Bruce E. Dale, MSU: “Our current narrative about the way the world works is broken”


Bruce E. Dale in his lab at MSU
Bruce E. Dale in his lab at MSU

“They are on a journey of no return anyway. They are a “mining” industry, and all mines eventually become exhausted. The question is whether some or all of the petrochemical industry will realize this fact and act to change their feedstocks and practices so that their businesses can continue long term based on sustainable feedstocks and sustainable practices.” To say it – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Bruce E. Dale, a highly-ranked academic in the Top 100 People in Bioenergy (Bioenergy Digest). Professor Dale received his doctorate in chemical engineering from Purdue University in 1979. He is currently University Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan State University. He serves as Editor in Chief and Founding Editor of Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining. Dale has won the Charles D. Scott Award (1996), the Sterling Hendricks Award (2007) and the Award of Excellence of the Fuel Ethanol Workshop (2011). He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (2011) and a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers (2016).

His research interests are cellulosic biofuels, the relationship between energy and societal wealth, life cycle assessment and the design of sustainable systems for producing fuels, chemicals, food and animal feed.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Let’s start with a fact: climate change is real. In your opinion, is public opinion in the US and Europe aware of this? If it is not aware, what is the reason?

I think Europe is generally more aware and more concerned about the issue than the US.  The US is a much bigger user and producer of fossil energy than is Europe, so it is not in our “best interest” to recognize and deal with the problem.  Also, it is clear to many that our wealth (prosperity) is directly connected to how much energy we use.  Under current conditions, we will get poorer, much poorer, if we greatly reduce the use of fossil energy.

How do you consider the agreement signed at COP21 last December in Paris?

I think it is a good start.

And what do you think about the Obama administration’s action in the fight against climate change and in the support to the bioeconomy?

Some good and some not so good.  It is not easy to summarize.

Could you tell me one thing positive and one thing negative?

One positive thing is that coal burning has been strongly discouraged. One negative thing is that the Obama administration did not strongly support the Renewable Fuel Standard.

As far as you’re concerned, how strategic is the US Biopreferred Programme to boost the bioeconomy?

The program is a start, but it really is not very strong.  It lacks force and it is quite easy to avoid the requirement.

Scientists and engineers at universities, government laboratories, and companies are investigating a wide range of feedstocks and processes to develop advanced biofuels. Your research at Michigan State University is focused on advanced biofuels. What kind of feedstock do you use? And what are its advantages?

We focus on cellulosic, or non- food biomass (grasses, straws, wood chips, etc.), as our feedstock.  The advantage is that these materials are renewable, not very expensive and very abundant.

From your point of view, how can governments strengthen the link between agriculture and industry to support the development of the bioeconomy?

First, by recognizing that neither our agriculture nor our industry as currently practiced is sustainable. It simply cannot continue indefinitely in its current form. We need to reinvent and reimagine and redesign both agriculture and industry. We need to link sustainable agriculture to industry as a source of both raw materials and energy. And we need to complete the link by having the products and “wastes” of industry be easily incorporated back into global cycles, including cycles mediated by agriculture.

Fundamentally, our current narrative about the way the world works is broken. We need a new narrative. Government can help develop this narrative, but ultimately people need to see that an economic system that depends on continual growth, greater consumption year after year, is impossible.

Can the way towards sustainability be regarded as a journey of no return for the petrochemical industry?

Well, they are on a journey of no return anyway. They are a “mining” industry, and all mines eventually become exhausted. The question is whether some or all of the petrochemical industry will realize this fact and act to change their feedstocks and practices so that their businesses can continue long term based on sustainable feedstocks and sustainable practices.

One thought on “Bruce E. Dale, MSU: “Our current narrative about the way the world works is broken”

  1. Clifford Spencer 19 March 2016 / 10:50 am

    A sound analysis of the global position on fossil resources and their use. Sometimes it needs the well informed to shout more loudly as is happening with these comments.

    Developing countries are well positioned to turn the tide but need all the support and encouragement that leading thinkers and practitioners like Bruce can provide.

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