Biofuels Could Be Answer to Climate Crisis

Just for a moment, let's assume that you believe there is merit to the global warming brouhaha. Let's say you've been convinced by the scientific data from reputable publications like Nature and Science and the National Geographic. If you've bought in, then you may well be asking what you can do.

Today's most common answers range from the costly "install solar panels" to the free "buckle your seat belt before you turn on the ignition and turn off the lights when you leave the room." Good start, but rest assured, there are bigger alternatives coming to a fueling station near you, not tomorrow, but over the next few years.

Scientists and engineers are working on a wide variety of alternative fuels, the potential of which can set the mind, and perhaps the investment portfolio, a-spinning.

Here's a brief refresher course for those who have been vacationing oh, I don't know, on Pluto, the mass formerly known as a planet, on why these fuels are so interesting.

First, biofuels don't have to come from strategic reserves to a large extent located under the ground of countries where, let's just say, we appear to have some issues. Our country could, to a large extent, reduce its dependence on any one region of the world, as the raw materials for these fuels can come from anywhere.

Second, today, those raw materials are renewable crops that can be harvested and replanted. Repeatedly. Even more encouragingly, although researchers haven't quite cracked the code yet, there are signs that in some not too far off tomorrow, those inputs will be manufactured.

Third, worldwide availability has interesting implications for market-driven pricing over time. Say bye-bye to the powerful cartel.

Finally, just in case political or marketplace drivers don't catch your attention, there is the handy fact that biofuels are more efficient per gallon than hydrocarbon-based fuels both in terms of energy created per volume and in reduced "greenhouse" or CO2-based emissions expelled into the fair blue skies when these fuels are burned.

A study conducted at the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf's college published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that these fuels generate between 25 percent and 93 percent more energy than is required to refine them. (The range depends on the feedstock and production methodology.)

Concurrently, this same study found that the reduction in bad stuff (greenhouse gases) emitted per gallon burned of these fuels was between 12 percent and 40 percent less than that dispelled by fossil fuels.

Critics of the biofuels industry argue that even with the results mentioned above, these fuels just aren't efficient enough to be worth the effort, and more important, the feedstock crops -- soybeans, corn, switchgrass, chicken fat or palm trees, among others -- can't be grown fast enough to make any meaningful difference in fossil fuel consumption.

It's hard to disagree with those facts; constrained inputs clearly equate to reduced outputs, but it's easy to reject the conclusion that these problems reduce the value of today's efforts. The first autos weren't as efficient as are the 2007 models. The first version of Windows was downright useless compared with current versions. The point is that markets start with a Version 1.0 and, with time and enough economic incentive to justify aggressive research and development, hit upon better solutions.

Some of today's in-process corn, soy, palm-based biodiesel refineries have been designed with the full understanding that a move to algae may not be that far off. In the meantime, for the next few years, they will produce today's best alternatives.

Further out, and much less certain but scientifically fascinating, is the work of companies such as Synthetic Genomics that are combining naturally occurring and advanced genomic-based processes in the hunt for cleaner alternative energy solutions. These efforts are potentially a giant step forward on the path toward healthier air and clearer skylines.

As millions of kids in the back seats are probably saying now, "Are we there yet?" The answer is no.

However, there should be little doubt that today's small but determined steps forward are incredibly important interim moves that just might set us on course to finding the critical, long-term, economically and environmentally efficient alternative fuels that will make all the difference down the road.

Lise Buyer, a long-time Silicon Valley investor, is a principal at the Class V Group,