Biofuels and Confirmation Bias feat

Biofuels and Confirmation Bias

by Tim Auld

Several years ago I learned about peak oil and decided that industrial civilisation was going to collapse. From then on I viewed many responses to this with scepticism. They would at best prolong business as usual for a short period. Use of cars and trucks would collapse with the supply of oil, along with plastics, rubber and pharmaceuticals. I thought that this would ultimately be a good outcome considering the damage our civilisation does.

Is this our future?

When you draw a conclusion on information like this the mind can trick you. You become invested. You might say that you’re keeping an open mind, but you actually discount information that contradicts your chosen outcome and you don’t search for information or solutions that might change your mind. It’s called confirmation bias.

Follow arguments on internet forums and you will see it in spades. While some present a balanced and thoughtful position, many people seem to have come across specific sound bites and formed their world view from them. They will defend their position without properly evaluating newly presented information. Few people publicly admit they are wrong and we can’t all be right.

I’m not judging people for having natural human instincts. It once served a survival purpose by keeping tribes cohesive, which was more important than optimal behaviour. I am susceptible to it myself and it’s a challenge to overcome. The problem is that confirmation bias gets in the way of sorting fact from fiction. In addition, when enough people get the same idea you tend to get what’s called group think. Information of dubious quality is passed around without critical analysis and it is accepted as conventional wisdom. Detractors are castigated. Poor decisions and non-action result.

A standout example is the pervasive belief in ever rising house prices and that everyone can get rich from buying and selling them. Economist Peter Schiff was laughed at on TV for predicting that prices would collapse, and we know how that turned out.

Soon after my discovery of peak oil I became interested in permaculture. It appeared to be a sensible response as it did not bank on risky high technology solutions. In 5 years no-one I came across promoted biofuels or seriously discussed keeping machinery going. It was just accepted that fuel would get more expensive and we would have to be at the mercy of price and availability, progressively using less. That is quite astonishing considering liquid fuels are used for all sorts of permaculture project work and education.

We know it to be true, let’s despise it

I believe the sensible use of biofuels has suffered from confirmation bias and group think, even within the permaculture movement, seeded by some less than honest sources. To illustrate, which of the following statements do you believe?

  • “Biofuels compete with food production and are therefore a moral obscenity”
  • “There’s not enough land to grow the crops necessary to make a dent in our current requirements”
  • “Biofuels have a low or negative energy return and are just a way for big business to get government subsidies”
  • “Biofuels are bad for the environment, destroying native vegetation and top soil, and polluting air and waterways”

If you do believe any of these, ask yourself how you came to these conclusions. What was the quality of the information you used, did you go through a rigorous and objective analysis, and did you try to think of creative solutions?

Until recently I believed all of these statements. My information was sourced from popular media and peak oil writers. I took it at face value. I’m not going to break them all down here. Someone more qualified than I am has done that for us, but allow me to raise a few points rarely mentioned.

Henry Ford’s Model T was a flex fuel vehicle

Alcohol fuel predates gasoline by several decades. Farmers once made it from the crops they couldn’t get to market, even before national electricity grids were common. They used it to run their equipment and vehicles, selling the surplus to motorists. The first cars were designed for alcohol. Modern petrol engines can run up to 50% blends of ethanol and 100% with a small modification.

There’s nothing particularly great about fuels derived from crude oil. They are toxic, dirty, dangerous and increasingly expensive to produce and deliver. They only look good if you have nothing better to compare them with.

Ethanol is liquid sunshine, fermented from sugars and starches. All of the nutrients, fat and protein remain in the mash, which makes excellent animal feed and fertiliser. The carbon dioxide and excess heat from the fermentation can be used in adjacent greenhouses to accelerate food production and organically control pests.

Ethanol can power electric generators, heaters, and stoves, and can be turned into rubber. It can be produced close to where it is used and does not require scarce materials or new technology breakthroughs. It burns clean and cool, prolonging engine life and maintaining air quality. Sunlight is free, renewable and decentralised, providing a stable foundation for an equitable civilisation.

The material fermented contains only a small part of the carbon fixed by the plant. If you do not displace something doing a better job you are increasing the rate of carbon sequestration. Yes, you can generate wealth and drive your vehicle while potentially reversing climate change.

I was exposed to this information thanks to David Blume, who is an American ecologist and permaculturist who has specialised in biofuels, ethanol in particular, for some 30 years. He has written a well researched and referenced book called Alcohol Can Be a Gas, with an associated DVD, documenting ethanol production and related issues. He also provides copious free articles, videos and radio interviews. His work checks out against other independent sources and he is held in high esteem by many. Have a read of his Busting the Ethanol Myths page and Why Alcohol Fuel? The Two-Minute Summary. At the end of this article are two videos.

Dave is not the only one talking up alcohol. Bill Mollison discusses cutting flower stalks on Babassu palms (Attalea speciosa) to harvest sugar solution and integrated food production in Jeff Nugent’s 1983 PDC recording (file 16a.mp3 @ 31m 10s).

Distilled, that gives you 40,000 litres of absolute alcohol per acre. That’s 10,000 gallons of absolute alcohol per acre and that’s a better fuel crop than almost any you can get from solid fuel. It also has a good feature that it is liquid fuel and therefore can be used as a transport fuel. Unlike wood which is awkward and you’ve got to use a charcoal burner on your vehicle to run around on wood fuel, but with this it goes into a practically unmodified internal combustion engine. Now that’s a considerable yield and you would do better to invest in a few acres of this in terms of becoming an energy sales man than you would in looking for dry oil wells. This is a sure thing.

A palm is being harvested for the sugar solution
which can be fermented to produce ethanol

I haven’t confirmed Bill’s figures yet (if you’re reading this Bill, I’d love some references!), but the concept is sound. It can be done with any palm, and is commonly done with Nipa palms, producing in the order of 2000 gallons/acre (Blume). In Borneo’s Samboja Lestari project, Willie Smits is using Arenga pinnata, which he refers to as Sugar palm, to produce alcohol and palm sugar. The 100m ring of palms around the 2000 hectare site also functions as a fire barrier.

Now, let’s assume for a minute that there is great potential in ethanol and biofuels in general. Won’t they just perpetuate this destructive business as usual? I don’t think so.
The only sustainable way to produce biofuel relies on an understanding of ecology and the law of returns. Small and efficient operations out compete larger ones, so millions of ecologically minded individuals could produce clean fuel, becoming empowered.

Contrast this with how the fossil fuel industry operates. It is a handful of giant and almost unaccountable corporations, enslaving powerless consumers and holding them to ransom. They drill or dig a giant hole, extract what they want, follow the minimal environmental controls they are forced to and move on. All while buying out and undercutting alternatives, spreading disinformation, and lobbying government for greater access and relaxed controls.

Centralised and foreign control of vital resources produces insecurity and artificial scarcity, inducing fear and driving population growth. The unscrupulous take advantage, promising quick and easy solutions. The world is unjust because the wise do not hold power. Alcohol is a key technology in taking that power back. A sustainable biofuels based civilisation would be far from business as usual. Furthermore, by failing to provide a clean alternative we leave the door open to even dirtier centralised fuel sources.

Dave estimates that cattails (Typha latifolia) grown in sewage can produce
10,000+ gallons of ethanol per acre while cleaning the water,
compared to industrial corn’s 200-400.

All permaculturists should agree that there’s a great deal of work to be done to restore our natural wealth and build sustainable lifestyles. Also, that we are facing an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions as fossil fuels deplete and become increasingly vulnerable to disruption. So, hands up who wants to build dams by hand, haul thousands of trees around on dilapidated bicycles, bucket water, and dig mile upon mile of swale while not getting enough to eat.

Mollison adds this in Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (9.1, p228):

Until the Second World War, earth was moved by sheer numbers of people, by hand or horse and car, or by a few people working with wheelbarrows or baskets over a long period. All this has changed. Why put up thousands of mud bricks when a machine can compact a 6-8 m thick wall immune to flood, fire, and earthquake in a few hours? Or labour long hours over a hole when we can blast a fence-post in a hard shale base for a few cents?

Want to do all this work by hand?
At what cost?

We are likely to be doing more physical work in the future than at present, but we haven’t fully explored to what extent it is necessary. I dare say most people disparaging the potential of biofuels are doing so from a position of comfort and with a full belly, taking advantage of our fossil fuel inheritance, with hard physical work and suffering being an abstract concept.

Fermenting four fodder beets will produce one gallon of ethanol plus by-products, which Dave enumerates (currency in 2010 US dollars):

The fodder beets generating one gallon of alcohol would also generate a surplus of about 25 pounds of edible mash which would produce about 6 pounds of fish, and then fish manure that would fertilizer 2000 heads of lettuce in 23 days, along with 1000 cucumbers being grown in a greenhouse heated by surplus hot water from the distillery in an atmosphere enriched by fermentation tank carbon dioxide. In this simple example the alcohol would be worth $3, the fish would be worth about $40, the lettuce would be worth $1000 wholesale, and the cucumbers $500 wholesale. So a Blume system would generate nearly $2000 for every gallon of alcohol produced, answering once and all the food vs. fuel debate. More complex designs would generate even more food and revenue.

A machine running on one gallon of ethanol replaces the equivalent of 120 hours of person labour. All this sounds like a good deal to me. Maybe we should give biofuels, done right, our unbiased consideration.



19 thoughts on “Biofuels and Confirmation Bias

  1. An erudite and inspiring article … thank-you Tim!

    We shall re-post it across our webpages and social portals, for the benefit of our readers in India (and elsewhere).

    With best regards
    Vic Gaffney
    Permaculture India

  2. “Distilled, that gives you 40,000 litres of absolute alcohol per acre.”

    Let’s see…

    The energy density of ethanol is in the ballpark of 25 MJ/kg, the density being about 0.8 kg/liter. An acre is 4000 m^2, so 40000 liters/acre means 10 liters/m^2, or 8 kg/m^2, which translates to an energy harvest of 200 MJ/m^2.

    Those ecosystems with the highest observed net photosynthetic productivity (NPP) – tropical rainforest, some marshes, etc., have a carbon fixation rate of 4000 grams of carbon per square meter per year. Taking an effective formula of hydrocarbons of C+H2O, as in C6H12O6, this amounts to 4000*30/12 = 10000 g/m^2 of sugar. At a typical energy density of 17 MJ/kg, maximal conceivable net carbon fixation hence would give us 170 MJ/m^2.

    Hence, I actually doubt these figures. That doesn’t mean that they are absolutely inconveivable – it’s just that I would strongly warn against basing our decision-making on unquestioning faith in such suspicious-looking figures.

    Unfortunately, Bill occasionally gets his numbers wrong by an order of magnitude. For example, his tree leaf areas are consistently way too high. Mostly, such flaws are harmless though – the only really important case I could find where it does matter is in the PDM, Page 470, where “Bluegill+Gambusia” yield is given as 3449.4 kg (“Yield increase of 18 times”). The number from the original Swingle article (yes, I tracked that down) is 349.4 kg – so, he accidentally doubled a digit, not noticing that the number he then got was way out of range.

    Concerning tree crop yields, I get the impression that some of Bill’s numbers might come from a book by Sholto Douglas and Robert Hart, which gives evidently wrong data (I don’t know why) that are way off what one finds e.g. in J. Russell Smith’s “Tree Crops – A Permanent Agriculture”.

    Having said that, I think you are quite right about the “confirmation bias” issue. When it comes to sustainability and quantitative data, many discussions often refer to research done by Pimentel. Actually, I by now think that much of his work might actually have quite serious methodological flaws. (On that, he’s not alone.)

    The conclusion? My own conclusion is that being able to independently make up one’s mind about the plausibility of numbers is invaluable. Sometimes, order-of-magnitude guesstimation does not suffice here, and one needs good judgement in addition.

  3. Making cattails into ethanol is part of the solution to many problems. The quantity of cattail growing wild staggers the imagination. The Typha Australis infestation in Africa’s Lake Chad basin is the driving force in desertification. The traditional fuel of the area is charcoal, and cattails can be made into a high ash content charcoal. The “side” benefits of clearing the typha are enormous. Typha is the preferred breeding grounds for many types of mosquito, as well as the pestilential Quelea bird. North America’s dustbowl problem is in part cattail sloughs that should be lakes.

  4. Hi Thomas,

    Yes I’m aware of Bill’s unreliability with numbers! He uses a different figure for Babassu palms in ‘Permaculture for Millionaires’ (which is well worth a read): “It comes down to a harvest of about ten to twelve thousand liters of fuel per acre annually.” ( This would be more consistent with the yield from other palms.

    Blume stands by his figure of 10,000+ gallons/acre for sewage grown cattails, starch and cellulose (I have questioned him about it). His estimation was based on measurements of an actual experiment, detailed in his book, and (then current) 180 gallons of alcohol per ton for cellulose conversion.

    Could you tell me where you got the NPP figures from?

    Thanks everyone for the comments, keep them coming!

  5. Hi Tim,

    NPP figures – various sources. You find these numbers e.g. in Patrick Whitefield’s “Earth Care Manual” – Patrick’s quite diligent and good with numbers. But I’ve looked into a number of ecology textbooks and they give pretty much the same figures. (Off my head, I think Begon/Townsend/Harper does.)

    Right now, I’ve got one lecture transcript on my desk which cites a German book by Bossel (1990) that gives a very similar optimal-conditions maximal productivity of 160 MJ/m^2/a.

  6. Hi Vic Gaffney, I look forward to see your new website, it seems greate! Wow, imagine if India could get as many Permaculture designers as you now have software and web designers!

  7. Thanks to this site I now have “Alcohol Can Be a Gas” and “A Pattern Language” at the top of my reading list. Keep the good stuff coming!

  8. hello there
    great post
    but paragraph 14 sugest climate change is man made.

    “The material fermented contains only a small part of the carbon fixed by the plant. If you do not displace something doing a better job you are increasing the rate of carbon sequestration. Yes, you can generate wealth and drive your vehicle while potentially reversing climate change”.

    please resurch this matter, it is importants that we move on from this misguided infomation.
    kind regards

  9. “I believe the sensible use of biofuels has suffered from confirmation bias and group think, even within the permaculture movement, seeded by some less than honest sources.”

    Thanks Tim, you’ve hit the nail straight on the head!

  10. I’m on location, and have been too tied up to comment here, but will try to do so briefly now.

    I invited Tim to put this post up, as he is one of a couple of people who’ve requested this topic get presented, and since he felt so strongly about it, and in the interests of free speech and the spirit of discussion I suggested he make the pitch.

    I don’t, however, totally agree with the concept. There are many reasons I feel thus, but will share just a few here:

    1) Historically, the dance between man’s needs and the environment he extracts those needs from, over thousands of years, has often ended in disaster. The reason is because we find it very difficult to find a balance between deposits and extraction from our soil bank. Withdrawals have usually exceeded deposits in humus/organic matter/soil life, until society collapses and has to move elsewhere. There are a few exceptions, particularly in Asian cultures (see Farmers of Forty Centuries). Today we cannot move elsewhere – there are no more frontiers, and we’re even at the point where taking land from someone else often won’t help, as those other people are also living on borrowed time in regards to their soil inventory.

    It needs to be recognised that it is quite a challenge to live on the land with high populations, and to do so dependably over an indefinite time frame. Take this challenge, and then add yet another ‘need’ – that of running our vehicles – and you are increasing this challenge significantly. Please do not make light of the significance of this. I’d like to see a show of hands from all on whether you’re providing for all of your needs from a modest piece of land. I would wager none of you are. Or, at least, I’d like to hear from people who are actually moving in this direction. Anyone that has actually tried to live sustainably on a small piece of land inevitably discovers a deep respect for the few cultures that have managed to do so. Burning fossil fuels buried deep in the ground is one thing, but to actually burn precious soil-building biomass is quite another.

    2) When you look at your car, don’t just look at the vehicle itself. Please also look at all the infrastructure that makes that vehicle possible. Yes, you can run your car from biofuels, but you’re also committing the whole vehicle manufacturing process to doing likewise. It takes an enormous amount of energy to produce and distribute them. A full energy audit needs to be considered on this. Your car will only last a few years before it’s ready for the scrap heap. What then?

    3) Also, please think about what other fossil fuel dependent aspects of our society (that’s pretty much everything) will try to switch to burning biomass to prolong them.

    Closing thought: I won’t get into a back and forth on this, as I’m too busy. All must make up their own minds on this issue – but I just ask you consider the immense land-redistribution issues we face, in connection with the need to ensure that land is on a soil-building regime of management. We humans are famously good at rapid extraction, but not so good at holistic stewardship.

    I would like to see someone show me examples of people providing for their own needs from their land whilst also running a vehicle from that land. Then, if we can find such a person, let’s look at how much land they’re using, what climate they’re in, and extrapolate that out to see what it would mean if all people on the planet were to imitate that model.

  11. P.S. There’s no ‘group think’ mentality from my end. I was writing against biofuels when most ‘environmentalists’ felt they would be the saviour of humanity as we know it. When I first wrote against biofuels in 2006/2007, you’d hardly find a word against them. In fact, because of my articles (on a website I edited prior to jumping on board the permaculture ship) I was contacted by a member of a UN-commissioned think-tank who sought information on the issue as they were tasked with researching the viability of biofuels in the lead up to the European Union mandating biofuel quotas in fuels.

    For example, one article I wrote ( caused the following title on a fellow environmental website:

    My writing against biofuels was ‘out of the box’ at the time. I’m thus not a product of media-influenced comfirmation bias – if anything, it’s the other way around. My studies in soil science lead me to be very concerned about our (mis)management of the carbon cycle. This understanding has always caused me to realise we just do not have biomass to burn.

    Since those days, I have experienced ‘confirmation bias’ in the sense that I’ve travelled to many two-thirds world countries where the daily struggle to maintain human existence whilst still managing to ‘invest’ in their soils – the foundation of that existence – is a challenge few in the west currently appreciate, but which I believe we’ll soon begin to appreciate, one way or the other.

  12. Hi Craig,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Society is so complex, dynamic and unmeasurable it’s of limited value to take a top down approach to design everything and attempt to draw conclusions from it. You do not need to design the whole (how to make vehicles and roads sustainably for example) or know how an individual would source all needs to contribute to movement toward sustainability and regeneration. This is why permaculture is structured as a set of principles instead of as a prescription. It’s a generative grammar and lens that individuals and groups can employ without centralised command & control, concensus or complete knowledge. Instead we can apply ethics and principles to evaluate the merit of specific techniques. Following is my evaluation for biofuels, past and present examples that do not use permaculture design notwithstanding.

    Earth care: you can use pioneering species and otherwise soil building plants to secure and improve degraded landscapes, increase biodiversity, habitat and improve climate while producing biofuels as in Samboja Lestari. Using liquid biofuels for cooking may relieve the land from deforestation. Providing an economical alternative to fossil fuels may save the decimation of land by avoiding drilling and mining, oil spills, pipelines, toxic refinery waste and war. Cattails can be used to treat sewage instead of expensive conventional facilities.

    People care: Integrated biofuel production provides for stable income and increased food supply, and needs that may not be serviceable without high density portable and storable liquid fuel such as remote health care, emergency response and long distance trade. Biofuels can save backbreaking labour. The local and distributed nature of production relieves pressure between groups that lead to military defence spending and war. Cooking with alcohol can prevent eye and lung damage from wood smoke in poorly ventilated housing common in Africa. Many of the systems employed in permaculture depend on motor fuel, such as earthworks (keylining, dam construction) and even local food distribution (community supported agriculture, for example). Without fuel these systems may not be feasible.

    Fair share: Since more workers are needed than in fossil fuel production a greater share of benefits are distributed to many besides shareholders and executives. Biofuels can go to transporting designers, educators, labourers and materials for setting up new permaculture demonstration farms and essential services. Without fuel many people may not have the opportunity to learn and employ permaculture.

    Catch & store energy: Biofuels clearly satisfy this principle. It’s similar to a farmer storing silage for working animals, as has been done throughout history. It was typical for farmers to allocate a third of their land plus storage facilities to feed their working animals.

    Obtain a yield: Biofuels yield transport, earth moving, processing, heating, cooking, lighting fuel, as well as synthetic rubber, solvents, disinfectants and other useful industrial chemicals, carbon dioxide, organic fertiliser and animal feed. There may be other yields from a well designed system, such as the fire barrier function of sugar palms in Samboja Lestari.

    Use & value renewable resources & services: Biofuels are renewable so this principle encourages us to use them.

    Produce no waste: Ethanol and biodiesel burn without significant pollution and all of the co-products are useful. Ethanol also burns cooler and with less vibration than petrol so it extends motor life. Without fuel the motors, vehicles, equipment and infrastructure that have already been built will go to waste when fossil fuel runs short. You could run an electric generator on an ethanol/biodiesel blend which would provide heat, humidity and carbon dioxide to a greenhouse. Blume used to collect pickup loads of waste donuts to produce 100 gallons of ethanol each.

    Design from patterns to details: Gaining fuel from plants (via food, wood, animal silage or derived liquid fuel) is an accepted pattern. How far that can go to sustaining specific services currently serviced by modern technology is a detail that can be worked out in time.

    Integrate rather than segregate: Fuel, food and other production such as timber and craft materials can be integrated. Mollison mentions that the filtered shade between Babassu palms are great for agriculture, and the palms can support vanilla orchids and trellis systems. Blume talks about integration of food production with the fermentation process – greenhouses using carbon dioxide and heat to accelerate plant growth and leftover mash to feed animals or fertilise plants.

    Use small & slow solutions: One might argue that using machines is a fast solution but Mollison doesn’t mind this fact. I know that you at least jet around the world, use the internet, and use a digital camera. It’s about appropriate technology, and getting the same job done with manual labour or animals extracts a cost in food (which is a fuel) anyway.

    A permaculture biofuel industry would be realised as small to medium sized enterprises employing many people in fair pace, enjoyable work (the tapping of palm as in the article, for example). Compared to the mammoth, centralised fossil fuels industry biofuels look like a significant improvement according to this principle.

    Use & value diversity: There are many plants useful for making biofuels, some of which are considered weedy like cattails, mesquite and babassu. Flexibility – some feedstocks can be switched to other products depending on demand and storage capacity – e.g. Cassava starch could either be fermented to ethanol or stored as flour depending on market conditions. This multiple/switchable income may provide dynamic stability for enterprises susceptible to market vagaries.

    Use edges & value the marginal: Algae and seaweed grown along watercourses and coasts are good sources of feedstock, for example. Wild cattails and mesquite grown on marginal and degraded land can be harvested.

    Creatively use & respond to change: Permaculturists being in a position to ride out the possibly sudden depletion or interruption of fossil fuels puts us in a great position to direct the unfolding response to peak oil and other crises. If we are as helpless to implement our designs as everyone else is at continuing business as usual then permaculture will have relatively less appeal and capacity to meet the crisis.

    There is an advantage even if it exists only for only a few years. If there isn’t the time to scale up completely it’s still going to be profitable for those producing and using it, especially when the availability of conventional fuels is uncertain. In any case ethanol is useful for many applications besides internal combustion, so producing it will not be a waste of resources even if vehicles and infrastructure are not serviceable.

    Roads and machines were built and maintained before the high quality energy sources and materials we use today were available. With application of permaculture and recent knowledge gained in natural materials (Henry Ford developed car parts using agricultural byproducts: and cradle to cradle manufacturing solutions could be found to at least keep some of the fleet in service, if not manufacture some new machines. Having even a small fraction of machines and motor vehicles functioning indefinitely into the future will have a significant impact on the quality of life of many people.

    As for not having the biomass and subsistence farming being a reality in much of the world, we still have an opportunity to capitalise on the one-off fossil fuel inheritance to make the biomass and improve on subsistence, one permaculture project at a time. Once that’s gone and we don’t have the capital to set up major systems then yes, we will join their boat. We won’t have much ability to help others, especially those in foreign countries, improve their lot either. If biofuels can be as energetically profitable as Blume asserts then we may be able to climb out of that hole.

  13. Just a note to say kudos to Thomas for checking those numbers. You’re pretty generous I think since I’d imagine most of the time only around half the energy content of the biomass can be converted into ethanol, since a lot would be lost in conversion or be left behind in the form of cellulose, proteins etc. I’m sorry Tim, I do believe biofuels will be important for niche uses, but you haven’t convincingly enough addressed all of the four negatives of biofuels that you raised.

  14. Hi Adam,

    I said in the article I wasn’t going to address them (in detail). It’s a large and nuanced topic, which is why I deferred to Blume (start with Busting the Ethanol Myths – I at least provided examples showing that the popular generalisation of biofuels is an unfair caricature:

    “Biofuels compete with food production and are therefore a moral obscenity” — Blume’s system based on fodder beets demonstrates the abundant food production possible from integrated fuel & food systems. In Samboja Lestari the palms are used for sugar production as well as fuel, and the presence of the fire barrier allows other food crops to be grown.

    “There’s not enough land to grow the crops necessary to make a dent in our current requirements” — most calculations are done using industrial corn ethanol, a very mediocre fuel crop, typically without acknowledging the value of carbon dioxide, waste heat and distillers grains. There are many better crops, and ones that are able to make use of the abundant farmland and marginal land. Managed sewage grown cattails have a productivity based on starch alone of approximately 10x that. 40x if Blume’s starch & cellulose figure is accurate.

    “Biofuels have a low or negative energy return and are just a way for big business to get government subsidies” — Scale and crop plays an important part in the energy balance. Tapping palms for fuel does not involve plowing fields, sowing seed every year, applying chemicals, machine harvesting, shipping, milling, cooking, premalting, hydrolysis, liquefaction, or saccharification. One would expect the energy return to be significantly higher than industrial corn ethanol. Improvements can be identified for other crops and small scale systems involving less shipping and organic/permaculture techniques.

    “Biofuels are bad for the environment, destroying native vegetation and top soil, and polluting air and waterways” — Samboja Lestari stands out as an example of biofuel systems improving the condition of the land, air and water. In the US mesquite trees are poisoned to facilitate cattle farming, whereas they could possibly be harvested for fuel, fodder and timber while improving the landscape. Ranging cattle would likely turn it to desert.

  15. Adam,

    the ability to do some simple order-of-magnitude guesstimations is often extremely useful. Every physicist should have learned this, but I think we would be in a much better position if more people habitually would do it.

    I don’t say David Blume is wrong – but I would strongly advise to take a very close look at such claims (which of course includes independent verification through independent reproduction of results). If he really can demonstrate that he can reproducibly achieve the “impossible”, I’m all ears. I think that it is especially important to keep in mind here that Blume tells people what they want to hear. Maybe that’s because he really can do it. But that alone – if someone tells people what they want to hear – naturally makes me a bit suspicious.

    Doing guesstimations can be learned, and I sometimes wonder whether working out a training program for non-physicists may be a good idea…

    Carl Sagan said it very nicely in the introduction to “The Demon-Haunted World”:

    It was from Kuiper that I first got a feeling for what is called a back-of-the-envelope calculation: A possible explanation to a problem occurs to you, you pull out an old envelope, appeal to your knowledge of fundamental physics, scribble a few approximate equations on the envelope, substitute in likely numerical values, and see if your answer comes anywhere near explaining your problem. If not, you look for a different explanation. It cut through nonsense like a knife through butter.

    Essentially, David McKay ("Without the hot air") doesn't do much more than just order-of-magnitude guesstimations over and over again. There are some ways to get it wrong though when biological systems are involved. Rather than re-explaining the problem at length using the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme as an example, let me refer to this talk I gave two years ago:

    The problem I have with "Biofuels" or other such "solutions" is that the most important aspect usually does not get discussed: "Biofuels – what for"? To keep our round-the-clock-active ~36 million car-equivalents going? I'd say: Forget it. But for important applications – say, emergency ambulances when a bicycle ambulance won't do – why not?

    1. @ Thomas Fishbacher

      “The problem I have with “Biofuels” or other such “solutions” is that the most important aspect usually does not get discussed: “Biofuels – what for”? To keep our round-the-clock-active ~36 million car-equivalents going? I’d say: Forget it. But for important applications – say, emergency ambulances when a bicycle ambulance won’t do – why not?”

      No, not to keep al those cars running all the time. If you have a coöperative, local economy, there will be no need for all these cars to run all the time.
      On the other hand: If you want biofuels only to power emergency services: That’s not going to happen.
      Maintaining all those roads, only for a few trucks and emergency services isn’t exaclty viable.
      You’re ether stuck with privately owned cars, or hardly any traffic infrastructure at all.

      And BTW: What’s wrong with cars?
      You treat them like private motorized transport is intrinsically bad.

  16. Thanks Tim for the posting.

    I stumbled across Blume’s work a couple of years ago and have been an ethanol advocate ever since. I would agree totally that confirmation bias and group think has got in the way of a proper debate on this issue. From my experience ethanol simply evokes a baseline negative emotional response in most people that prevents them from seeing the opportunities beyond just fuelling “business as usual”.

    This is a classic example of “not seeing the forest for the trees”. For example looking at it from a New Zealand perspective, approx $9Billion is lost from our communities every year to feed an insatiable appetite for liquid energy. That global addiction to oil is in effect a symptom of a globalised entropic monetary system that is winding down the Earth’s, resources, ecology, atmosphere and cultures.

    Ethanol on the other hand has the potential to do just the opposite and the reason for that is that ethanol as a liquid fuel source can not be globalised. (Yet..Industry is certainly working hard to unlock the holy grail of cellulosic ethanol)

    The fundamental thing about current ethanol production is that it needs to be produced close to where the feed stock is grown but the feed stock can essentially be any vegetative material that contains sugar or starch. Therefore forget monoculture and start thinking polyculture of diverse species that can be used as food and fuel. Currently many tonnes of orchard waste gets just that, wasted, in fruit growing areas simply because it does not make the grade. Ethanol production is a simple way to value add this waste crop, but it has to be localised.

    And there is the opportunity. Ethanol provides a huge opportunity for local communities to recapture some of the petro$$ they are currently haemorrhaging and use them to restructure and rebuild their local economies.

    From what I have researched locally, you can build a fuel grade ethanol still capable of producing 10,000 litres per week for about $10,000. Therefore the problem is not the technology or its cost but sourcing the feedstock. FOOD to FUEL I can hear everyone cry!

    But what about POO to FUEL! Wetland plants like typha are commonly used to treat municipal sewage. Therefore, in many places we already have a heavily fertilised, high yielding ethanol feedstock that is currently not being utilised. By building a local ethanol plant next to such a sewage treatment facility, local communities could start to develop a system that manages to improve water quality, wean themselves of fossil oil, reduce their Co2, create jobs and build resilience.

    Connect that with local farmers and the possibilities are endless. For example since NZ was colonised 80 to 90% of our wetlands have been lost to agriculture. Because many of those low lying flat lands were cleared and drained and are now grazed, our waterways are now seriously polluted with nutrient rich run-off from stock. The ironic thing is our native reed Raupo (Typha orientalis) is considered a pasture weed. Through good permaculture design we could artificially reinstate many of those wetlands, grow Typha to absorb the excess nutrient and harvest it a cash crop to feed for the local ethanol plant.

    In that scenario aquatic systems win, the farmer wins and the consumer wins with access to an alternative carbon neutral liquid fuel.

    As Blume points out, when you produce ethanol, you are essentially distilling the energy, leaving the biomass and nutrients behind. Such mash can be used for stock feed or making compost products. As many would know permaculture activists are at the forefront of research into soil carbon sequestration and soil building . An ethanol plant could essentially become a community compost processing plant that helps to close the fertility cycle of local agricultural production systems.

    A localised alternative to oil and superphosphate.

    But it gets better. If a local community developed such infrastructure through a cooperative such as a credit union or community bank, those petro$$ that were once lost from a community to Big Oil, could then be circulated back through that community. Think how many people there are in your town and how much they would spend on petrol each week. Imagine those kind of $$ being put back through your community, creating local jobs and opportunities rather than just profits going to Big Oil to fund the continued destruction of the planet.

    When most people think of ethanol they simply think of vast monocultures competing with food crops for dwindling amounts of for arable land. To those people I say loose the “globalised goggles” and start thinking locally. Ethanol will never replace oil drop for drop on the global scale and you wouldn’t want it to but that’s not the point. What ethanol could do is empower and regenerate your bioregion and aid in the transition to a to a lower energy future. Even with local ethanol production we face a significant decline in energy but localised ethanol production at least offers an opportunity for communities to manage that decline.

    Given the dire state of affairs that is the post modern epoch I think we should be doing everything within our power to avoid fossil enenergy and instead and set up systems that close the loops.

    Lets ditch OPEC and replace it with LOPEC

    Local Organic Polycultural Energy Co-operatives.

    The problem is the solution.

  17. Would it also be possible to make butanol on a large scale?
    I’m asking that, because it can drive gasoline cars without adaptations to the car. (Except for getting rid of that rare earth metal consuming catalytic converter.)

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