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New Ideas for Biofuels: Panda Poop, Eucalyptus Leaves
September 1, 2011
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The concept of biofuel - finding a way to power vehicles using renewable resources rather than non-renewable petroleum-based substances - has been around as long as cars have. Henry Ford wanted to fuel his original Model Ts with ethanol, and early diesel engines ran on peanut oil. In all that time, though, no one has come up with a less environmentally damaging fuel source that is as cheap, abundant and efficient as gasoline and diesel.

In the last couple of days, some new contenders have stepped into the ring. And one of them is panda poop. Scientists have discovered that microbes in the droppings of giant pandas break down super-tough plant material in grass, corn stalks and wood chips, which is a major hurdle in biofuel production.

Another idea comes from Australia, where the aviation sector is looking into using eucalypt trees as the basis for a new biofuel for aircraft. If the plan succeeds, it could help the aviation industry cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent.

Looking at these two ideas, the first thing that springs to mind is: why not start feeding the pandas eucalyptus leaves? All jokes aside, though, there are serious ethical questions about biofuel production. Will it cut into food production? Can it be done sustainably? Will it lead to deforestation? The list goes on.

This April, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB) released five principles they believe should govern the ethical production of biofuels:

  1. Biofuels should not be produced at the cost of people's fundamental rights.
  2. Biofuel production should be environmentally sustainable and not cause biodiversity losses, water overconsumption, and pesticide and fertilizer pollution.
  3. Biofuels should reduce total greenhouse gas emissions during the entire lifecycle of their various sources.
  4. Biofuel production must recognize the rights of people to just reward, including adequate payment for labour and allotment of intellectual property to deserving parties.
  5. The costs and benefits of biofuels - financial, environmental, political, or social - must be equally distributed among people.
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