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Apr 22

Are Biofuels a Viable Alternative to Fossil Fuels?

Posted in Biofuels | Environment and Sustainability

Biofuel Food Crisis With food-related riots erupting in many poor countries the debate surrounding biofuels have heated up again. How viable are they, considering numerous other options easily available to developed as well as developing and under-developed countries?

Biofuels like ethanol, butanol and biodiesel are made from agricultural crops. The global biodiesel industry is touted as among the fastest-growing markets in the chemical industry with the European Union setting up a target of getting 5.75% of transport fuel from biological resources by 2010. Somewhat similar trends are manifest in America and other developed and developing countries.

The greatest motivator for producing biofuels is the global warming caused by the constant burning of fossil fuels. On the other hand, the biofuels are supposed to cause less pollution, and they are also biodegradable.

Of course this means food that could have been used to feed millions of starving people is being used to produce fuel. According to World Bank around 100 million people face starvation in the wake of the current food-shortage crisis. Although many claim that the food shortage has been triggered by a sudden shift in the eating habits of people in China and India, the impact of biofuel production on food-security cannot be ignored. You can also add to this the accelerated rate of deforestation once every kind of plant can be used as fuel, and once more and more land is needed to grow crops needed to produce oil.

So what’s the alternative? Although biofuels are far better than fossil fuels, they shouldn’t be produced by starving people and destroying the already-depleting forests. Better alternatives like wind energy, solar energy, energy produced by tidal waves and nuclear energy can completely revolutionize the energy scenario in the world. All we need is the political will, and the will to put humanity above economy.

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  • Bob Wallace

    I suspect biofuels can play a valid role in part of our transportation system. It’s going to be hard to power an intercontinental airliner with batteries.

    Biofuels are at least somewhat carbon neutral, unlike fossil fuels. To the extent that we need an energy dense fuel then biofuels might be the best solution.

    But for those of us who simply want to drive to work, the to store, or on a summer vacation battery powered (BEVs) and plug in hybrid (PHEVs) vehicles are a more workable solution.

    We are starting to see wind power produced at a price comparable to other electricity sources. (Cheaper than carbon sequestered coal.) And cheap thin film solar has hit the market. No need to take up farm land and water to produce our personal fuel.

    Take a look at one of the BEVs that seem to be headed our way.

    5 passenger, 300km/185 mile range on a charge, overnight full charge from household outlet or an 80% ‘rapid charge’ in 15 minutes.

    2,000 charge cycles on the batteries. That’s an anticipated > 350,000 mile life per set.

  • Paur

    Biofuels are a sedative for the automobile drivers and the related industries. In fact it looks attactive at first sight to harvest al little bit of biomass and to solve our fuel problems. However this scheme is not a solution but it exacerbates the problems.
    1) there is not enough biomass in industrialized countries to produce enough fuel leading to a food crisis.
    2) the biofuels produce even more greenhouse gases (N2O) than they avoid

  • Phillip Cantor

    There are different types of biofuels. Each has its own costs and benefits to the planet. The students at my high school have converted an old diesel car to run on waste vegetable oil (WVO) which we recycle from local restaurants. We are taking a waste product that must be disposed of and using it as a valuable fuel. The WVO does come from agriculture crops, but since it is a waste stream it has already been used for frying food. We filter the oil to clean it of food particles and it runs beautifully in our modified Mercedes 300 TD. It produces no net CO2 and has lower emissions of particulate and other pollution than diesel.

    WVO is not a large scale solution, but on a city-wide or regional scale it could work to reduce the amount of petrolium used without putting additional pressure on food stocks. Picture a municipal waste veggie oil collection program which would gather and filter oil from many restaurants and food processing plants. This oil could then be used in busses or other municipal vehicles.

    WVO: All the benefits of biofuel without most of the societal costs.

    Phil Cantor
    Teacher, North-Grand HS Chicago

  • Ron

    Bio-fuel is part of the solution, not a complete answer. It need not take food from those who lack. Bio-mass that is not currently used for food can be part of the source. Algae farms on land that is not used for other uses is also a part of the picture. To ignore the need of transport vehicles using a fuel substitute is to ignore the very bases of change needed to replace fossil fuels. We must at least for a time embrace the use biofuel to power the ships, airplanes, and trucks that deliver our goods.

  • Jeff Baker

    Food plus Fuel

    Corn diverted to ethanol would otherwise be fed directly to livestock, not people. 3 out of 5 bushels of corn are fed to animals for the meat and dairy industry. Last year, the starch was removed from 1 out of 5 bushels of corn to make ethanol. And since cattle have trouble digesting the starch, it would have gone to waste anyway. The other half of that one bushel of corn produced high protein distillers grains livestock feed, plus corn oil. The byproducts of ethanol production are used to produce food. Corn ethanol equals Food plus Fuel.

    There is a surplus of corn. Farmers would like to export more, but exports of corn are flat. The same amount was shipped in 2006 and 2007. However, exports of high protein distillers grains doubled during the same time period. Increasingly, distillers grains are being imported by foreign countries to fatten animals, as consumption of meat and dairy products in China and other foreign countries is on the rise. Does that sound like ethanol is causing starvation? Far from it.

    ICRASAT, a research group of agricultural scientists in India have developed a variety of Sweet Super Sorghum that produces a phenomenal 44 tons per acre per year from 2-3 cuttings. The juice is squeezed to make ethanol; the tops produce grain for human consumption; the leaves are used for animal feed; and the stalks produce fiber and burn pellets. Again, Food plus Fuel.

    In Vicksburg Arizona is a 2,700 acre dairy farm integrated with a state of the art dual fuel biorefinery, operated by XL Renewables. Corn is fractionated into 3 components. The starch is converted to ethanol. The oil is extracted from the corn germ and made into biodiesel. And the high protein distillers grains byproduct supplements the diet of on site dairy cows increasing milk production by 10%. The CO2 is collected and sold for industrial use. Self-powered from adjacent dairy cow manure producing methane, this is a 10 to 1 efficiency plant, totally disconnected from the grid.

    Biofuel critics make the mistake of lumping together all biofuels, which includes corn ethanol, sorghum ethanol, biodiesel, biogas methane, biocrude oil, cellulose ethanol, biobutanol, synthetic biofuels, and more. Lumping all forms of biofuels together and smearing them is ignorant and unscientific. Each type of biofuel has a very different set of parameters. You would need to do a case study on actual farms and biorefineries to be accurate. Furthermore, the biofuels industry is evolving and diligently reinventing itself. Sure, if you use old data, you can make ethanol look pretty bad, but corn and sorghum farming and ethanol production is much more efficient today than it was just three years ago. Today, the average return is over 2 to 1. And when a source of manure is used for production power, and distillers grains are consumed by nearby feedlots, the return can be much higher.

    Its remarkable how many people make false claims about corn ethanol, without knowing what they are talking about. While one oil company embraces ethanol, another is afraid of losing its oil monopoly. Keep in mind, as the production of biofuels increases, the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel in the U.S. continues to slow, thereby offsetting the rising price of oil caused mostly by speculation.

    The rising price of crude and the fuels that are derived from it has caused everything to be more expensive, including grains shipped globally.

    Ethanol plays an important role in waste disposal, and so does methane. The two fuels are becoming integrated. Manure, agricultural waste, organic garbage, and sewage, detrimental waste products that cost money to dispose of, are being converted into methane, from which power and ethanol are being produced. We are also making ethanol and biodiesel from Algae, grown on methane digester effluent waste. Farm manure that is left to rot or run off releases methane gas into the atmosphere, which is 22 times more potent than CO2 as a green house gas. Critics typically ignore the fact that biorefineries are mitigating this problem.

    If people are starving, its because they live in countries with corrupt governments that are confiscating most of the food aide before it gets to the people. Food is also a control mechanism. When people are hungry, they will do anything to survive. Hunger is also caused by global organizations who have groomed poverty stricken countries to become dependant on outside sources of food, instead of helping them to grow their own and be self reliant. With a few exceptions, food is available around the world. However, for the poor, food is not affordable, because the energy to produce it and ship it keeps rising faster than income, due to the rising price of crude oil.

    If you are concerned about people starving, then you and your friends should skip a few meals now and then and send them overseas. Take a look around. There is no shortage of food. Two thirds of Americans are overweight. With the high price of oil, it’s the higher cost to produce and ship the food to where its needed that is a cost constraint.

    Instead of making false claims about biofuels, take a closer look at the amount of money Americans are blowing on two oil wars: One to control a new oil pipeline running though Afghanistan, which the U.S. bullied away from the Taliban. The order to restrict the flow of Iraqi oil down to half of what it was before the war. These two American wars caused crude oil to triple, from $40 a barrel to over $120 a barrel, in just a few years. As a result, higher fuel and transportation costs have made everything more expensive, INCLUDING FOOD. Huge amounts of fuel are being consumed by the military, driving up the demand for oil and pushing fuel prices higher. Speculation in oil futures is doing the same. Shipping surplus food now costs way more than it used to. If anyone is going hungry, blame Big Oil for manipulating supply and price, before you blame biofuels.


  • Max

    Do you think Biofuels are a viable alternative? The answer as with most questions like this is both yes and no. Are they an alternative with the current energy use patterns, no because there is not sufficient crop space to create sufficient biofuel of any type to replace all the oil used. Is it a viable part of the solution, conditionally yes. Conditions include but are not limited to the need to reduce our energy needs through efficiency and most importantly population reduction (lower populations need less energy). A system whereby growing the biofuel does not negatively impact the environment such as cutting down forests to grow more fuel. The recognition that fuel production should not displace necessary food production such that food costs become elevated. In other words a system to ensure sustainable and appropriate biofuel production similar to the FSC designation for lumber or the Organic designation for food. Like anything else if done the wrong way creating and using biofuel can create more problems than it solves. The potential is good, current implementation is extremely flawed.

  • superrick

    I sit and watch as everyone talks and complains about what oil is doing to the world but so few people know or believe in the FACT that we can power everything from water. The problem is every time yet another inventor figures out another method of free power they cannot get a patent for it and they usually end up dead after refusing to sell there new invention to the oil companies. Wake up people of the world, you can run your car on nothing but water. Take your pick. Hydrogen on demand from water or simply explode the water with high voltage. Can’t be done? Oh really? Check the Internet. Learn to do it yourself. I did. What’s sick is those of us who do experiment and learn how are threatened and kept from selling our inventions and its all about greed. The world will not let the people have free energy. There is just to much money to be made to allow it to happen. Well its just a matter of time, too many people know about free power now and are doing it themselves.

  • mokhtar

    Why is everyone blaming biofuel for causing hunger and food shortages? In the first place, war, corrupted governments and tribal warlords in Africa has always caused widespread hunger and starvation (remember Ethiopia in the 80’s & 90’s ?)Even distribution of food aids are major problems. Places like Asia, where governments have neglected the development of agriculture products in favour of other industrial developments, caused widespread takeovers of agriculture lands in favour of pollution causing industrial developments. Productivity of existing agriculture lands dwindled due to lack of monitoring and education by the Ministries responsible for agriculture. Global warming, of which bio-fuel is part of the solution, not part of the problem, is causing widespread floods in food producing countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. I personally think that high prices of food only serves to highlight inefficient uses of lands, poor logistical plannings, and corrupted Governments and their agencies ! Long live biofuels !

  • GreenEnergyTV

    I definitely think that biofuels are a huge step in the right direction. But with what it is going to do to our cash crops industry will be very detrimental. The amount of land that goes into producing a certain number of corn fields for biofuel would be considered useless to the farmers. Or maybe if the farmers found it to be more profitable, even worse, they would decide to produce only biofuel crops and therefore cause even more chaos in our farming industry then needed.

  • Bob Wallace

    As world population continues to increase we are likely to need all the food-producing land that we have available.

    We’ve got a couple of schemes for growing fuel where we can’t reasonably grow food – algae tanks and very low quality soil. Switchgrass is looking like a good candidate for burned out cotton land in the Deep South.

    But it’s fairly likely that biofuels will be used for long distance trucks and trains and for airplanes. The stuff that doesn’t work with batteries as we know them.

  • gordon

    Biofuels are only a very short term step. They are not sustainable alternatives to our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to be more vigilant on energy conservation as well as land conservation, if not we will be very soon be looking at global food shortages. The answers are in solar, wind, hydrogen, and hydro. Some are willing to go the route of nuclear, which has the draw back of the radioactive waste and contamination. If you support the nuclear route, can the power company put the spent fuel rods under your bed? Above all else we need to rethink and relearn our values, and more over our way of looking at at success. We need to look past how people get around, how and where people live, and how much we waste rather than how we save and how long we have to work to get by. Our greed has gotten into this mess and now we need some American UNITY to get over it. We need to look at the long range benefits of investments in solar and wind on per building level, we could off set the need for a few nuclear plants if we all had solar on our homes and business buildings. With gas pushing $4.25 the extra money for solar electric and electric or hydrogen cars sre looking more feasible by the minute. Rather than the government spending millions on biofuel development for personal use the money would be better used to expand mass transit and the development of a viable energy plan including better batteries for electric cars and safer nuclear energy. thanks for the space to put my pinions out there.

  • jJ.R.Harbison

    By the time you plow the field plant the crops, harvest, freight, handle the corn etc.etc.etc. What have you gained when you have used up a couple of gallons of diesel doing it? Take the subs. out of it the biofuels would be found in history books only.

  • Ted Rado

    The most elementary calculations show that:
    1) All the corn grown in the US will replace only a small part of gasoline consumption.
    After subtracting the fuel used to grow and process the corn, the NET available fuel
    is either very small or actually negative.
    2) Cellulosic ethanol costs much more to produce, and the technology is not fully
    developed. The total raw material available also limits the gross production to
    a small fraction of demand. NET production after allowing for fuel for production
    is negative.
    3) All biofuels schemes suffer from the same problems. They are limited by available
    land area and by the fuel consumed in its production. Some require huge amounts of
    fresh water, which causes additional problems.

    Other renewable energy schemes have serious limitations. Wind power must be backed up with standby thermal power plants. As long as the amount of wind power is small, existing power supplies can act as backup. If a large amount of wind power capacity is built, dedicated thermal power backup must be built. This more than doubles the capital cost. Experience shows that wind power supplies from 25 to 50 percent of rated capacity due to vagaries of the wind.

    Solar power has the same problems. There must be standby power when the sun isn’t shining, with attendant high cost.

    Without going into detail, all alternative energy schemes suffer from problems of small power production at high cost, or various other severe limitations. Remember that people have been searching for sources of energy since ancient times. The idea that some magic bullet is right around the corner is a cruel hoax.

    The French have gone all out for nuclear energy. They produce 80% of their power via nuclear plants. They reprocess the spent fuel and reuse 96% of it, hence have little waste to dispose of. For reasons best known to the gods, we in the US refuse to do this.

    A suggestion to those interested in this subject: run some simple mass and energy balances on the proposed schemes. You will find, as in the case of corn ethanol, that there is a fatal flaw or flaws in most if not all of the the schemes being proposed. Without such calculations, any number of ideas can appear to have merit upon superficial examination.

  • Simon Goldsmith

    Nice to see someone mentioned Cellulosic Ethanol. Of course, biofuels are only part of the solution – but they have their place and technologies that make Cellulosic ethanol production more efficient cannot be discounted – this process uses waste material and has a by-product that can be used for animal feed. This can earn farmers extra money without affecting food prices, and benefit them further by producing valuable animal feed from what was previously wasted material. Almost any plant can be used in this process, meaning it is suitable for any number of different locations and conditions.

    So biofuel crops can be used to benefit and enrich farmers and not damage world food prices. However, it is certainly reasonable that we do not switch our fuel usage and expect to be able to entirely replace fossil fuel with biofuel. A reasonable future will see all sorts of alternative energy sources being “tapped”.

  • Bryan Roberts

    Currently we are working on a construction project that uses a constructed wetland for tertiary sewage treatment; the wetland is filled with cattail which filters the waste water. These cattails are being fertilized, not with petroleum based fertilizers as the above video suggests, but instead they are being fertilized with human waste which would have normally been dispersed in a drain field into the soil. These cattails are growing exponentially faster than they would in a wild pond; the rhizomes are full of starch, which is why the American Indians used them as a food source, they don’t taste that great which is why we don’t. For those that know ethanol, you know that starch = ethanol; so when you rethink what the young lady was saying in the video about food shortage and biofuel production requiring petroleum fertilizers, think poop! There is a lot of sewage out there that could be used to produce energy.

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