On Biofuels

Today I had an interesting conversation with Fabio Barone, a Master’s of Science student in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. We discussed bioproducts – biofuels, bioplastics, and others – which are one of the keys to localization and the Global Village Construction Set. He is writing his thesis on bioproducts – within the context of sustainable communities and open source development – which is much needed discussion. I look forward to seeing his conclusions.

I suggested to Fabio that perhaps evaluating the real story behind biofuels could be an interesting exploration in his thesis. By biofuels, I mean root crops or fruit – and in particular, Jerusalem artichokes – which are my favorite because they are self-seeding. When you harvest the crop, a full crop always comes up the year after from little pieces of root left behind. You can harvest with a potato harvester. This is as easy and ecological as it gets, it seems.

Point is, the calculation remains – and you should go through the math yourself – the area similar to the area of any city is required to grow all the fuel for the city’s cars. That means land requirements are not high (unlike corn alcohol). Jerusalem artichoke tuber yields are typically 15 tons per acre! This is similar to other root crops – but I know of no other suitable perennials.
Thus, why hasn’t such a means of production proliferated all over the world? Or, even more simply, why have I not heard of at least one person harvesting such Jerusalem artichoke alcohol biofuel successfully on a small scale? This is one of those questions that are pressing for me – and this should be a disturbing question for anyone interested in localization. We are going to find out in the next 2 or so years for ourselves. Any comments from anyone in the know on the topic?
I understand that the sugar in Jerusalem artichokes is not readily accessible, but that is not difficult to overcome – such as by preheating the fermentation mix with solar energy.


  1. Richard Schulte

    You have to be careful with agrofuels though (I’ve read that biofuels is an inaccurate term because, technically, logs and dung can be considered biofuels), because once it becomes an institutionally sanctioned resource like ethanol, a lot of the wrong people get involved and labor and ecological irresponsibility ensue. A diversity of energy sources is something we must attain, and it’s hard to continue to keep that goal in mind when so many PR companies are pushing ethanol in our faces all the time.
    We must take great care and be extremely responsible with advocating agrofuels. I recognize the potential but long term ecological impact has to be factored into this kind of resource dependence. Studies must be done long beforehand to ensure the feasibility and to gauge the impact before mistakes are made. And when the resources are locally produced, it is of course easier to gauge the impact, and as well usage tends to be more responsible when the land being used is at your back door. But that doesn’t mean it will be faultless.
    You could easily intercrop jerusalem artichokes to make better use of space and soil resources, I would assume. This would be wonderful. But keep in mind that once you do that and begin to depend more on grown resources, your taking that 2 persons-per-acre ratio and making it 1 or less even. It would be terribly unsustainable to use bioplastics for packaging, because packaging in itself is terribly wasteful, even if it is recycled. But to use it for things that provide a lot of utility over a long period of time is very feasible.
    On a much grander and far less sustainable scale, the world food market has been screwed up by banks, bad agricultural practices and agrofuels, especially corn, soya, cane and palm. And thats not to mention the conditions for workers… in Brasil, for example, humanitarian groups have freed nearly 2000 enslaved workers from sugarcane plantacoes since 2006 who were tricked into coming to work and given terrible conditions, no way of getting back and no pay. And even then, if you aren’t enslaved you are a wage slave, making far less than cane workers made even in the 80’s. And given that they are paid by weight, the new GM cane crop they are introducing weighs have as much for the same amount of harvest work. This is one of the most ecologically destructive and inhumane effects of greenwash and powerful corporations and public relations companies shaping and guiding the public into a path unsustainable and unjust.
    This is why we must step boldly but carefully. We have a lot of work to do, and the situation is dire, but it’s no reason to traipse around on new ground without stepping back and looking carefully at the impact of what we are doing. Thats why I respect what you are doing, because it is small scale and carefully done. But you have to take into account the additional work, the space used, and the ecological impact of growing a bunch of Jerusalem artichokes. Its far better than depending on waste vegetable oil, of course. But talking about fueling an entire cities vehicles is dangerous in that it continues to prop up a lifestyle that is unsustainable. Its different to say that you could fuel a cities buses, mass transit systems and infrastructural vehicles with crops grown in the area. I was talking to a guy at my landscaping job about using stirling engines powered by agrofuels for intracity mass transit. I also rode my bike down a bikeway (the MKT) 8 miles today that is used by families in the surrounding area to commute into columbia for work, school and entertainment, and i didn’t even break a sweat. But if I had driven to where I got to I might have used as many as 2 gallons of gas (7 dollars!). Who needs cars when you can do that? And anywhere where solar and wind energy can be applied feasibly, it should be!
    So be careful, and keep an active mind and don’t allow yourself to get sucked into hype without looking deeply into what is being advocated. I guess im preaching to the choir, but i was just clarifying for people who might visit the site. I hope to come out in early june, by the way!!

  2. Fabio


    I absolutely agree with you. In my thinking I am just trying to find out if small-scale biofuels are sustainable and feasible. Slow pyrolysis of biomass can produce biochar, which has been used centuries ago in the Amazon jungle to improve top soil. The process can yield electricity, syngas (heating, etc.) and bio-fuel, which can be used for local needs.

    Bioproducts – the driver should not be what is possible, but what is desirable. I have seen many permaculture organic sites who use plastics for many things, as rain planes, polytunnels, etc. Such applications seem to be reasonable?

    Many opponents of biofuels still drive around and fly. Well, oil is certainly not much better…biofuels on big scale must be stopped, no doubt. Companies will try to sneak GM in with it, and the food situation will be worse. What do we want then? Will we go back to horses? What about people in remote areas? Hydrogen is not there yet. I agree on biking, but that has its limitations too. But I agree that advocating biofuels just because they are available is not the solution; what are the alternatives?

    When peak oil will become reality, we’ll have to cope with many other challenges; what about clothing, currently being produced in China or so? Don’t we need to maybe think of planting non-food crops to get fibres too, like hemp, flax, cotton, etc? So also the argument about x or y people per acre should be touched in a considerate way in my opinion. Just loud thinking, interested in people’s opinions here!

  3. Richard Schulte

    I wasn’t saying that i opposed agrofuels. I’m just saying that we have to be very careful in their application. I think using stirling engines with agrofuels like biodiesel or cellulosic ethanol would be great for tractors and long-range locomotives. Cars, if needed, should be based on a variety of energy sources, whether electric, biodisel, or ethanol if you must. Using current methods of production, it would require 75% of the arable land in the world to grow enough agrofuel crops for ethanol to meet current demand for oil, just in the united states. And fibrous crops like flax or cotton would also be wonderful for making clothing (bamboo and hemp, contrary to the greenwash we’ve been fed, require large amounts of petroleum products to process into clothing material). Before we start to include more of our fuel consumption on agrofuel crops, we have to densify our food production using permaculture, intercropping and agroforestry. We also have to reduce food waste and localize our food economies first. The food crisis is perfect evidence that the global food economy does not have the best interests of the people of the world in mind. Crops have been burned because of price fluxuations, and people can’t feed themselves because they must import food because of the IMF’s polciies, and many small farmers have been pushed from their land lately so that multinationals can meet the demand for ethanol, which gets assistance to the tune of $1.90/gallon in over 200 subsidies from our federal government, on top of profits. We need to base as much of our energy consumption as possible on sun and wind, and then diversify the rest.

  4. Marcin

    A friend of mine, who runs a corn alcohol plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, told me it takes 2 bushels of corn (over 100 pounds) to make one gallon of ethanol. That’s less than 10% yield. The economics work out because of animal feed byproducts and government welfare.