Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 2

Giving biofuels a boost: collaboration for bioenergy development

Sugarcane plantation
Ideally, successful biofuel development will rely on existing infrastructure, both to transport the fuel to the consumer and to utilise the fuel to generate power.
Christopher J Brigham
Partnerships between academia and industry on both sides of the Atlantic are key in bioenergy development, writes the University of Massachusetts’ Christopher J Brigham…

Alternative fuels, especially biofuels, are currently hot topics in both the academic and private sectors throughout the world. In many cases, an innovative idea in academic research will become the next revolutionary industrial process, and in some cases, the next potential global solution. I have previously stressed the notion that the academic scholars of today are the innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. As in spheres such as information technology, space, and economics, the next generation of powerful, marketable ideas in biofuel production and technology will come from the universities and institutes of technology.

Scientists, politicians, business leaders, and other citizens from both the US and EU offer a myriad of views on global climate change and how this problem will be mitigated in the coming years. Increasingly, biofuel alternatives to petroleum are being developed, such as the use of sugarcane-based ethanol in Brazil. Ethanol, as an inefficient and somewhat problematic biofuel, is really only effective if the proper infrastructure is developed along with it (which has been done in Brazil). Ideally, successful biofuel development will rely on existing infrastructure, both to transport the fuel to the consumer and to utilise the fuel to generate power. There has been an increased focus in the US on researching cost-effective production of biofuels that are compatible with existing transportation infrastructure. This focus is driven by a renewed focus on funding of scientific research in the US, including the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), which produces funding opportunities for academic and private sector researchers.

'Fossil fuel consumption remains high'

In both the US and the EU, fossil fuel consumption for energy remains high. Given the concentrated efforts of EU nations to shift to other sources of energy (wind power, solar energy, biodiesel, etc.), the EU-27 have slowed any increase in petroleum consumption, if not altogether halted it. In the US, fossil fuel consumption has decreased somewhat in recent years, but petroleum-based fuels still dominate the US energy consumption landscape. Keeping in mind the EU and US reliance on foreign sources of oil, uncertainty about the size of a finite supply of fossil-based petroleum, and the increasing demand for renewable products, it makes sense for biofuels to be offered as an alternative fuel source, especially for powering motor vehicles. It should be said that ‘alternative’ fuel source does not mean ‘replacement’ fuel source. We must respect the notion that the Earth’s petroleum supply is large enough to sustain our current habits, perhaps for the entirety of our lifetimes, but also prepare for the possibility that the fossil fuel supply is indeed finite.

Academic institutions are major players in biofuels research innovation. Many patents and other intellectual property have been developed as a result of academic research on bioenergy. Currently, programmes like Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) in the US are funding innovative and transformative research in many different aspects of the energy space, from biofuels to rethinking the way the energy grid operates. Similar programmes have been established in the EU, focusing on valorisation of waste biomass, biodiesel production, and other relevant topics. While funds from these programmes go mainly to academic institutions, fostering the next wave of innovation, there is also opportunity for partnership with the private sector. This could be crucial for the development of ideas in bioenergy and bringing them to market.

Transatlantic collaboration

I propose a partnership in biofuels research and development that has been largely underexplored, if not unexplored: the opportunity for US and EU universities to work together to address the challenge of creating an affordable and efficient bioenergy infrastructure. In a global economy, continued cooperation among respected global institutions is a must. A pooling of resources between the US and EU could have economic and even political advantages for the nations involved, and could help shape the energy future on both sides of the Atlantic.

Christopher J Brigham PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

[This article was originally published on 1st July 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe 02]


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Once again the crystal skull and magic beans tendency has cast it's dead hand over this website. This is a terrible shame, and lends me to believe that it's editors won't be satisfied until they've featured a geneticist working to create a centaur. Or at least an elf.

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