Backers stress biofuel can be harmless

The major biofuels research project that the Masdar Institute and its partners have agreed to establish is an ambitious experiment in ecosystems management.

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The major biofuels research project that the Masdar Institute and its partners have agreed to establish is an ambitious experiment in ecosystems management. The project's backers hope to demonstrate the viability of an integrated approach to biofuels production that will not compete with food crops or have harmful, if unintended, environmental consequences. To date, ill-conceived biofuel ventures have had ecological repercussions ranging from unfortunate to disastrous. They include encouraging the clearance of tracts of carbon-absorbing tropical rainforests for fuel crops, contaminating ground and surface waters with agricultural chemicals, using scarce freshwater supplies for irrigation, and creating maritime "dead-zones" after excess fertilisers wash into the ocean, promoting algal blooms that suffocate marine life.
The Masdar Institute's project hopes to avoid such ill effects by eliminating the need for chemical fertilisers, which are derived in part from natural gas. Its designers also hope to ensure that any runoff from biofuel crops nurtures the coastal environment instead of choking it. Dr John Perkins, the provost of the institute, explained that the various interacting parts of the project had been carefully selected to be appropriate for this region and to have the best chance of complementing each other.
"The challenge is a systems integration challenge," he said. "We have various components that look as if they can fit together to give something of immense value."
tcarlisle@thenational.ae