Researchers writing in the online edition of the May 7 Science magazine say the best bet is to convert the biomass to electricity, rather than ethanol. They calculate that, compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80% more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while also providing double the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.
"It's a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before," says study co-author Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution. "The kinds of motivations that have driven people to think about developing ethanol as a vehicle fuel have been somewhat different from those that have been motivating people to think about battery electric vehicles, but the overlap is in the area of maximizing efficiency and minimizing adverse impacts on climate."
Field, who is also a professor of biology at Stanford University and a senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, is part of a research team that includes lead author Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced, and David Lobell of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. The researchers performed a life-cycle analysis of both bioelectricity and ethanol technologies, taking into account not only the energy produced by each technology, but also the energy consumed in producing the vehicles and fuels. For the analysis, they used publicly available data on vehicle efficiencies from the US Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations.
Bioelectricity was the clear winner in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass, a cellulose-based energy crop. For example, a small SUV powered by bioelectricity could travel nearly 14,000 highway miles on the net energy produced from an acre of switchgrass, while a comparable internal combustion vehicle could only travel about 9,000 miles on the highway. (Average mileage for both city and highway driving would be 15,000 miles for a biolelectric SUV and 8,000 miles for an internal combustion vehicle.)
"The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially when compared to electric vehicles," says Campbell. "Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren't enough to overcome this."
The researchers found that bioelectricity and ethanol also differed in their potential impact on climate change. "Some approaches to bioenergy can make climate change worse, but other limited approaches can help fight climate change," says Campbell. "For these beneficial approaches, we could do more to fight climate change by making electricity than making ethanol."
The energy from an acre of switchgrass used to power an electric vehicle would prevent or offset the release of up to 10 tons of CO2 per acre, relative to a similar-sized gasoline-powered car. Across vehicle types and different crops, this offset averages more than 100% larger for the bioelectricity than for the ethanol pathway. Bioelectricity also offers more possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through measures such as carbon capture and sequestration, which could be implemented at biomass power stations but not individual internal combustion vehicles.
While the results of the study clearly favor bioelectricity over ethanol, the researchers caution that the issues facing society in choosing an energy strategy are complex. "We found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues: transportation and climate," says Lobell. "But we also need to compare these options for other issues like water consumption, air pollution, and economic costs."
"There is a big strategic decision our country and others are making: whether to encourage development of vehicles that run on ethanol or electricity," says Campbell. "Studies like ours could be used to ensure that the alternative energy pathways we chose will provide the most transportation energy and the least climate change impacts."
This research was funded through a grant from the Stanford University Global Climate and Energy Project, with additional support from the Stanford University Food Security and Environment Project, The University of California at Merced, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and a NASA New Investigator Grant. .
* to be published in the May 22, 2009 print edition.
The Carnegie Institution (www.CIW.edu) has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It is a private, nonprofit organization with six research departments throughout the U.S. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science. The Department of Global Ecology, located in Stanford, California, was established in 2002 to help build the scientific foundations for a sustainable future. Its scientists conduct basic research on a wide range of large-scale environmental issues, including climate change, ocean acidification, biological invasions, and changes in biodiversity.
Chris Field | EurekAlert!
Large-scale battery storage system in field trial
11.12.2017 | FIZ Karlsruhe – Leibniz-Institut für Informationsinfrastruktur GmbH
New test procedure for developing quick-charging lithium-ion batteries
07.12.2017 | Forschungszentrum Jülich
Tiny pores at a cell's entryway act as miniature bouncers, letting in some electrically charged atoms--ions--but blocking others. Operating as exquisitely sensitive filters, these "ion channels" play a critical role in biological functions such as muscle contraction and the firing of brain cells.
To rapidly transport the right ions through the cell membrane, the tiny channels rely on a complex interplay between the ions and surrounding molecules,...
The miniaturization of the current technology of storage media is hindered by fundamental limits of quantum mechanics. A new approach consists in using so-called spin-crossover molecules as the smallest possible storage unit. Similar to normal hard drives, these special molecules can save information via their magnetic state. A research team from Kiel University has now managed to successfully place a new class of spin-crossover molecules onto a surface and to improve the molecule’s storage capacity. The storage density of conventional hard drives could therefore theoretically be increased by more than one hundred fold. The study has been published in the scientific journal Nano Letters.
Over the past few years, the building blocks of storage media have gotten ever smaller. But further miniaturization of the current technology is hindered by...
With innovative experiments, researchers at the Helmholtz-Zentrums Geesthacht and the Technical University Hamburg unravel why tiny metallic structures are extremely strong
Light-weight and simultaneously strong – porous metallic nanomaterials promise interesting applications as, for instance, for future aeroplanes with enhanced...
An interdisciplinary group of researchers interfaced individual bacteria with a computer to build a hybrid bio-digital circuit - Study published in Nature Communications
Scientists at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) have managed to control the behavior of individual bacteria by connecting them to a...
Physicists in the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics (run jointly by LMU Munich and the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics) have developed an attosecond electron microscope that allows them to visualize the dispersion of light in time and space, and observe the motions of electrons in atoms.
The most basic of all physical interactions in nature is that between light and matter. This interaction takes place in attosecond times (i.e. billionths of a...
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
07.12.2017 | Event News
11.12.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
11.12.2017 | Earth Sciences
11.12.2017 | Information Technology