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New studies come up with best alternative to fossil fuels

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Berkeley, California, USA — ESI-AFRICA.COM — 23 February 2011 – A combination of rising costs, shrinking supplies, and concerns about global climate change are spurring the development of alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels to meet our transportation energy needs.

Scientific studies have shown the most promising of possible alternatives to be liquid fuels derived from cellulosic biomass. These advanced new bio-fuels have the potential to be clean-burning, carbon-neutral and renewable. Some could also be delivered through existing pipelines and used in today’s engines, replacing gasoline on a gallon-for-gallon basis with no loss of performance.

That is the promise of advanced bio-fuels and the focus to date has been on the technological challenges of producing high quality bio-fuels in a way that is both sustainable and economically competitive with petrol. In addition to the technological challenges, however, there are also important social, economic and environmental challenges that must be addressed.

“These challenges include constraints imposed by economics and markets, resource limitations, health risks, climate forcing, nutrient cycle disruption, water demand, and land use,” says Thomas McKone “’ an expert on health risk assessments who holds a joint appointment with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) at Berkeley. “Responding to these challenges effectively requires a life-cycle perspective,” he says.

McKone is the lead author of a report titled “Grand Challenges for Life-Cycle Assessment of Bio-fuels,” which was funded by a grant from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a partnership between UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, the University of Illinois, and the BP energy corporation. This report summarises seven grand challenges that “must be confronted” to enable life-cycle assessments that effectively evaluate the environmental footprint of bio-fuel alternatives.

A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is typically used to evaluate the potential impact of a product or activity on human health and the environment over the entire cradle-to-grave life cycle of that product or activity.

In applying the LCA approach to advanced bio-fuels, McKone, Horvath and their co-authors identified the following seven grand challenges: understanding farmers, feedstock options, and land use; predicting bio-fuel production technologies and practices; characterising tailpipe emissions and their health consequences; incorporating spatial heterogeneity in inventories and assessments; accounting for time in impact assessments;  assessing transitions as well as end states; and  confronting uncertainty and variability.

In their report, the authors say that confronting these challenges requires a good balance between the needs of technology momentum and adaptive decision-making.

“We must recognise that LCA is not a product but an ongoing process for organising information and prioritising information needs,” McKone says. “LCAs should be viewed as tools for building scenarios from which one can learn, rather than truth-generating-machines. We do not see the grand challenges outlined in this report as hurdles to be cleared, but rather as opportunities for the practitioner to focus attention on making LCA more useful to decision makers.”