In recent years biofuels have become perhaps one of the best demonstrations that there is no such thing as a free lunch. With the twin jaws of Peak Oil and climate change beginning to bite, the idea of switching to biofuels seemed like an ideal solution to both.
But the reality was somewhat more complex. For example, converting corn to ethanol has become one of the major sources of alternative fuels, particularly in the US. But the concern is that it is being used in cars as an alternative to feeding people. Heavily subsidised ethanol production in the US accounted for just over a quarter of all the corn grown there last year, with the result of pushing up worldwide corn prices and diverting cheap US grain to ethanol in the middle of recurring global food crises. Sensing a gold rush, Brazil and other developing countries have increased corn production, leading to increased deforestation and increasing competition between local food and export dollars there too. In 2007, this led to rioting in Mexico as the price of the staple tortillas spiraled upward.
Even non-edible plants used for biofuels have hit trouble. The hardy Jatropha plant was hailed as perfect for biofuel production as it can be grown on marginal ground and is pest and drought resistant. But it can also be grown in huge plantations at the expense of food or forest and has been reported to have driven farmers in the developing world to bankruptcy as they banked on easy returns that have not materialised.
While the ethanol industry continues to be a major global player, the latest developments have shifted to alternative sources like food waste, wood waste and algae, all areas in which major New Zealand clean tech companies like Lanzatech, Aquaflow and Scion have a great deal of expertise and experience.
However, these too are not without their challenges, and the greatest challenge of all may be to significantly reduce the amount of liquid fuels being used worldwide.