Energy

By Joseph Milton, FT science intern

Members of the public, environmentalists, scientists and businessmen will be asked for their opinions on new types of biofuels as part of a consultation launched today by an independent body that examines the ethics of biology and medicine.

Just a few years ago, biofuels were being trumpeted as a possible panacea for global warming – here was a green, renewable and sustainable source of power. And biofuels would not just help to mitigate climate change, they would offer energy security and aid agriculture and economies in the developing world. But these hopes were dashed as the darker side of the first generation of biofuels was revealed.

Land grabs and deforestation increased in some countries as the rich and powerful saw a chance to make a quick buck. Vast swathes of once biologically rich forest were replaced with palm monocultures and large numbers of people were displaced to make way for plantations.

Biofuels were also produced from food crops, contributing to the food-price spike of 2008, which in turn led to food riots in poorer countries. Mexican unrest was directly related to US maize farmers who turned from food to biofuel production, encouraged by large government subsidies.

So first generation biofuels are at best ethically dubious and, at worst, ethically atrocious, but the rehabilitation of biofuels is beginning.

The prospect of a second generation of biofuels, derived from waste materials rather than food crops or palm oil, has recently been raised. It is this new generation which the consultation by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics aims to explore.

Second generation biofuel production is likely to be based on a range of technologies under development – from harvesting oils produced by seaweed to collecting ethanol produced from food waste by genetically modified bacteria.

There are plans to use waste wood and the fibrous, inedible parts of crops to produce fuel, and genetically modify fuel-specific crops to increase yields and introduce tolerance of high salinity and drought – allowing growth on land unsuitable for agriculture.

The team at Nuffield think these methods could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90 per cent compared with fossil fuels, and hope biofuel production will present opportunities for income generation in developing countries, without affecting food supplies or contributing to deforestation.

They hope to gather a wide range of opinions on issues ranging from intellectual property rights for GM, which tends to be controlled by big agri-business because of the development costs, to the rights of farmers and workers in the developing world. Those wishing to participate in the consultation can do so online.

When the consultation is complete, late next year, the council will develop a set of ethical guidelines to advise government.

However, developing the new generation of biofuels will not be cheap. With the world unsure where it stands in terms of emission targets after the disappointment that was COP15, that investment may have just become harder to find.

Once again, hopes are high for biofuels. Let’s hope the investment is forthcoming, and this time the optimism is justified.

Clive Cookson

Europe’s hardware and DIY stores are preparing for a last rush this weekend to buy old-style 100W incandescent light bulbs. From Tuesday they will be not be available anywhere in the EU – victims of the battle against global warming. Lower wattage incandescent bulbs will be phased out over the next three years.

Their disappearance at the behest of Brussels has provoked protests from a wide range of traditionalists, who dislike the light emitted by new low-energy bulbs, besides the predictable howls from Eurosceptics and climate change deniers.

I too prefer the slightly warmer glow of an incandescent bulb. Whatever the manufacturers say – and I agree that there has been a huge improvement in energy-saving bulbs over the past couple of years – they do not quite match traditional lamps in the speed with which they come on or, more importantly, in the quality of their illumination.

Indeed I was tempted to join the hoarders who have laid in dozens of old-style bulbs. But, for a firm believer in the battle against global warming, that would have been outrageous hypocrisy. The phase-out is not just a token gesture, as some people seem to believe – it will cut European emissions of carbon dioxide by millions of tonnes a year.

Creating a huge market for low-energy bulbs gives manufacturers the incentive to spend money on research and development to improve their quality further. Today’s energy-saving bulbs are mainly what the industry calls compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs, as well as some (slightly less efficient) halogen bulbs. Given two or three more years of technical improvement CFLs really will match incandescent bulbs.

But the great hope for the near future is the light emitting diode or LED. This is far more versatile – and energy efficient – than the CFL and will produce instant illumination in any colour you want, from stark white to a warm mock-incandescent glow.

LEDs for domestic lighting are just coming onto the market and within a few years they will be ubiquitous. Then only the most nostalgic will be yearning for the incandescent bulbs of the past.

Clive Cookson

The big feature I’ve most enjoyed writing for the FT so far this year is in today’s paper. Please take a look.

It’s about synthetic biology, which is emerging as a really hot field of research.

The most eye-catching project in synbio is what I’ve called biology’s “Frankenstein moment”: Craig Venter’s attempt to create a microbe from scratch, using lab chemicals. (Sorry Craig, I know you won’t relish that phrase.)

More significant are the efforts to re-engineer existing organisms, for applications from biofuels to medicine.

And, to accompany the article, my FT graphics colleagues have constructed an excellent illustration to show how synthetic biology works.

Clive Cookson

Everyone interested in renewable energy has a favourite, which he or she may feel is unjustifiably neglected in the competition between alternative sources. With solar, wind, wave, tidal, hydro, biomass, geothermal and many others vying for investment, I have long believed the heat beneath our feet provides a huge energy store that deserves more public attention.

So I was delighted to attend a briefing organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, at which geologists and engineers called for more investment both in ground source heat pumps, which extract energy from near the surface for individual buildings, and in deeper geothermal projects, which involve drilling down to 1,000 metres.

“We are a sitting on top of a gigantic free reservoir of natural heat in the ground – ubiquitous and potentially available to all,” says David Banks, a heat source expert. “All we need to access it is a hole in the ground (a trench or borehole) and a pump, to lift it from a low temperature, typically 10-14ºC in the UK, to a high temperature at which it can be distributed and used to provide space heating.”

Banks says heat pumps are beginning to take off in Britain, with the market doubling every year. But the total installed base in the UK, which he estimates at 6,000 units, is still far smaller than in Scandinavia and north America.

In Sweden 350,000 units are installed, providing more than 10 per cent of heating in homes and offices. The US accounts for about half the world’s total ground source heating capacity, with 80,000 units installed every year.

Heat pumps have struggled because the initial capital costs of installation are high – typically £10,000-£15,000 for a 6 kilowatt domestic system – and natural gas is still relatively cheap in Britain. But they could pay off within 10 or 15 years for households in rural areas who have no mains gas supplies and enough space to lay the 100 metres of pipes required to extract heat from the ground. For commercial and public buildings, the economic returns are better.

While heat pumps extract low-level heat always available in the ground for use in buildings, some parts of the world have easy access to much more intense heat. This may be a blessing in energy terms but it often comes at a price because such places are vulnerable to volcanic activity and earthquakes. Iceland and the Geysers geothermal field in California are good examples.

Britain’s geology is not so favourable for geothermal energy but hot rocks are down there if you drill deep enough. The country’s only operational scheme has provided hot water to homes and offices in the centre of Southampton for more than 20 years, but David Manning, director of Newcastle University’s Institute for Research on Environment and Sustainability, says a recent project in Weardale, County Durham, shows the potential for geothermal energy in north-east England.

Prof Manning and colleagues supervised the drilling of a test borehole 1 km deep at Eastgate, which produced plentiful supplies of hot water at 40ºC – see picture below. It is expected to create a spa and heat buildings in a new “renewable energy village“.

The same geological formation of hot granite hundreds of metres deep extends up to the Tyne Valley. Geologists are now planning another borehole on the old Newcastle Brewery development site.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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