Earth System Science Education Alliance
Login
Current Learners & Faculty Login
navigation image

Topic(s):

Climate, Energy

 

Scenario:

The use of biofuels is nothing new, from burning wood and animal waste to liquid biofuel use in early cars. The discovery and refinement of fossil fuels replaced the need for pricier, generally less efficient biofuels and helped curb the mounting demand for liquid fuels for the growing automobile industry and for generating electricity. It began to look as though biofuels were essentially a thing of the past.

We know what happened next: The U.S. consumed more and more of the fossil fuels, exceeding its supply, requiring more and more importation of the liquid gold. Cities became enshrouded in smog, and citizens began to notice the ill-effects from the by-products of burning fossil fuels - not only on themselves, but on the environment around them. A series of events beginning in 1970 began to reverse our neglect of biofuels. The passing of the Clean Air Act set the stage for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate and set standards for emissions. Geopolitics, such as the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo--along with a decrease in domestic oil production, also drove us to revisit the idea of biofuel energy.

Fast-forward to 2000 . . . In recent years, the search and demand for alternative energy resources has become the modern day "gold rush" for big business. There was a blind scuttle to develop crop-based biofuels as the answer to our ever-growing demand for fuel consumption-less pollutive (although not perfect) and completely renewable. Farmers and industry were jumping on the bandwagon, hoping to make great profits in ethanol production.

Manufacturing plants began popping up all over the Great Plains to keep up with the demand of biofuels, only to be haunted by bankruptcies in 2009. Why the demise? In addition, The EPA released an analysis in May 2009 signifying that corn-based fuels are actually worse for the climate than petroleum-based fuels throughout their life cycles, and the California Air Resources Board released a ruling that will, in effect, exclude corn-based ethanol from California's Renewable Fuels Standard for the same reason. (Source: http://www.epa.gov/OMS/renewablefuels/) Another researcher from Stanford University supports that the biofuels boom could fuel rainforest destruction (Source: Stanford researcher warns).

The Sierra Club, the oldest grassroots environmental group in the U.S. compiled a breakdown of some of the most commonly used biofuels and their impacts on the environment. (Source: http://kansas.sierraclub.org/Planet/2008-0405/BioFuels.pdf). In addition, it brings up the following considerations (Source:Kansas Sierra Club: Biofuels: More Harm Than Good?):

  • Deforestation of the Amazon is the result of the land rush to convert forests to biofuel producing farm land.
  • Deforestation accounts for 20% of all carbon emissions.
  • Demand for biofuels is jacking up food prices. The grain used to produce the fuel to fill up an SUV can feed one person for a year.
  • Demand for land to grow biofuel crops "forces" the use of irrigation to grow crops on land. In Kansas, that means depleting the aquifers at an increased rate.

Additionally, a 2008 study in Science from the Global Carbon Project noted that the present concentration of CO2 is the highest during the last 650,000 years and probably during the last 20 million years. Worse, the rate of growth of CO2 concentrations this decade is 2.1 ppm (parts per million) a year - 40% higher than the rate from the 1990s. At the same time that CO2 emissions are soaring, CO2 sinks are saturating. (Source: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/index.html#global) Current levels (early 2009) of CO2 are at 387 ppm, and what science has revealed in the past few years is that the safe level of
carbon dioxide in the long run is no more than 350 ppm. (Source: http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2009/20090713_Strategies.pdf).

A large portion of all fuels consumed go to transporting goods across the nation. Diesel fuel is used to transport 94% of U.S. freight and powers most other heavy-duty vehicles (Source: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy02osti/32524.pdf).

Methods are available or being developed to curb the use of grain crops for bio-diesel production. The debate is ongoing, however . . . which resource will be the perfect fit in a world becoming more and more concerned with land use, population growth, and environmental impact?

 

Task:

A company in Ignacio, Colorado thinks it may have the answer to this question: it has developed a strain of CO2-loving algae that is good at making oil-oil that can be converted into bio-diesel. This company, and others like it, believes algal biofuel will eventually reduce CO2 emissions, use land wisely and efficiently, and become a competitive source of fuel for the U.S. Your group has been tasked to determine whether algae is the answer to our fuel dilemma.

There are many factors involved in solving the biofuels dilemma including the science behind the development, the impact on the environment, agriculture, big business, and politics. Research can bring about a greater understanding of the underlying problems and benefits of using biofuels, including algae, as an alternative to fossil fuels.

 

Date: 6/15/2009

Scenario Images:

Corn As a Resource
Corn as a resource (Photo credit: http://adamhebekeuser.com/CornEthanol.jpg)



Jatropha Seed:  An Alternative to Corn
Jatropha seed: One grain crop alternative to corn (Photo credit: htp://greenprophet.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/jatropha-plants-keffrine.jpg)



Cellulosic Biomass
Cellulosic biomass is made of linked glucose units. (Photo credit: http://www.proactiveinvestors.com/.../biomass350.jpg)



Colorado Algae Field
Colorado algae field (Photo credit: http://media.popularmechanics.com/images/solix_bioreactor2.jpg)



Algae produced at the Solix Biofuels plant
Can this ancient organism be part of the solution to our biofuels dilemma? (Photo credit: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/08/17/business/energy-environment/17algae1.span.jpg)



Algae for Biodiesel
Algae can be used for lipid production used in making biodiesel. (Photo credit: http://www.ecosherpa.com/images/algae.jpg)



Resources:

 

Biofuel Plants Feel Pinch Of Bad Economy (Cycle A)
An Associated Press report talks about the difficulties faced by the biofuel industry.

 

Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (Cycle A)
A variety of information concerning bioenergy resources

 

The Next Generation of Biofuels (Cycle A)
Companies are poised to go commercial with gasoline substitutes made from grass, algae and the ultimate source: engineered microorganisms.

 

The Pros and Cons of Biofuels (Cycle A)
Article investigates biofuels

 

Time Magazine Articles on Biofuels (Cycle A)
Search for significant articles on biofuels through Time Magazine.

 

What is cellulose and how is it used to make ethanol? (Cycle A)
Another contender in the biofuels race is cellulose. This link tells how cellulose, for example, the matter left on the ground after a grain harvest - can be utilized to create ethanol, an alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

 

Algae Fuels (Cycle B)
An introduction to terminology of biofuels, with a focus on algae can be found here. Several resources and links are included on this site.

 

Biofools (Cycle B)
A report produced by a team of scientists working on behalf of the International Council for Science concludes that, so far, the production of biofuels has aggravated rather than ameliorated global warming.

 

Biofuels may speed up, not slow global warming (Cycle B)
A Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment study talks about some impacts of converting pastureland and rainforests into cropland for the purpose of making biofuels.

 

Biofuels Provisions Can Help Solve Global Warming (Cycle B)
The Natural Resources Defense Council sees the promise in biofuels. If done right, using sustainable crops and assessing the carbon footprint from soil to fuel tank - biofuels can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, bring new markets to rural communities, and be a real part of the solution to global warming.

 

How Green Are Biofuels (Scharlemann et al) (Cycle B)
Scroll down this pdf to read the study. May also be accessed through Science Magazine if you are a subscriber.

 

How Green Are Biofuels poster (Scharlemann et al) (Cycle B)
Study on the impacts of using biofuels

 

Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt (Cycle B)
Article on the effects of clearing land to grow biofuel crops

 

Some Ideas for Teaching About Biofuels (Cycle C)

  • http://www1.eere.energy.gov/education/lessonplans/default.aspx
    Select Biomass Energy and Grade Level
  • http://www.lessonplansdirectory.com/renewable_energy/index.html

     

  • Sample Investigations:

     

    Photosynthesis and Biomass Growth (Cycle A)
    This website could be a good place to start when introducing the idea of biomass as an energy resource.
    Difficulty: beginner

     

    If the Future Were Up to Me (Cycle B)
    This is an investigative/research type lesson with a focus on a farming background.
    Original Word version of this investigation is available here
    Difficulty: beginner

     

    Research Projects in Renewable Energy for High School Students (Cycle B)
    This site has a comprehensive guide to getting students started researching renewable energy--including biofuels--following some guidelines for good research. Some investigations are also included.
    Difficulty: intermediate

     

    Biofuel Production (Cycle C)
    Several investigations involving actual biofuel production can be found here. It also includes some background information and links to more information.
    Difficulty: intermediate

     

     

    Standards:

    • Science
      National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/html/overview.html#content The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • GRADES K-4 CONTENT STANDARDS
        • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
          • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
          • Understanding about scientific inquiry
        • Physical Science (Std B)
          • Properties of objects and materials
          • Position and motion of objects
          • Light, heat, electricity, and magnetism
        • Life Science (Std C)
          • Organisms and environments
        • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
          • Properties of earth materials
          • Objects in the sky
          • Changes in earth and sky
        • Science and Technology (Std E)
          • Abilities of technological design
          • Understanding about science and technology
          • Abilities to distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans
        • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
          • Changes in environments
          • Science and technology in local challenges
        • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
          • Science as a human endeavor
      • GRADES 5-8 CONTENT STANDARDS
        • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
          • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
          • Understanding about scientific inquiry
        • Physical Science (Std B)
          • Properties and changes of properties in matter
          • Motions and forces
          • Transfer of energy
        • Life Science (Std C)
          • Diversity and adaptations of organisms
        • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
          • Structure of the earth system
          • Earth's history
        • Science and Technology (Std E)
          • Abilities of technological design
          • Understanding about science and technology
        • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
          • Populations, resources, and environments
          • Risks and benefits
          • Science and technology in society
        • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
          • Science as a human endeavor
          • Nature of science
          • History of science
      • GRADES 9-12 CONTENT STANDARDS
        • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
          • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
          • Understanding about scientific inquiry
        • Physical Science (Std B)
          • Structure and properties of matter
          • Chemical reactions
          • Motions and forces
          • Conservation of energy and increase in disorder
          • Interactions of energy and matter
        • Life Science (Std C)
          • Matter, energy, and organization in living systems
          • Behavior of organisms
        • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
          • Energy in the earth system
          • Geochemical cycles
          • Origin and evolution of the earth system
        • Science and Technology (Std E)
          • Abilities of technological design
          • Understanding about science and technology
        • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
          • Personal and community health
          • Population growth
          • Natural resources
          • Environmental quality
          • Natural and human-induced hazards
          • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
        • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
          • Science as a human endeavor
          • Nature of scientific knowledge
          • Historical perspectives
    • Geography
      Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      • ENVIRONMENT AND SOCIETY
        The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
        • How human actions modify the physical environment
    Comments and Questions: essea@strategies.org  |  Sitemap  |  Accessibility
    Copyright © 2019. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. All Rights Reserved.