The New Generation

There is currently increasing criticism of the sustainable viability of most first-generation biofuels, primarily concerning the efficiency of specific fuels in terms of net life cycle greenhouse gas emissions and various social and environmental injustices surrounding production. This has led to a growing interest in the future potential of so called second-generation biofuels.

What determines a second-generation biofuel?

Commonly referred to as cellulosic biofuel, second-generation biofuel is produced from lignocelluloses, a structural material that comprises much of the mass of plants, typically stemming from one of following three primary groups:

·         The non-food waste byproducts of agricultural crops such as the leaves, stems, or husks.

·         Crops not used for food purposes – such as switch grasses or jatropha

·         Industrial waste products such as wood chips or the skin and pulp from fruit pressing

What are the potential benefits of second-generation biofuels?

The most commonly recognized benefit of second-generation biofuels is that they do not compete with food sources by focusing primarily on the consumption of waste and residual byproducts. They are able to use a much wider range of biomass sources, meaning production can vary by climate and in accordance with native vegetation. The utilization of abandoned or otherwise infertile land may even be possible with certain species.

In a report published in February 2010, the International Energy Agency listed the following statistics as evidence of the sustainable viability of second generation biofuels:

·         25% of global residues in the agricultural and forestry sector could even produce around 300 billion lge (10.0 EJ) of lignocellulosic-ethanol

·         This is equal to 10.5% of current transport fuel demand.

This video briefly recaps some recent research done by the University of Michigan on the direct effect of second-generation biofuels on air pollution, particularly fine particulate matter.

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What are the current problems surrounding second-generation biofuel production?

There is of course a lot of controversy surrounding the idea of second-generation fuel sources. The most pressing matter lies in the lack of current technology available for converting cellulosic biomass into fuel. Currently, the only commercial cellulosic ethanol refinery is run by Iogen Corporation in Ottawa, Canada. It uses more energy than it produces, and in terms of energy use and output, performs considerably worse than first-generation corn ethanol. Reports of the practicality of second generation sources put out by the US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Energy all present evidence under the assumption that the technology needed will be developed quickly and without difficulty.

There is also a gaping hole in evidence surrounding the environmental impacts of second-generation production. For instance, the majority of possible non-food crops being considered as biofuels (including miscanthus, switch grass, and reed canary grass) are invasive species and therefore very bad for local ecosystems.

Economically speaking, the commercialization of second-generation biofuels will necessitate the development of a whole new infrastructure for harvesting, transporting, storing and refining biomass.

Algae: The Third Generation Biofuel

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While it may seem that all biofuels should be condemned as unsustainable, none other than lowly pond scum has recently become one of the most promising new ideas in biofuel production.

Here is an example of a working algae farm in Fellsmere, Florida

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