11 Juli 2010


This is part of my near-deadline article. It just happen that the literatures I read were mostly in English and my brain was probably tampered, so I just babbling in English. The article itself is in Indonesian so I will have to translate and smooth things up a lil bit.

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From the previous descriptions, it clearly shows that we have no winner yet. Anaerobic digestion is a mature technology but still limited in applicability (e.g. not suitable for transportation fuel). (Second generation) bioethanol and biodiesel still have to cope with low productivity. Biohydrogen, although very promising as future energy carrier, still hasn’t surpassed the lab scale phase, not to mention the necessary technological leap it requires when comes to application. Same problem goes to microbial fuel cell/electrolysis cell. Further research is still needed in all area, as not to exclude any option prematurely.

Still… what’s the fuss? Why should we bother, at all? The superhero-style answer is, probably, to save the day. I mean, to save the human race from two approaching doomsdays. The first is the day when we run out of fossil fuels. The second is, not totally unrelated, the environmental damage due to the excessive use of unsustainable energy.

When we’re discussing fossil fuels replacement, we’re dealing with economics. And the one million dollars question would be whether it’s economical to replace fossil fuels with biofuels? The answer is, at this point, no. Today’s biofuels use still relies on subsidies. But don’t be so glum because we’re facing a maybe in the (maybe near) future. The deal is when fossil fuels are depleting, the price will increase (did I say not to glum?) and at certain point probably match those of biofuels without subsidies. Considering that biofuels also requires energy to produce and some might also come from fossil fuels (fertilizer, processing etc.), here comes the second prerequisite of the maybe: the better technology to increase the biofuels’ yield, whether it’s on the crop (producing) part or on the oil processing part. And the third silver lining is the biorefinery concept. Mostly applied for second generation biofuel, it is the concept to utilize all parts of the crop either for biofuels or other valuable chemicals which sometimes, arguably, have higher price tag than the biofuels albeit trickier to produce. And let’s face it; if we do run out of fossil fuels, we may have no choice anyway.

That’s the answer for the fossil fuels c.q. economics part. Answering the environmental part, unfortunately, is not so easy. The main concern today is whether the biofuels production and use emits less greenhouse gases than its fossil fuels counterpart. Are there any other environmental effects such as acidification, eutrophication, ozone layer depletion and release of toxic compounds. Are there social/economics issues such as land use change and competing resource use. There are massive studies on these subjects, yet a definite still unclear. The problem lays in the complexity of the issue, and different studies tend to define different boundaries, give different emphasize etc. The available data are sometimes incomplete. But even with complete data, the interpretation can vary.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is by far the most reliable tool for assessing environmental impacts of biofuels. It still suffers for several flaws, and still the question with the big Q is, are we asking the right questions. And more importantly, LCA (and any other studies) shouldn’t be generalized. It’s a fair indication, but may not be a good enough guess.

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Hmm... still unfinished. Any idea?

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