Environmental Impact of Bioeconomy Examined in the Yale Journal

As the United States Congress debates the wisdom of tax subsidies for ethanol made from corn, a shift toward the use of agricultural materials in industrial products is already underway, according to articles published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology at Yale.

“Bio-based products are heralded in many parts of the farming, chemical and environmental communities, but the environmental impacts are likely to be complex,” said Reid Lifset, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology and associate director of Environmental Management Programs at Yale.

Throughout the world, interest in the use of agricultural products and waste for energy and industrial materials is growing. Optimists foresee a return to renewable raw materials and a new system of production that will produce a reduction in demand for fossil fuels, a decrease in greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as the mitigation of a host of other environmental threats. A more pessimistic outlook for the bioeconomy foresees the increased use of synthetic fertilizers, a reduction in water quality and an increase in soil erosion and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Emerging research, published in a special issue of Journal of Industrial Ecology (available free in full text at http://mitpress.mit.edu/jie/bio-based), examines the environmental implications of increased use of biobased materials and fuels. The Journal is a peer-reviewed, international quarterly published by MIT Press, owned by Yale University and headquartered at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Articles in the special issue analyze the opportunities, processes and environmental impacts of biofuels, bioplastics, biolubricants, and biosurfactants. Government initiatives to support biobased products are summarized and leading biobased product companies are profiled. The issue also takes a look at the U.S. chemurgy movement of the last century that promoted a bioeconomy.

Research published in this issue suggests that: Vast amounts of agricultural residues that are now left in cornfields could be used to make an environmentally superior form of ethanol fuel, but there are some environmental trade-offs.

New screening techniques can identify environmentally promising bioproduction processes before large investments have been made to develop detailed product information. When agricultural land is scarce, the environment benefits more from making bioplastics than biofuels.

Robert Anex, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, was the guest editor for the special issue. Support for the special issue was provided by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

For more information, contact Reid Lifset, 203-432-6949 or reid.lifset@yale.edu.

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Dave DeFusco: david.defusco@yale.edu, 203-436-4842