Mediaplanet What potential do biofuels represent for achieving a stable energy mix in Canada?

Donald Smith Biofuels can be a part of the solution to the need for reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In areas like aviation they are probably the only viable alternative at this time. In the area of heavy transport, biofuels reduce GHG more than the use of natural gas and do not require a major investment in new infrastructure. Based on the International Energy Agency (IEA) Biofuels Roadmap, BioFuelNet estimates that in Canada biofuels can replace 25 percent of petroleum fuels by 2050, reducing GHG while generating $24 billion per year in economic activity and 100,000 jobs.

MP What are your expectations for the use of biofuels over the next 10–20 years?

DS In 2011 the IEA produced a roadmap document on biofuels projecting biofuels could constitute 27 percent of total fuels, worldwide, over coming decades. Canada has the largest biomass resource in the world, on a per capita basis. It is not unreasonable that we could eventually reach a point where a quarter or so of our fuels are biofuels and we would become a net exporter of biofuels and associated bioproducts and technologies.

MP What are some of the most promising developments in the bioeconomy you’ve personally experienced in your 30-year career at McGill University?

DS It is exciting to see a growing concern around the need to reduce GHG emissions. At McGill, there has been, and continues to be, some very good work around green chemistry, which is part of a greater sustainability approach. McGill has developed the use of microbe-to-plant signal compounds as a way to improve plant productivity, making more biomass available for both food and fuel. Since the Second World War, crop yields, through improved understanding of genetics and production methods, have increased by almost three-fold. Similar increases in purpose-grown advanced biofuels feedstock crops can be expected during the next half century or so.

Over the last few decades the ability to produce advanced biofuels has improved to the point where it is competitive with oil at $70 per barrel, so that it was very competitive prior to the sharp decline in oil prices in 2014. New technologies are helping to bring this price down even further. The combination of enhanced technologies and good policy, both based on excellent science, will allow advanced biofuels to be a major aspect of controlling GHG emissions over the course of this century.

MP What are a few of the most widespread misconceptions regarding biofuels?

DS The public is not aware of the difference between first-generation biofuels, those derived from potential food materials, and advanced biofuels, those derived from cellulosic materials (plant stems and leaves, often crop and forestry residues, or even urban waste materials).
Today, we do not have to decide between food or fuel.

MP What are the biggest barriers to a more comprehensive use of biofuels in Canada?

DS The largest barrier right now is the low price of fossil fuel oil. When oil was more expensive, advanced biofuels were cost effective. At current oil prices further technology development and effective policy will be needed to facilitate wider use of advanced biofuels in Canada.