Nobel Laureate and current director of the Molecular Membrane Biology department at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics, Dr. Hartmut Michel is best known for his research on photosynthesis. He is one of the foremost experts in the world on how plants turn sunlight into energy. Armed with his vast knowledge, Dr. Michel has some strong opinions regarding biofuels and has empirically investigated the physical limits of each step of the process and has drawn important conclusions.
Dr. Michel observed that photosynthesis is not an efficient means of creating energy. Only 1% of solar energy is converted into chemical energy. 1%. Solar panels, for a comparison point, convert approximately 20% of sunlight into electricity, with room for increased efficiency.
While only 1% of the sun’s energy ends up in biofuels, a large portion of that 1% is derived from fossil fuels, making the amount of carbon emission reduction minimal, even negligible. Paradoxically, this completely wipes out any possibility of decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. To produce the crops that are turned into biofuel, a vast amount of arable land is used, degrading the soil. It’s also possible that the increased use of this arable land for biofuel crops will drive up the price of food. This will affect the poor and underprivileged the most.
Dr. Michel drew the conclusion that regardless what researchers and scientists may develop to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis for biofuels, the methods would never compare to other energy sources. He compared the Tesla Roadster, with its electric motor, to internal combustion engines. He discovered that a gas-powered car is 20-30% efficient and diesel-powered automobiles are 30-40% efficient. The electric Tesla Roadster has a drive efficiency of 88%. Therefore, according to Dr. Michel, the answer to the energy conundrum is a no brainer.
When one leading authorities on this issue feels that biofuels just cannot compare to the combination of photovoltaic cells/electric battery/electric engine, it may be time to listen.