Azara Blog: The Promise of Energy Biosciences

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Date published: 2007/02/07

The first lecture in the Department of Engineering's Fifth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2007) was given by Steven Koonin, Chief Scientist of BP, on "The Promise of energy biosciences". Koonin has spent most of his life in academia, culminating as Provost at Caltech. In 2004 BP headhunted him to become their Chief Scientist. Now most Americans with substantial jobs, including those high up in academia, tend to be corporate types, and Koonin was a refreshing exception to that.

His talk was mainly about how the world might be able to replace fossil fuels, and in particular oil, in road transport. He quickly went through the usual arguments about supply and demand. His take on "peak oil" was that "the world was not running out of crude oil any time soon". Some people, even inside BP, might not be so optimistic, but that was not the real issue at hand in his talk in any case.

The two main concerns to do with fuel supply now are security (the countries that have oil are unstable and not very nice) and climate change (the world will end if carbon emissions continue to grow). He claimed that biofuels ("advanced" ones, not the ones we have today) would be the main way to get around both concerns. (The so-called Hydrogen economy would be even better, only it is decades away at best.)

He mentioned that hydrocarbons are hard to beat for how much energy you got per unit volume and weight, which of course is why the world uses them for transport. For example he claimed that with gas you could get around 6.6 miles per kg, but with current batteries, for example, the figure was more like 0.5 miles per kg.

He showed a graph giving the US consumption of energy and agricultural production in terms of million tonnes of carbon, and it was pretty clear that agriculture by itself was unlikely to be able to provide a substantial substitution for fossil fuels (especially given that the world still needs to eat). Biomass, on the other hand, might provide a reasonable substitution for some fuel.

BP has apparently decided that biology is the way forward. Well, the trivial point is that biology is about carbon, and so is energy. The substantive point is that biofuels might well provide a good proportion of liquid fuel in the near future, and today's biofuels are rather lacking, and biotechnology will be the way to improve that situation.

He gave the example of corn ethanol. Apparently 20% of the US corn crop was used to make ethanol in 2006 (up from 6% in 2000). But that only accounted for 2.5% of petrol use. And more significantly, to make 1 MJ (megajoule) of corn ethanol, apparently (and this is no doubt hard to estimate) it requires 0.9 MJ of input, including (in the US) around 0.4 MJ of coal, 0.3 MJ of gas, 0.04 MJ of nuclear/hydro and 0.05 MJ of crude oil. Apparently some people doing the same sums even claimed the net energy "gain" was negative. So the net energy benefit is not great. Net CO2 emissions were around 18% less using corn ethanol compared with oil (so ok, but not the super-wonderful story painted by bioenergy zealots). Koonin said you could view this as a painful way to convert coal to liquid fuel. But if your main concern is security of oil supply, rather than climate change, then this was a useful way to convert 0.05 MJ of oil to 1 MJ of another liquid fuel.

There are other problems with corn ethanol. Its energy density is only around 2/3 that of petrol. And it picks up water. And it is corrosive (so needs better tanks than petrol).

Koonin then moved onto his most important point. The world has spent over a hundred years optimising the petroleum production process. The world has spent thousands of years optimising the food production process. With food, mankind has managed to make amazing advances even using very low-tech methods (i.e. pick out the best examples of a species and breed those). Even with these low-tech methods the world has made amazing productivity gains in producing food. (Of course many of the gains are due to other reasons, e.g. chemical fertilisers.) It is only recently that biotechnology has allowed more precise agricultural advances.

Meanwhile there has been very little work on biofuels. In particular, what is optimal for producing food from plants is not likely to be anywhere near optimal for producing energy from plants. This is where the world should be investing some money. Indeed, BP has recently announced the setting up a 10-year 500 million dollar (i.e. 50 million dollars per year) grant to exactly do end-to-end research in this area. This new institute will be based at Berkeley with collaboration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Cambridge and Oxford were in the running but lost out.)

At the end there was a question and answer session. Now the British academic middle class are naturally anti-corporate, and, for example, there were a couple of such folk picketing the lecture. So several of the questions were as to be expected. One person complained that BP was not spending enough money on renewable energy. One went further and complained that BP's rebranding as Beyond Petroleum (from British Petroleum) was just a PR exercise. (This was what the picketing was about.) And one complained that Koonin was only addressing supply and not demand. Koonin managed to answer these all in deadpan. But, for example, is anyone surprised that an energy supply company is more interested in supply (in particular supply efficiency and increase) than in demand (in particular demand reduction). The UK academic middle class might think it's a good idea to travel less (although they show little indication of this themselves) but meanwhile back in the real world most people want to travel more, and not just when and how the middle class says they should. What can you say about the world when a corporation serves the interest of ordinary people better than the academic middle class.

One person did make a relevant remark that biofuel could have other negative environmental consequences, e.g. cutting down the Amazon rainforest to grow crops. Koonin agreed as such with his stock remark that this was a problem and the problems needed sorting out. (The academic middle class only like to state problems, never solve them.) And he claimed that, for example, in the US there was a lot of unused arable land that could be used to grow crops for biofuels, with little of this kind of environmental problem. (But there is no such thing as a free lunch.)

One can imagine a few reasons why BP might have set up its biofuels research institute in the US rather than the UK. For one thing, the American middle class are not nearly so negative about energy. For another, the UK (and European) middle class have successfully blackballed the production of GM foods. Is there any reason to believe they would be less negative about GM biofuels? It's best to let this work be done in the US (or China) where people are not so fanatic. One person did ask about whether biofuel crops would lead to increased monoculture and an alleged gene transfer risk. Koonin answered this (valid) question with his stock response: it's a problem which needs solving, which is fair enough. But one of the points of his talk was that biofuel crops were likely to be different from location to location, because of geography. And there is no reward without risk. People who believe otherwise are in sales and marketing, not science and engineering.

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