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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.


Measuring the Impact of Biofuels


Pedro J. Alvarez, Ph.D., Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Rice University
Rosa Dominguez-Faus, Graduate Student, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Rice University
Susan E. Powers, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineeering, Clarkson University
Joel G. Burken, Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, Missouri University of Science and Technology
Amy Myers Jaffe, James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy, Rice University 

Pedro Alvarez  Rosa Dominguez   susan powers   joel burken  Amy Jaffe 
Pedro J. Alvarez Rosa Dominguez-Faus Susan E. Powers Joel G. Burken Amy Myers Jaffe
Project Background   

Biofuels can reduce over dependence on foreign oil and provide an alternative revenue source for agricultural producers. However, successful implementation of a sustainable biofuels program requires careful consideration of environmental impacts. To avoid potential environmental impacts a holistic perspective that considers the broader implications of our energy policies is needed.

Recent research on the environmental implications of biofuels has focused on air pollution, carbon footprint, and net energy value. This research focuses on a critical knowledge gap, provides a systems-level complementary approach, and contributes to water security and sustainability.

We will examine the societal, economic, and environmental implications of biofuels. Increased water use associated with crop irrigation and industrial processing will jeopardize the water supply for other users or result in water quality degradation that impairs the recreational use of water bodies. “Economically feasible” implies that the value-added to the water used for biofuel production exceeds that of alternative uses. “Environmentally viable” implies the mitigation of water stress or water quality degradation to avoid impacts to ecosystem health, as well as decreased reliance on external water supplies at a time when global demand for water is rising while availability of readily accessible water is decreasing. The research will determine the amount of water needed to produce biofuels from different alternative crops, identifying its source, and evaluating potential impacts to water resources associated with increased agricultural drainage and related wastes. This is a critical first step for implementation of a robust and environmentally sustainable biofuels national program.

The research will assess the impacts to water resources associated with the production, distribution and use of three biofuels: biodiesel, ethanol, and butanol. Research objectives will determine:

  • Increased water consumption, impacts on other users, and water security.
  • Surface water pollution by increased fertilizer and pesticide use at the local and regional level.
  • Changes in land use and impact on soil health and erosion.
  • Groundwater impacts of biofuel releases and related risk management and remediation issues.
  • Identify potentially problematic fuel components, byproducts, and impurities.

Through this research, we will discern which potential environmental impacts result from feedstock production, biofuel processing, transportation, storage and use and pose a risk to critical water resources. We will develop and recommend policies to mitigate any of these impacts.

water footprint - cover
Project Report and Supplement  

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