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Cellulose, Microbes and the Fuel Crisis

In recent years, attention towards environmental issues such as global warming and the deterioration of air quality in urban areas has made the search for alternative fuels a major point of discussion from corners political, economic and environmental. In 1998, geologist Colin Campbell and petroleum engineer Jean Laherrere argued that the end of cheap oil is imminent, due to the heretofore unacknowledged dwindling state of petroleum reserves and rising trend of extraction costs. (Campbell & Laherrere, 1998). As such, the emergence of biofuels is seen to present the opportunity to end current dependence on oil.

However, confidence in biofuels has been stymied by various revelations such as the impact of redirecting food crops towards ethanol production upon the global food supply and fossil fuel costs associated with agriculture itself. (Grunwald, 2008; Heinberg, 2007; Vidal, 2007) Furthermore, changes in land use to expand agricultural production have been seen to impose their own environmental impacts. (Searchinger, et al. , 2008; Fargione, et al. , 2008) The resolution of the fuel crisis then, lies not just in expanding biofuel production, but in the development of a sustainable means of biofuel production.

Biofuels must be regarded with a critical eye. As UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall, puts it, biofuel solutions require a well-developed set of sustainability criteria, rather than being treated as the “silver bullet of climate change. ” (Rosenthal, 2008) The most promising avenue in this direction is the progress made in technologies to assist in the production of cellulosic ethanol. Most of the ethanol fuel in the world is distilled from corn (as in the United States) or sugar cane (as in Brazil) and cellulosic ethanol presents a promising opportunity as production does not require such crops for feedstock.

As its name implies, cellulosic ethanol is derived from cellulose, the most abundant organic molecule on the planet and found in the cell walls of plants. The chief obstacle to producing ethanol from cellulose is the difficulty of breaking it down into the simple sugars, from which ethanol is distilled, in a cost-efficient manner. Some animals such as cows and termites possess unique anatomy to process it, while bacteria and various microbes utilize special enzymes to do the same.

Therefore, the resolution of the current fuel crisis is contingent upon successfully replicating these biological processes towards the production of cellulosic ethanol. However, the potential of cellulose is enormous because of its abundance, its dramatically better energy yield and the ability to produce it from non-food crops. (Ratliff, 2007) The last point is a crucial distinction, as it directly addresses one of the reasons why ethanol production has become problematic in the context of the global crises of food and fuel.

Because cellulose can be found in various forms of non-food biomass such as old newspapers, switchgrass and sugarcane bagasse, it can be made without cannibalizing the existing food supply. Therefore, continued success in cellulosic ethanol production research such as those documented by Ratliff (2007) and Singer (2007) will obviate the need to redirect crops such as corn and sugar cane and eliminate the consequent need to expand the existing agricultural base, ultimately resolving the present woes of biofuels while fulfilling the potential to eliminate the fossil fuel dependence.

Works Cited

Campbell, C. & Laherrere, J. (1998, March) “The End of Cheap Oil. ” Scientific American, 78-83. Vidal, J. (2007, November 3) “Global food crisis looms as climate change and fuel shortages bite. ” The Guardian. 3 November 2007. Retrieved April 20, 2009 from: http://www. guardian. co. uk/environment/2007/nov/03/food. climatechange Heinberg, R. (2007, November 22) “What Will We Eat as the Oil Runs Out? ” Museletter, 188.

Retrieved April 20, 2009 from: http://globalpublicmedia.com/richard_heinbergs_museletter_what_will_we_eat_as_the_oil_runs_out Grunwald, M. (2008, April 7) “The Clean Energy Scam. ” Time Magazine. Rosenthal, E. (2008, February 8) “Biofuels Deemed A Greenhouse Threat. ” The New York Times. Ratliff, E. (2007, September 24) “One Molecule Could Cure Our Addiction to Oil. ” Wired Magazine, 15. 10. Retrieved online on April 20, 2009 from: http://www. wired. com/science/planetearth/magazine/15-10/ff_plant

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