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Boffinry bigwig puts another boot into biofuels

All UK farmland would barely run Heathrow

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One of Blighty's top chemists appears to be engaged in a crusade against biofuels. Dr Richard Pike, chief of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has said that biofuels are a "dead end" and "extremely inefficient", and that the government was wrong to impose a requirement for 5 per cent biofuel content in motor fuel by 2010.

In a statement issued by the RSC today, Dr Pike sought to illustrate the difficulties of powering transport using crop-based fuel.

"We have to bear in mind that the 80 tonnes of kerosene used for a one-way commercial flight to New York is equivalent to the annual biofuel yield from an area of approximately 30 football pitches," he said.

According to the FA an adults' football pitch can be anywhere from 90 to 120m long and 45.5 to 90m wide, meaning it varies from 1 to 2.7 acres. We'll just assume the doc was on about a medium-sized 1.4 acre pitch.

On that basis, a daily New York oneway flight running on biofuel would require the total output of more than fifteen thousand acres of farmland. The CIA says that Britain has a tad more than 12 million acres of arable land, enough to fuel about 800 jet flights a day if it were all turned over to biofuel.

Heathrow airport alone averaged more than 600 takeoffs a day in 2006. According to Dr Pike, then, roughly speaking all the farmland in the UK would produce enough biofuel for Heathrow airport's needs as of the year before last, with a small surplus.

This does rather suggest that ordinary crop biofuel is never going to be a viable way of powering transport in developed civilisations, even if you believe it reduces carbon emissions - an idea on which Dr Pike casts doubt, anyway.

"The use of fertilisers, coupled with harvesting, manufacturing and distribution, all drawing on fossil fuels, would limit significantly the net benefits of the biofuel route in reducing the carbon footprint of transportation," he says.

It's hard to doubt the word of an experienced chemical engineer on this sort of thing, and indeed most analysts accept that food-crop biofuels can't ever be more than a stop on the road to true, sustainable, carbon-neutral transport. But Dr Pike seems to think this is a road which goes nowhere.

"Future historians may ultimately see the biofuels of the early twenty-first century as a technological dead-end," he says, blaming "pressure from those with vested interests, including farmers and biofuel manufacturers" and "muddled planning by decision-makers" for the British government's current biofuels quota plans.

Dr Pike says that the proper, efficient way to get energy out of land is to use photovoltaic solar cells - that would yield twenty times as much energy per acre.

Unfortunately, this would be in the form of electricity rather than nice energy-dense liquid fuel. At least some kinds of road transport may be able to make use of such power in the near future. But not all, not soon; and battery aircraft are an almost total no-no.

Pike suggests that electric energy might be turned into portable fuel in the form of hydrogen, and this will please Honda - who are leading the hydrogen car lobby at present. But many people - some of them engineers perhaps as qualified in their own fields as Dr Pike - are highly sceptical about hydrogen, noting that it is very difficult and dangerous to store and handle.

The aviation industry in particular regard hydrogen as unviable, because of its massive volume requirements. Speculative designs for hydrogen airliners show enormous cylindrical fuel tanks with wings, engines and payload added almost as an afterthought. Only hypersonic speed could make such monsters even vaguely competitive.

This is why the airlines pin their post-fossil hopes on algae biofuel harvested from unused water surfaces - perhaps even from the oceans. But jetfuel-bearing algae blooms able to survive in saltwater while drawing their carbon mostly from the air above are no more than scummy pie in the sky for now.

So Dr Pike seems to have given the concept of food biofuels, already down on the floor, a further and possibly fatal kicking. But his suggested solutions - like those of the airline industry, whose coconut jumbo party Pike recently pooped - don't seem quite as authoritative.®

Bootnote

New Reg units for use in green-energy debates are being developed by the standards soviet. Experimentation is underway to determine how much hot air is contained in a standard comment-thread flame, and to define both quantities in terms of the time taken to melt an internationally adjusted chocolate teapot and/or fireguard. Methane carbon equivalency as referred to flatulence episodes of agreed intensity and duration - again relating back to the SI spittle-fleck flame post - is also under investigation. An effort to relate carbon abatement in terms of seasonally normalised cow farts to the lifetime savings yielded by a mature female pop star ceasing to wipe her bottom is expected to complete shortly, unless the pub shuts first.

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