Ask an Expert: Biofuels

A Discussion with UCLA Professor Laurent Pilon

Q. What are Biofuels?
A. Biofuels are fuels that are made biologically from crops, bacteria or microalgae. An example is ethanol from corn; the corn is fed to microorganisms that convert the sugars contained in corn into ethanol during a fermentative process similar to making wine. Then ethanol can be purified and mixed with gasoline to power our cars. Similarly, biodiesel can be produced from soybeans as well as canola and palm oils. There are also microalgae that use photosynthesis to produce hydrogen gas or lipids. The hydrogen produced can be used in fuel cells and lipids can be converted into liquid biodiesel.
Q. What is the importance of biofuels?
A. Biofuels can be used as substitutes for petroleum-based fuels. Right now, the majority of oil produced in the world comes from the Middle East. Instabilities in this region could have major impacts on the price of oil and on the world and U.S. economies. To improve our energy independence, we can try to extract more oil at home, for example, in Alaska or in the golf of Mexico. In fact, advances in technology have allowed us to drill deeper in the ocean and reach oil that used to be impossible to obtain, but the risks are high and the process is expensive. With biofuels, you don't have the risks associated with oil spills and there are fewer concerns about energy security, international tensions and fluctuations in the price of oil.
Q. How do biofuels compare to fossil fuels as far as environmental impacts?
A. It really depends on the type of biofuel. Of course, fossil fuels can impact the environment during the extraction process with the risk of air, water and land pollution. Burning fossil fuels also emits large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causing global warming. On the other hand, the environmental impacts of biofuels depend on the feedstock and the production process. For example, to grow some crops, we need to use fertilizers and pesticides, but fertilizers and pesticides wash off farmland into rivers causing algae blooms downstream in rivers and oceans. So water pollution is a potential problem. Also, certain types of biofuel production, such as ethanol from corn, are not very energy efficient. In addition, in some countries, deforestation takes place to make room for biofuel crops. Finally, burning biofuels in car or truck engines still emits carbon dioxide. On the positive side, biofuel production from plants or microalgae consumes carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. Nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas and an air pollutant, can also be consumed by microalgae. Overall, biofuels are not a silver bullet solution to our energy challenges but, if produced properly, they could have a very positive environmental impact.
Q. What are the advantages to using biofuels?
A. There are many benefits to using biofuels. One advantage is energy security; we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Also, biofuels can be produced locally; many countries that don't have oil can still produce biofuels. Another advantage is that photosynthetic plants or microalgae consume carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis. With fossil fuels, you extract them, burn them, and that's it. Biofuel production from microalgae is sustainable and can be produced pretty much anywhere in the world, except deserts where there's no water.
Q. What type of research are you doing?
A. I'm studying photosynthetic microorganisms that use photosynthesis to produce biofuels. My students and I are paying particular attention to how microorganisms interact and use light so that we can design and control production processes to operate optimally. We are using microalgae and bacteria that can grow in fresh and ocean water. Some of them can produce hydrogen and others produce lipids.
Q. Why did you decide to research biofuels?
A. When I started my career in 2002 at UCLA, I was interested in energy and I wanted to find an innovative energy solution that would not only produce energy but also consume carbon dioxide. The microalgae I'm researching, that's what they do, they use carbon dioxide as their carbon source and sunlight as their energy source for photosynthesis. But they also produce useful things, like lipids or hydrogen. I became fascinated by some of these microorganisms. I felt that this was a potential solution to our energy problem.
Q. How far away are we from using microalgae as a biofuel?
A. Well, this is hard to predict, but there is more and more activity on this topic, both in research and on the part of small and large companies as well as venture capitalists. One of the issues is transitioning the technology from the lab to an industrial scale where the efficiency typically goes down. The biofuel production processes can also consume a lot of water, which could create problems in parts of the world where there is sun, but no water. That's why I'm interested in marine microalgae because then they don't compete for fresh water or even land use.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
A. I think we also need to address the challenges for this technology. I already mentioned water supplies and production at an industrial scale. Price is also an obstacle: How do you compete with gasoline that's "only" four dollars per gallon? Can we produce biodiesel at that price or cheaper? Then there are other challenges in microbiology, can we improve or control their metabolism to get microalgae to produce what we want? We need to genetically engineer microalgae to try to improve their intrinsic performance, to get them to produce something we want, instead of spending their energy on something we don't want. All these challenges require a lot of fine-tuning to create a viable biofuel production system.

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