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Biofuel Production to Cause Water Shortages? 413

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the action-reaction dept.
WED Fan writes "Scientists meeting in Stockholm are reporting that increased food and biofuel production will place higher demand upon irrigation and water resources." From the article: "Demand for irrigation -- which absorbs about 74 percent of all water used by people against 18 percent for hydro-power and other industrial uses and just 8 percent for households -- was likely to surge by 2050. Many nations are also shifting to produce biofuels -- from sugarcane, corn or wood -- as a less polluting alternative to fossil fuels. Oil prices at $75 a barrel and worries about global warming are driving the shift."
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Biofuel Production to Cause Water Shortages?

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    If that was true, the use of biofuels could cause more climate changes.

    We're doomed. I'm gonna go hide under the bed. My Y2K supplies are finally coming in handy. Call me when its over.
    • by indifferent children (842621) on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:32AM (#15947527)
      The article (ok, at least the summary) ignores the fact that we have oil-producing algae that grow in salt walter.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Viceice (462967)
      From what i understand, it sould be zero sum. Because to get the feul we grow a plant. The carbon content in the plant comes mainly from the CO2 in the air.
  • Not an issue... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by evilviper (135110) on Monday August 21, 2006 @05:37AM (#15947289) Journal
    increased food and biofuel production will place higher demand upon irrigation and water resources.

    Well then, it's a good thing water is a renewable resource, isn't it?

    The only thing in danger is CHEAP water, really. Desalination can ramp-up to whatever volume you want, and most countries are located near an effectively unlimited source from which to draw saline...
    • Re:Not an issue... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MichaelSmith (789609) on Monday August 21, 2006 @05:47AM (#15947313) Homepage Journal
      Desalination can ramp-up to whatever volume you want

      Using energy from what? Oil? I doubt that you could irrigate biofuel crops with desalinated water, use the biofuel to power desalination, and wind up with an excess of energy.

      • Re:Not an issue... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by RsG (809189) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:10AM (#15947355)
        Actually, desalination means centralized power generation. We generally don't use oil for that.

        Using modern technology, that would mean nuclear, coal or (in some areas) passive power (hydro, solar, wind, etc). The latter option isn't going to work everywhere, but building a nuke plant or two should solve the water problem rather nicely. In places where tidal power is available, you also have an abundance of salt water, though that does raise issues regarding transporting the desalinated water, or selecting our biofule agricultural land to be near the ocean. Using coal would contribute to gobal warming, but even then we get the economic benefits from using biofuel over oil, since coal isn't in short supply or in the hands of unfriendly nations.

        Using probably future technologies, fusion would work wonders. Fusion plants scale up better than they scale down, which is exactly what we'd want for a desalination facility. Orbital solar is another possibility along the same lines. Even without such technologies, a more modern fission reactor design would be an improvement over using existing nuclear plants - something like an integeral fast reactor or a pebble bed reactor for instance.
        • Re:Not an issue... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by MichaelSmith (789609) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:18AM (#15947364) Homepage Journal
          building a nuke plant or two should solve the water problem rather nicely

          But this thread is about getting net energy out of biofuels. If you need to use fission to make water for fuel, then just use the energy directly. Battery technology is improving all the time. An intermediate liquid fuel may be required in some cases, but the direct use of electric power should take care of most urban requirements.

          fusion would work wonders

          I don't think fusion is going to save us this time. It has been a long way off for a long time.

          • by evilviper (135110)

            If you need to use fission to make water for fuel, then just use the energy directly.

            My car is a bit too small for a fission plant, let alone the lake of water also needed.

            What do you drive, again?

            Battery technology is improving all the time.

            But still nowhere near the density and flexibility of liquid fuels, which is the main reason we don't already have electric cars.

            but the direct use of electric power should take care of most urban requirements.

            Nobody burns biofuels for "most urban requirements". They'r

            • by jonbryce (703250)
              But as battery technology improves, you could charge up your car with electricity from the nuclear plant. I believe you can get a range of about 200 miles now from the latest offerings, which is getting to be competitive with the 400 miles or so range I get from a tank of petrol in my car.
          • Re:Not an issue... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by RsG (809189) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:31AM (#15947393)
            But this thread is about getting net energy out of biofuels. If you need to use fission to make water for fuel, then just use the energy directly. Battery technology is improving all the time. An intermediate liquid fuel may be required in some cases, but the direct use of electric power should take care of most urban requirements.
            Ah, yes, but you're mistaking the source of energy here. The putative nuclear plant isn't being used to store energy in the fuel - sunlight and photosynthesis are. The nuke plant is being used to provide fresh water for the plants. It is still a power input, but an indirect one, which means that it's maximum output is probably much smaller than the total power input involved in making the biofuel.

            Conversely, with battery power, all of the energy has to come from some man made power generator. Solar panels could store the same energy per square meter of land used as biofuel crops, but then you're up against manufacturing costs, whereas plants are essentially self-assembling.

            Plus, we'd use desalination plants and irrigation for a hell of a lot more than just biofuel production. After all, fresh water is a valuable resource regardless, and increasing our production capability can't hurt.

            I don't think fusion is going to save us this time. It has been a long way off for a long time.
            Perhaps, but it is easier to accept the idea of something like a nuclear economy if we work from the assumption that we're going to upgrade to fusion later. To draw an analogy, it's somewhat like renting while saving up for a home (this assumes there are no mortgages available, or that housing prices need to come down first). Fusion may be a long way off, but if we keep developing the technology, we'll eventually break even on it.
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by Free_Meson (706323)

              Ah, yes, but you're mistaking the source of energy here. The putative nuclear plant isn't being used to store energy in the fuel - sunlight and photosynthesis are. The nuke plant is being used to provide fresh water for the plants. It is still a power input, but an indirect one, which means that it's maximum output is probably much smaller than the total power input involved in making the biofuel.

              I'm sorry, but there's no logical reason to believe that because the energy requirements of desalination for

          • Re:Not an issue... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by WhiteWolf666 (145211) <sherwin&amiran,us> on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:53AM (#15947585) Homepage Journal
            But this thread is about getting net energy out of biofuels.

            This statement doesn't make sense.

            I said it elsewhere in the thread.

            Energy on earth comes from one of four sources. Period.

            A) "Fresh" Solar
            B) "Stored" Solar
            C) Nuclear
            D) Lunar (Tidal)

            That's it. If you're using energy on this rock, you're using one of those 4 sources. Everything else is illusion.

            As far as I'm concerned, BioFuel, like Hydrogen, is a portion of the fuel cycle that "stores" energy much better than electrochemical batteries. BioFuel, like Hydrogen, is a mobile form of power storage. Nothing else.

            • That's it. If you're using energy on this rock, you're using one of those 4 sources. Everything else is illusion.

              What about geothermal or hydroelectric power?
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by swelke (252267)
            But this thread is about getting net energy out of biofuels.

            Who says? You're the first one who's brought the net-energy question up. Let me rephrase the problem so you might get it: biofuels are _not_ an energy source, they are an energy conversion. All of the recent studies show that ethanol production (one biofuel, but not the only one. This argument should be approximately right for biodiesel from plant oils.) produces more energy from burning the ethanol than it takes to (1) grow and harvest the
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by grazzy (56382)
          Only problem is, in sweden the environmental fascists have decided we're closing our nuckukulear (or do you spell nuclear nuculear in american english nowdays? :D) plants instead of building new ones. Because we're soo in love with renewable energy sources. That's why they see it as a "problem". God help us. Luckly it's soon time for a new election here..
        • by jeremyp (130771)
          Fusion plants scale up better than they scale down
          Actually, they don't scale at all at the moment because they don't work, and I don't see much prospect that they will in the near future, unless you count the one big fusion reactor in the sky.
      • Think outside the box.

        We're working on solar desalinization using a passive lens system in order to irrigate crop fields. I imagine that we could grow biofuel crops, we're currently looking at citrus orchards.

        Energy != Oil. Furthermore, Energy doesn't "come from" biofuel, either.

        On this planet, energy is either a) stored solar, b) fresh solar, c) nuclear, or d) lunar (tidal). That's it. Everything else is a clever trick. Biofuel is about capturing solar energy; and that water you "feed" the biofuel has to c
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Fordiman (689627)
        Well, generally desalination plants are solar. There are other methods that can be used (electrical, gas-powered), that, depending on their origin, could easily be carbon neutral (I vote walk-away safe CANDU type neuclear, myself. One of the byproducts is pure water, even from a saline source).

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Fordiman (689627)
        Why would you doubt that?

        Consider: Desalination could be primarily powered by solar (ie: direct heating of the water by the infrared portion of the spectrum, while solar panels collect the visible spectra), with additional power being generated by tides, wind, etc. If a LOT of fresh water is needed, you can have the electrical generators as a grid-share system (plug 'em into the wall), so that production can be ramped up as needed, and excess during low-demand times can be sold back to the grid.

        Meanwhile,
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by slittle (4150)
      Until the world gets over its anti-nuclear paranoia, energy is still a major issue. Recycling is cheaper than desal, and probably cheaper still if not treated to drinking standards.

      Irrigation should use recycled water.. and they can probably treat and use the solids as fertiliser too (current fertilisers are made from oil too, right?). Save desal for potable water, neatly avoiding the whole cringe factor issue of drinking recycled water. Given that irrigation is 74% of use, then it should be a while befo
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TopShelf (92521)
      Hmmm... a group of scientists in Stockholm... and look at this company [alfalaval.com] is right nearby, and has a booming business in water desalination and purification... coincidence? I think not!

      Perhaps this is more about steering UN and IMF project money towards localized water purification solutions rather than big infrastructure projects like damns, etc.
    • by Morgaine (4316) on Monday August 21, 2006 @09:28AM (#15947988)
      >> The only thing in danger is CHEAP water, really.

      Seawater is pretty cheap. Why not use it directly instead of using freshwater biomass and then needing a supply of freshwater for it?

      Make biofuel from kelp biomass and no freshwater irrigation is needed. Grow it in situ or pump the seawater into a shoreline kelp farm, and harvest the biomass.

      Jeez, do I have to think of everything for those environmentalists? :P
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 21, 2006 @05:37AM (#15947290)
    What these environmentalists need to do is build a priority management system. This shotgun approach has got to end. They are going to have to decide if global warming is worse than water shortages, if nuclear power is worse than coal, etc.

    Good grief! The only solution that the shotgun approach gives is for all humans to go live in caves--with the caveat that 5 billion or so of us dissappear (remember that farming and ranching contribute to global warming as well).
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by packeteer (566398)
      Very few people argue that nuclear power is bad anymore. It has had a much better safety record than many other forms of power other than the highly publiced but rare nuclear accidents. Some people still are left in the 1960's which was the last time their brain could think for themselves before they were indoctrinated but even the founder of Greenpeace has spoken out in favor of nuclear power as a viable alternative to fossil fuels and the global warming that comes with it.

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/w [washingtonpost.com]
    • What these environmentalists need to do is build a priority management system. This shotgun approach has got to end.

      Indeed, I can't see how we can please all the environmentalists when it comes to energy production:
      • Solar - impractical in many areas due to lack of intense sunlight, and photovoltaics are very expensive. In the long run, photovoltaics on every home's roof may be a good thing, but only when the price gets more sensible. Also, here in the UK there is some effort involved since you need to get
      • by robbak (775424)
        I recently saw a documentary that was promoting solar power. They stated, proudly, that harnessing 50km square, they could power Australia. They illustrated that by painting a 50km square yellow on a google maps picture of Australia. Looked small. Looked easy.

        Until you do the maths and realise that they are talking about 2500 km^2 (50kmx50km). And they did not mention 'efficency' anywhere - can 50% be achieved? Does that make it >5000km^2?. When expressed like that, you realize that solar power will neve
        • you realize that solar power will never solve anyone's energy needs

          I don't think any one technology can "solve" the energy needs of a country, but if everyone covered their roof with photovoltaic cells then it would significantly reduce the total amount of energy needed to be produced by powerstations. This is, of course, assuming you can produce the photovoltaic cells efficiently enough.

          At the moment, photovoltaic cells are reasonably inefficient. But the thought occurs that you could layer photovoltaic
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mathi (539622)
      Good grief! The only solution that the shotgun approach gives is for all humans to go live in caves--with the caveat that 5 billion or so of us dissappear (remember that farming and ranching contribute to global warming as well).

      Well, many of the more fundamental environmentalists see humankind as a a plague that is scrourging an otherwise perfect earth (mother nature). It is a modern version of the old Gnosis, where the whole creation was evil, and only the Sophia was perfect.
    • First nuke (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dbIII (701233)

      if nuclear power is worse than coal, etc.

      Nuclear power is not yet at a stage where it is an answer if your major goal is to generate electricity. Up till now we've seen it mainly as a spin off of a weapons program, as a way to run military vessels without frequent refueling, as an energy source for an island nation worried about a naval blockade and as a way to power systems in spacecraft that cannot use solar panels (eg. kosmos series of soviet spy satellites that spent portions of their orbit in the uppe

    • Wrong! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by jandersen (462034) on Monday August 21, 2006 @08:42AM (#15947770)
      This is not something 'the environmentalists' need to do - their job, inasmuch as they have any official role, is to do exactly what they do: point out the dangers, because that is what they are qualified to do, as opposed to eg. you. They don't have any power over what the politicians, businesses, farmers and consumers do.

      And you are right, we will all end up in caves, the few that survive, if we don't all take this serious and START DOING OUR BIT. No of course I don't believe the bit about caves, but one way or the other, we are all going to have to face up to this problem. Not just the government or 'these environmentalists'; it is some thing we all must take part in, both by saving resources in our own households, but also by putting pressure on our governments, businesses and farmers.

      And that, I think is the message from 'these environmentalists'.
  • by Denial93 (773403) on Monday August 21, 2006 @05:47AM (#15947312)
    Between another series of civil wars all over the Middle East practically inevitable [washingtonpost.com] and daily production capacity already at a limit, oil prices are very likely to double in the next two years. Biofuel will be a good choice for countries able to produce it (Europe, US, China, Russia, Brazil, Australia), but a massive problem for regions already in agriculture hell (Africa, India, even the Middle East). In the latter regions, the need for fuel will press food production to drop further. Much of the fuel - especially from Africa - will be exported, too.

    If there was no biofuel, the fuel consumers would be forced to change their lifestyles. The way things are, we won't, and the starvation toll is going to rise accordingly. Currently, it stands at 27000 - or 8 times 9/11 as I like to call it - per day. (Source: WHO)
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Sqwubbsy (723014)
      Actually, the long term outlook is oil surpluses. Currently, production is higher than it's ever been, with increasing capacity occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, Canada and other places. Heck, even Castro is getting ready to drill off of Key West. Lucky for him, he doesn't have any environment regs or NIMBY whatnot to deal with.

      The current price hike has nothing to do with capacity and everything to do with fear. Even OPEC doesn't understand why prices are so high (despite their gain from them) and fears
      • by IamTheRealMike (537420) <mike@plan99.net> on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:18AM (#15947493) Homepage
        Actually, the long term outlook is oil surpluses.

        No, the long term outlook is big shortfalls, it's called "peak oil" and the only debate amongst credible scientists is when it occurs, not if. I'll give you a hint, the most optimistic estimates are for around 2035, with most realistic estimates coming in at about 2010. Unless you consider 20 years to be long term (I wouldn't) then it's not right to say the long term outlook is of a surplus.

        Currently, production is higher than it's ever been

        That's correct, but then, it's always been correct. The worst we've ever had is a plateau of production, but that's actually all we need to create price rises because demand constantly accelerates. In fact oil production can still rise year on year yet there can still be shortages, if demand rises faster.

        increasing capacity occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, Canada and other places.

        Increasing capacity? Where did you get that idea from? The tar sands and oil shales are largely uneconomic to extract - the costs being bandied about by Shell are simply wild guesses that have a history of being totally wrong. So that seems to largely rule Canada out, unless they develop some radical new techniques. Gulf of Mexico was largely wiped out by Katrina so you'd expect increasing capacity there, but it's simply catching up to what it once was. Meanwhile Mexican production itself is slacking off as Cantarell continues its downwards slide.

        The current price hike has nothing to do with capacity and everything to do with fear.

        Well, I disagree. I say maybe $10 per barrel of the current cost is speculation. The rest is supply/demand in action. OPEC know full well what is going on, but they are known for lying out of their backsides about anything to do with hard statistics - they still claim they have has much oil in the ground as they did in the 70s. 30 years of constant production and their claimed reserves have never even moved! Internal Kuwaiti reports indicate that the true figures are far, far worse than the published figures.

        The main problem is that the world crude supply is starting to shift towards heavy sour (the undesirable, hard to refine stuff) away from the easy to refine light sweet. This tends to show up in newspaper reporting etc as a "refinery bottleneck" when in fact it's to do with the changing composition of the original supply as we exhaust the easy to obtain oil. The other problem is very rapidly increasing demand from Asia, and the Asian countries are routinely now locking in supplies from new fields like Yadavaran, effectively taking that oil off the world spot markets. Combine that with increasing internal demand in places like Saudi Arabia and you have a recipe for more demand and less supply - therefore higher prices. Which is what we're seeing.

        • by Luscious868 (679143) on Monday August 21, 2006 @08:39AM (#15947757)
          No, the long term outlook is big shortfalls, it's called "peak oil" and the only debate amongst credible scientists is when it occurs, not if. I'll give you a hint, the most optimistic estimates are for around 2035, with most realistic estimates coming in at about 2010. Unless you consider 20 years to be long term (I wouldn't) then it's not right to say the long term outlook is of a surplus.

          Wrong. [radford.edu] We are not running out of oil. People have been saying that for decades. What we are running out of is cheap oil that is relatively easy and inexpensive to extract. That's been the case for years. As technology improves we are able to extract oil from places we previously thought impossible or to expensive to be feasible. As the price of oil increases thereby increasing oil companies profits they are able to further invest into research and development to come up with new and improved ways to get to the oil reserves we know about but have previously been unable to tap. In addition, as the price increases it becomes possible to tap previous reserves that have not been heavily tapped because the return on investment wasn't there with prices being low. The Canadian Oil Sands [yahoo.com] are a great example.

          The bottom line is that we are not running out of oil and will not run out of oil anytime soon. What we are running out of is the cheap and inexpensive oil that we are used to. However as technology advances and/or prices increase we will be increasingly be able to tap into reserves that were previously impossible or simply cost prohibitive to tap.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            Alright, I'll give you that, but it's just playing with semantics. If it is uneconomic to work a field, then that may as well be called a 'shortage'. You are right to consider the price of oil to be the most important thing and that this can rise even as we open new, previously uneconomic fields.

            The main problem with the idea that technology increases the amount of oil we can recover is that it doesn't seem to be true. Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) technology, the main innovation in the past 30 years, allow

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MtViewGuy (197597)
      Between another series of civil wars all over the Middle East practically inevitable and daily production capacity already at a limit, oil prices are very likely to double in the next two years.

      However, the price of crude oil is rapidly approaching the point where it becomes an elastic (demand sensitive to price) commodity--any higher and the demand will start to fall, which means if OPEC overprices oil they could end up holding the bag on too muc overpriced oil.

      Also, at current prices there is huge incenti
  • yes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare.gmail@com> on Monday August 21, 2006 @05:47AM (#15947315) Homepage Journal
    biofuels lead to water shortages, and wind power kils birds, and nuclear causes terrorism concerns, and coal causes acid rain, and solar cells create pollution in production, and tidal leads to increased silt deposits, and hydro interferes with fish spawning...

    etc., etc., etc...

    finding ANYTHING wrong with an energy source is not a valid point. weighing the trade offs of one energy source's negatives against another's IS a valid point

    and in a world where chinese demand fuels increased petrol prices, and in a world where petrol dollars fund islamic fundamentalist militants, and in a world where petrol fueled global warming creates hurricane katrinas, then whatever downside to biofuels you find to throw at me doesn't even begin to tip the scales. because it's not about choosing some magic energy source that has no downsides. it's about picking the energy source with least downsides that we can adequately foresee

    i don't blame post-world war ii planners and politicians for making us so dependent on the internal combustion engine and the diesel engine for so much of what we need in our lives today. they didn't, and couldn't, foresee the problems in today's world

    but if we're still largely dependent on petrol we dig from the ground in 50 years, then yes, i would blame today's politicians and planners. for whatever doom we would then be neck deep in, we are only knee deep in now. and any fool can see continuing to be so dependent on petrol is so dunderheaded wrong for so many reasons: security, environment, economics, etc

    i say revive nuclear, and bow low before the mighty country of brazil for showing the rest of the world the way to a more secure, less polluted, and cheaper world of biofuels
    • finding ANYTHING wrong with an energy source is not a valid point. weighing the trade offs of one energy source's negatives against another's IS a valid point

      At least we still have time to plan ahead. We do have at least 20 years of oil remaining, and we are able to engineer one or more better fuel cycles. I think hot places like Australia and Africa will wind up with a mostly inorganic fuel cycle based around hydrogen and methane, while temperate areas will go for agriculture and biofuel.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by evilviper (135110)

      i say revive nuclear, and bow low before the mighty country of brazil for showing the rest of the world the way to a more secure, less polluted, and cheaper world of biofuels

      Brazil just happens to have a special ecosystem, which makes this so easily possible for them. Not only do they have sugar cane, but also gigantic rivers they draw much of their power from. Perhaps if we dam up Niagra falls, and The Grand Canyon, we could use a lot less coal and oil too.

      You might as well say we should bow before Icela

      • by brunes69 (86786)

        Perhaps if we dam up Niagra falls, and The Grand Canyon, we could use a lot less coal and oil too.

        Er... it has already been done decades ago.

    • Re:yes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by shilly (142940) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:18AM (#15947365)
      You're right that it's all about the tradeoffs -- and effective solutions will be multi-part as well. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't anticipate and try to mitigate issues with new energy sources as well. We want to avoid adding to the sum total of woes we already face, after all.

      Biofuels have at least two really significant challenges that I know of:
      1) It takes a lot of cropland to produce fuel. While some of that may be established cropland, lots of it is created by destruction of existing habitats.
      2) It encourages industrial-scale farming, with all the concomitant problems, including the need for large volumes of water, large quantities of toxic biocides and fertilisers that cost a lot of energy to produce and bugger up the local environment, the tendency to monoculture with all its attendant risks (remember the Irish potato famine, anyone?), etc etc.

      I know that technology is a useful tool to help us solve the problems we face, but we continually seem to forget that humanity has seen dozens of societal collapses through environmental strain which technology has as often exacerbated as it has prevented.
    • >i say revive nuclear
      Ordinarily I'd agree but I read somewhere (sorry, no cite) that there is only enough raw material for that for another 30 odd years anyway.
      Here's a wild idea, why not us in the West stop being so damned selfish and start to make real cutbacks in our obscene energy usage to buy our kids extra time to solve the problems we've made for them?
      • Ordinarily I'd agree but I read somewhere (sorry, no cite) that there is only enough raw material for that for another 30 odd years anyway.

        Only if this foolish resistance to breeder reactors continues. Most so-called nuclear waste still has over 90% of it's energy content. Run it through a fast breeder and you wind up with additional fuel (which is unfortunately easy to refine into bomb fuel) and a smaller amount of more intensely radioactive waste. Yes, that smaller amount of waste is hotter but it

    • by shomon2 (71232)
      I disagree with what you say there: I really don't think the key point is comparing the negatives between our few badly invested and very immature alternative energy sources: it's about changing the starting stance from which you make the comparison in the first place.

      Basically we have discovered and used up an energy source which was finite, and it's downhill from there. It's called the earth, and it's nearing or past breaking point, even just from the point of view of global warming we really should stop
  • When demand outstrips the supply of a limited resource they only way out is to cut the demand [contraception.net].
    • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

      by RsG (809189)
      This is slashdot. Don't you think you're puting the cart before the horse? JPEGs can't get pregnant...
  • Recycling (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Alicat1194 (970019) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:19AM (#15947368)
    Surely this could be managed by setting up crops in such a way / location that they could be irrigated by sewage (either pre or post-treatment)? Since the crops aren't going as a food source, the quality of the water doesn't need to be as high as for domestic use.

    (plus dependent on the location, it could have an added benefit of recharging local aquifers)

    • by mrjb (547783)
      That was quite insightful. Not only can we reuse our sewage, it will double as fertilizer. It also wouldn't be a bad idea to stop flushing our toilets with food-grade water. Now if we can educate people to not use their toilets as garbage bins, this might actually work.
      • Re:Recycling (Score:4, Interesting)

        by bcattwoo (737354) on Monday August 21, 2006 @09:20AM (#15947939)
        But this would only make a small dent in the amount of water used for irrigation at best. According to the summary, household water usage accounts for only 8% of total human consumption while irrigation accounts for 74%. So if all the household water could be recycled (doubtful), it would reduce irrigation needs (at their current levels) a whopping 10%. Not completely negligible, but then there would be quite a bit of infrastructure and energy needed to pump that sewage cross-country.
  • by david.given (6740) <dgNO@SPAMcowlark.com> on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:20AM (#15947371) Homepage Journal

    There's a process, which apparently nobody appears to know or care anything about, that will convert pretty much anything containing long-chain hydrocarbons into, roughly, crude oil, natural gas, potable water, and assorted minerals. Check out thermal depolymerisation [wikipedia.org] on Wikipedia. There's a pilot plant in the US that currently runs on turkey guts --- it's producing oil at about 400 barrels a day, at about break-even prices.

    The real bonus? It's an energy-positive system. That is, the process itself produces all the energy it needs to run itself, plus a bit.

    The system needs to be specialised for a particular input material; you can't (currently) build a plant that can take all feedstocks. That said, it ought to be entirely possible to build a giant TPD plant that takes raw sewage as its input feedstock. If you do this, and plug it into the sewage output from, say, New York, then you should be able to have it produce drinking water and biodiesel more or less for free (minus fixed running costs). After all, the feedstock's not costing you anything --- you're just throwing it away...

    Even if it turns out that sewage contains too much water for the system to be power itself, it'd most likely still be worth doing simply as a sewage treatment system. TPD fully sterilises the input feedstock; it can break down prions and dioxins, remove heavy metals, and so in, and what's more, can do it in bulk. The fact that the output is saleable can be treated as a bonus.

    I just seem to be amazed at how little interest there is in this...

    • by NevarMore (248971) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:34AM (#15947401) Homepage Journal
      I remember reading about this a few years ago in SciAm.

      I think a lot of the reason it hasn't caught on is cited in your Wiki link. Its a classic case of NIMBY.

      Its a town in the middle of a big farming state, its residents should be used to the smell of animal processing. All of a sudden theres sometihng new, and almost too good to be true, and they start smelling 'new' smells and begin pointing fingers.

      The biggest hurdle to any new energy source is public acceptance. This is getting even harder in the States with a public that is rejecting science and accepting of short-term politically driven decisions.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by david.given (6740)

        Its a town in the middle of a big farming state, its residents should be used to the smell of animal processing. All of a sudden theres sometihng new, and almost too good to be true, and they start smelling 'new' smells and begin pointing fingers.

        I do, however, feel that building the plant in the city centre was possibly not a sensible move.

  • by JumpingBull (551722) on Monday August 21, 2006 @06:46AM (#15947428)

    I think humanity should have little bio-hazard symbols tattooed on our collective foreheads!
    All kidding aside, though our problems have several parts:

    • greedy energy demands
    • wastefulness
    • ignorance of natural systems
    • hubris
    • poor accounting

    We are moving slowly into developing technologies that sip, rather then guzzle energy. Rising energy prices help drive an economic decision in this direction. The addition of microcontrollers and wily engineering can help achieve this goal.
    However I think that more distributed production of local needs is an important part of a less energy strategy. Economies of scale help a lot in some areas, but may be harmful in other ways. The large electrical power plant is a one off deal as an example.
    Suppose we decided to use a distributed approach. Here, some oil crop like canola is used as the primary solar capture. Treating the seeds gives an oil that can be used for a foodstuff, and a biodiesel feedstock. The protein cake left over can be used as food either for humans or livestock or both.
    The biodiesel is used to run a small engine that generates power fed into an electrical grid and process heat for cottage industry and home heating.
    Plant and animal wastes are composted and aged to eliminate pathogens, then used to support the oilseed crop. I think you get the systems idea...and some kind soul's left entries in the wikipedia.
    Consider, also, that we still used mass production techniques to make the tools we need. We just spread the results out more!

    We have to figure out how to make a no-waste society work. That means thinking up cheap friendly ways to repurpose or reclaim the stuff we want after its' end of life. We have started to do this already, but it will take ingenuity to make it work. RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) is a good start. Is their any way we can use biological systems to help do the work for us?

    Understanding how to arrange biological systems to be effective partners would help. No sense trying to make a lawn in a desert, except as a demonstration of bad taste and poor judgement. Understanding the soil foodweb is a start. Developing understanding and engineering of micro climates and micro ecologies might make a lot of tough problems less so.

    False pride in humanities accomplishments is a major problem. Just because we can build something doesn't mean it is the "right thing". On the other hand, denegrating our abilities doesn't help either. There is a balance point, it is just hard to find.
    Further, having society run by warring experts makes me ... nervous.

    Finally, the way we account for things, systems and resources is suspect. If you wish to make a difference, then change the tax law for corporations. Choosing to reward stewardship rather then rapine and pillage means that the financial systems will put their money for the best value proposition. Think Warren Buffet....

    • We are moving slowly into developing technologies that sip, rather then guzzle energy.

      In some areas this is true, but unfortunately in others exactly the opposite is true. For example, whilest the new generation of CPUs is way more energy efficient than the last generation, we're still using way more energy than the 286/386 era processors. Sure, we get a lot more processing power from that, but we're burning all that extra power on shiny GUIs, etc - i.e. the net energy used to do a particular *job* has in
  • This is no problem. We'll be able to desalinate seawater for irrigation as long as we have enough energy for the desalinisation plants. And we'll have plenty of energy for them as a result of all the biofuels we'll generate through our irrigation endeavors. I don't see how anything can go wrong.
  • "Human activity uses natural resources, film at 11"

    Some people/groups won't be happy until humans are gone and use nothing at all...
  • Oil prices at $75 a barrel and worries about global warming are driving the shift.

    Aargh! Where do people get the idea that any alternative to petroleum will help reduce global warming?

    Any process that generates energy by burning a hydrocarbon procudes CO2. That most certainly includes biofuels.

    (In other news, unless you can find a place to mine hydrogen fuel cells, "hydrogen-powered cars" will also not necessarily reduce total CO2 emissions. Those fuel cells have to be charged up somehow.)

    • Re:biofuel != no CO2 (Score:4, Informative)

      by frogstar_robot (926792) <frogstar_robot@yahoo.com> on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:51AM (#15947583)

      biofuel != no CO2

      True but it is also true that biofuel != NET increase CO2.

      A biofueled economy would put CO2 in the atmosphere at the consumer end of the cycle but it takes it out of the atmosphere at the production end of the cycle. Over time, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will not increase due to biofuels.

    • Re:biofuel != no CO2 (Score:4, Informative)

      by ajs318 (655362) <sd_resp2 AT earthshod DOT co DOT uk> on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:59AM (#15947608)
      Any process that generates energy by burning a hydrocarbon procudes CO2. That most certainly includes biofuels.
      Where do you think the carbon in biofuels comes from?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by GreatBunzinni (642500)

      Aargh! Where do people get the idea that any alternative to petroleum will help reduce global warming?

      Any process that generates energy by burning a hydrocarbon procudes CO2. That most certainly includes biofuels.

      I see you are missing a very important piece of information, which is misleading your entire judgement. I'll explain.

      Petroleum is a fossil fuel (and coal, for that matter). When fossil fuels are uses the carbon which was stored and trapped beneath the soil is again being released into the a

  • Nitpick (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pubjames (468013) on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:26AM (#15947508)
    From the article:

    Demand for irrigation -- which absorbs about 74 percent of all water used by people against 18 percent for hydro-power and other industrial uses and just 8 percent for households -- was likely to surge by 2050.

    Surely hydro-power doesn't "absorb" any water at all? Surely water can be used both for hydro-power and then irrigation?

    • Surely hydro-power doesn't "absorb" any water at all?

      Dams contribute to evaporation of fresh water before it is used.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by MyNameIsFred (543994)
        ...Dams contribute to evaporation of fresh water before it is used...
        Do you have a source for this? I would guess the opposite. Putting the water in a deep lake behind a dam versus having it spread out over a longer, shallower river should reduce the surface area exposed to the atmosphere. With less surface area, I would presume less evaporation.
  • by malsdavis (542216) * on Monday August 21, 2006 @07:56AM (#15947594)
    I fear Biofuels could ultimatly cause the Amazon rainforest's demise. The Brazillian government already seems eager to trash the rainforest whenever the opportunity to make a bit of cash presents itself.

    • Yo are wrong. In that scenario the rainforest's demise wouldn't be caused by Biofuel. It would be caused by the way certain people decide to produce biofuel. Right now the rainforest is being devastated to get more grassland to raise cattle and to plant corn. Does that mean that cattle and corn are causing the rainforest's demise?
  • This is a problem... (Score:5, Informative)

    by 8tim8 (623968) on Monday August 21, 2006 @08:19AM (#15947681) Journal
    I live in Kansas, where there are a couple of ethanol plants either under construction or in the planning stages. Ethanol plants require something like 200 gallons of water a minute to function, which is a huge amount of water. Some posters above have mentioned desalination to get water, but they're missing the point of ethanol plants: to put the plant near corn production, i.e. away from the coasts. The vast majority of the water in Kansas comes from a single aquifer, and there's a lot of debate about how long before the aquifer will run dry. It's not always an issue of having good water; sometimes it's an issue of having any water at all.
    • Your figures (Score:4, Informative)

      by codepunk (167897) on Monday August 21, 2006 @09:40AM (#15948055)
      Using 200 GPM and wasting 200 GPM are two entirely different things. Most of the water is used in
      cooling the fractional distillation towers and this is entirely recirculated. Most of the mashing water is also recovered in holding ponds. So your figure is nothing more than a little interesting not a indication of a problem as you suggest.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I, too, live in Kansas. I also live next to a river. It may be that the river water needs treatment to be human consumable, but it doesn't need anything to be used as cooling water for a distillation tower. And as the ethanol produced is never intended for human consumption, river water is fine for the fermentation as well. No need to take the water from an aquifer.

      Grow corn, soybeans, canola, rapeseed, sunflowers, even - this is Kansas, after all! Press the seeds for oil. What is left is seedcake. Mix with
  • Here's the steps as I understand them:
    1. Plants coverts water and carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons.
    2. Humans extract fuel-grade hydrocarbons from plants.
    3. Other humans burn the fuel, converting it back into water and carbon dioxide.

    So what am I missing? To me this seems to have ahuge advantage over petroleum, because the carbon dioxide from biofuels was in the atmosphere only a year or so ago, as opposed to millions of years ago as with conventional oil.

    Plants consume water from two places; the ground an

  • What ever happened to algae that can be grown in salt water? Or does controlling the salt concentration require similar levels of water?

  • Go nukes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by supabeast! (84658) on Monday August 21, 2006 @09:07AM (#15947882)
    This is another great reason to go to nuclear power. How long will it take before people realize that biodiesel is just another crackpot energy scheme cooked up by people looking to get rich?
  • by b0s0z0ku (752509) on Monday August 21, 2006 @10:11AM (#15948252)
    are the answers, probably in that order. Biofuel is only a decent solution if it's made out of stuff that'll go to waste anyway, like corncobs and wood scraps. So there's a limited supply of environmentally-sound biofuel. Even if production doesn't consume and pollute water, there's still the issue of land use, pesticides, and fertilizers.

    We need to go electric as much as possible. Build more nuclear power plants. Wind power is also a good idea. Upgrade our hydroelectric dams with the most modern and efficient technology (building more has it's own consequences).

    Then move to a hydrogen economy with fuel cell vehicles, use battery-powered cars for city use, and build a first-rate, modern, automated system of moderate-speed (~100 mph) electrified passenger and freight railroads. I'm talking about routing and switching being done by computer and having either unmanned or minimally-manned freight trains that are constantly tracked by satellite. Also, encourage businesses to locate in towns rather than on the highway strips and encourage the growth of medium-sized (~100,000 people) towns outside the major urban areas.

    Our moving to this new economy will cost money, but it will also create jobs; and the US economy isn't doing great right now. With appropriate government stimulus, this project could be a New Deal for the 21st century.

    -b.

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday August 21, 2006 @01:11PM (#15949584) Homepage

    It's a real issue. Historically, water shortages have brought down several civilizations, usually those with failed irrigation cultures.

    It could have been worse. A few years ago, there was much talk of "privatizing" the world's water supply. Enron entered the water-trading business. (Their web site for water trading was Water2Water.com [archive.org].) Fortunately, this didn't catch on, except in Australia, which does have water trading. [watermove.com.au]

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