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Durham University

Biofuels, Science and Society

About Biofuels, Science and Society

Biofuels have been subject to much scrutiny over the past decade.  In reality, there are few practical alternatives in terms of delivering substitutes for road transport fuels compatible with existing transport infrastructure.  In the long term other technologies may replace the present fossil fuel driven motor vehicles, including fuel cells, direct hydrogen, etc.  However, in the short to medium term, a replacement is needed that will aid reduce carbon dioxide emissions and extend fossil fuel reserve life.  We aim to bring together experts from every facet of biofuel production and implementation to discuss drivers for the use of biofuels, as well as barriers to exploitation of biofuels. Biofuels, Science and Society is a sub-theme within the Institute of Advanced Study 2010-2012 'Futures 11' theme.

Though much work has already been carried out on biofuel production, there are still disconnections between various aspects of the process.  There is a poor understanding of biological control of starch and oil yield, and processibility of lignocellulose.  At the physical sciences level, much work needs to be done drawing engineers, biologists and chemists together to gain a holistic approach to developing biofuel technologies.  Furthermore, much of the current life cycle analysis work is undertaken by experts in that particular mode of study, rather than with experts in the biofuel technology under development.  This has lead to adverse publicity and poor representation to the public in some instances.

Further areas where there needs to be increased understanding are in the disciplines not normally included in life cycle analysis exercises.  For example, in the past biofuel technologies (palm oil) have failed owing to negative public perception, or volatility in feedstock price and supply (waste vegetable oil).  There is poor understanding at public and policy level, of the risk posed by biofuels to water supply, and also the risk of potential competition with food crops and biodiversity.  Indeed, the use of biofuels has been in general poorly communicated to the public, with all biofuels seemingly treated under one umbrella term. 

This programme draws on the exceptional interdisciplinarity of Durham University, exemplified by the Durham Energy Institute (DEI) and the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resillience (IHRR), to bring together the various factions relevant to the biofuel debate, including policy advisers, economists, social scientists, psychologists, geographers, legal experts as well as biologists, engineers and chemists.