Dr. Steven Chu - Mad Scientist

Steven ChuDr. No
Which scientist is destroying the biosphere and the human food supply?


     After winning the White House, Barack Obama chose scientist Steven Chu to be our new Secretary of Energy.  At that time Chu was leading a biofuel research project at U.C. Berkeley, funded by a 500 million dollar grant from the giant oil company, BP, the same corporation responsible for the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Obama picked Chu in hopes of saving his biofuel plan, which many scientists and newspaper editorials around the world had already branded a disaster for the human food supply.  Inexplicably, Chu could never understand the basic mathematical fact that you cannot use fresh plant growth to replace the enormous energy reservoir of fossil fuels, which took millions of years worth of ancient plant growth to create.  Our attempts to harvest crops to produce liquid fuels is seriously harming the environment and skyrocketing food prices, while providing us very little net energy gain in return.

     All present and future biofuel schemes have the same problems.  Biofuel crops are all too low in energy, too light in weight, and thus too bulky and expensive to transport to be of any real value.  Biofuels require too much land, water, and fertilizer resources to be beneficial.  By contrast, dirty old coal, which we need to replace as an energy source, has been historically successful as a fuel because it is very heavy and compact, high in energy content, and thus makes energy sense to transport.  Coal already exists in the ground so you don't have to plant it, water it, and fertilize it.  All biofuel schemes, planned or imagined, will never amount to a hill of beans because of the basic limitations of their solar based production process.  A requirement for vast amounts of sunlight will always equal a requirement for vast amounts of land area to collect that sunlight, thus solar power schemes can never replace the massive concentrated energy reservoir of fossil fuels.

     Growing switchgrass to produce ethanol from lignocellulose has most of the same drawbacks as making ethanol from corn.  We will use land, water, fertilizer, farm equipment, and labor to grow switchgrass that will be diverted from food production, with soaring food prices the result.  If we grow switchgrass on land currently used to graze cattle, we will reduce beef and milk production.  If we grow switchgrass on unused "marginal" prairie lands, we will soon turn those marginal lands into a new dust bowl, which they may turn into anyway due to global warming.  Computer models for the progression of global warming show the America Midwest and Southwest getting hotter and dryer, with much of our farm and grazing land turning into desert.  We know that biofuel production will speed up greenhouse gas release, so if the global warming theory is true, we soon won't be able to produce enough biofuels to run our cars, or enough food to fill our bellies.       

     Switchgrass and other biofuel weeds will be grown by ordinary, profit motive driven farmers, not by environmentally trained scientists.  Farmers will grow switchgrass on land that could be used to grow corn, wheat, or soybeans, and farmers will want to maximize yield so they will use lots of fertilizer to increase output.  The plans biofuel idealists are trying to sell the American public will never produce the kind of "green," food friendly energy resource they promise.  The next great scandal will be how to get rid of all the millions of acres of invasive, deep rooted biofuel weeds once society inevitably realizes that even growing second generation biofuel crops is a tragic mistake. 

     In practical terms, there is not enough usable land area to grow a sufficient quantity of biofuel plants to meet the world's energy demands.  According to professors James Jordan and James Powell, "Allowing a net positive energy output of 30,000 British thermal units (Btu) per gallon, it would still take four gallons of ethanol from corn to equal one gallon of gasoline.  The United States has 73 million acres of corn cropland.  At 350 gallons per acre, the entire U.S. corn crop would make 25.5 billion gallons, equivalent to about 6.3 billion gallons of gasoline.  The United States consumes 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually.  Thus the entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7% of our auto and truck transport demands.  Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15% of the demand."  [See The False Hope of Biofuels]

     Growing algae to make biodiesel is being touted as a cure-all for all our biofuel problems, but we are still stuck with the fact that algae need solar energy to turn carbon dioxide into fuel.  To make biodiesel, algae are used as organic solar panels which output oil instead of electricity.  Researchers brag that algae can produce 15 times more fuel per acre of land than growing corn for ethanol, but that still means we would need an impossibly large number of acres (about 133 million acres) of concrete lined open-air algae ponds to meet our highway energy demands.  Those schemes that grow algae in closed reactor vessels, without sunlight, necessitate the algae being fed sugars or starches as a source of chemical energy.  The sugars or starches must then be made from corn, wheat, beets, or other crop, so you are simply trading ethanol potential to make oil instead of vodka.  If we construct genetically engineered super-algae that are capable of out-competing native algae strains that contaminate open air algae ponds, the new gene-modified algae will be immediately carried to lakes, reservoirs, and oceans all over the world in the feathers of migrating birds, with unknown and possibly catastrophic results.

     If we try to guard algae from contamination by growing them in sealed containers under glass or in plastic tubes, the construction costs for building large enough areas to collect sufficient sunlight would be prohibitive.  Even then the containers are still subject to contamination over time, and must be periodically flushed and rinsed with chlorine or other caustic agent.  The current cost of biodiesel made from algae is about $14.00 a gallon.

     Using "agricultural waste" to make biofuels has its own problems.  [See soil reportRemoving unused portions of plants that are normally plowed under increases the need for nitrogen fertilizers, which release the most potent greenhouse gas of all, nitrous oxide.  Residual post-harvest crop biomass must be returned to the soil to maintain topsoil integrity, otherwise the rate of topsoil erosion increases dramatically.  If we mine our topsoil for energy we will end up committing slow agricultural suicide like the Mayan Empire.  [See Food Versus Biofuels: Environmental and Economic Costs, by Professor David Pimentel]

     Using wood chips to make ethanol or biodiesel sounds like a good idea until you remember that we currently use wood chips to make fuel pellets for stoves, paper, particle board, and a thousand and one building products.  The idea of sending teams of manual laborers into forests to salvage underbrush for fuel would be prohibitively expensive.  Our forests are already stressed just producing lumber without tasking them with producing liquid biofuels for automobiles.  Such schemes would inevitably drive up the price of everything made from wood, creating yet another resource crisis.  Making fuel from true garbage, such as used cooking oil and winery waste, is environmentally harmless, but is it really worth the large infrastructure and vehicle maintenance costs required to sell ethanol and biodiesel as fuels?  Our usable true waste resources are very limited in quantity, and not a major energy solution for a nation that uses over 8 billion barrels of crude oil every year. 


     "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel.  These strategies are not sustainable." - David Pimentel, Professor of Ecology and Agriculture at Cornell University

     "Given currently available technologies, it is difficult to see the net contribution of biofuels rising above 1% of our current fossil fuel energy consumption – for either Oregon or the U.S." - Agricultural economist William Jaeger [see PDF]

     On biofuel advocates: You have money and media access, and now everybody believes that two plus two equals twenty-two.” - Tad W. Patzek, professor of geoengineering at the University of Texas in Austin, and formerly of UC Berkeley 

     "Every day more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes -- one child every five seconds.  The situation will only get worse.  It would be morally wrong to divert cropland needed for human food supply to powering automobiles.  It would also deplete soil fertility and the long-term capability to maintain food production.  We would destroy the farmland that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will need to live." - Professors James Jordan and James Powell, Maglev Research Center at Polytechnic University of New York  

     It has been estimated that every year the human race burns the fossilized remnants of approximately 400 years worth of total planetary vegetation in the condensed form of fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas, etc.  "The fossil fuels burned in 1997 were created from organic matter containing 44 1018 g C, which is >400 times the net primary productivity (NPP) of the planet’s current biota."  This quote comes from Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption of Ancient Solar Energy, by Professor Jeffrey S. Dukes of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University.  His figures makes sense if you remember that the earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old, and you consider the rapid rate at which human beings are burning up fossil fuels.  Dukes estimated that it would take approximately 22% of all current above ground plant growth on land to replace fossil fuels for the year 1997 in terms of raw energy potential, a number that is now out of date due to increased fossil fuel use.  The old 22% estimate also does not account for the tremendous energy expenditures required to transform food derived and cellulose derived biomass into usable liquid fuel.  As the United States uses a disproportionally large percentage of the world's fossil fuels every year, the amount of U.S. land biomass we would have to convert to ethanol would be impossibly high.  No park or backyard would be safe from the biofuel harvesters.

     It “takes a huge amount of land to produce a modest amount of energy.”  Even if we used “every piece of wood on the planet, every piece of grass eaten by livestock,and all food crops, that much biomass could only provide about 30 percent of the world’s total energy needs.”
Dr. Timothy Searchinger, Princeton University

     "All sources of renewable liquid energy are inadequate when set against the net energy density that is achieved from extracting oil from wells, which we estimate as being the equivalent of capturing all 10,000 parts in 10,000 of insolation (incident solar radiation), or even from producing synthetic gasoline from coal — equivalent to capturing 2200 parts in 10,000 of insolation.  3 parts per 10,000 is a pale shadow of the fossil fuel net energy densities which have been the sine qua non of the 4400 million population growth in the last century."
- Andrew R.B. Ferguson, editor Optimum Population Trust Journal  [see article]
 
     The appeal of biofuels is based on misguided symbolism, poor reasoning skills, myopic farm belt greed, and political hucksterism.  Our agricultural resources should be reserved for producing essential food, which must be held sacred.  The idea of using agriculture to produce fuel for cars and trucks is the most tragic error in judgment of the 21st century, and has already caused the deaths of millions of people around the world through malnutrition and related illness.  Nothing has done more to increase the cost of food and shrink the food supply than biofuels.

Please support and promote The National Food Security Act, which is needed to protect the affordability and long term survivability of the human food supply.

See the dramatic 15 minute YouTube video, The Global Biofuel Disaster, and the music video, Windmills Kill Birds (6 minutes). 

For scientific details and carbon free
energy alternatives, see The Renewable Energy Disaster.

UPDATE: Steven Chu announced his resignation as United States Secretary of Energy on February 1st, 2013.


Christopher Calder - nonprofit food security advocate
email = archive100 AT inbox DOT com