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Study finds that gaps in research on topics critical to the global biofuels industry warrant caution; a call for more interdisciplinary work

Network diagram showing the number of articles in common between all pairs of topics in the analysis except geographic regions. Topics are grouped by thematic areas. Line thickness indicates the categorical strength of the connection between topics. Credit: ACS, Ridley et al. Click to enlarge.

A new study by researchers from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds substantial gaps in the amount of research on the numerous critical topics relevant to the global biofuels industry. This heterogeneity of work holds for individual topical areas and geographic regions, as well as for cross-topic linkages. Their paper appears in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The strong asymmetry in the connectedness of research topics—e.g., greenhouse gases articles were twice as often connected to other topics as biodiversity articles—could undermine the ability of scientific and economic analyses to adequately evaluate impacts and avoid significant unintended consequences, the team suggested. At the least, the researchers concluded, the review “suggests caution in this developing industry and the need to pursue more interdisciplinary research to assess complex trade-offs and feedbacks inherent to an industry with wide-reaching potential impacts.” (The paper represents the views of the authors only and not the official views of the EPA.)

Biofuels are commonly touted as a dual solution to the problems of dependence on foreign energy sources and climate change, but their impacts are not confined to these two areas. Energy production and use is one of the most intensive human enterprises, with numerous economic and societal benefits, as well as societal and environmental drawbacks. Any policy that seeks to significantly alter the form and method of energy exploitation raises the specter of unintended or misjudged consequences. The goal of greenhouse gas (GHG) savings was challenged after indirect land use change, resulting from displaced food and feed production, was included in the estimation of emissions.

...The capability of decision-makers to evaluate the total impacts of biofuels, including their environmental and economic trade-offs, and the accuracy of those evaluations depend on the availability of robust data and analyses. Here, we ask: does the published, peer-reviewed literature present a full portrait of biofuels and their potential impacts and trade-offs? Confidence in incipient policies governing biofuels that aspire to be environmentally, economically, and socially conscious, would be enhanced by an affirmative finding.

To answer the above question, we analyzed 1622 biofuels-related articles published between 2000 and 2009 across a range of social, environmental, and technical topics. We also examined geographic trends. Finally, we examined the frequency of interdisciplinary research as an index of our understanding of the complex interactions and feedbacks possible under global biofuel production scenarios. Such an approach has previously been used to visualize connections between concepts in the scientific literature and to identify logical gaps in study. We did not attempt to review the specific findings of the literature. Rather, our primary goal was to ascertain the structure of biofuels research efforts in the past decade in order to stimulate discussion of its utility to a range of stakeholders.

—Ridley et al.

They found a wide range of research activity. The number of peer-reviewed articles addressing the economic aspects of biofuels was approximately half that of either environment and human well-being or production-distribution technology and infrastructure articles. The most common topics in the literature were fuel production technologies, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and feedstock production/agronomics, each with more than 300 articles.

The least studied topics, excluding geographical categories, were human health, trade, and biodiversity, which retrieved 129 articles combined. Human health and trade, in particular, were represented by a very limited number of articles (15 and 34, respectively).

Likewise, their analysis by region found substantial heterogeneity in total research effort and in topical emphasis. The network analysis also revealed strong asymmetry in the connectedness of different research topics in the biofuels literature.

Among 23 topics examined, GHG emissions was the most well-connected, sharing at least 50 articles with 11 other topics. Land use/land cover, feedstock production/agronomics, fuel production technology, and costs of production were also well-connected to other topics, including topics outside of their respective thematic areas. The topics with the fewest numbers of articles were also the most isolated.

Human health, trade, biodiversity, and feedstock logistics tended to be loosely associated or unassociated with articles in other disciplines. Noticeably scarce were studies on how economic policy, market factors, and trade might influence how biodiversity is impacted by biofuels. Although the lack of connections appeared to be a function of the small number of articles in the case of human health and trade, it was not exclusively so for biodiversity. Averaging the proportion of articles connected to each topic, biodiversity articles addressed another topic only 15% of the time versus, for example, 27% of the time for GHG articles.

—Ridley et al.

The lack of studies addressing human health, trade, and biodiversity has a number of implications, the authors noted, adding that large-scale production and use of biofuels is likely to modify several of the stressors that already threaten regional biodiversity, including land use change, climate change, air pollution, and biological invasions.

The underrepresentation of developing areas in the literature also raises questions about impacts of the industry in places where large-scale development of biofuels could either be extremely beneficial or lead to widespread environmental degradation, depending upon how development proceded.

Increasingly, organizations and governments are relying on systems approaches to understand the consequences of particular policy decisions. These are often interdisciplinary analyses to try and capture the complexities and feedbacks associated with increasing biofuel production, across the stages of the production chain, for multiple environmental and economic impact domains and from local to global scales. Common approaches include life cycle analyses (LCAs), and general and partial equilibrium models (e.g., Global Trade Analysis Project [GTAP] and others).

Although promising, these approaches are often hampered by the large amounts of input data required, as well as fundamental uncertainties in model processes such as market elasticities and local land management practices. We found that some topics such as GHG emissions and land use/land cover are commonly discussed in an interdisciplinary fashion. Whether this is in a substantive enough way to inform modeling efforts and/or policy decisions remains unanswered. On the other hand, many topics appeared relatively isolated, clouding the prospects for an integrated analysis on the impacts of biofuel production across multiple nations.

—Ridley et al.


  • Caroline E. Ridley, Christopher M. Clark, Stephen D. LeDuc, Britta G. Bierwagen, Brenda B. Lin, Adrea Mehl, and David A. Tobias (2012) Biofuels: Network Analysis of the Literature Reveals Key Environmental and Economic Unknowns. Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es2023253



Interesting series of unknowns explained in the text - what also needs to be resolved are technological hurdles....

Range Fuels failure raises the question: How much risk should the government take with taxpayer dollars?


Tax payer dollars are to go for the public good. If we have less imported oil, cleaner air and a more sustainable energy future, that is in the public good.

This is a paper on papers, now I have seen everything.


BTW, we spent 1000 billion dollars on Iraq with the risk that no WMD would be found...oops, I guess there was some risk there. We did not get solar panels nor sustainable fuel, not even the chance for any.


biofuel producers just want more productive bugs, crops and enzymes.. they are not interested in ivory tower studies regarding "economic policy, market factors, and trade might influence how biodiversity is impacted by biofuels"


Gasification of biomass to synthesis gas has been done for a long time. Turning synthesis gas into methanol and DME has been done. Turning methanol and DME into gasoline has been done. All are proven technologies, so there is nothing to it but to DO it.


Vinod Khosla & the Department of Energy were told, for the Range Fuels project in Georgia that "they have enough trees in southern Georgia to be the Saudi Arabia of cellulosic ethanol & the technology just needs to be refined a little - it's just a matter of capital formation & doing it". They took over $80 million in taxpayer dollars, made a little methanol (instead of massive amounts of ethanol), went bankrupt, and have paid back only $2 million. Vinod Khosla & Khosla Ventures, and Al Gore & Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers are venture capitalists responsible for a lot of failed ventures, laid off workers and untold sums of government money taken and never paid back - but pay no mind...Mitt Romney is the evil vulture capitalist that likes firing people!

Range Fuels failure raises the question: How much risk should the government take with taxpayer dollars?


"Gasification of biomass to synthesis gas has been done for a long time. Turning synthesis gas into methanol and DME has been done. Turning methanol and DME into gasoline has been done. All are proven technologies, so there is nothing to it but to DO it."

Okay, then they can obviously do it WITHOUT MY TAX DOLLARS.


The private sector is NOT doing it, they would rather feed hedge funds buying foreign T bonds than invest in what we need. We can not wait for there to be enough of a killing to get investment, by that time it will be WAY too late.


BTW, it sounds like it is OK to use 1000 billion of "your" tax dollars to get thousands of our people killed and tens of thousands wounded for life, but not one dime for progress.


Why the never ending government meddling and cronyism? Just let the green companies operate tax free. But nooooo! You say more government is the answer! Look what more government has given us - NOTHING except prolonged unemployment, economic stagnation, and Obama's rich donors & unions getting richer.


Bechtel, Blackwater and Halliburton were cronyism.


ejj....don't you realize that you may have it all wrong or have your eyes and ears wide shut? The current financial crisis (mess) was created during the (8-year) previous Administration. WB undone, in the first 2 or 3 years, all the good management that his predecessor had done and carried on the war path and did even much worse for the next 5 or 6 years. Never did USA have a worse President.

It may take 20+ years to fix the financial damages created between 2000 and 2008. Meanwhile, all of the Western World has been affected and do not understand why so many (in USA) want another (R) Administration.


Pouring our hard earned tax dollars down ratholes is indefensible, wherever it occurs.


ejj, you want less government? Ok, when Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz let's do nothing, watch the price of oil rise and then we will see how attractive alternatives are with no subsidies (very!). Less government means less government all around. The problem is we subsidize oil with military intervention and most people can't/won't understand that this is as much of a subsidy as a direct loan to a solar, wind or biofuel company. If we need to subsidize green energy so it can compete with traditional sources of energy it's only because we are and have been subsidizing traditional energy all along in many non-transparent ways.


I want our federal government to stick to its constitutional mandate...pouring money into questionable renewable energy ventures that go bankrupt is NOT a part of that mandate.

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