Case: Next-Generation Biofuels


In this fictional case, a bioengineer completing a postdoctoral fellowship in sustainability considers his options for future employment. He would like to work with advanced microalgae production of biofuels. However, he is offered industry job developing first-generation biofuels, especially increasing yield.


Omar Carver recently completely a post-doctoral fellowship in Sustainability Studies. As a trained bioengineer, Omar had previously completed a doctoral dissertation on how to optimize properties of certain plant-based biofuels to become viable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. During that research, Omar became increasingly interested in issues of sustainability in addition to his research interests in developing alternatives to non-renewable resources. After he received his Ph.D., he became committed to pursuing research that would not only help to manage and protect the environment, but he also wanted to contribute to improving human welfare and global social equity.

During his post-doctoral research in Sustainability Studies, Omar became aware of the social and ethical issues concerning the development and use of plant-based biofuels, often referred to as first-generation biofuels. Studies have shown that the mass production of biofuels has destroyed rainforests, does not mitigate the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions (and sometimes worsens them), and has, in some instances, created farming conditions which limited local food supplies, drove up food prices, and exacerbated conditions of poverty.

Given Omar's growing awareness of issues in environmental and social justice, he has begun to explore the possibility of creating biofuels with microalgae. Some scientists think that this new kind of biofuel might present a sustainable alternative to cheaper fossil fuels and prevent some of the negative social and environmental impacts of first-generation biofuels, mostly derived from food crops. As a sustainability scholar, Omar is aware that this emerging technology also presents scientific, environmental, social, ethical and economic challenges, but he is excited about the possibility to pursue cutting-edge scientific research that has been referred to as the "next generation" of biofuel technologies, and that represents his goals and values.

However, a large energy conglomerate offered a position to continue his research on biofuels derived from plant oils. Many large energy corporations have taken control over the production of these first-generation biofuels and they are set on developing ways in which they can increase their yield and profit. While increasing biofuel plants' yield might lessen the consumption of land and water, and thus improve environmental conditions, Omar is still concerned with other ethical consequences of this research.

Discussion Questions:

  • What sorts of potential future consequences of emerging biotechnologies, such as plant-based biofuels and microalgae biofuels, ought to be taken into consideration during the R&D stage?
  • Who should be involved in negotiating national and international guidelines and regulations for research and development of these technologies?
  • What roles and responsibilities do governments from developed countries have in regulating the development and application of alternative sources of energy?
  • What are the social and ethical responsibilities of individual scientists, like Omar, in developing alternative sources of renewable energy, which may have such far-reaching impacts on the global economy, social and cultural arrangements, environmental health, and even climate change?


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The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Karin Ellison, OEC - Life and Environmental Sciences Editor, and Joseph Herkert, OEC Engineering co-Editor. They provided valuable input in selecting topics and crafting the resources.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 1355547, Karin Ellison and Joseph Herkert, Arizona State University sub-award Co-PIs. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Valerie Racine. . Case: Next-Generation Biofuels. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

In the last few decades, there has been much research and development on reliable alternatives to non-renewable energy resources. Government mandates to adopt biofuels as a way to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulted in large-scale production of plant-based liquid fuels – what are often referred to as “first-generation” biofuels.

The quick adoption of plant-based biofuel technologies during this time had many unforeseen negative social, environmental, and economic consequences. For instance, many challenged the claims that biofuels were effective at lowering GHG emission when compared to fossil fuels, and criticised large-scale production of biofuels as having adverse effects on environmental health, including the destruction of rainforests. Given that biofuel crops compete with food crops for land and resources, biofuels can also affect food prices and undermine food security. In addition to these negative impacts, resulting from direct land-use changes (dLUC), there are compounding effects of indirect land-use change (iLUC) in cases where other social and economic activities are displaced or natural resources are depleted because of large-scale production of biofuels (Buyx & Tait 2011; Mortimer 2011).

In 2009, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics established a working group to examine the ethics of biofuels and to outline an ethical framework to guide the future developmental and implementation of biofuel technologies in an economically feasible and sustainable way. The Council published its report in 2011 outlining five guiding principles for biofuel technologies:

  1. Biofuels development should not be at the expense of people’s essential rights (including access to sufficient food and water, health rights, work rights, and land entitlements).
  2. Biofuels should be environmentally sustainable.
  3. Biofuels should contribute to a net reduction of total GHG emissions and not exacerbate global climate change.  
  4. Biofuels should develop in accordance with trade principles that are fair and recognize the rights of people to just reward (including labor rights and intellectual property rights).
  5. Costs and benefits of biofuels should be distributed in an equitable way (Buyx & Tait 2011, 633).

The ethical principles were designed to provide an ethical “test” for future biofuel technologies and to prevent some of the negative consequences of first-generation biofuel production. The Council also considered whether there is a moral duty to develop biofuel technologies in light of impending climate change. They claimed that the underpinning principle to their ethical guidelines for biofuels is the “duty not to do nothing” (Buyx & Tait 2011, 636). In other words, if one accepts that biofuels can play an important role in mitigating climate change, then there is a duty to ensure the ethical and sustainable development and adoption of biofuels. 

The Council also looked forward to what some have called the “second and third generation” biofuel technologies, which aim to use less land and water resources and reduce social and environmental harms. These emerging technologies include using non-food crops, like trees, agricultural waste, and algae to produce biofuels, as well as taking advantage of better gene-modification tools to create variants with higher yields.

In addition to the ethical concerns already addressed in the Council’s report, these next-generation biofuel technologies present new challenges, such as concerns about intellectual property with new patented technologies, concerns about releasing genetically-modified organisms into the environment (and other environmental impacts), and concerns about how to govern and regulate the introduction of new technologies into existing social and economic structures (Tait & Oyelaran-Oyeyinka 2010).

In response to the Nuffield Council’s report, philosopher Paul B. Thompson, the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, has argued that using the concept of a technological trajectory is useful to understand and analyze the ethics of different R&D strategies of biofuel technologies (Thompson 2012). He points out that some of the rationales used to justify the development and adoption of biofuels, such as a push for energy independence in the US and incentives to find alternative uses for commodities like food-crops, have very little to do with the main goal of mitigating climate change. Attention to these trajectories can help foresee possible resistance to adopting new, next-generation, biofuels under current social and economic conditions.