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Former Shell Exec Recommends Waste, not Crops as Biofuel Feedstock

Reuters. Speaking to reporters at the Oxford Farming Conference, Lord Ron Oxburgh, former chairman of Shell Trading and Transport, said that biomass waste should be a preferred feedstock for biofuels rather than crops such as rapeseed and grain.

While using biomass waste also addresses the problem of waste disposal, the fertilizer and energy input required for growing crops reduces if not negates the benefits of a biofuel, he said.

“You really have got to think very hard about the amount the energy that goes into producing your biofuel,” he said.

“I think if they [British farmers] grow the same crops in the same way, it probably won’t work,” he told reporters.

Lord Oxburgh used Iogen’s production of cellulosic ethanol from waste straw in Canada (earlier post) as an example of an approach to biofuel production that is energy efficient and environmentally beneficial.

By contrast, he noted, the US uses the most energy-intensive method based on corn.

“You put in nearly as much energy into producing energy than you get out of it. It doesn’t actually make a lot of sense,” he said.

He also noted that importing palm-oil biodiesel in recently cleared rainforests in southeast Asia could cause adverse environmental impacts.

Lord Oxburgh was at the Oxford Conference to present a talk on “Farming’s role in the global energy crisis.”

Lord Oxburgh, who recently retired from Shell, has been outspoken about the dangers of climate change, the need for carbon sequestration and the need to move off of a fossil fuel platform. (Earlier post.)

At the UK’s Hay Festival in 2005, referring to the urgent need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, he stated:

The boat is sinking, and we have to use everything that we possibly can.

Trained as a geologist, he was head of the Department of Earth Sciences and President of Queens’ College, Cambridge. (As an interesting coincidence, Oxburgh was a graduate school classmate of Princeton Prof. Ken Deffeyes, author of Hubbert’s Peak.) He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Foreign of the U.S. Academy of Sciences.

He is also a crossbench life peer who sits on the House of Lords select committee on science and technology.


Harvey D

A very credible gentleman. More resources should be used to develop and produce cellulosic ethanol on a worldwide basis to replace gasoline and diesel for land transport as soon as possible. Even Jet Aircraft and Ship engines could be adapted to use ethanol or biodiesel. Virgin Airlines is already considering it.

Jesse Jenkins

It's great to see a very respected and creadible gentleman like Lord Oxburgh making comments like these. Biofuels from cellulosic waste materials - either form agricultural or forestry waste or municipal solid waste - makes great sense. USDA and DOE estimate over a billion dry tons of sustainable supply is available annually in the United States.

Additionally, developing means of using cellulosic biomass for biofuels would allow the use of dedicated high-yield cellulosic crops like elephant grass (miscanthus), switchgrass or hemp which would have much better energy return on investment scenarios and yields per acre than using corn or soy as we do now.

Hear hear Lord Oxburgh! Cheers!


I think his concerns about using crops have a lot of merit. There is a very real possibility that biofuels could be completely overdone and cause widespread environmental degradation. Exactly what we don't want! Using waste materials should be the first thing we focus on. Used vegetable oil is the classic example.

C. Scott Miller

I could not agree more. As the editor of BioConversion Blog, I have seen and republished the research supporting these arguments.

California is fighting for renewable energy fermented from waste in Sacramento this Monday (1/9/06). All Californians who are interested in encouraging investors to bring clean technologies (like those proven in Europe and Japan) to California for implementation and refinement here should read up on CA AB 1090 ( There is a link there for sending a letter of support to the Chairperson of the California Assembly Natural Resources Committee, Loni Hancock (Californians only please).

I love the Green Car Congress Blog and have programmed a link in my template.


Don't forget that it is not hard to make a stirling engne run on any rough biomass, waste or whatever, At least farm tractors should run on field waste. No need to spend a lot of energy and effort making fluids out of it- just burn it as is. Then puff the ashes back on the farmland.

Peter Hurrell

This is very much in line with what we have been saying here in the UK and across the World. But why wait for the full scale developments of bio-engineered organisms tomake the Ethanol. We are about to finalised our Company's Investment needs here in Genesyst UK/Ireland for our first two plants using an existing tried and proven process originally developed in the 1820s and set in practice in the early 20th Century to convert Cellulose to its derivatives and then make Ethanol from the result. We are looking for an early financial closure - which surprisingly enough Is not as large as you and others in the Industry may think! - one which we hope to close out in the next few weeks - which will then enable us to proceed with the building of our Cellulose to Ethanol Plants here in the UK and Ireland. These investments embrace [1] converting 280,000 tonnes per year of Cellulose from Industrial and Municipal Waste will produce around 100 Million litres of Ethanol per year, and [2] converting 500,000 tonnes per year of Cellulose from Agriculture and Farming - including Municipal Waste of 200,000 tonnes - and this one will produce over 200 Million litres of Ethanol per year.
With waste Cellulose available from a variety of sources including that from Municipal Waste it will as you report be a major fillip to meeting the needs of producing enough renewable fuel as Ethanol to meet and better the European Union Targets for 2020 before 2015.
With many Nations around the World now clambering for Ethanol tackling the enormous quantities of Municipal Solid Waste by our process is the quick way forward, and the benefits are doubly advantageous.
Regards, And let's see more of thesepositive articles.

Jessyca Jackson

Is anyone able to suggest companies other than Iogen and Genesyst that provide waste-to-energy processes? I am very interested in anything that viewers of this post have to offer. Thank you.

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