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Cellulosic Ethanol Slammed

by Alexander H. Tullo
April 28, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 17

After accounting for the reduction of organic carbon in the soil due to the removal of corn residues normally left in the field, cellulosic ethanol fuels can emit 7% more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than can gasoline, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change (2014, DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2187). A team of University of Nebraska researchers led by assistant professor Adam Liska simulated the effects of making the fuels from residues on 128 million acres. The researchers found that removing the residues would release 50 to 70 g of CO2 per megajoule of energy contained in the biofuels produced. Total emissions generated from producing biofuels, the report says, amounts to 100 g of CO2 per MJ, which is higher than federal emissions reduction requirements for biofuels and even tops the levels from gasoline. The Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group, attacked the study’s methodology. The assumption that farmers would remove 60–75% of residues is out of line with the 40–50% generally regarded as the sustainable limit, RFA says. “At a fundamental level, the farmer’s livelihood depends on sustaining or improving soil health,” RFA says. “Growers strive to ensure their most valuable asset (soil) is properly protected and managed.”


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