A widespread adoption of biofuels, such as biodiesel and ethanol could cause serious damage to the environment and provide few benefits if the crop used to make the fuel isn’t chosen carefully. Corn, for example, is the largest source of ethanol in the United States, but it is a poor choice for fuel because if you do a life-cycle analysis (looking at all the energy needed to make the stuff), the energy obtained from corn-based ethanol is only marginally better or worse than the energy you get out of it. Plus, corn is heavily reliant on fertilizers and pesticides.
One promising biofuel that scores well in preliminary studies is cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass. According to results of a recent study published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, switchgrass grown and managed for biofuel can produce 500 per cent more renewable energy than the energy it needs to be grown and processed. For the study, researchers conducted field trials (the first for switchgrass) over five years on 10 farms in the Midwestern United States. Looking at all the production and management information from each farm, they were able to estimate greenhouse gas emissions and net energy inputs to outputs. After a life-cycle analysis, the results were very positive: greenhouse gas emissions from switchgrass-derived cellulosic ethanol on the farms were 94 per cent lower than if the energy had come from gasoline. Another benefit of switchgrass, and part of the reason for its success in the trials, is that it is a native prairie grass that grows on agriculturally marginal land. This means that fewer chemical inputs are required to maintain the crop and makes it less likely that growing large crops of switchgrass would take away land that would otherwise be used for food production.
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