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Institute of Advanced Study

Biofuels, Society and Science

Dr Chris Greenwell (Chemistry)

Professor Keith Lindsey (Biological Sciences)


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 the barriers to exploitation of biofuels.

Though much work has been already done on biofuel production, there are still disconnections between various aspects of the process. The biological control of starch and oil yield, and processibility of lignocellulose, is poorly understood. 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, for example, 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 resulted in 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.

In this programme we intend to draw on the exceptional interdisciplinarity of Durham University, exemplified by the Durham Energy Institute (DEI) and the Institute of Hazard Risk and Resilience (IHRR), to draw together the various factions relevant to the biofuel debate.  These will include policy advisers, economists, social scientists, psychologists, geographers, legal experts as well as biologists, engineers and chemists.

We propose to draw together a programme of events, grants and visitors to build upon existing strengths at Durham to take the fairly loose current organisation of researchers into a more cohesive and well defined research specialism where biofuels are considered as socio-technical systems.  In a wider context, the framework in which this subject is treated is important for many other emerging energy technologies.

Under the programme we propose to increase external presence, with visits to and from Durham with invited visitors giving guest lectures.  The programme of visitors will partly be scoped by research currently under way through joint interdisciplinary summer studentships. 

The current loosely federated research interests at Durham will be bought under a more cohesive entity, with a well defined research grouping with a professional website and internal research meetings.  Summer Internships will be offered to top penultimate year studentships to undertake 10 weeks of research in interdisciplinary research on biofuels in society, which provides the first steps towards larger grant applications and/or PhD studentships.

We also plan to host a workshop which will be attended by invited policy makers, legislators, funding agency strategists and industrialists, as well as academics.  The outputs of which will form an invited guest edited theme edition of a high impact factor interdisciplinary journal.