Biofuels: The ins and outs

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Broadly speaking, a biofuel is any plant or animal material that can be used as a source of energy. In fact, biofuel can be created from any carbon source that is easy to replenish, i.e. plants.

Biofuels can come in solid, liquid, or gas form – while you may think of ethanol or biodiesel when you hear biofuel, it would be just as correct to think of wood, perhaps the most popular biofuel for the last millennia. In some places dried cow pats or camel dung would be the biofuel of choice for cooking fires. So there is more to biofuels then just the liquid stuff that they think of sticking into vehicle tanks instead of petroleum-based fuels.

Another biofuel, theoretically, is methane gas that can be produced from slurry and general sewage via so-called methane digesters, or can be extracted from landfill sites directly. Methane gas is, basically, natural gas and thus can be used in the same way as can natural gas for heating, cooking, and electricity generation.

Why use biofuel?

Biofuel has a number of advantages to its use and one of them is the fact that biofuel is a renewable fuel source, whether it is wood or methane gas or ethanol or biodiesel.

When it comes to the automotive biofuels the jury really is still out as to the big selling points for biofuels that we are always being presented with, namely that they are more cost efficient and that they are cleaner.

The reason as to that is that the production is also very power intensive and so is the growing of the crops for biofuels which, in the case of ethanol, in the USA, is corn; the Brazilians have known to have used grass clippings and sugarcane leaves and other waste.

The being cleaner factor also is one that is not proven as yet and it is being suggested that biodiesel has some ten times or so more soot emissions, the particles that are a causal agent of asthma, than does petroleum-based diesel.

As regards to ethanol the suggestion is also that, aside from the growing of the corn causing a lack of food growing areas, it also has relative high CO2 emissions, higher, it is being mooted even, than gasoline. Are we about to jump from the frying pan right into a roaring inferno. If sure seems like it. And this just because we want to keep the infernal combustion engine motorcar running and keeping it runnin gin the same way as we run it today.

While some people talk about biofuels having benefits and are even happy to state that some of the benefits may be cancelled out by the negative effects the way things look there are much more negative effects and impacts than any positive ones.

If we talk methane then there are benefits in that the production of it can be backyard and done rather simple and it can run electricity generating plants, cook our food and heat our homes and, yes, theoretically, it could even, in the form of natural gas engines, power our motorcars and trucks.

Biodiesel and bioethanol (bio-gasoline, basically) are not an answer in any way, shape or form, and especially not with the big oil companies muscling in on the act, trying to push any small operator out of the market anyway.

Biodiesel predominately, it would appear, will be made from palm oil which is the causal agent of the wholesale destruction of the Asian rainforests and Indigenous lands and bi-gasoline (ethanol) also is a problem substance as the production of it will require land that will also be required for the growing of food crops. The choice, therefore, would appear to be either to drive cars and trucks or to eat. All this in the pursuit to maintain the business-as-usual concept of the infernal combustion engione transportation. No one is prepared to look at a different future and scenario and especially no one in government.

These drawbacks, while immense, need to be measured against our need to combat climate change and energy independence and without a doubt, biofuel is on the rise. The UK has certainly seen tremendous movement toward biofuels, where it has now become a requirement that 5% of energy sources to come from biofuel. It seems more a matter of when, not if, with biofuel. As oil reserves begin to dwindle, more and more governments will see the need to switch to biofuels. With that, a new industry will be born and the world, once again, we be defined by a new energy source. But this could be just another source that is causing harm to millions.

While we may have to develop some biofuels for the use in trucks, at least in the short term, and in buses, etc., we must wean us all of the personal ICE powered motorcar. We also must look at how we use energy and what type of energy and see as to whether changes can be made there.

Personal transportation – for short journeys – should be walking and cycling once again and we must, therefore, create, again, walkable and cyclable neighborhoods and also the countryside must be returned to such a way. It once was; it must be so again. We can no longer afford the personal ICE car and truck and biofuels are not the answer, regardless of what the powers-that-be try to tell us.

Let's listen to the scientists that warn against its use rather than the marketeers and governments who wish to placate the voters who cannot, possibly, contemplate life without the car. But it will have to be soon...

© 2011