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Better Biofuels: The Short Story and the Long Story

Before we need more biofuels, writes Alex Farrell in an op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, we need better biofuels. Two articles appeared in Science last week suggesting that the “use of U.S. croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gas emissions from land use changes.” Farrell explains the basics: higher demand for biofuel feedstocks means cutting down forests and clearing grassland for more farms, and that increases the carbon emissions in the air.

He suggests reorienting our thinking about biofuel production to focus on how we use the land available, so that fuel does not compete with wilderness or food production. He offers three approaches:

The first approach is to use make biofuels from wastes, such as garbage headed to the landfill, or agricultural residues such as rice hulls and corncobs. The second is to use land that cannot be used for food crops, which might include planting natural prairie grasses on abandoned farmland or growing algae in the desert. The third is to integrate biofuel production into agriculture without diminishing CROP yields.

All approaches will require advancing current technology, and that means the government should support more R&D for advanced or “second generation” biofuels.

Science Progress spoke with Farrell in depth about the latest research and how we can shift energy policy thinking to account for land use. Read the full interview: “The Path to Better Biofuels.”

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