Biofuels May Not Be the Answer, Turns Out
First, Second, and Third Generation Biofuels All Hamstrung by Insurmountable Issues
The name itself, biofuel, implies a clean-burning fuel. Made from crop fats and oils; biomass; or algae, the name makes biofuel sound like it would pollute less. The assumption has been — in relation to fossil fuels — that biofuels leave a minimal carbon footprint.
But, a 2017 study shows that biofuels can actually be more polluting than their fossil fuel counterparts. Biofuels, it turns out, can be far more polluting. Not only do several popular biofuels leave a large carbon footprint, production of biofuels has unintended consequences.
The consequences of biofuel production are having an effect on the people of countries around the world. Those in developing countries are at disproportionately high rates.
Biofuel Cleanliness a Product of More than Just Emissions
There are a wide variety of biofuel types and not all biofuels are equally clean. Unfortunately, many of the least expensive and most productive biofuels produce far more CO2 emissions than petroleum and diesel.
For more than a decade, scientists made the mistake of assuming emissions alone determine a fuel’s carbon-friendliness. But, determining the cleanliness of a biofuel requires accounting for more than just emissions. In relation to fossil fuels, production of biofuels is a lengthy and complex process.
And, the complex biofuel production processes are — in and of themselves — highly polluting.
Understanding Carbon Footprint of First and Second Generation Biofuel
In order to determine the cleanliness of a biofuel, scientists and researchers must account for a wide range of variables. Indirect land use is the primary consideration, whether growing biofuel crops lead to clear-cutting. Clearcutting is a major contributor to carbon emission greenhouse gases.
How much biofuel biomass waste — waste that biodegrades into CO2 — is another factor. The refinement process for biofuel also releases CO2. Transportation also contributes to the overall carbon footprint of biodiesel.
As a result of unintended consequences, biofuels — ethanol especially — is not nearly as clean as once thought.
Amount Biofuels Pollute is Surprising
Originally, reducing greenhouse gases was the intent and purpose of developing biofuels. But, according to a study conducted by The Royal Academy of Engineering, biofuels may not serve their intended purpose.
A leaked study obtained by Euroactiv is tossing conventional thinking about biofuels on its head. According to the report, biofuels are, “often as polluting as fossil fuels when all factors in their production [are] considered.” In addition to the leaked European Union study, several other recent studies are radically changing the perception of biofuels.
The world’s most popular biofuels produce more carbon dioxide per megajoule of energy produced than crude oil. Palm oil, soybean, and rapeseed biofuel produce far more CO2 than crude oil when indirect-land use is taken into account.
According to the study, palm oil, soybean, and rapeseed biofuel pollute 8% to 17% more than crude oil. Palm oil biofuel produces 105 grams of CO2 per megajoule of energy. Soybean biofuel produces 103, and rapeseed biofuel 95. Crude oil produces 87.5 grams of CO2 per megajoule.
That is comparable to the dirtiest of fossil fuels, oil from tar sands. Palm oil biofuel is only 1.9% cleaner than oil from tar sands.
“The EU’s scheme for certifying biofuels as sustainable requires them to emit 35% less CO2 than regular fuel.” And, that number is to increase to 60% by 2018. So, according to the Guardian, that, “[makes] palm oil, soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower looking all but dead.”
Biofuels, Indirect Land Use, and Food Shortages
One of the most detrimental effects of biofuel production is the creation of food shortages. The amount of land required to grow biofuel crops is significant. Depending on soil quality, two-and-one-half acres can produce between 1,300 and 2,600 gallons of biofuel per year.
The sum of agricultural land required to produce biofuel means choosing between producing biofuel and producing food. And the food shortage created is not insignificant.
According to UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food — Hilal Elver — biofuel is affecting crop prices. “[Biofuels] are having a huge impact on accessibility of food because of price increases. [This is especially the case] in developing countries,” Elver explains. “Moreover, in developing countries biofuel production is connected with the land grabbing and heavy pesticides use.”
But, rising food prices is just one of the concerning pitfall of biofuels.
Biofuels Costing Americans Billions in Subsidies
While biofuels are not creating a food shortage in the United States, they are taking a terrible toll on the economy. In 2003, — again, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases — U.S. legislators made ethanol supplementation mandatory. The European Union did as well.
Such importance did the U.S. and Western Europe put on ethanol additives to gasoline, legislators began subsidizing biofuel-crop farmers. Subsidizing farmers for unsold crops has a long history in the U.S. That tradition is not one many Americans are particularly proud of. And, because of biofuels, it seems to be happening again.
“Before the Renewable Fuels push, Midwest farmers were heavily dependent on taxpayers for subsidies,” explains Richard F. Cronin.
“Grain exports were subsidized. [It was] an effort to empty the grain bins before the next harvest,” explained the ClimateChangeDispatch.com guest writer. “Ethanol created a new domestic market for farmers, and for a few years they prospered.”
As a result of biofuel, “We’re back to grain oversupply again.”
Biofuel Burns Consumers
In addition to the fact that biofuels, “are not competitive in the marketplace; requiring massive subsidies and mandates from a broke federal government to even exist; drive up the price of all kinds of food at the grocery store; drive up the cost of gasoline at the pump; provide no environmental benefit over traditional petroleum-based fuels,” explains Forbes David Blockman, biofuels damage engines.
The problem stems from the fact that, “[biofuel is] a ‘living’ substance that can change and deteriorate over time.”
That poses a number of problems according to Norwegian research firm Gemini. For one, biofuels clog filters with a waxy substance. The fact that biofuel reduces engine power is another. Incomplete biofuel combustion — especially in cold weather — is a third common problem with biofuels.
Third Generation Biofuels No More Promising
Given the issues associated with ethanol and second generation biofuels made of biomass, there was hope for algae biofuel. “Fossil fuel oil and gas originated from ancient algae in large measure,” explains Psys.Org’s Kevin Flynn. The potential for a clean biofuel without the issues associated with first and second generation’s biofuels seemed promising.
Scientists believed chemical engineering processes could be used to produce biofuels using algae. But, alternative fuel companies are losing interest in the idea for several reasons.
For one, algae biofuel is no more efficient than crop biofuels. That is because the same amount of space would be required to produce algae biofuel. The thought was that large tanks could be used to grow algae which could be converted into biofuel. However, the fact that algae require sunlight to photosynthesize means shallow tanks are required. If the sunlight cannot reach the bottom of the tank, the algae cannot grow.
That means the amount of area required to produce algae biofuel would be extraordinary.
And, biodiesel tanks must be close to an industrial area that produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Without large volumes of CO2, again, algae cannot photosynthesize. Furthermore, the amount of energy produced by algae biofuel is significantly less than that of crop and biomass biofuel.
As new research pours in, it is becoming abundantly clear that algae biodiesel is as “dead” as first generation biodiesels.
Alternatives to Biofuel
Individuals, companies, sectors, and industries, are quickly losing patience with the shortcomings of biofuels. Even environmental advocates — those biofuels were meant to satiate — have lost patience with biofuel. So what is the solution?
Putting faith in biochemical engineering, a new and unproven science is proving fruitless. The rational solution seems to be trusting proven sciences. Traditional scientists and engineers are making great strides with respect to the reduction of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions.
The Rentar Fuel Catalyst in one example. Dropping CO2 emissions by up to 19.2%, the Rentar will also reduce black smoke by up to 44%. It lowers elemental and organic carbons by up to 35%. Between 35% and 58% is the sum the Rentar Fuel Catalyst reduces cancer-causing volatile organics.
Complete combustion of fossil fuels seems to be the ultimate solution for reducing fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions.