Study finds biofuels are contributing to climate change, not mitigating it

Biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are not anywhere near as environmentally friendly as previously thought.

A study by researchers at the University of Michigan, published today in the open-access journal Climactic Change, has found that biofuels actually increase the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming, despite their reputation for being a ‘clean’ fuel source.

It was previously thought that such fuels were carbon-neutral, based on the premise that the CO₂ they produce when burnt was balanced by the CO₂ the plants absorbed as they grew. However, this study has found that the crops’ CO₂ absorption only mitigated a fraction of its emissions.

Using extensive crop production data from the US Department of Agriculture, alongside data on fossil fuel production and vehicle emissions, the researchers found that during a time when biofuel use rapidly increased in the US, the biofuel crops’ CO₂ absorption only offset 37% of their emissions when burnt.

“This is the first study to carefully examine the carbon on farmland when biofuels are grown, instead of just making assumptions about it,” explained research professor and study lead author John DeCicco, from the University of Michigan Energy Institute.

“When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what’s coming out of the tailpipe.”

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

A vehicle owner tops up his car using the biofuel ethanol in Washington State, the US. The country has promoted biofuels as a green alternative for transport. Image courtesy of Carolina K. Smith MD / Shutterstock.com

The findings have significant ramifications for climate change mitigation approaches, as biofuels have increasingly been used as a cleaner alternative to petroleum. In many parts of the world they form a vital part of government-backed plans to reduce carbon emissions; a role that may well need to be reconsidered now that such strong doubt has been cast on their effectiveness.

In the US, for example, they are recommended for transportation purposes by the US Renewable Fuel Standard, which has helped to spur growth in production in the country from 4.2 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2013.

The researchers have even gone so far as to argue biofuels are worse than other traditional fuel sources, due to the false sense of security they provide to policymakers.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” said DeCicco.

“So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study's findings

Biofuels are often presented as environmentally friendly, such as in this concept image. This will now have to change as a result of the study’s findings

As a result of the shocking findings, the researchers are now recommending that policymakers reconsider their use of biofuels to mitigate climate change.

“Policymakers should reconsider their support for biofuels,” said DeCicco.

“This issue has been debated for many years. What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.