I don’t think it’s politically or substantively wise to set ourselves up as dogmatically opposed to any given source of energy (except coal!) (just kidding!) (only not!). The key is to set up low-carbon standards and benchmarks and say, "if you can meet these without ginormous subsidies, have at it."

This is true of biofuels as well. We all agree that politically speaking, biofuels are a freaking mess — a big subsidy-ridden boondoggle that’s doing great harm and very little good. And no, biofuel proponents can’t defend the current political situation by waving their hands at cellulosic ponies. After all:

… experts at a national ethanol conference Wednesday warned that commercial production of the fuel from grass, wood and waste may be a decade away. Test projects are being ramped up, and federal energy and farm bills may funnel money into more advanced tests, but experts say there are too many unanswered questions to promise the next ethanol stage soon.

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But technologically, there’s hope for biofuels. What’s needed is to reduce the amount of feedstock needed, the efficiency of the conversion, and the scale of the facilities required. Bioengineering — a la LS9 — can solve some of these problems. Now researchers going another route, namely thermochemical, have turned up some interesting results:

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Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a fast way to convert sawdust and waste biomass directly into a mixture of gases that can be burned to generate electricity or made into liquid fuels such as diesel. If the process can be scaled up, it could be a more energy-efficient method for making biofuels by allowing for small, fast reactors located close to biomass sources.

This could potentially be a big advance, since one of the worst aspects of present biofuels, including cellulosic, is that feedstocks must be transported long distances, burning lots of fuel along the way. Distributed, small-scale biofuel has always been the only model that makes any sense to me.

Gov’t money ought to be going to basic research on biofuels, and leave the deployment of products on the market to private investors, who unlike gov’t bureaucrats actually face some personal risk and so tend to be a bit more judicious.

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