Land equivalent to 30 football pitches needed for one biofuel flight to New York

27 March 2008

Pressure from those with vested interests, including farmers and biofuel manufacturers, plus muddled planning by decision-makers, threaten to take the country down an energy supply dead-end, said the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry today.

Richard Pike called for restraint on the promotion of biofuel as the simple answer to Britain's future fuel demands and urged clear debate and sounder legislation to make sure that the right answers are found to the challenges ahead.  

"Future historians may ultimately see the biofuels of the early twenty-first century as a technological dead-end," said Dr Pike. 

"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 added: "The way ahead has to include research into increasing biofuel yields dramatically and investigating artificial photosynthesis for alcohol production, but also placing higher priority on other, much more efficient land-based technologies. 

"Photo-voltaic cells raise the prospect of converting 20% of the sun's energy, and concentrated solar power devices still more. Coupled with a new generation of high-capacity electric batteries and hydrogen storage devices (using this gas from the electrolysis of water), this will provide the longer-term solution for vehicles at a fraction of the biofuel use of land.

"Key decision-makers have had misconceptions of energy matters over the years. It is essential that politicians, scientists and the wider community engage more effectively to avoid the repetition of knee-jerk directives that are not properly researched, and ultimately which could be counter-productive."

Also, he said, there was no sound evidence-based logic for the choice, made five years ago, for 5.75% use of biofuel in petrol and diesel for road vehicles by 2010. 

"Even at the time of this decision, at the practical level it was known that 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."

Furthermore, he asserted, natural photosynthesis is an extremely inefficient process for transforming the sun's energy into liquid fuel. The typical yield of 4 tonnes of biofuel per hectare (10,000 square metres) per annum represents less than one percent of the sunlight absorbed by the Earth's surface (a global average of approximately 174 watts per square metre), which is why such large areas of land are required to support this option. 

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