back to article Boffin: Coconut jumbo is millstone in disguise

The Royal Society of Chemistry, Europe's biggest stinks association, has weighed into the biofuel debate. RSC chief Dr Richard Pike, in a statement issued today, criticised current and near-future alternative fuel technologies and characterised carbon offsetting schemes as "bogus". "Where spin takes precedence over hard facts …


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  1. Chris Morrison


    A man who speaks some sense getting a word in.

    People who support biofuels should be arrested and tried on charges of crimes against humanity in my opinion.

    Agree with everything he said.

  2. Matt


    I think some of his comments go outside of his are of expertise. However the summary seems to be:

    Biofuels have got problems too but the alternatives aren't there yet and may not be for some time.

    Did I miss anything?

  3. Dick

    Carbon offsets are bogus?

    No sh*t Sherlock! And who is making big $$$ from them? Al Gore.

  4. Chad H.
    Thumb Up


    biofuels are an example of putting the cart before the horse. Yes, biofuels could theretically be good for the environment, but you have to be able to make them in a way that doesnt do damage first.

    its the same with hydrodgen cars, they're only evironmentally friendly in places like iceland where you can get cheap electricity to seperate the hydrongen from oxygen in water, or whatever other method you're going to use.

    Yes, these are potential solutions, but we have to stress to folks that they still are just that, potential, and will remain that way for the forseeable future.

  5. Herby

    Al Gore

    Convenient Lies (carbon credits). Enough said!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Burning food


    No, I think the point is that biofuels ARE a problem and we shouldn't be dressing them up as any kind of solution - not even a temporary one.

    "People who support biofuels should be arrested and tried on charges of crimes against humanity in my opinion." -Chris Morrison

    Agree with that. In a hungry world we should not be burning food or raising the cost of it by increasing scarcity. The only reason we're working on biofuels is to reduce our (developed world) reliance on oil and to hell with the poor.

    Paris 'cause she needs cheap fuel for her limo.

  7. Highlander


    How is any of this outside his area of expertise? He's a chemist who's worked in the energy industry. If anyone is qualified to opine aboet the topic he would appear to be the one.

    The problems with bio-fuels(and this pretty much sums up what John Pike is saying) are;

    a) fuel efficiency of the ethanol is not significantly better than gasoline

    b) fuel efficiency of bio-diesel is not significantly better than mineral based diesel

    c) cropland used for biofuel production cannot be used for food production

    d) diverting wheat and other food crops to biofuel production is raising food prices home and abroad

    e) dollar driven intensive farming for fuel not food allows farmers to farm more intensively than they are allowed with food crops using more fertilizers and pesticides. This has long term impacts on the environment as well as the exhaustion of the soil at a higher rate.

    f) it takes a lot of energy to produce and process the crops into fuel, resulting in more fossil fuel use

    g) it's a way of deferring the fossil fuel use from the consumer to the producer, but the net impact on fossil fuel use is low

    h) it creates a false sense of security potentially distracting the focus from true alternative energy sources that are both renewable and economically viable

    Personally I thought he stated the situation very well when he pointed out that per acre solar cells would be far more efficient at extracting energy from sunlight than any form of bio-fuel we have available or on the drawing board today. Perhaps you ignored that part?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Easy to confuse...

    It's easy to confuse the fact the much alternative fuel research being done is actually less about going "green" and more about energy security and the high price of oil in the global economy.

    Emerging economies will continue to pressure the supply/demand relationship of global energy driving up the price of crude. I bet there are many countries in the world jealous of Brazil's energy independence - something like 80% of its automobiles run on domestically produced Ethanol. Regardless of the pressures this places on food prices and the razing of rainforest land for agriculture, Brazil is in a far more secure position to deal with global shortages of crude or gas than other countries that rely on imports to fuel their economy.

    So, although everything this "boffin" says may be accurate, in the end fuel alternatives that enable countries to avoid dependence on energy imports from unstable regions of the world may trump research into "greener" technologies.

  9. Anonymous Coward

    Green Thought

    I've noticed that comment pages aren't updated very frequently after a certain time of day. Wouldn't it be more 'green' to force the Reg hacks to camp out in the office rather than allowing them to waste precious fuel travelling to and from their families, partners, friends etc. on a daily basis?

    The fact that this would also serve to extend my expected entertainment period would be, of course, merely a happy accident.

    The coat icon because it's green.

  10. Alan Wilkinson
    Thumb Up

    Good to see my profession exposing claptrap

    Good to see professional chemists exposing the blatant fraud and ignorance surrounding present Kyoto initiatives.

    Matt, you missed everything. You must be determined to.

  11. Remy Redert


    What about fuel from algae production? If he did touch on that subject he must surely have recognised that, while not as space efficient as solar power kit would be, it does have the advantage of not having to compete for fertile land and possibly being more efficient then land based biofuels.

    Either way, corn ethanol and other such biofuels are stupidity.

  12. Chris G

    Carbon neutral organisations

    Are logically impossible. Even an organisation with a staff of one guy with a bicycle can not be carbon neutral, the guy has to eat and breath unless he's an android (in which case probably less carbon neutral) which entails breathing and farting, the bike has to be manufactured and the idea of carbon credits is a joke, a kind of environmental creative accounting. Every endeavour on the planet involves carbon at some point. CTL is a means of justifying the use of coal reserves which wouldn't otherwise come into the picture. As far as biofuels are concerned they will never be any better for the environment than petrol or diesel none of this is about the environment it's about profit. No problem with that just be honest and admit now oil is running out we have to use something else if we don't want to change everything too drastically but don't paint CTL and biofuels as something good for the planet.

  13. Geoff Thorpe
    Paris Hilton


    Whereas Branson, Bush, Blair, Ballmer, Bono, Bill and the other B(S)-artists comment strictly within their fields of "expertise" and the media are quick to play down the significance of any unqualified observations they might otherwise feel obligated to make ...

    Let's see then. Subject == efficient conversion of matter and consequent generation of energy + minimisation of agricultural and environmental impact. Commentator == leading chemist. Yeah I can see the need to strictly contain his credibility here, wouldn't want just any bozo to influence public policy now would we?

    Paris icon, as you're perhaps more concerned with her opinion on matters such as these?

  14. Pyros

    Blowing biofuel-generated hot air

    Close enough, Matt.

    All he did was point out the inefficency of biofuels, and pointed out his own theory about what would be a far better solution--but he admits we're not at that point in technology.

    Standard boffin talk, to be honest.

    I'm gonna butt out and get my biodegradable post-consumer jacket and get on that taxi-rickshaw...

  15. BoldMan


    Which comments do you think are "outside his area of expertise"?

    How do you know what his area of expertise is?

  16. Dan Paul

    Hydrogen is a BOMB!!!!!

    I don't ever want to hear another idiot "so called scientist" promote hydrogen as a viable portable fuel source. Or another moron saying support of Biofuels should be made criminal.

    Please note the following undeniable Hydrogen FACTS:

    You may be able to produce Hydrogen from seawater by electrolysis but that creates chlorine and lye. Both are FAR worse byproducts than CO2.

    Hydrogen CAN NEVER be stored safely as it leaks through even metal tanks. Even a small amount of H2 is explosive in the right mixture with air.

    All electrical systems in a vehicle will have to be sealed gas tite to prevent possible explosions.

    You cannot store enough hydrogen in an auto to drive for as long as a liquid fueled or electric fueled vehicle can right now because the size of the H2 tank takes up passenger and cargo space and weighs more than is a feasible load.

    The pressures that are required to store enough hydrogen for viable travel distances are high enough that your vehicle is a mobile ASME Coded Pressure Vessel and may as well be a Mobile Fuel Air Explosive BOMB if ever the tank burst in an auto accident.

    You cannot liquify Hydrogen without using more energy than it took to produce the H2.

    Have you ever seen the gases venting from the space shuttle as it sits on the launch pad? That is hydrogen gas that must vent to atmosphere because not even NASA can figure out how to contain it without a vent valve.

    Possible Hydrogen accident scenarios: Headlines... "Bus Crash kills Thousands!" "Cigarette Smoker Incinerates Entire Neighborhood", "Hydrogen Car Explodes in Parking Garage, Collapse Kills Hundreds".

    Icon Choice... The flame Icon needs to be blue or invisible for Hydrogen.

  17. Graham Marsden

    I just have to say...

    ... You deserve an award (or perhaps shooting) for the most mixed metaphor I think I've ever seen:

    "a wild goose chase through a minefield amid dangerous waters, up a creek without a paddle towards a plan you wouldn't touch with a bargepole."

  18. Andy Bright


    After considerable research I discovered Crude Oil to be the ultimate carbon neutral bio-fuel.

    You see it works like this. First you call dibs on a rain forest. Now rain forests chew up greenhouse gases like you wouldn't believe, so you're really on to a winner if you get one of your own.

    Next, and this is the beauty of my plan, you decide not to chop it down. No instead what you do is dig up some sort of desert or frozen tundra and harvest a bunch of black gooey stuff which, incredible as this may sound, works really good at powering vehicles.

    Ta da. Carbon neutral and you didn't have to chop down a single tree to achieve it.

  19. Steven Moore

    RE: da BOMB!!!!!


    Hydrogen used for transportation would be stored as a hydride; not as a liquid. I recall work done in that area 20+ years ago. The big problem then, as now, remains getting enough storage onboard to allow a reasonable radius of travel.

    As for electrolysis of seawater leaving chlorine and sodium hydroxide (lye), well, those are two of the most useful chemicals out there. Most medicines use chlorine chemistry, for example.

  20. R Callan

    Congrats Boffin

    Finally a man with sense about bio-fuels and carbon neutrality. Carbon neutrality will only occur until we stop using fossil and semi-fossil fuels. Any idiot can see that plants-->co2 when used-->plants eventually. Fossil fuel-->co2-->??? but not fossil fuel.

    Bio-fuel can only be based on the things we currently throw away but contribute to the co2 loading like eg sewage. Sewage currently goes to a treatment system where with the addition of energy it is converted into co2. Why not send it to a system that with the addition of a small amount of energy converts it into methane which can be used in a vehicle or electric-power plant before becoming co2?

    We are a race of total wasters are nothing anyone does seems to change that.

  21. Tim Hogard

    Won't someone please think of the coconuts?

    The problem with coconut based fuel for the jumbo jet is that by the time I get to one of the nice tropical islands, there will be no coconuts left for the drinks.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    Missing something?

    "the true "Holy Grail" for future transport fuel would be artificial photosynthesis"

    Did he overlook nuclear fusion reactors while trying to come up with a "Holy Grail" for making transport fuel? In fact I'm disappointed that the world's now pushing $billions into replacing food crops and rainforests with palm oil plants, etc, when fusion technology is being developed that would, in theory, mean a vast reduction in the amount of stuff being burnt for energy.

  23. Anonymous Coward

    I (almost) totally agree

    I was beginning to think that the world was lost to the new popular political green science but this man has shown us that there is still some common sense left in this world. That said, I do not completely agree with his opinion on Coal to Liquid. South Africa used this technology for decades when they were isolated under apartheid and it worked fine economically.

    Honestly though, did anyone really believe brittish gas can offer "carbon neutral" products.

  24. James Anderson

    Buring carbon produces CO2

    There is no getting round this fact.

    So how can buring carbon based produced by corn/coconuts/palm oil be any different from burning carbon based on fuel dug out of the ground.

    The same amount fo CO2 is produced (a bit more in the case of bio fuels as the production process is less efficeint.)

    There may be many resons to use bio fuels (energy independence, subsidise farmers in states where a vote is worth three city folks votes etc. etc. ) but reducing carbon emissions is not one of them.

    "Flame bate" for its contribution to cyber warming.

  25. Sweep


    So. A former energy industry exec says "Flying on biofuel is a milestone......but it must not become a millstone." which good old Lewis interprets as, "Pike apparently sees the quest for biofuels as a wild goose chase through a minefield amid dangerous waters, up a creek without a paddle towards a plan you wouldn't touch with a bargepole".

    There is much the prof says that I agree with; much of our current alternatives to fossil fuels are at present not much of an alternative, and carbon offsetting schemes exist largely to make the middle classes and Bono feel better about themselves (but we should plant more trees anyway, I like trees, trees are nice).

    What I don't get is every time the Reg picks up on a piece of news like this, Lewis seems to update his ongoing blog and tell us all how there is nothing we can do about our carbon footprint, we should all just give up, buy an SUV and leave it running while we sit outside our houses with the patio heater blazing.

    Although our current technologies don't provide an alternative on any kind of scale to oil and gas, it does not mean that we should not look into exploring all the avenues available to us and developing technologies until they do provide viable alternatives. I don't think the prof would argue with this, although Lewis might.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ James Anderson

    The reasoning is thus:

    Take a plant from seed. This starts with pretty much zero carbon. Throughout its life it turns CO2 (amongst other things) into various carbon based non-greenhouse-gassy structures (plus some other things). A plant containing [say] 1 Kg of carbon has taken 1 Kg of carbon based greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere.

    You then take said plant and burn it. This then changes the 1 Kg of effectively not carbon based greenhouse gasses back into 1 Kg of greenhouse gasses.

    I know this is rather simplified but the net effect is that growing a plant and burning it effectively does not alter the constituent greenhouse gassy content of the atmosphere.

    Now take a slug of crude oil or coal if you prefer. Assuming this slug also contains 1Kg of non-greenhouse-gassy carbon and you burn it you effectively put 1 Kg of greenhouse gassy carbon into the atmosphere.

    Although the process that locked the carbon up in the crude / coal in the first place did take the appropriate amount of carbon out of the [then] atmosphere this was rather a long time ago.

    Now, there are some serious implications in turning vast swathes of food production over to biofuels however from a purely carbon perspective this is better

    than burning fossil fuels

    Thank you for your time

  27. Ishkandar

    @AC - Green Thought

    I believe El Reg hacks do not travel between office and family. I believe they merely travel between office and the local and thereby saving huge amounts of transportation energy where they then duly refuel on alcohol of various forms !!

    @AC - Missing something? - yes !! Until FISSION reactors are guaranteed *not* to go BANG and make large glass bowls in the countryside, all else are wishful thinking. More research on fission reactors is no different from more research on better biofuels.

    Having said that, the US-driven biofuel obsession is *NOT* about effeciency but about political expedience. They just want fuel independence from them Ay-rabs and greesers so they can bomb them back to the Stone Age !!

    Currently the most fuel efficient means of transport are your own legs. If you can't walk that far, don't dream of getting there !! Cuts down on all sorts of unreasonable demands !!

  28. Antony Jones
    Thumb Up

    Re: Algae

    The future surely has to be based on algal-based biofuels. Using genetic engineering we can produce saltwater algae that efficiently convert CO2 to oil. There's some promising research going on with this, but it'll likely be decades before this is viable. Algae can be continuously harvested, unlike a plant, the whole organism can be productive, and not being dependent on fresh water helps conserve that precious resource for us.

    Unfortunately, the best location for these algal biofuel factories will be in non-productive deserts with high levels of sunlight and access to the sea i.e. the Middle East. So you can forget using this to get "energy security".

    Another good location might be next to a fosil power station. You can pump high concentrations of CO2 from the chimneys, and the algae can use the waste heat as well as sunlight as their energy source (plenty of organisms survive around deep ocean vents without sunlight, but with a source of heat).

    The fuels produced can use our existing infrastructure, without the massive investment required to convert to a hydrogen based economy.

  29. Bryan Reed

    You have to consider the full equation

    To Lee: Yes, burning the coconut only releases the carbon that the coconut absorbed as it grew, this is true. But you also have to consider the fuel used for farm machinery that helped to grow, harvest, and process the coconut, the oil used to make petrochemical fertilizers (where does that carbon end up?), the energy used to convert the coconut into a relatively inefficient fuel, and the energy used to transport this fuel to where it's used. Not to mention the CO2 that was released when the land was cleared in the first place (since we have to massively expand our farmland if we want to keep going with this bio-madness).

    It depends on whose balance sheet you look at, but from what I've read, you end up having very little net effect (and quite possibly the effect is negative) on the CO2 levels, on the need for oil imports, and on the energy supply.

    In other words, it's an enormous, hugely expensive waste of time that causes massive damage to the ecology and to the world's food production capability.

    Bio-ethanol production is a technology that is simply not ready for large-scale implementation. Unfortunately, because it sounds good politically and makes it look like you're doing something about the problem, it's gone to large-scale implementation anyway.

    And I've seen countless scientific articles explaining this fact, but somehow it's only now just starting to seep into the public consciousness.

    Whether other technologies like solar are there yet or not is irrelevant.

  30. DR

    simple solution...

    get pissed more...

    ethonol can be a by product of the beer brewing industry...

    I'll be doing my bit to combat global warming down the pub later.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    "I believe El Reg hacks do not travel between office and family. I believe they merely travel between office and the local and thereby saving huge amounts of transportation energy where they then duly refuel on alcohol of various forms !!"

    Thanks for correcting me on that. I will now return Reg hacks to their previous status as enlightened beings who walk six inches above the ground.

  32. kerlmann

    It may have escaped some people's notice...

    ...that humble coconuts seem to thrive quite well in the wild by themselves. Not only that, they are a perennial - we get quite a lot of them each year. I'll qualify that further - 50 BILLION coconuts are generated naturally each year, which, in theory could be converted into 5 billion litres of diesel.

    Not only that, because they grow up in the air on trees, they don't take up massive amounts of land that could be used for other crops, in fact they tend to grow in places largely unsuited for traditional farming.

    So in short, they are at least a highly sustainable source of fuel, even if there is a cost associated with transforming the oil into biodiesel and of course the inherent pollution problems.

  33. Matt

    Are of expertise

    I was trying to point out that he's a chemist so not an expert on the world's food supply, for example.

    Doesn't mean he's wrong, but it's not the same about his views on matters of chemistry.

  34. Martin Usher

    Nice article

    Just about says it all. Its about the best writing I've seen on the subject. The comments about hydrogen are also spot on -- its not a viable fuel unless you combine it with something like carbon because the hydrogen atoms are so small they leak through everything.

    From our technical perspective we should be focussing on things like dissuading bosses who insist on F2F meetings, going 'on site' all the time and the like --- "is this journey really necessary?". The same goes for commutes -- we've got to get of hte habit of forcing everyone to turn up at the workplace at exactly the same time. Industrial and office buildings, at the last the ones in the US, make even the least efficient homes seem green (insulation poor to non-existent, large single pane windows, A/C or heating on all the time, computers, lights -- no problem, we pay for it in the lease). We can do so much without having to dramatically change our habits so there's no excuse for not getting started.

  35. john

    Flaw with Hydrogen

    I'm surprised no-one has mentioned the biggest flaw with Hydrogen powered cars.

    Hydrogen is lighter that Air so any hydrogen cars would float off into space.


  36. Alan Wilkinson

    Lye is useful

    A small chemical point. If Lye (NaOH) is a byproduct of hydrogen production by electrolysis of sea water it can be used directly for carbon dioxide sequestering. So you would get two benefits for the price of one.

  37. Paul Murray
    Thumb Down

    Systeme Internationale

    "He said that solar power devices used to generate hydrogen by electrolysis would give you 20 times as many joules per acre."

    Surely he meant Watts per acre? And shouldn't it be Watts per Hectare, or foot-pounds per acre? Horsepower per acre? Anyone?

  38. Mark Pawelek

    GM plants are the way forward.

    By the way, chemists against bio-fuel are not new. Just read what was written in sci.chem many years ago.

    Bio-fuel could be made to work. First we need to improve plant photosynthesis - it is, perhaps, them most inefficient natural process known. The problem is that enzyme: Rubisco - it only converts a few molecules of carbon dioxide per second. It should be easy to create GM plants that grow at about tens times the rate of current plants. A few billion £ invested will sort the problem out. The GM plants created (using a Rubisco substitute) should also be able to grow using far less water so the world's deserts could bloom. These bio-fuel plants could be planted in what is now desert.

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