Biofuels: ethical issues


Published 12/04/2011

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The development of new biofuels technology is a rapidly growing field of research. The aim is to produce economically viable biofuels that generate fewer greenhouse gases and use fewer natural resources than current production methods.

Two of the main approaches in development are biofuels made from non-edible parts of crops (known as lignocellulosic biofuels) and biofuels made from algae.

Lignocellulosic biofuels

Researchers are developing technologies that enable all of the plant biomass to be used in production, including the woody lignin and cellulose, instead of just the edible sugary, starchy or oily parts. Willow, miscanthus and switchgrass are amongst the most promising lignocellulosic crops. These crops can be grown specifically to make biofuels, and they offer a number of advantages — as well as having potentially high energy outputs, they do not strip nutrients from the soil and they can be bred to improve yield, water use and pest resistance. Using the waste parts of food crops to produce biofuels is another possibility.


The production of algal biofuels is mostly at the experimental stage and very expensive due to costly harvesting and processing. However, there are several potential advantages of algae over lignocellulosic crops. They could produce biodiesel more directly, avoiding the need for complicated processing technologies, and they could be cultivated in places where crops cannot be grown, so they will not compete for agricultural land.