty (for now), as the Chinese believe the cure would be worse than the disease.

With one of the best educations taxpayer money can buy, and all the toys at his disposal, Chu still would not know a good energy policy if it bit him on the ass.

Why not spend the billions of dollars he has, and is going to, piss away, on fruit and nut trees to feed people during and after the powerdown.

Mr. Fusion here we come, ready or not.

I am a reader, and not a frequent poster here on the oildrum, but the ecology major in me demands that I give my intuitive response here.

Bioengineering crops/trees that more effectively store carbon and energy just strikes me as resulting in crops/trees that will have higher demand in either soil fertility, fertilizers, or sun. This faith that we can take over the carbon cycle of the planet and improve on it at the scale of energy consumption allowed by millions of years of oil creation seems to have a good chance of failure. It seems to want to create crops that bend the laws of thermodynamics.... If such crops were possible and good for ecosystems and the biosphere, I suspect such crops might already exist. I sure hope there is a plan B and C.

BTW... cellulosic biofuel based on a flow of trillions of printed dollars...thats good dark humor!


Bill, good comments. My take on this and also on using solar, tide and wind to power us at current levels is that the sunlight, wind and tides are not just energy sitting out there doing nothing. They are doing something and if we harness them massively we will then find out what it was that they were doing (we should be able to guess but it is so much nicer to think of this as free energy just needing to be tapped). Most likely with wind and sunlight we will change the weather. Maybe we would change it in a good way that would reverse warming. But these things are hard to predict and until we do them massively we will not know what changes we are setting in motion. There is no free lunch as you point out. The engineered crops will no doubt give us some surprises that shouldn't be surprises. They will be surprises because no one wants to see any downside of any of the magic plans to keep the party going.

What looked like a free lunch was eons of captured and stored sunlight. It looked like it was just sitting in the ground doing nothing and using it massively would have no consequences. However as we have learned it was storing carbon out of the atmosphere and now it is storing less and the atmosphere has more and OOOOOOPPPPPPS.

I don't think we can afford anymore OOOPPPPS. Time to wind down the party and power down. Time to do that in any orderly way is running out.

Wouldn't it be worse if they succeeded?

Imagine a plant with five times the photosynthetic efficiency of the best nature has done, that grows rapidly in almost any environment.

Now imagine trying to control it.

This reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's ice-nine.

Imagine a plant with five times the photosynthetic efficiency of the best nature has done,

Not hard, we're much further along than that with PV.

that grows rapidly in almost any environment.

That's a whole different ball of wax.  The traits which make a superior producer may make an inferior competitor.  For instance, the research to make algae which absorb only the light that they need so large volumes of water can be photosynthetically active (instead of just at the surface) would yield bugs which would be shut out in competition with their own wild-type ancestors.

I could see the merits in making e.g. trees with the C4 photosynthesis system, though.

Imagine a plant with five times the photosynthetic efficiency of the best nature has done,

Not hard, we're much further along than that with PV.

I have never heard of PV producing O2. Did I miss something?

Chlorophyll doesn't need to produce O2 either; water is just a proton donor to make NADPH and ATP.  Stranded Wind's process would yield O2.

Chlorophyll does produce O2 and carbohydrates. I wonder what the efficiencies (forget eroeioeioei) would be for PV to produce ammonia. What would you do with the ammonia? Grow more corn?

Ammonia can be used as a motor fuel, though it's far from the best (roughly 8000 BTU/lb compared to diesel fuel at ~20,000).  However, it was just an example of non-biological synthesis of a chemical fuel starting from electricity.  I recall another process a while back which synthesized methanol from CO2 (ah, here it is), and if NADH can electrically generated from NAD+, there's a pathway for synthesis of liquid fuel from CO2, water and energy with no organisms involved.

Check out artificial photosynthesis, hydrogen and oxygen produced photocatalytically from sunlight. I saw prof Lewis's talk, who is working on a prototype. He claimed to be about a year away.

Also you can google it. There are groups at MIT, Sweden and Manitoba with some results.

These are active research programs with serious money. Quite amazing, even if it will take a minimum of 10 years to arrive at practicable devices.

We should know by now not to expect much that is really useful to come out of the Department of Energy (the very name being somewhat of a misnomer, as one of its primary missions has been the development and maintenance of the vast US nuclear weapons arsenal).

In all fairness, the DOE did some pretty good work during the 1970s on alternative energy, but from the Reagan administration on, it's been largely downhill.

It seems to me that in areas such as the environment and energy, governmental efforts tend to start with an honest attempt to solve a problem but then gradually degenerate into a process of 'colonizing' the problem. By that I mean the problem itself becomes a vehicle for career-building, academic funding, and perpetual overlapping R&D programs having no discernible endpoint.

Dr.Chu seems to be couching this whole bio-fuel question in terms of finding the right bugs, ones that will eat waste and sh*t gasoline. Even if such a perfect microorganism were to be developed, the whole thing will be seriously limited by logistical, material handling, and waste management constraints, few of which are insurmountable but almost all of which drag down the economic viability. And this isn't even taking into consideration the problem of supplying/recycling nutrients in a sustainable manner.

Anyway, it sounds good in a press release, and I guess at this level that's all that really matters. But just don't hold your breath waiting for something actually useful to come out of the DOE.

In April Fool's times, fools turn pro.

If genetic engineering is so promising, why not just breed draft horses that can run 80 miles per hour pulling a 20-ton semi-trailer for 8 hours on a peck of oats?

Great idea!!! I am submitting a proposal to DOE and DARPA.

Oh I like that. While not up to those standards, the humble donkey is a time tested cellulosic energy machine. Not fast but steady, and in dire straits can be used for warmth and in even dire straits for food. What car can do that.

I think everyone is missing the point of Chu's point.

First producing bio-gasoline, etc. will be carbon neutral, which is a really big deal. If you accept the reality of GW and mean to fix it by burying CO2 that will involve a +20% energy penalty.

Second, ethanol and other biofuels are net energy positive, except in the Pimental-Patzek alternate reality. It may take
100 BTUs of fossil fuels to make 133 BTUs of ethanol, but it takes 100 BTUs of fossil fuels(crude oil, natural gas) to make 83 BTUs of gasoline.
What the magic lure of gasoline over a bio-gasoline equal could be is a mystery to me.

Of course, there is the unknown scalability issue but tests have shown that energy crops like switchgrass and miscanthus can
be vastly expanded with yields per acre even higher than corn(though without the DDGS coproduct).
For example, corn might get 450 gallons per acre while switchgrass at 11.5 tons per acre would get 1500 gallons per acre.

Third, is that Dave Cohen is frequently a good guy.

... ethanol and other biofuels are net energy positive, except in the Pimental-Patzek alternate reality. It may take
100 BTUs of fossil fuels to make 133 BTUs of ethanol, but it takes 100 BTUs of fossil fuels(crude oil, natural gas) to make 83 BTUs of gasoline.
What the magic lure of gasoline over a bio-gasoline equal could be is a mystery to me.

The 83 btus of gasoline from petroleum requires very little land and water. 83 btus of gasoline can be produced while the land produces N btus of food energy. Producing gasoline from crude does not use farmland. Farmland can be used to grow food.

When biofuels are substituted for gasoline there is the gasoline btu output from the remaining oil plus the oil btu component of biofuel production that is removed from food production as well as the land that is also taken from food production and given over to biofuel production.

When farmland is used to produce fuel the land must produce the fuel- to- produce- the- fuel ... plus the fuel itself.

If switchgrass and Kudzu or other crops can be grown on desert with no irrigation or the bottom of he oceans there will be no conflict between food availability for humans - and other natural bit players - and food availability for cars.

Another pesky externality ... land!

We have, worldwide, scads of available, unused arable land. Stanford estimated 1 Billion Acres; others have estimated much more.

Some of it are in Afghanistan growing poppies for heroine. I don't think we can convince people not to use drug.

Hi Dinh,

Well, there is the money factor.

It's hard to know exactly what people would grow, if there was more money in something else. Like...ummnnn...coco (chocolate). :)(Kind of a drug, I guess.)

Also, about drugs. Well, it's not so much convincing people not to use them, as it is the scale. Using less.

Plus, the reasons. There's often a great deal of unmet emotional and psychological need that precedes drug use.

Unused arable land?
Do you mean all the fields that were covered in asphalt to create suburbs/highways/malls?

Or the little remaining forests and wild places around the world? Surely nothing bad will happen if we burn down all the forests and grow corn on them.

By getting rid of the American-style suburbs, demand for fuel goes down, and land available to grow things goes up, so it's a win-win situation.

What's oddly missing from the 'official' energy debate, is that no one question the need for more and more energy. If Americans started to use as much energy as Japan, then a lot of coal stations could be closed, without having to find any alternatives.

"Farmland can be used to grow food." I think farmland is being used to grow food. Apparently too much of it:


"dietary change in the US has resulted in an additional 438 pounds of grains per capita, or 8 bushels of corn. That’s 2.4 billion bushels of corn, enough for 7.2 billion gallons of ethanol, or 70 percent of the nation’s ethanol consumption. Since the 1950s are not remembered as a time of national starvation, let’s characterize that 2.4 billion bushels of grain as national overeating.

Or to put it another way, 15 percent of the nation’s cropland is devoted to overfeeding Americans."

"Last year, we imported, enough oil from Iraq to make 6.6 billion gallons of gasoline. If we had used the land for ethanol production instead of overeating, we wouldn’t have needed Iraqi oil. Tell it to the troops."

And in addition to that wa(i)ste, there is also this:


"Americans throw away more than 25 percent of the food we prepare, about 96 billion pounds of food waste each year. Food waste includes uneaten food and food preparation scraps from residences or households, commercial establishments like restaurants, institutional sources like school cafeterias, and industrial sources like factory lunchrooms."

Some estimates say Americans waste as much as 50% of their food. In addition, Europe and the US have "reserved" a considerable part of their cropland.

So all in all, there shouldn't be much of a shortage in food.

So all in all, there shouldn't be much of a shortage in food.

Unfortunately, there was a shortage of food in 2008, fat, wasteful people or no ... when a large part of the US corn crop was diverted to ethanol production leaving less for export. Maybe there *shouldn't* have been but there was.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN:

The total agricultural area in the world amounts to 5.0 billion ha. Of this, about 1.5 billion ha (30.4%) is arable land and land under permanent crops. A decreasing growth rate of 0.3% has been noted over the ten year period.

There is a reason that only a percentage of total farmland is used at any given time; some soils are more or less productive than others, some areas receive more or less rainfall than others, some areas have more or less clement weather or longer or shorter growing seasons than others. Soils that are farmed without chemical fertilizers need to be taken fallow - out of production - periodically for the biota in the soils to fix additional nutrients to the soil. The blase assumption that 'wasted' land can be simply turned over to making car food renders land into a machine part where all the parts are interchangeable. This is nonsense. Forcing production on farmland unsuited to it causes the degradation or loss of soil fertility leading to the gross loss of soil to erosion.

Only a small percentage of farmland in the US is suitable for high- yield conventional production. The balance is simply less productive land or pastureland. If land can produce 50 bu of corn per acre it will produce the equivalent yield of another crop. It will not produce an equivalent 100 bu yield or it would be doing so already. There is a reason that those 1 bb acres are less productive - they are less productive!

The idea that production can be pulled like a rabbit out of a hat from unproductive land is similar to the idea of perpetual motion machine or fusion in a bottle ... just more something for nothing nonsense. Land can only give up what it can then there is nothing left- the outcome is desertification.

That process is being repeating today, but in a new book a University of Washington geomorphologist argues the results could be far more disastrous for humans because there are very few places left with fertile soil to feed large populations, and farming practices still trigger large losses of rich dirt.

"We're doing the same things today that past societies have done, and at the same rate," said David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences who studies the evolution and structure of the various aspects of the Earth's surface. In essence, he said, we are slowly removing our planet's life-giving skin.

"It only takes one good rainstorm when the soil is bare to lose a century's worth of dirt."

It is questionable whether biofuel production can satisfy its own energy demands; that is can biofuel be produced solely from biofuel inputs leaving some inputs for 'other use'. All the output figures indicate scale economies are required that so far cannot be met withoout additional fossil fuel inputs to permit net btu- gain biofuel production. This would suggest biofuels are only an intermediate or 'refinery process' to leverage petroleum production with the intermittancy risks of this process being shifted onto human food production.

Please, experiment with YOUR dinner, not mine!

It is up to those who promote the use of farmland to produce car food to prove their case that this production won't impact either the human food supply as well as the natural envelope which supports all future food production. Right now, the car food process has caused one significant world- wide food shortage crisis, Why does the same experiment need to be attempted again on a wider scale?

This article you reference:
talks about the rising food prices causing the poor not to be able to afford food. That is fundamentally something different from a "shortage of food". There was plenty of food in 2008. Thus this last comment of yours pure misinformation: "Right now, the car food process has caused one significant world- wide food shortage crisis".

Prove it that "car food" caused a "world-wide food crisis". See this comment:
"It's really an absurd travesty when starvation gets blamed on "global warming do-gooders," and we haven't seen the last of that. The problem is miscast, though. There isn't a food shortage, at least not yet. There is a food price crisis, which is a very different beast." and here:

Fact is that the higher food prices in 2008 were mainly caused by high energy prices. The actual food part that leaves the farmer accounts for only a minute fraction of the consumer cost.

And today there is almost as much biofuel (including corn ethanol produced) right now as in 2008 and there is again no shortage of food AND food prices are very low overall. So, go figure.

And the somewhat of a rabbit trail of soil erosion has nothing per se to do with biofuels. The land is equilly worked whether for biofuels or food. So fuels or food make no difference in that regard. And the "reserve" land I was talking about, was explicitly quite productive farmland, otherwise it wouldn't have to be taken out of normal crop rotations. Biofuels don't cause soil erosion. That's a myth. Poor farming practice does, not the actual crops produced.

Hello ... why do you think the food prices were rising? Ever hear of supply and demand? The problem is an exponential increase in demand ... for food!

Where do you mean there was 'plenty of food'? Everywhere? There is never plenty of food everywhere, there are always hungry people. Right now there are about a billion malnourished people in this world. Tell me again how 'we' have plenty of food. You may have plenty of food and I may have plenty of food but there are a lot of people who do not have enough food.

Zero malnutrition first ... before 'we' start feeding cars.

The burden of the car food people is to prove food supplies are invulnerable before experimenting on real paople's stomachs. And to do so without qualifications or rationalizations such as 'supply disruptions' or 'politics' or 'above ground factors' or 'energy prices' or some disturbance that always exists and is overcome by having surpluses of food.

The status quo allows the underground to produce car food AND people food while the surface produces people food and natural services. This is acceptable. To car food people, every piece of land that hasn't got houses or corn or soybeans on it is 'wasted' that should be used to produce car food. This is a misunderstanding of nature which does not have 'waste'. Because land has returned to some nature state means it is providing nature services at the same time it is potentially productive land for human food.

The status quo allows for the surface and its population of people - not cars - to find a sustainable balance over time. It's bad enough the surface requires a large percentage of the underground energy supply to insure food sufficiency. It is also bad enough so much surface is given over to cars rather than people and nature services. Having the cars start sucking food from above ground sources is an unacceptable perversion of priorities.

Such as when the argument is made that people are too fat so they should be starved down to size and some car food made, instead. Go to a place where fat people hang out and present that argument!

When you can GUARANTEE that every person on this planet has something to eat - even if it means dumping excess food into the ocean - then you can start talking about growing food for cars. It's a matter of principle and decency, morality or whatever term that is appropriate.

Fact is that the higher food prices in 2008 were mainly caused by high energy prices. The actual food part that leaves the farmer accounts for only a minute fraction of the consumer cost.

Because the food distribution is crooked and greedy that means people should starve while Chevies and Explorers can get something to eat?

Go ahead and make the producers and marketeers disappear. There are many who would like to see them go. Lucky this year, bumper crops, add population gains, more meat- heavy diets and biofuels, something has to give. Next year? When there are bodies in the streets, that will be the end of biofuels.

Poor practices cause soil depletion and demand causes poor practices. What would more and more demand for biofuels cause? Agriculture is a zero - sum operation, take more out than can be replaced either by fuel substitutes such as fertilizer plus natural processes plus sunlight and there is soil depletion. Turn forest into farmland and there is depletion, turn farmland into subdivisions and malls and there is - permanent - depletion. Pump biofuel feedstock out of marginal land and there is depletion.

Two plus two equal four. no something for nothing.

"When you can GUARANTEE that every person on this planet has something to eat - even if it means dumping excess food into the ocean - then you can start talking about growing food for cars. It's a matter of principle and decency, morality or whatever term that is appropriate."

Not impressed by your reasoning. How does producing MORE food guarantee that there will no one malfed in the world???? You think that by dumping excesses in the ocean somehow that will feed all the hungry? What kind of brainwave is that?

And the argument was that plenty of food can be produced from the farmland we have to feed each and everyone, and you turn it into an argument about "malnutrition".

If only you would get your hands dirty with just 0.21 acres you could be well fed with the following menu for 1 person:
65 lbs of beef per year (US average) 0.13ac
60 lbs of chicken per year (US average) (conversion 2:1 at 50 bu (your number!)) 0.02ac
53 lbs of bread per year (US average)0.029ac
3 ears of sweet corn every third day 0.029ac
half a head of lettuce every third day 0.001ac
half a head of cabbage every third day 0.002ac

Sorry for the limited choices on this menu. However, replacing any of the veggies would not alter the overal acreage much at all.

And as far as depletion goes: farmers need to get your "toiletries" back on the fields. It may be dirty work, but the best short recycling. If your waste doesn't get back on the field, you waste precious stuff. What you actually eat are carbohydrates that the plants make for you out of thin air, and some other elements that also taken either out of the air or the soil, but of which the total mobilization in your body (till you die)doesn't amount to much of what's out there.
And all the huffin and puffin that you do also in this post as well as the puffin of biofuel powered vehicles does easily get recycled by plants.

The problem is that Oil extraction/transportation/refining also results in externalized costs like pollution and GHG emissions that impact how much farmland we have available and where we can grow whatever crops. Granted, even using high yield crops, there's little reason to use a large amount of farm land to grow fuel for three ton SUVs and pickups, but otoh, the amount of land used for current Ethanol production from corn could be switched to "marginal" land using crops that have a much greater biofuel yield per acre, and can produce enough energy for a fleet of 50mpg PHEV-15 type vehicles. Granted, Americans will be extremely disappointed ditching their Cayoneros, but thems the breaks.

Can you name the truck with four wheel drive,
Smells like a steak, and seats thirty five?
Canyonero! Canyonero!

Well, it goes real slow with the hammer down
It's the country-fried truck endorsed by a clown
Canyonero! Canyonero!
Hey, hey!

Twelve yards long, two lanes wide,
Sixty five tons of American pride!
Canyonero! Canyonero!

Top of the line in utility sports,
Unexplained fires are a matter for the courts!
Canyonero! Canyonero!

She blinds everybody with her super high beams
She's a squirrel-squashin', deer-smackin' drivin' machine
Canyonero! Canyonero! Canyonero!
Whoa, Canyonero! Whoooooaaaa!

I only comment because I just did a lot of math on this precise problem for my dissertation.

The best numbers I was able to find were typical yields of 328 gallons/acre for corn based ethanol. From just this number and the energy density of ethanol, we would need 911 million acres of farmland to produce the transportation energy used in the US assuming an EROEI of infinity (no energy inputs).

The best numbers I could find for EROEI were 1.1-1.3:1, but even if it were 2:1, that would still mean that the total farmland would be (via sum of a geometric series), 1/(1-1/2) = 2, so 1800 million acres. The US has 450 million acres of farmland. Even with an infinite EROEI, we would need twice the US total farmland to meet just the US needs.

Gigantus miscanthum, which can be grown on non-arable land, produces as much as 17 MJ/kg at 14 tonnes/hectare per year. If you assume again an EROEI of infinity, as well as 100% conversion of biomass into useful fuel, you need 450 million acres of land (but this time it can be nonarable because the plant doesn't use much nitrogen of phosphorus). Obviously, the actual number will be far higher, but at least in this case you don't necessarily have to compete with food crops.

I'm sure that these numbers help demonstrate the *biggest* problem with biofuels. It's not lack of fertilizer or the low EROEI that will end up killing them (although these don't help), it's the fundamental solar conversion efficiency of a complex multicellular organism. Once support systems are taken into account, the efficiency of the plant is far less than 1% with respect to the production of biomass (which as was noted elsewhere, is not the goal of the plant's evolutionary processes).

Note that this is far less than even poor solar panels. Humans are already readily able to produce equipment that converts sunlight into useful (for humans) energy than plants are, by an order of magnitude or more.

I'm sure that these numbers help demonstrate the *biggest* problem with biofuels. It's not lack of fertilizer or the low EROEI that will end up killing them (although these don't help), it's the fundamental solar conversion efficiency of a complex multicellular organism.

This argument that we need highly efficient energy production technology rings hollow.

All energy production technologies are highly inefficient in practice.

Heat engines produce large amounts of waste heat, renewable electricity is highly variable without a means for storage.

If we use energy efficiently, such as energy efficient
cars the issue goes away; a 60 mpg car fleet would use 1/3 the fuel of 20 mpg car fleet. If this was in ethanol that's about 75 billion gallons per year, with 1500 gallon per acre switch grass that's 50 million acres or 78000 square miles--the size of Nebraska, not that I recommend turning it back into the vast switchgrass plantation it was 200 years ago.


Your numbers are inaccurate. Corn yield was down a touch (154 bu/acre to 151 bu/acre) this year due to the floods, and shortened growing season in the midwest. They are expected to be in the 161 bu/acre range this year. They have been steadily increasing at a rate of about 3%/year for several decades.

At the same time refinery yield is steadily moving up, also. It's, probably a bit over 2.8 gal/bu, now, and with the move toward "fractionation," etc. they will be in the 3 gal/bu range, shortly. Two other considerations:

About 1/3 of ethanol plants sell their CO2. Some of this will be used to increase oil production through the flooding of old oil fields.

But, the Main Consideration is that a little over 30% of the kernel is returned as DDGS. DDGS are approx 33% superior to corn as far as weight gain in cattle (the primary use of field corn) is concerned.

Put all this together and you get (disregarding the CO2 factor) 60% of your acre (you're retaining 40% of your cattle-feeding ability in your distillers Grains) going to produce 161 bushel of corn which yields 450.8 gal of ethanol. Divide that by .6 (remember, you're getting 40% of your cattle feeding ability back in DDGS) and you get 751 gal/acre.

Harvest the cobs at the same time, and use those for process energy (some refineries are starting this as we speak,) and your EROEI starts to kick booty.

Okay, you want 36 Billion Gallons? 47.931 Million Acres. Hint: We're taking about 5 Million Acres Out of Production This Year. We've taken about 50 Million Acres out of production since WWII IIRC. We have about a Billion Acres suitable for agriculture, and we, actually, row-crop about 240 Million acres.

Also, most of your switchgrass will be grown in the Southeastern states (switchgrass prefers it "warm, with a little water, please.) The yield is potentially much higher there. You're quite likely looking at ten, or eleven tons/acre, with more in places.

I don't see a lot of relevance of "solar efficiency" when referring to a "perennial" that requires very little fertilizer, and No irrigaion. Especially, when it's being grown on very "marginal" land.

Divide that by .6 (remember, you're getting 40% of your cattle feeding ability back in DDGS) and you get 751 gal/acre.

No, you don't get to divide by anything.  Byproducts do not increase the yield per acre, and claiming so makes you a liar.  Further, cattle can only take about 1/3 DDGS without suffering from toxicity; calves fed 50% DDGS died from excess sulfur in the diet.

EP, if I want to produce 751 gallons of ethanol, and feed the same number of cattle, I only have to plant 1 extra acre of corn. And, THAT'S the Truth. Just because you can't grasp it doesn't make ME a Liar.

We feed about a Billion Cattle, Worldwide, I suppose. We've got a Long way to go before we run out of the market for DDGS. Especially, in light of the fact that more, and more, refineries will be removing the oil, thus making them more suitable for ruminants, swine, and fowl.

And, what is this thing on the internet of calling everyone you disagree with a "Liar?"

It's part of E-P's troll-cultural thing
That shows what a baadaasss he is.
(He's so BAAAD!That means GOOD!)

You Iowans aren't hip to his trollish jive.

IOW, the boy can't hep it, he was born that way.

if I want to produce 751 gallons of ethanol, and feed the same number of cattle, I only have to plant 1 extra acre of corn.

In a world which is running out of land on which corn can be planted and even losing some (e.g. Nebraska's aquifers will be dry soon, and the "Cornhuskers" will need a new name), you can't plant extra acres.  You've also got costs from e.g. not rotating with soybeans to add soil nitrogen.

Making a claim like "751 gal/acre" implies that you can multiply by 88 million acres planted to get ~66 billion gallons.  It doesn't work that way; at a reasonable limit of 1/3 fraction, 12 billion bushels produced and 3 gal/bu you're talking 12 billion gallons.

THAT'S the Truth. Just because you can't grasp it doesn't make ME a Liar.

Stating the truth in a way to make someone assume a falsehood is also lying.

We're, actually, Taking 5 Million Acres Out of Production this year. You see, what some of you guys keep overlooking is the "Ever-increasing Efficiency" in the Agricultural Industry. Corn production is, every year, using less acreage/bu, less water/bushel, and creating less runoff/bu.

at a reasonable limit of 1/3 fraction, 12 billion bushels produced and 3 gal/bu you're talking 12 billion gallons.

That doesn't make any sense. Let's try to figure it out. We're going to produce 15 Billion Gallons of ethanol using corn. That's the law. We'll use about 5 billion bu of corn. This will yield about 1.7 billion bushels of DDGS. We will use that in concert with 6 Billion bushels of our remaining corn. Out of a crop of, say, 13.5 billion bushels we will have remaining 8.5 Billion bushels of corn and 1.7 billion bushels of DDGS (approx. 2.25 bb corn equiv.)

That gives us, what? 10.75 Billion bu corn, and corn equiv? That gives us more than plenty for our use, and if the market is good, and we want to raise some more for export we'll just take that 5 Million Acres back out of retirement and put IT into production. Or, maybe, we'll take back some of the 50 Million Acres that we've taken Out of Production in the last 60 years.

Just because you can't follow the logic, EP doesn't mean someone's "Lying" to you.

:) G'Day.

cmon---this is bs. You know this is not true. why continue to obfuscate. Ethanol and other biofuels are NOT energy positive.

All photosynthesis-based systems are AFAIK constrained by the basic efficiency of nature's (two?) systems of photosynthesis, both limited to less than 1% solar conversion efficiency. After factoring in a very generously minimal 20% losses to planting and harvesting inputs, it takes somwhere between 100 and 300 acres of prime temperate ideally rain watered farmland to produce the equivalent energy potential in dry fuel that 1 acre of 17% efficient solar thermal or PV cells will produce.

The solar systems, especially solar thermal with todays technology, are simply "no brainer" by comparison to any forseeable photosynthesis-based system, and should be considered the laboratory's "ideal plant genetics" for which all the DOE doctorates claim to be searching.

For the life of me, I can't see how a solar facility in the Mohave Desert is going to be of much use for me if I want to drive up to St. Louis, some night.

Well -- did you forget to recharge your battery during the day? Tough luck. ... But you can go to a "battery station" for a new pack. Things
will work out -- it has to.

Dinh Ton,

I, also, am sure that it "has to" work out. The only questions are: "How," "When," and "How much Pain?"

If we end up, eventually, with 100% Battery-powered transportation, that's fine with me. That would leave, "How Long," and "How much Pain?"

I want our country off Middle East Oil. As soon as Possible. I'd like to see it accomplished in 10 yrs. (That's probably not possible with Mexico, Venezuela, etc. going down; but, I hope we try.)

I really think we'll need biofuels to keep our head above water. I think the oil companies are coming to this conclusion, also; hence, the IEA statement, today, and Valero's recent purchase of the Verasun refineries.

The only reason Valero bought Verasun was because they are federally mandated to mix ethanol with gasoline.. so they figured if they are going to be forced to blend ethanol then they might as well own the means of production..

It might also have helped that the facilities were available for pennies on the dollar. At full price, someone else could keep the facilities.

On serious note ...
I think what we have in the WH and DOE at the moment is a lot lot better than we have in a long long time. You can google some video on Steven Chu on some of his talks and find that he does aware a lot of issues on the table. We won't be off ME oil for a while -- but I can see we will slowly getting toward energy independence. In the end, it will be included a lot of solutions people are working on right now.

The US is so fixated on driving that this will have to stop. Energy independence doesn't mean you can continue go on wasting energy even if it's something you make. A lot of cars and truck will have to slowly converted to another more efficient form of energy -- hybrid, EV, etc... Or people will have to just stop driving and the country moves toward better public transportation. You will have a mismatch of different technologies depending on what your needs are. Battery technology has to be improve, PV cells have to be improved, etc... A lot of stuffs are happening -- but we all have to understand that it WON'T be back to business as usual.

We know that the Europeans and Japanese are a lot more efficient than US and they are relatively happy -- can we cut our energy use to that or even more!!! Even now, the Europeans are doing their darnest to cut consumption and energy inefficiency -- we just have to match it. There are a lot of complaints that US is not Europe, etc... but we either change or we die -- our choice. I think when we see it in that light, things will move forward a lot faster.

US has the best chance of going through the dark with the least problem if we really plan ahead. I believe that Obama and Chu do understand that.

The problem is China/India in my mind. We wake up 2 billion people and tell them to consume -- our capitalist system want them to consume so we can sell our craps and we call that growth. The whole world is running around using craps and selling craps. Somehow, sometime, we just have to just stop before the CO2 will suffocate all of us.

I think the Obama administration certainly means well.

I don't the people on the staff really understand the problem they are working on very well. A lot of staffers are right out of college--well meaning, but not very experienced. The EIA (part of the DOE) has folks who have been around for years, but are in a position of needing to make their past projections still look good. As a result, they keep providing optimistic forecasts to the administration.

Where is it written that things have to work out? Civilizations come and go. Things work out for them for a while and then they don't. Things work out for dinousaurs and then an asteroid hits and things no longer work out.

You HOPE things will work out to keep us partying on with lots of energy. You really want it to so you assert that it will. But often things don't work out on small and large scales.

The point I have been making is that, IMO, CERA, et al, have sold both the Democrats and Republicans on the "Undulating Plateau," model, i.e., the worst case is that we will hit a plateau in oil production many decades hence.

So, both parties take the continuation of our auto-centric suburban way of life as a given, but the Democrats, generally more concerned about GW, want to gradually transition away from abundant fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, while the Republicans, generally less concerned about GW, want to implement "Drill, Baby Drill."

Of course, I have a slightly different point of view. IMO, we are in the early stages of a long term accelerating decline rate in net oil exports. Our (Khebab/Brown) middle case is that by the end of 2012 (a little less than four years from now), the top five net oil exporters will have shipped about half of their post-2005 cumulative net oil exports, with the other half being shipped from 2013 to 2031. Of course in the same 2012 time frame, Mexico will probably be at or approaching zero net export land.

So, as I have put it, the Democrats propose to drive over the cliff in a plug-in hybrid while the Republicans point out that we can put more people in a Hummer as we drive off the cliff.

Since the hybrid is about 10x more efficiency than the Hummer -- we get 100 years instead of 10... :-)

Unfortunately, in the USA light-duty vehicles consume less than half of the petroleum products, so economy improvements on their end can improve the time to ultimate depletion by less than 2x.

As Gail pointed out, there is probably more happening behind closed doors than we know. Take this talk by Jay Keasling (co-leader of Berkeley Lab's Helios Project) for example:
Starting from the 7th minute of the video, he talks about peak oil and even states that the world's oil supply is likely to peak around 2013. If Jay knows, how can Chu not know?

Hi Arch7,

re: "closed doors."

Now, why should doors be closed?

Is someone planning something to help the very people the planners wish to keep out of the room?

Why would this be the case?

If preparations are required, and lifestyle changes continue...(unemployment, for eg.)...or, if we really need 50 million new does it help to remain silent on the subject?

re: " can Chu not know?"

Well, there are many ways. Perhaps countless ways, in fact.

There is Dave Cohen's proposition, based on Chu's own work, that Chu *may* know something about peak, and yet, discount the impact simply by assuming an easy way to deal with it. Please see article above.

There are also all the ways listed in my post, above.

There are as many ways "not to know" as there are "not-knowing" mechanisms.

In fact, I'd say, offhand, it's easier to "not know" than to "know" -
esp. given one of my theses, which is that if a person does not experience full-blown emotional shock, he/she does not "know."

And people do a whole lot to protect themselves from shock.

Bio-engineered crops could be a big help in getting more ethanol/oil out of a given area of land, but as it is there still remains no substitute for the heavy tar that is derived from oil and used as asphalt and roofing material, in addition, the volume of plastics use will decrease with loss of the reserves of the primary raw material it's made from. The scale of production of biofuels will obviously only be but a fraction of what current demand for oil+gas+coal is. It's now becoming obvious that curtailment with associated economic collapse and dislocation/relocation will happen and how and where we work will have to be rethought and redone. At least coal reserves will ensure that a working electrical grid will remain around for a while. Solar and wind power use will continue to increase. The effects of climate change look to be fairly well-known barring some drop in solar output which could possibly negate climate change effects but it is highly unlikely. That will add an additional layer of difficulty to the lives of everyone on the planet. If/when nuclear fusion comes along, then this will provide the raw energy source that will enable synthesis of liquid fuel substitutes, as technically I think methane and other fuels can be synthesized directly from CO2 and water, but the energy input needed is large, or to harvest limited amounts of oil from oil shale. Large wind installations may be vulnerable to a severe weather event, although I think a solar array in a well chosen desert area is still the best try at getting electricity from renewable sources.

Hi jensv,

Thanks for your comments, and a friendly suggestion here - could you please format with more paragraphs? It makes for easier reading. :)

re: "It's now becoming obvious that curtailment with associated economic collapse and dislocation/relocation will happen and how and where we work will have to be rethought and redone. At least coal reserves will ensure that a working electrical grid will remain around for a while. Solar and wind power use will continue to increase."

Here you have three sentences.

I'm not at all sure that, if one accepts the premise in sentence one, that sentence two and three will follow.

The grid has to be maintained. This requires roads that are mtaintained. This requires equipment to maintain them. Etc.

It's not at all clear to me that so-called renewable energy technology production will increase, if, as you say, there is "economic collapse and dislocation/relocation."

A lot depends on the economy to be a functional one.

It's hard to believe this is really happening.

Couldn't Obama at least find someone competent for the job? Why pick an ivory tower fool with tunnel vision and with no practial experience in the real world?

Who the fuck hired this Obama idiot anyway? Between Geithner and Chu, the US will disintigrate before the next election.

It's the logical intermediate step to fifth-generation biofuels.

Wanna see more carbon neutral energy?

More good news for Steven Chu,

New Portable Energy Source Utilizes Microbes To Turn Electricity Directly To Methane
ScienceDaily (Mar. 30, 2009) — A tiny microbe can take electricity and directly convert carbon dioxide and water to methane, producing a portable energy source with a potentially neutral carbon footprint, according to a team of Penn State engineers.
"We were studying making hydrogen in microbial electrolysis cells and we kept getting all this methane," said Bruce E. Logan, Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering, Penn State. "We may now understand why."

Methanogenic microorganisms do produce methane in marshes and dumps, but scientists thought that the organisms turned hydrogen or organic materials, such as acetate, into methane. However, the researchers found, while trying to produce hydrogen in microbial electrolysis cells, that their cells produced much more methane than expected.

"All the methane generation going on in nature that we have assumed is going through hydrogen may not be," said Logan. "We actually find very little hydrogen in the gas phase in nature. Perhaps where we assumed hydrogen is being made, it is not."

Microbial electrolysis cells do require an electrical voltage to be added to the voltage that is produced by bacteria using organic materials to produce current that evolves into hydrogen. The researchers found that the Archaea, using about the same electrical input, could use the current to convert carbon dioxide and water to methane without any organic material, bacteria or hydrogen usually found in microbial electrolysis cells.

"We have a microbe that is self perpetuating that can accept electrons directly, and use them to create methane," said Logan.

Logan, working with Shaoan Cheng, senior research associate; Defeng Xing, post doctoral researcher, and Douglas F. Call, graduate student, environmental engineering, confirmed that the microscopic organisms produced the methane. The researchers created a two-chambered cell with an anode immersed in water on one side of the chamber and a cathode in water, inorganic nutrients and carbon dioxide on the other side of the chamber. They applied a voltage, but recorded only a minute current. The researchers then coated the cathode with the biofilm of Archaea and not only did current flow in the circuit, but the cell produced methane.

"The only way to get current at the voltage we used was if the microbes were directly accepting electrons," said Logan. He notes that the electrochemical reaction takes place without any precious metal catalysts and at a lower energy level than converting carbon dioxide to methane using conventional, non-biological methods.

The cells are about 80 percent efficient in converting electricity to methane and because they use carbon dioxide as feed stock, would be carbon neutral if the electricity comes from a non-carbon source such as solar or wind power.

"The process does not sequester carbon, but it does turn carbon dioxide into fuel," said Logan. "If the methane is burned and carbon dioxide captured, then the process can be carbon neutral."

Logan suggests the method for off peak capture of renewable energy in a portable fuel. Methane is preferred over hydrogen because a large portion of the U.S. infrastructure is already set up to easily transport and deliver methane.

So, that Ethanol refinery that's producing 17 pounds of CO2 for every bushel of corn refined could turn around and produce methane from the CO2, and use the methane to run the refinery? Sweet.

That does assume that the upstream inputs to the ethanol refinery are carbon-free (fat chance).

On the other hand, if the downstream emissions are converted to fuel for fertilizer production and machinery, it could actually be carbon-neutral or negative.  That would be a huge improvement over the status quo.

It doesn't inspire confidence when Chu also thinks the stalled FutureGen clean coal project should be restarted. I doubt that genetic modification of vascular plants can overcome basic repeat needs for water and phosphorous for long term high yields.

As proof of concept I would like to see a grass farm run everything off cellulosic ethanol, that is machinery, vehicles, pumps and the farmhouse. Even if the ethanol refinery is some distance away the leftovers should be returned to the farm as soil amendments, but using ethanol powered transport.

I think the main ways to use biomass will not be refined liquid fuels but low tech such as charcoal and open flame boilers. For example biomass fired electricity during lulls in wind power. Rather than widely spread biomass we could make hydrocarbon fuels out of municipal garbage with low or perhaps slightly negative net energy. That means the high yield primary energy will have to come from other sources, probably nukes. Leave unimproved land to do its own thing just very slowly absorbing carbon.

I like the idea of running the whole farm off cellulosic ethanol and returning the leftovers to the soil as soil amendments. Doubt that it will happen, though.

Stepping back for a minute, "Biofuels!" is an answer to the question, "how do we get back to business as usual without using oil for fuel?"

Wrong question, wrong context. I expect Mr Chu to be surprised in ten years' time.

As JHK would say, "Happy Motoring, everyone."

At U.C.Berkeley lectures by Energy Biosciences Institute director Somerville, as well as other phD students and professors, it seems clear they know there are perhaps insurmountable barriers to ever developing biofuels.

More importantly, they know that the ecological harm and lack of water makes them impossible in states that depend on irrigation to grow crops
Integrating Water Sustainability into the Low Carbon Fuel Standard

They also know that biofuels with positive EROEI may never result from their research, but meanwhile, other useful applications, such as ways to make chemicals, medicines, and the half million other petrochemical products made from oil/natural gas might somehow be made from plants instead.

I feel like the whole biofuels debate is an endless nightmare with the same positive soundbites ricocheting around.

Biofuels are a PROCESS that must be successful from seed to fuel. If any step -- the hybrid plant seeds, planting, harvesting, delivering, storage, processing, and delivering the fuel to the customer can't be solved (positive EROEI), the whole enterprise is doomed. So what if the labs come up with a way to break down celluose if the crops rot due to early rain or snow, or the hundreds of acres of cellulose stacked 25 feet high spontaneously combusts and burns up. Or the stored cellulose gets wet and composts. The biorefineries can't be build to the economies of scale truly required because the transportation of cellulose to the plant burns more fuel than what's ever made from the plants.

Not to mention the destruction of topsoil, poisoning of soil, land, and water with pesticides and nitrogen runoff, depletion of ground water, etc.

Anyhow, people who think biofuels are possible, EVER, need to provide peer-reviewed scientific proof to rebut my arguments in "Peak Soil: Why Cellulosic and other Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America’s National Security" at

otherwise it's just another dumb sound bite.


Hi Alice,

You make two excellent broad points here.

I'd really like to see you write them up, for TOD and/or

re: " seems clear they know there are perhaps insurmountable barriers to ever developing biofuels."

It might be nice to see an article about just this topic.

re: Likewise, with your point about process. This is a little bit different, (or am I mistaken?), than an "EROI" or "EROEI" type of argument. This is what I might call a concatenation argument. Or, a points-of-vulnerability argument.

BTW, I looked on your site and was not able to access some article, because they require signing up for a yahoo group or something like that.

How's this for a dumb soundbite?

167 refineries are producing ethanol profitably, sans subsidies, for $1.58/gal, and I'm buying it and using it in my FF Chevy Impala.

How many of my "Peers" (the guys, and gals down at the quickshop, I guess) would you like to "Review" it?


You have a lot of interesting material up on your web site.

If you could take one piece of it, and flesh it out a bit with some hints of where progress is being made (so it doesn't come out as just a one-sided list of problems), it might make a reasonable guest post.



Nearly all of the literature on biofuels is positive, and nearly all of it is NOT peer-reviewed. My "Peak Soil" paper uses peer-reviewed science to show that biofuels are limited by not only physics and thermodynamics, but by having to operate within the constraints of biological and ecological systems.

I would like to see peer-reviewed science showing revolutionary breakthroughs that can transcend these physical and biological limits.

I don't believe positive EROEI success is possible, because scientists are trying to alter biological plants and microbes that live within very complex ecosystems that we barely understand.

These ecosystems are being destroyed by our energy-intensive machinery and groundwater pumping -- at the current rate of topsoil and aquifer depletion (and salination), we won't be able to grow enough food to eat by 2100 (let alone the effects climate change will have on crops). We're destroying topsoil in centuries that took other civilizations millenia and depleting the groundwater that half our population depends on. Montgomery makes the case that erosion of topsoil has limited the lifespan of most civilizations in "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations".

Topsoil also stores far more carbon than air or plants. Soils contain 3.3 times the amount of carbon found in the atmosphere, and 4.5 times more carbon than is stored in all the Earth’s vegetation (Lal 2004).

In business you’re limited by money, in science, you’re limited by the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

When it comes to biofuels, you’re limited in addition by the needs of biological plants and microbes (that break down cellulose) to grow and reproduce.

And you're even further limited by the soil ecosystem, which we have almost no understanding of. The cover of the June 11, 2004 issue of Science magazine is titled "SOILS The Final Frontier".

The goal of genetically engineering plants that have easily broken-down cellulose goes against not only the hundreds of millions of years of evolution by plants to prevent being eaten, but also makes another show stopper problem impossible: how to store massive amounts of biomass without having them combust or compost. On top of that, these genetically engineered weak-cellulose plants would be devoured by microbes, mold, insects, mice and other pests before harvest. Any surviving biomass would succumb in storage.

As a systems architect and engineer, I looked at projects from start to end, trying to identify the points of failure. The Department of Energy Biomass Roadmaps and the Energy Biosciences Institute Proposal have taken a similar approach and identified the barriers to cellulosic fuels.


All of the steps from A to Z must succeed or a project fails.


Just solving the cellulosic issues within the biorefinery won’t do any good if the other steps fail. There are major challenges in harvesting, storing, transporting biomass, and delivering cellulosic fuels to customers.

If we did solve ALL of these issues, it would be a pyrrhic victory, because we'd also destroy the ecosystems our lives depend on.

I would be happy to make my case in a series of articles, because this is a very complex issue. It requires some understanding of soil science, biology, ecology, how crops are harvested and stored, and so on. I think to really understand the complete picture you also need to read the references.

I'll take a stab at trying to explain why I seem one-sided. All the time there's positive literature published in science journals that give the appearance of progress. I appear to be ignoring these papers.

Let's just look at one small step in the entire A to Z process.

The success of cellulosic ethanol depends on finding or engineering organisms that can tolerate extremely high concentrations of ethanol. Augenstein argues that this creature would already exist if it were possible. Organisms have had a billion years of optimization through evolution to develop a tolerance to high ethanol levels (Benemann 2006). Someone making beer, wine, or moonshine would have already discovered this creature if it could exist.

So when you read about a microbe that can break down cellulose better than ever, it still is going to succumb to it's own toxic wastes eventually, just as microbes do in the process of making moonshine. This paper does not show the "revolutionary breakthrough" required to make biofuels possible with positive EROEI. The revolutionary creature required would be able to reproduce (which takes energy), and also produce biofuels at maximum capacity, while swimming and breathing its own crap.


P.S. my energyskeptic website mysteriously has vanished, but an earlier version of "Peak Soil" is available at:

Benemann, J; Augenstein, D. August 16, 2006. Whither Cellulosic Ethanol? The Oil Drum.

DOE Billion Ton Vision. April 2005. Biomass as feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The technical feasibility of a billion-ton annual supply. USDA.

DOE Biomass Plan. 31 Aug 2005. Multi Year Program Plan 2007-2012. U.S. Department of Energy. Office of the Biomass Program. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

DOE Feedstock Roadmap. Nov 2003. Roadmap for Agriculture Biomass Feedstock Supply in the United States. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Biomass Program.

Glennon, R. 2002. Water Follies. Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters. Island Press.

Hightower, J. 1978. Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times: A report of the Agribusiness Accountability Project on the Failure of America's Land Grant College Complex. Schenkman Books.

Lal, R. 11 June 2004. Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security.

Montgomery, D.R. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press.

Sampson, R. 1981. Farmland or Wasteland. A time to choose. Overcoming the threat to America’s farm and food future. Rodale Press.

Sundquist, B. 6 May 2005. Topsoil Loss -- Causes, Effects, and Implications: A Global Perspective. The Earth’s Carrying Capacity. Chapter 3

On top of that, these genetically engineered weak-cellulose plants would be devoured by microbes, mold, insects, mice and other pests before harvest. Any surviving biomass would succumb in storage.

And, you Know This how?

We've developed (actually, Monsanto's developed) Sorghum that is more drought resistant, and aluminum-toxicity resistant than any sorghum developed by Millions, and Millions of "evolution." How did that happen?

We've develped "insect resistant" seeds. Why didn't good ol' mom nature do that? It had "millions, and millions, and eons, and eons, and (excuse me, I'm having a Carl Sagan, moment.) Well, whatever.

I'm sorry; if this opining is what you mean as "peer review," I think I'll pass, and take a trip down to the feed, and seed. Cheers.

Your "examples" are a non-sequitur. What does that have to do with cellulose? Engineering plants with easily digestible cellulose is like using genetic engineering to make pigs that can fly.

No, it's considerably easier and more practical than that...

but it doesn't do spit about the abysmal primary productivity of higher plants, so there's absolutely no way fuels derived from these has a prayer of replacing oil.


I wholly applaued your post. UC-Berkeley has sold its soul to the devil (BP) and may get some money in the near term, but may have done major damage to its reputation. I can honestly say that there are few scientists at Berkeley that understand the issues of energy supply. Berkeley drove Tad Patzek away(he is at UT-Austin), and the reason for this is that he spoke the truth--which did not sit well with the fundraisers who wanted Vinod Khosla to fund a 100mm biofuels institute. Having a Berkeley professor saying that it was all a bunch of BS (which it was and is) didnt make friends in silicon valley.

We can already turn solar energy into electricity @ 20% efficiency and use it to power 95% efficient electric motors and batteries. Putting solar panels onto buildings which are cooled will also reduce the amount of heating the building experiences from solar gain (a win win)

If we are going to use bio fuels we should push for biogas;

Multiple feed stocks,
Makes use of waste streams,
Produce good quality fertilizer,
Large or small scale,
Use existing infrastructure,
Ideal fuel for CHP,
Gas is fuel of choice for solar assisted combined cycle and compressed air energy storage,
New transport bio-fuel (as part of a larger switch to using natural gas in transport) simple retrofit allows CNG to dual fuel with diesel in existing engine.
Small amounts of hydrogen (up to 30%) can be added to extend lean burn limit (just to keep the hydrogen lobby happy)

We have made silk purses out of pigs ears but at what cost?

Dr. Chu seems to adopted Geithner's modus operandi of forget the cost, forget who pays just pretend to be doing something worth while and string it our like Tokomac Fusion.

The cold fusion breakthroughs have been made by scientists ot ONR on their discretionary monies. Nothing from Lawrance Livermore even though their H Bomb hero, Teller. understood the empiracle evidence and though he saw how the reactions could take place.

Now if we develop a converting organism that is imune to wood's defense mechanisms and it leaks out of the lab as it will. Will it be short enough lived to avoid destroying the forests? Has nature been working this issue for a long time and can man's ingenuity by pass many millions of years of natural experimentation.

Understand energy? understand biology? Hell he doesn't even seem to understand physics. Where was he on the cold fusion issue?

Hey, it sounds like pneumocaucal rabies all over again. Build it but have no ability to use it.

Steven Chu

Sadly, Dr. Chu appears to be a very intelligent, insulated man. Most people that are awarded Nobel prizes are great a self promotion. I dont think Dr Chu falls into this category, but anyone who has not worked in the energy industry has no business being DOE secretary.Dr. Chu does not seem to really grock economics.

Should he care to do so, he would come to the following (obvious) conclusions:

1) Wind and Solar will never provide baseload electricity.
2) Biofuels are a generation away and to make them mandatory right now is economic suicide
3) energy storage technology for 1) is also a generation away (if at all possible).
4) Coal is not an option due to cost and environmental issues.
5) The only viable, scalable near term energy sources are natural gas and nuclear

If you buy 1-5, then the question is, how do you make 5) economic and environmentally acceptable. carbon sequestration of natural gas seems to be an obvious solution. My estimate is that the cost increase to natural gas supply to strip and sequester the co2 is about $1/mcf, which at a price of more than $4 is less than 25%. I base this on standard gas processing plans where any by product can be captured and then sequestered. Not a big deal at all.

I must also add that I am a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. I can safely say that this lab, while far and away the most energy aware, is still not seeing the big picture. Natural Gas and Nuclear are the near-term keys. If we invest in these and give the R&D in renewables a chance to flower, we can get out of this mess.

I should also say that Helios is essentially a bribe payment by BP to support largely useless research at UC-Berkeley. Nothing will ever come of it.