Thursday, 27 January 2011

Bio-Refineries - Solution But Still Side Effects

In a report by the World Economic Forum - the future of industrial bio-refineries; 2010- demonstrates that one of the solutions for future fuels, energy, materials and chemicals is using biomass. They state that is will allow us to bridge the gap between economic growth and technologies. Africa is also one of the primary countries mentioned that could invest in this solution.
Bio-refineries, in a nutshell, is to convert biomass (biological materials, such as corn) into fuels, energy, chemicals, feeds and materials. By doing so, we'll move away from fuel-based products to bio-based products, ie: bio-fuels for cars, using succinic acid and polylactic acid instead of petroleum, and using bio-energy.
However, this puts pressure on the agriculture industry to produce biomass. There are a lot of opportunities in this, however if it isn't well management it could do more damage than good. The other aspect is getting the industry going. A lot of large stake-holders and government are a bit hesitant due to the initial capital costs involved for creating the supply chain and infrastructure.
However, it is estimated that US$ 15 billion could be made by 2020 through business opportunities in bio-refineries. A further US$ 90 billion could be made from biomass production. A report from Sanbi estimates that the US could produce 90 billion gallons of bio-fuels to replace oil, which could mean that the US can run on bio-fuels alone from 2030 to 2050. There are various challenges involved, including food security and land use.
Biomass agriculture would increase production and therefore increase fertilizer usage, especially nitrogen fertilizer. Fertilizers are well known for their high carbon footprint and detrimental effects on water supply which could reverse the sustainability of biomass. This could affect countries like Africa, were there are already water shortages.
Land-use is another large primary issue, divided into two areas - Direct Land Use Change and Indirect Land Use Change. The former has a direct effect on ecosystems and carbon emissions. It implies that current land, not used for agriculture, i.e.: forests and ecosystems, be converted into agriculture space. There is a possibility that destroying a forest today for biomass use will create a debt in carbon emissions, but these will be paid back over time, due to the environmental advantages for using biomass instead of petroleum.
However, forests absorb up to nine times the amount of carbon emissions than the production of bio-fuels, not to mention the biodiversity within those ecosystems which will be destroyed in the process. There will also be a large release of soil carbon during the conversion of the land and an increase on deforestation globally.
Indirect Land Use Change has not been fully researched, but has already shown an impact. Developed countries convert their agriculture land for biomass, thereby countries that are still developing have to create agriculture land to compensate for the decrease in food supply. What makes it worse is that a lot of the developing countries, for example Africa, have the highest biodiversity ecosystems which a majority have not been studied and learnt from yet. These countries then tear down their tropical forests to create food that they were getting from other countries.
The World Economic Forum report therefore concludes that it is necessary for government to create a strategy plan that will keep everything in balance, while supporting a growth in the bio-refinery industry. Stake holders need to invest for further research, especially in technology, to advance current systems. Improvements can be made in efficiency, both in agriculture and in the conversion from biomass into bio-products. Bio-refineries is a good road forward to move away from current unsustainable sources, however, there is still a large amount of work needed.
For more articles on agriculture and biodiversity, go to South African Biodiversity Media.