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Fuel for the Climate

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

By Tara Kuijpers | Biofuels: just another alternative or our saviour in the making?

The first point that needs to be cleared, is what biofuels are and are used for. Biofuels are fuels that are derived from biological matter, through processes like agriculture and anaerobic digestion. The biological matter used for biofuels is plants, agriculture or waste from commercial, domestic and/or industrial activity. This is called biomass, which is converted into energy-containing substances through thermal, chemical or biochemical conversion. The substance acquired is either gas, liquid or solid.

One example is bioethanol, which is alcohol made by fermentation of biological material, and can be used as it is as fuel for vehicles. Biodiesel is also used for vehicles, and is derived from oils or fats by the process of transesterification. Bioethanol is used and produced mostly by the US and Brazil, whereas the EU is the biggest player concerning biodiesel. The use of biofuels in cars has been steadily increasing over the years, with at least 80% of all cars produced in Brazil to be hybrid, allowing bioethanol and regular gasoline. First generation biofuels are what we get from sugars, starch and vegetable oils, whereas second generation biofuels are what is manufactured from biomass, mainly organic carbon or animal materials.

An obvious benefit of biofuel is that not only does it recycle waste, but it also emits drastically less Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) than fossil fuel usage does. Then there is the simple fact that not every country has oil reserves hidden away in the ground, whereas every country has some sort of waste from either the domestic, economic or industrial sector, which means biofuels will contribute to economic security, especially when reducing dependence on foreign oil, and fossil fuels in general.

So far it all sounds very positive, and the fact that the rise of biofuels moderates oil prices is also a plus. However, there is also some criticism, as with any subject or novelty one may choose to debate. The food vs. fuel discussion revolves around whether it is ethical to “waste biological material” like corn and starch to make fuel, while there are millions of people who are in dire need of proper nutrition. Farmlands being used for the purpose of creating matter for the biofuels instead of producing food for the people. Then again, second generation biofuels can combine farming for food as well as fuel, whilst also generating electricity, which could obviously be very beneficial for developing countries.

The idea of “simply making more space for producing the necessary biological material” leads to another fear: overwhelming demand for biofuels, will lead to natural habitats being destroyed in favour of creating new farmland. Deforestation is the first example that comes to mind, as well as monoculture, which implies growing the same crops every year instead of rotating and thereby giving the soil the nutrients it needs.

Another issue is the high cost of production (especially in the current market), plagues by oil lords and lobbies. However, as always with economy, when demand rises, so must and will supply, and eventually technology will have advanced sufficiently to make biofuels cheap enough to take over the energy market, or at least render fossil fuels redundant.

The biggest downside I could find, which will remain a reason to lay off of biofuels until a solution is found, is that even though the use of biofuels barely emits GHG, their production unfortunately requires a great deal of water and oil, thereby balancing out the emissions. On top of that, the use of fertilizers when growing crops is harmful to the environment due to the nitrogen and phosphorus that will seep into the water through the soil, yet very useful to improve the growth of the plants. Technology still needs to improve to the point where oil isn’t needed, and where water won’t be polluted or used to such extent for the biofuel production processes, since that meddles with local water supplies.  Initially, the cost of biofuels will rise due to the amount of research that needs to be repaid, but I’m confident that eventually, prices will become reasonable. Besides, gasoline is annoyingly expensive, and definitely does the environment no good, whereas biofuels have great potential for being harmless.

To conclude, since there is a threshold above which enough biofuel material cannot be produced without impacting either the environment (natural habitats) or food supplies, the focus will have to be on second generation biofuel technology. Indeed, not only do second generation biofuels make for better competition for fossil fuel, they also do not impact the environment negatively, since only what we consider waste (stems, leaves, husks, etc.) is used, thereby also leaving out food supplies untampered with. In my opinion, and to conclude this diatribe, in which you have read the word biofuel far too many times for it not to seem ridiculous, they are definitely a positive step towards reducing GHG emissions and improving the environment as a whole.

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