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Surprising Science

Is the Dream of Biofuels Over?

Despite extensive research, biofuels are still not commercially competitive. The breakthroughs needed may be tougher to realize than previously thought.

What’s the Latest Development?


In a symbolic event for the biofuels industry, an ethanol start up opened by former Apple executive Mitch Mandich has closed without selling a drop of fuel. While the plan attracted millions of dollars in private money plus commitments for up to $156 million in grants and loans from the U.S. government, the process of turning wood chip waste into fuel has proved more expensive than anticipated. While the machine lies fallow, the company is searching for more funding. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Once seen as one of the most viable sources of renewable energy, cultivated in the public imagination as a garbage-powered car, biofuels have not delivered on their promise for a cheap, clean fuel source. “Corn ethanol is widely produced because of subsidies, and it diverts massive tracts of farmland needed for food. Converting the cellulose in cornstalks, grasses and trees into biofuels is proving difficult and expensive. Algae that produce oils have not been grown at scale.” Some producers are moving to make synthetics for the plastics industry. 


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