The Futurist Trilemma

It’s safe to say that Henry Ford would be amazed by modern automobiles, but what would he think about the fuel in the tanks?

As an early proponent of the bioeconomy, he would likely be disappointed that our economy is still largely fueled by fossil materials, not plants harvested from the fields.

While we inch our way toward Ford’s dream, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the incredible advances that fossil resources have enabled in the last two hundred years.

The availability of energy-dense material in concentrated areas of the globe has slowed destruction of forests for light and heat, enabled flight and space exploration and helped create an instantaneous global economy.

Unfortunately, the use of fossil fuels has also contributed serious injury to our climate, air and water. The total costs and benefits to future generations are uncertain. While we have learned to reduce some of the impacts of using fossil carbon, weaning ourselves from the benefits of this mature industry is a hard and slow process.

The application of modern biology to energy, building, nutrition, and medicine is critical to our transition from fossil resources. This shift toward a sustainable modern bioeconomy entails fundamental changes in how we do things, and is subject to a phenomenon I'll call "the futurist trilemma."

Imagine a three-way tug-of-war among people with fundamentally differing philosophies of progress. The sunshine-and-rainbow optimists make all things seem possible – giving us the will to try despite technological or economic challenges. The stubbornly immobile complacents push us toward cost-effective, innovative solutions. The dark cloud skeptics point to the heavy footprint of the pre-fossil fuel bioeconomy – cautioning us to use our shared resources with care and planning. It is in the midst of this strife that we collectively move forward , and 2014 has been a year of important advances.

In this issue of Bioenergy Connection, our focus is on the bioeconomy. Greg Breining explores the exciting debut of dedicated cellulosic ethanol, Judith Horstmann delves into scientific advances in freeing sugars from biomass, and Peter Jaret goes bioprospecting. Todd Woody and Ashie Bhandiwad explore developments in advanced biofuels, and Jim Lane shines a light on timelines for new technologies

Also in this issue, we spend time in Brazil with Jose Goldemberg, the father of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, and his colleague Horta Nogueira, who track the evolution of the world’s most renewable transport fuel system. Katherine Griffin profiles Vonnie Estes, Managing Director, US, for GranBio, Brazil’s new cellulosic ethanol company. Finally, Steve Pietsch explores why flex-fuel vehicles, a centerpiece to success in Brazil, are so rare elsewhere in the world.

We also invite you to Bioenergy Connection's new interactive website, where you can read exclusive on-line material and comment on articles and blogs, adding your voice to the issues. Please visit us at http://www.bioenergyconnection.org and follow us on Twitter @BioenergyMag.

Heather Youngs, Ph.D.
Executive Editor, Bioenergy Connection
Senior Analysis Fellow, Energy Biosciences Institute

 

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