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Professor Michael Betenbaugh on Future of Biofuels

Policy Desk Editor

Yuyan Pu '19

· Yuyan Pu

The airliner JetBlue has recently agreed to buy more than 300 million gallons of biofuel over ten years, one of the largest purchase agreements for renewable fuel yet. Sourcing energy from organic biomass like plants and algae, biofuel is an attractive alternative to petroleum-based fuel supplies due to its renewability and lower carbon emissions. While JetBlue recognizes the environmental benefits of biofuel, it is still one of the few fuel-intensive companies to further its renewable energy use. Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Michael Betenbaugh points to economics to explain why biofuels are slow to gain greater mainstream use. It is near impossible at current market conditions to produce biofuels at a price competitive with fuel sourced from petroleum—petroleum oil only needs to be extracted and partially separated whereas biofuel cells must be cultivated and harvested before the oils can be derived. Although public attention has been focused on other renewable alternatives, Professor Betenbaugh believes biofuels are the only good alternative for long term sustainable liquid fuels replacement. Hybrids and electronic plugins, though popular, cannot independently power the airplanes, large trucks, and similar types of vehicles that currently use about 30 percent of all liquid fuel. Additionally, biofuel development is currently contingent on the volatile fluctuations of oil prices—when petroleum prices are as low as it currently stands, biofuels are politically unattractive due to its higher economic costs. And when low political interest defunds or shuts down biofuel programs, it will take another ten or so years to educate the workforce and to get research in place. “There must [be] long-term sustained investment in developing biofuels or it will never be economically sustainable,” Professor Betenbaugh argues. “The political will has to be there to reduce our CO2 and greenhouse accumulation to have a sustainable economy.” And if the United States does not make a long-term concerted effort to be a leader in biofuels, Professor Betenbaugh warns, development will happen overseas. 

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