Over the past decade, “biofuel” has been a major buzz word in the world of clean energy and environmental science. As the topic of advanced biofuels continued to trend over the years, investments and studies ballooned accordingly. Now, however, with a bit of hindsight it has become clear that the vast majority of chatter and speculation about the “next big biofuel” set to change the energy landscape was just hot air.
Many claims made by energy startups, blogs, and think tanks were a bit short of credible, to put it lightly. A laundry list of companies over time claimed that they would be able to efficiently convert biomass like straw, wood chips, algae, and other organics into biofuel in an economically viable way. Some of these hopefuls even claimed to be able to do so for as little as a dollar per gallon.
Investors and taxpayers alike funneled money into ventures that had little to no chance of success. Investment went to technologies that had been abandoned decades before, due to economic impracticality. The most striking example can be found in the case of cellulosic ethanol. Converting straw into ethanol is a prohibitively expensive venture, but companies continued–and still continue–to try. What’s more, despite the fact that “commercial” cellulosic ethanol is only being produced at a very small fraction of the projected volumes, it’s currently being sold into the fuel supply, in large part thanks to heavy subsidization from the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Coming in second, only behind cellulosic ethanol, as the most overhyped biofuel is biomass sourced from algae. The concept is not nearly as far-fetched as producing fuel from straw. Some species of algae do produce oils that can be converted into fuel, and crude oil itself is essentially prehistoric algae and plankton.
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