Alternative Fuel Report

To put our project in context, Team Alberta completed a short background report on current energy practices and several alternative energy approaches. We wanted to make evident the many ethical issues that must be considered when pursuing energy policy and the innovative and ambitious approach that our team took to resolving many of these conflicts.

Continuous Energy Demands in a Ever-Changing World

There are many serious implications that result from the fact that our society relies on only a few energy resources, most of which are produced in politically unstable, oil producing regions. In fact, according to the World Energy Council, today fossil resources, namely petroleum, natural gas and coal, meet 82% of the world’s energy needs1. Recently, ecological issues have also come into prominence as fossil energy sources produce numerous environmental downfalls such as greenhouse gas emissions, acid rain, air pollution, etc.1,2,3

However, these fossil resources that our way of life has come to rely on are inherently finite in supply. At the present rate of consumption, approximations place petroleum reserves depleting within 50 years, natural gas reserves depleting within 65 years and coal reserves depleting in about 200 years.1,4 Though new petroleum reserves are being located, these “proven petroleum reserves” are increasingly being found in places where they are poorly accessible, inevitably resulting in an increase in the cost of extraction and resultantly oil prices.1,5

Skyrocketing development in countries such as China and India has caused the demand for petroleum to soar. Resultantly, petroleum prices are expected to increase sharply even further. Thus, while petroleum will not become exhausted, it is evident that its price will continue to increase, although numerous effects such as market disturbances, political instability, or world crisis, may obviously temporarily hinder this long-term trend.1 An article that we found by the BBC adeptly describes some of these factors.

Alternative Energy Solutions

Reasonably, there are numerous questions that arise about the fate of our future energy supply. As a result, there has been a perpetual search for renewable energy sources that will “in principle never run out”. Hydraulic energy, solar energy and wind energy have all been widely pursued as well as energy from rewable raw materials such as biomass.1,6 In the mid to long term, bioenergy, the renewable energy that is harnessed from biomass, is expected to make significant contributions to energy demands. One estimate by the International Energy Agency sites bioenergy as offering the possibility to meet 50% of our world energy needs during this century.1

Until recently, agricultural raw materials such as wheat or corn have been declining in price, contrasting fossil resources. This decline in price was largely due to increasing agricultural yields; however, this trend is now changing. Competition for food use has become an issue.1

A variety of agricultural crops, such as corn, wheat, sugar cane and potatoes, for example, can be processed in “biorefineries” into carbohydrate feedstocks, which are the primary raw material for most fermentation processes. It is then possible to convert these feedstocks into a wide variety of valuable products including biofuels such as bioethanol. But, use of such fuels has given rise to several debates.1,7

"Biofuels ... Bio(fuel)ethics"?

Many ethical questions have arisen stemming from the increased use and development of biofuels. To gain perspective on the impact of our project’s approach, we wanted to share some of these prominent issues.

In our research into the ethics behind the topic, we came across recordings of a debate hosted by Action Aid UK in February 2010.8,9 We thought that the most adept means to convey these many issues would be to share these recordings with you. The first video contains the argument presented by Tim Rice, Biofuel Policy Officer for Action Aid UK, at this debate; the second contains the argument presented by Richard Stark, Head of Development for British Sugar. Please find both of these videos below along with an outline of each individual’s points.

The position held by Tim Rice, Biofuel Policy Officer for Action Aid UK

Mr. Rice maintains that Action Aid cannot support current biofuel practices as

  • on an increasing basis in the developing world, locals are selling their land to biofuel companies with the promise of subsequently gaining employment on this land, only to not be able to feed their families as the price of food has increased; this practice is acknowledged as being common in countries such as India, Mozambique, and Ghana.8
  • independent observers tend to agree that increased use of biofuels will drive up food prices and that the burden of these prices will fall on the world’s most poor, which already spend up to 80% of their income on food; resultantly, a small price increase can have a large impact on hunger.8
  • 1 billion are currently food insecure (cannot afford a healthy meal and lack sufficient vitamins) and thus risk starvation in light of rising food prices.8
  • biofuels may not even limit greenhouse gas emissions as they require significant quantities of nitrogen fertilizers that release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.8
  • land change to biofuel crop growth in carbon rich habitats may result in greenhouse gas emissions stemming from clearing, etc.8

The position held by Richard Stark, Head of Development of British Sugar

Mr. Stark firmly believes that the continued use and development of biofuels should be strongly supported as

  • this promotes meeting the requirements of the United Kingdom’s road transport fuel obligation environmental standard.9
  • biofuel usage has the potential to achieve a greater than 70% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.9
  • biofuels promote climate change mitigation, fuel security, and support for rural economies.9
  • many land locked African countries support the development of biofuels within their borders as they feel it promotes energy security.9
  • the United Kingdom has established performance targets for carbon savings and sustainability and that the country’s renewable energy directives have many provisions to monitor effects on food prices.9
  • there is enough land to grow both food and fuel: only 1% of the world’s arable land is used for biofuels and this number will only increase to 2% by 2020.9
  • biofuel mandates are increasing yields and hence releasing land for growing further crops.9

Our Approach

Team Alberta’s genetic enhancement of the fungus, Neurospora crassa, facilitates resolving many of the previously presented ethical questions. As the inputs to our biodiesel production process are industrial by-products, development of our fuel does not require any additional land use. Furthermore, the inputs being discarded waste, there is currently no competition for the alternative use of these materials. Thus, through synthetic biology, our project and its unique approach has the ability to resolve many of the ethical conflicts associated with conventional biofuels.


  1. Soetaert W and Vandamme EJ: Biofuels. Wiley Press Great Britain; 2009.
  2. Wueblles DJ, Jain AK: Concerns about climate change and the role of fossil fuel use. Fuel Prcess. Technol 2001, 71: 99-119.
  3. Soetaert W and Vandamme EJ: The impact of industrial biotechnology. Biotechnology 2006, 1(7-8): 756-769.
  4. Campbell CJ: The future of oil. Energy Explor. Exploit. 1998, 16:125-152.
  5. Campbell CJ and Laherrere JH: The end of cheap oil. Sci. Am. 1998, 278: 78-83.
  6. Anonymous: Renewable energy target for Europe: 20% by 2020. Report from the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC); 1998.
  7. Lissens G, Vamdevivere P, De Baere L, Biey EM, Verstraete, W: Solid waste digestors: process performance and practice for municipal solid waste digestion. Water Science and Technology 2004, 44: 91-102.
  8. Youtube:
  9. Youtube: