Stanford releases study on biofuel

June 29, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
A report published this week by some researchers at Stanford is causing quite a stir in the world of biofuels. The scientists used a computer model to answer this question: Could we solve our energy problems if we devoted every abandoned farm to growing biofuel plants?

Biofuel is a good thing. But it is at the center of a political storm. Many authorities say farms should not be hijacked for fuel; farms should grow food.

Then some experts said, "Wait a minute. Let's grow the biofuels on abandoned farmland. That way, we won't be competing with food crops. Is that a solution? Some Stanford researchers decided to find out.

"We set out to find how much of that land is available and what type of crop yields it could support," says Dr. Elliott Campbell, Lead Author of Report. "There's a lot of controversy around bio-energy, because there are some very strong optimists, and there are some very doubtful pessimists. We think that what we're using is a transparent approach that uses data that's available to everyone and comes up with numbers that can be discussed in a scientific way."

With suppport from the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology and a Lawrence Livermore fellowship, Campbell and colleagues David Lobell and Chris Field first compiled centuries of records from around the globe -- adding up farmland that fell into disuse, decade by decade for 300 years.

For example, in the United States, we can watch farms grow westward, then begin to disappear in the East. From that, they subtracted any plots that were reclaimed by nature -- where farming would mean cutting down forests.

Principal investigator Chris Field overlaid modern satellite imagery to estimate plant production. Their computer model told them that if we were magically to awaken all those abandoned farms for biofuel plants, we could satisfy roughly 10 percent of our current energy needs.

Some advocates find this heartening, while others find that it validates their pessimism. The research team falls in the middle.

Campbell summarizes it this way: "There is probably a multi-faceted approach to solving our energy problems, but there's certainly no one technology that's going to get us all the way there." With the next step for biofuels, Richard Hart, ABC7 News.

Related links:

  • Standford University's Global Climate & Energy Project
  • A copy of the report: "The potential of biofuels on marginal agriculture land


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