Electromagnetic Savannah
Commentary on science, technology and economics in Nigeria and beyond

Friday, April 20, 2007

Biofuel plantations fuel strife in Uganda

I think it's great that people are waking up to the fact that it's unwise to rely excessively on non-renewable sources of energy, especially when we truly don't know exactly how much of these non-renewable sources are still left to be tapped. That's why more interest is being taken in biofuels - cleanly combusting fuel that is produced from biological matter such as dead plant material.

So you can be forgiven for thinking that on reading
this story from the New Scientist about the controversy surrounding the conversion of forests into sugar plantations for biofuels, I'd be taking the side of the plantation owners. In fact, I have a problem with the idea of converting a commodity like sugar that is already useful in other ways into raw fuel. I'm also not entirely convinced that converting sugar into ethanol will be commercially viable in Uganda - in Brazil, where ethanol is widely used, there has had to be a massive amount of government support (including subsidies and taxes) to get the ethanol production industry off ground so that it could become competitive. I don't know whether the knowledge on how to produce sugar and alcohol cheaply and efficiently will be available to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda which plans to run the Ugandan plantations.

I do know that there is
research going on on how to convert dead plant matter (such as stems and leaves after a harvest) into ethanol. I believe that it would be much better to use this technology once it matures, especially because it will not require any extra expansion of cultivated land and the destruction of forests with their ecosystems. And another good thing is that alcohol produced using this technology won't be susceptible to shortages of raw material due to the increase in the demand for refined sugar (which will divert some raw sugar cane away from alcohol production).

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