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Rethink biofuel, says Nobel laureate

March 24, 2010

By TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:28:00 01/14/2008


MANILA, Philippines — A Nobel laureate has cautioned the government against rushing into biofuel development because there’s little energy to be gained from it.

Dr. Hartmut Michel, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, who was in Manila last week for a talk, said investing in biofuel development was “counterproductive.”

“When you calculate how much of the sun’s energy is stored in the plants, it’s below one percent,” he said at a forum at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City on Wednesday.

“When you convert into biofuel, you add fertilizer, and then harvest the plants. There’s not real energy gained in biofuel,” said Michel, 59, whose prize-winning research with two other chemists dealt with the process of photosynthesis.

Biofuel is made from alternative sources, such as crops, plant fiber, trees, poultry litter, animal waste and the biodegradable component of solid waste.

Biofuels include bioethanol, biodiesel and fuels from biomass. Bioethanol is a light alcohol produced by fermenting starch or sugar from sugarcane, corn, cassava or nipa. Biodiesel is fuel extracted from plant oils like jatropha, palm, soy, rapeseed and coconut.

Biofuels Act

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed into law the Biofuels Act in January last year, which mandates a minimum 1-percent biodiesel blend and 5-percent bioethanol blend in all diesel and gasoline fuels.

The government is implementing an alternative fuels program to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil, and provide cheaper, more environment-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels.

It is encouraging the massive cultivation of jatropha, a shrub that produces golf-ball-size fruit that contain oil.

Land Bank of the Philippines has signed an agreement to provide Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corp. with P5 billion to finance the jatropha development program.

The corporation is looking at some 1.2 million hectares as its main hub for jatropha production in Mindanao.

Burning forests

Michel further pointed out that producing biofuel would sometimes entail clearing a forest, a process that destroys biodiversity and emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“When you burn the forest, you produce too much carbon dioxide, which you can’t save in the next several hundred years,” he said at the Nobel Forum on Wednesday, where he and three other Nobel awardees were the guests.

Burning destroys many natural compounds in forests, according to the scientist. He said these natural compounds could be remedy for new kinds of cancer.

“We should not put money in biofuel development. It’s counterproductive,” he said.

Top climate victim

Michel said the Philippines is vulnerable to a rise in sea level and stronger storms as an offshoot of global warming.

“The Philippines has every reason to do everything to reduce the use of fossil energy,” he said.

The Philippines, which was battered by storms in 1996 that killed more than 1,000 people, and suffered losses worth billions of dollars, was named by the environment group Germanwatch as the world’s top climate victim that year.

Tap wind power

Michel suggested that the government tap renewable energy sources to generate power.

“The islands are rich in wind power. You should invest in wind to generate electricity,” he said.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly to Michel, Dr. Johann Deisenhofer and Dr. Robert Huber for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction center.

They were the first “to succeed in unraveling the full details of how a membrane-bound protein is built up, revealing the structure of the molecule, atom by atom,” the academy said.

Taiwanese Yuan T. Lee, one of the three 1986 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, said biofuel production might not be the “right solution” for countries with small land areas.

“It’s important to realize that in Europe, like Taiwan, biofuel may not make sense. If we use land to develop biofuel, it’s not the right solution,” he said at the open forum.

“In the long run, biofuel will not be the solution,” he said.

Others fear that using arable land for biofuels can cause food shortages.

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