Biofuels are liquid fuels which can be made from biomass like plant matter or manure. The two most common types of biofuel are ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is produced from fermented high carbohydrate materials, such as sugar or starches, or can be produced via a method called Gasification whereby “high temperatures and a low-oxygen environment us used to convert biomass into synthetic gas.” The resulting syngas can be converted chemically to ethanol and other gases. Biodiesel is made by mixing alcohol (usually methanol) with animal fat, vegetable oil, or recycled cooking oil. Pure biodiesel is the lowest emission diesel fuel available. In addition to these two liquid biofuels, solid biofuels include wood, sawdust, charcoal, grass trimmings, domestic refuse, dried manure, agricultural waste, and non-food energy crops. All three of these would be considered first generation biofuels.
Second generation biofuels would include “biohydrogen, biomethanol, biohyrdrogen diesel, mixed alcohols and wood diesel.” Lastly, third generation biofuels are produced using the lipid production from algae. Of course, as with all things new there are positives and negatives to the use, and first adopters are always the guinea pigs for that product. Below we’ve collected a series of the pros and cons for biofuel usage.
• Renewable - Biofuels are produced from plants and other organic materials which can be replenished on a regular basis and are easy to source.
• Clean - Biofuels produce far less greenhouse gas emissions than do fossil fuels. The amount of carbon dioxide production caused by the burning of biofuels is equal to the CO2 absorption capacity of plants, meaning little to no CO2 remains in the atmosphere.
• Flexible - Biofuels can be used wherever diesel fuel is utilized, in vehicles both land and marine, in electric generators, and can even be used as an environmentally friendly replacement for home heating oil.
• Economic Security - Many countries do not have their own natural fossil fuel reserves, a move toward biofuels would allow those countries to take control of their own energy production needs and become less dependent on foreign resources. Likewise, taking up the production of biofuels in country would create jobs in rural areas, and increase demand for suitable biofuel crops which would provide an economic stimulation for the agricultural sector of their own economy.
• Additives - Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel when used as additives instead of the main fuel source help to reduce emissions from vehicles.
• Inexpensive - They can be produced using local materials which lowers costs.
• Expensive - Biodiesel has a high initial investment requiring equipment for production in order to refine materials, as well as to farm biodiesel crops. Currently, the interest and capital investment can match demands, but should demand increase, the long term operation to increase supply will be quite expensive. In addition, costs for consumer purchase are higher than for fossil fuels, costing as much as $0.20 cents a gallon more than fossil fuel.
• High Land Use - More land would be required to meet higher demands for more biofuels, land that must be taken from other goals. That land may be already in-use farm lands which are currently farming crops for food production, or it may be land not yet cultivated which would then remove habitat for various species of plants and animals.
• Limitations in Use in Vehicles - Some biofuels require modifications to vehicle engines and are still being used as additives instead of fossil fuel replacements.
• Pollution - While there is not enough carbon dioxide produced to create a greenhouse effect, there is enough of a nitrous oxide effect to create a greenhouse effect. A possible two percent increase in nitrogen-oxide emissions. Biofuels offer limited benefits as compared to to new low emission engines or after-market PM-traps. Likewise, the lowered emissions from use are made up for with the higher emissions from production, where reliance on water and oil can create small scale water pollution.
• Untested - Currently, biofuels do not meet American Society for Testing and Materials standards. Many producers have been unable to produce biodiesel that meets ASTM 6751 quality due to their inability to remove all impurities and water during the washing and refining processes.
• Monoculture - This refers to the practice of producing the same crops in the same fields year after year which over time deprives the soil of nutrients required to grow those crops.
• High Water Use - Those biofuel crops require large quantities are water to irrigate which may strain local or regional resources.
• Low Energy Output - Biofuels have a lower energy output that requires greater quantities to be consumed in order to produce the same amount of energy as a fossil fuel. This has led some energy analysts to believe biofuels are not worth the work.
• Highly Combustible - Biodiesel production requires the use of certain chemicals which are highly combustible. While this is a trait shared by fossil fuels, it is not an improvement in the process of fuel creation.
• Temperature Effected - Biofuels which are high in levels of saturated fatty acids (tallow, lard, yellow grease) has the risk of freezing and forming crystals which can plug filters. This is generally applicable to engines which have previously used diesel fuels and were converted to biodiesel or with engines using mixes over B20; however, the issue seems to no longer be present once deposits of the old fuel have cleared from the system. However, using mixes over B20 can degrade gaskets and seal over time.
This article is not built with the intention of swaying the reader one way or the other, but rather to highlight the facts of the matter. Biofuels are still a new product and its use is still being tested and improved upon both by professional researchers and by common environmental enthusiasts. It seems that currently there are more cons to the use of biofuels than pros; however, you may choose to see those cons as unanswered questions as of yet. Future improvements upon the process of production or its use in the configuration of the engine may alter those cons to pros over time.