More thoughts on the bio-based economy

By Maureen Aylward

With bio-this and bio-that in the lingo so much these days, we wanted to ask our Zintro experts how they defined the bio-based economy. Here is more of what they had to say.

Alan Guinn, an expert in solar, wind energy, and tidal kinetics, says that people hear about bio-based and think only about ethanol. “There are so many other products out there in agriculture that can benefit us in so many ways. Bio actually covers food, feed, and fiber,” he points out. “The bio-based economy is generally considered to consist of agri-produced products that can be or have been found to have multiple uses. Agriculture has, for many years, produced fibers for clothing and for a variety of covering materials. Agriculture’s production of ethanol from corn dates back to the turn of last century, and the production of ethanol as a fuel in place of fossil fuels could produce a reallocation of resources for other, more practical uses. Take, for example, the reallocation of fossil fuels to support national security interests, while the use of ethanol or an ethanol blend could support consumer usage.”

Guinn says that the challenge to a bio-based economy comes not from the ability to find alternative uses for the products that can be produced, but in unseating long standing expectations and long standing government subsidies and biases affiliated with the change from a fossil fuel-based economy to a bio-based economy. “Oil companies that receive government subsidies and tax breaks support politicians who are afraid to see changes in the way business has always been conducted. It might cost them campaign contributions. It might upset the balance of power in their constituencies between manufacturing and agriculture,” Guinn says. “Much of the conversion to a bio-based economy will be dependent upon government weaning itself from the fossil fuel-based economy held over from the 20th century. Can that occur? Time will tell.”

The drivers of growth of a new potential economy would arise, first, from the first tier countries, believes Guinn, but the second tier countries for whom agriculture is a way of life would be early converters. “Second tier countries around the world for which agriculture is now a way of life could benefit greatly from this transition. Revenue could flow easily into a bio-based economy and allow second tier countries to benefit from this influx of capital,” he says. “The most important part of a bio-based economy is that most items grown and used will be local items. The building blocks of biomass are local in concept, so the crops grown and harvested in a local area will support change within that local area. Diversification of the production areas will lead to more security in that whole crops would be much more difficult to destroy and much less vulnerable to terrorist impact.”

Jim Colhart, a strategic business development expert in the alternative energy sector, believes that the fossil-fuel based economy will be with us for a very long and will continue to set the basis for economic activity. “Those of us developing alternative energy solutions – in my case, converting woody biomass waste into liquid hydrocarbons – cannot realistically expect to make more than a small dent in the consumption of fossil fuels,” he says. “Moreover, we define our business opportunity on the ability to compete successfully with fossil fuel equivalent hydrocarbons, without relying on government subsidies or preferential tax treatment.”

Colhart says that his approach has a relatively stable cost basis, such as modest variations in feedstock prices based on availability, and he welcomes the continued dominance of the fossil-fuel driven economy as every increase in crude prices in effect goes to his bottom line. “This will invite others to enter the market with competitive businesses or other technologies, but it will never be large enough to completely dismantle the fossil-fuel based economy, which is so pervasive in terms of power, chemistry, transportation systems, and so on,” he says.

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