Michigan Tech Leads International Study of Social, Environmental Impacts of Biofuel Production

Michigan Tech is leading a 4-nation study of the social and environmental impacts of biofuel production.
Michigan Tech is leading a 4-nation study of the social and environmental impacts of biofuel production.

Is it possible to develop and produce biofuels in a sustainable way, without harming people or the environment?  What policies need to be put in place to help that happen?

Nearly three dozen researchers from four countries—including 15 from Michigan Tech—will spend the next 5 years and $4.81 million of new National Science Foundation (NSF) funding trying to answer those questions.  The grant is from NSF’s Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) program.

Scientists from the US, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, led by Professor Kathleen Halvorsen (Social Sciences/SFRES), will join forces on the multinational study.   They will analyze of the impacts of biofuel development on society and the environment. Their aim is to design regional, national and international policies to promote sustainable biofuel development and minimize its negative effects. 

“This large, interdisciplinary group of scientists will work together to do socio-ecological and policy analysis of bioethanol and biodiesel development in each of the four countries,” said Halvorsen. “The countries all have policy goals of increasing sustainable biofuel production.”

Bioenergy is produced from biological organisms, usually plants. The simplest and most familiar form of bioenergy is firewood used for a campfire or woodstove. Bioenergy can be used to heat buildings, generate electricity or produce automotive fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. Liquid bioenergy forms, referred to as “biofuels,” can be created from many types of plants, including trees, sugarcane, soybeans, palm tree nuts and corn.

As countries work to develop more biofuels, they need to know which of these fuels and fuel sources are most likely to produce new energy forms that maximize benefits while minimizing social and environmental costs.

“We will assess the socio-ecological sustainability of existing biofuel development in each country and link it to international, national and regional policies, both public and private,” Halvorsen explained. “We hope that our results will advance scientific understanding of the socio-economic and ecological tradeoffs relative to biofuel development and increase our understanding of the policy and sustainability dimensions of energy development.”

The study will focus on biofuels produced from forests or impacting forests through conversion of forest land to agricultural crops.

Michigan Tech participants in the project in addition to Halvorsen are Rod Chimner, David Flaspohler, Tom Pypker, Chris Webster, Sigrid Resh, Jill Fisher and Trish Burton (SFRES); Samuel Sweitz and Barry Solomon (Social Sciences); Alex Mayer, David Watkins and Pasi Lautala  (CEE); David Shonnard, (CE) and Richard Donovan (SFI).

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.