Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The economic and environmental feasibility of biofuels Vs fossil fuels

By Madison Jones, August 2012**

Today’s post by Madison Jones, a researcher and writer about emerging trends in biology education and sub-programs in biology, delves into the debate over the economic and environmental feasibility of biofuels in comparison with fossil fuels. Here, Madison emphasizes the economic and governmental interests in developing biofuels to replace fossil fuels, suggesting that this is an industry and academic field to watch. However, the obvious pros to developing effective biofuel technology are sometimes overshadowed by the cons, like the concern that using crops for fuel will eliminate land for food crop production, as was mentioned in a post from May 2012.

Solving the Oil Crisis with Biology Instead of War and Politics

The advent of biofuels technology has been touted as a sustainable solution to problems stemming from the global oil shortage. However, factors such as cost, fuel economy and vehicle performance have led many industry experts to pose the question: are biofuels really a feasible alternative to petroleum-based fuels?

A biofuel is defined as any fuel source derived from naturally occurring biological processes. They are generally defined into two classes. First-generation biofuels are rendered from starches, sugars, animal fats, vegetable oils and other substances that are easily extracted from their source; second-generation biofuels, on the other hand, are derived from woody biomass, lignocellulose, agricultural waste and other materials from which energy extraction is a much more complex, difficult process. Despite the economic recession, biofuel production has spiked on a worldwide level. In 2010, global biofuel manufacture increased by 17% to 105 billion liters; leading produers included the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and China.

Given current biofuel models, the most feasible alternative to petroleum appears to be biodiesel – particularly, biodiesel that is derived from a clean-burning feedstock like vegetable oil. Biodiesel can be poured directly into a diesel engine; other biofuels must be blended in order to power vehicles. Studies have also shown that biodiesel outperforms petrodiesel in terms of lubrication ability, largely because the former does not require sulfur to enable lubrication. Two brands of biodiesel – B100 and B20 – emitted significantly fewer hydrocarbons and less carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide; however, emissions of carbon dioxide and particulate matter were actually higher than petrodiesel. Another drawback to biodiesel is fuel economy; in order to achieve the same mileage-per-gallon as petrodiesel, vehicle operators must pay 5% less per gallon for biodiesel. In addition, some motorists have complained that biodiesel performs poorly in cold weather. Despite these problems, biodiesel has become quite popular in Europe over the last few years. And according to Science Daily, an economically viable form of biodiesel rendered from microalgae could be available to consumers within 10-15 years.

In contrast, ethanol – the most widely used biofuel in North and South America – has been criticized as an unfeasible alternative to petroleum. The problem partially stems from its source. In the United States and Canada, ethanol is primarily rendered from either corn or soybean crops. According to USA Today, this poses a problem to the nation’s food supply; a 2006 study suggested that second-generation ethanols (most of which are currently still in development) would lower the environmental impact without diminishing the energy efficiency. However, feedstock is merely one of the concerns regarding ethanol. Like biodiesel, ethanol’s critics have noted substandard fuel economy. Vehicle owners who use E10 (or gasohol) achieved 3-4% fewer miles per gallon than regular gasoline, while those who used E85 achieved 25-30% fewer miles per gallon. But ethanol is not without its positive aspects. A 2009 study conducted at the University of Nebraska found that ethanol lowered carbon emissions by more than 50% when compared to gasoline. And due to its widespread production throughout the Americas, ethanol has proven to be a cash crop for many farmers struggling through the recession.

Interestingly, the most efficient and economically viable biofuel may be years away from public availability. Last year, Science Daily reported that scientists were working to develop biofuel rendered from seaweed (or kelp). Since this matter would be harvested in the sea, it would be seen as a feasible alternative to “terrestrial grown biofuels” that take up precious agricultural space. And since marine ecosystems are home to more than 50% of the world’s total biomass, researchers are optimistic that the seaweed biofuel would be a sustainable model. But before this biofuel is produced, scientists must first identify high value substances and develop techniques for their extraction.

The feasibility of biofuels as alternatives to petroleum depends on who is asked. According to many environmentalists and ‘green-minded’ individuals, sustainable fuel sources are integral to the livelihood of Earth. But while many economists and engineers may agree with that statement, they are quick to point out that a viable alternative to fossil fuels simply has not yet been made available to the public.

** For any feedback on this article, please contact Madison Jones on email:

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