(Long Island, NY) In today’s environmentally-conscious worldview that is being shared by more and more people, alternative fuel sources are the Holy Grail of the “green” movement. There are many new ways to eschew hydrocarbon-laden gasoline when it comes to filling up your vehicle’s tank at the pump, and one of the most oft-talked about are biofuels- mainly ethanol and biodiesel. However, there are two nagging issues plaguing these new fuels; mainly, availability and genuine effectiveness. Not being able to find a local gas station offering an alternative fuel option pump is bad enough, but even if you do, just how effective is that biofuel stuff anyway…and is it as “green” as it’s built up to be by the media?
So just what IS biofuel? Well, that’s not a simple question, and the answer can be equally complex. However, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory lays down the ins and outs of exactly what this new alternative fuel is, in both of its current, most commonly-found forms: ethanol and biodiesel, both of which reduce the amount of fossil-fuel hydrocarbon that is expelled into the air when used in motor vehicles.
“Ethanol is an alcohol, and is commonly made by fermenting any biomass high in carbohydrates through a process similar to beer brewing. Today, ethanol is made from starches and sugars. Ethanol is mostly used as blending agent with gasoline to increase octane and cut down carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions.” they said. “Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol (usually methanol) with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease. It can be used as an additive (typically 20%) to reduce vehicle emissions or in its pure form as a renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines.”
Use of biofuel has been pushed by environmental advocates in recent years as topics such as pollution and climate change have reared their heads in the public consciousness; blog Yellow Pages Goes Green notes that the current Obama administration has implemented various measures to curtail the emission of potentially toxic gasses and waste products into the atmosphere by both public and private power utilities.
“On the heels of the May 6 release of the National Climate Assessment, which details numerous ways in which the United States is already suffering the consequences of climate change and predicts much worse to come if this country fails to change its evil ways, the Obama administration has announced a plan designed to achieve a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2030,” they said. “In one of its biggest steps ever toward confronting the issue of global warming, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will, tentatively by 2015, finalize regulations creating the first national limits on the carbon dioxide emitted from this country’s power plants. Currently, carbon dioxide pollution from power plants comprises a third of America’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
That statement along should illustrate how seriously the currently administration is taking the ongoing emission issues; biofuel is being touted as yet another way that the average motorist can cut down on the pollution that their vehicle of choice spews into the atmosphere on a daily basis, be it on a jaunt to the corner store or a road trip to the campgrounds. However, the end-all, be-all savior of gas tanks everywhere has run into some issues as it gears up for mass-market consumption, and some of the major problems its facing is that it’s not as easy to produce as originally thought when compared to traditional gasoline; it’s a potential drain on national (and even world) food resources; and it’s not a particularly versatile fuel source, all according to The Economist.
“Frustratingly, making biofuels in large quantities has always been more expensive and less convenient than simply drilling a little deeper for oil. Ethanol and Biodiesel are made from plants rich in sugar, starch or oil that might otherwise be eaten by people or livestock,” they said. “Ethanol production already consumes 40% of America’s maize (corn) harvest and a single new ethanol plant in Hull is about to become Britain’s largest buyer of wheat, using 1.1m tonnes a year. Ethanol and biodiesel also have limitations as vehicle fuels, performing poorly in cold weather and capable of damaging unmodified engines.”
The Economist notes, however, that some companies are investing into research and development of “second generation” biofuels that make use of agricultural waste products not usually viable as foodstuffs; it remains to be seen how effective (and cost-effective) these new biofuels will be, but with world hunger a very real and growing issue, creating a new form of biofuel that doesn’t tax the world’s food supply would be a great boon indeed.
If successful, the widespread adoption of biofuel can indeed be a great benefit to mankind. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC), biofuel has a great many potential benefits that range from protecting the environment to improving the economy.
“Biofuels can be low in carbon intensity (the net amount of carbon released to the atmosphere) - as long as uptake by other growing plants balances the carbon that is released in biofuel production and use. Also, locally-grown biofuel can enhance energy security by increasing independence from petroleum,” they said. “Some biofuels may burn more cleanly than fossil fuels, and marketing of biofuel feedstocks can boost the profitability of farming and logging, and improve the economies of rural communities. In addition to recovering energy that would otherwise be wasted, use of biological wastes for fuel saves the cost, pollution and carbon release associated with traditional disposal.”
However, the NYDEC is quick to point out that there remains much testing to be done to determine the true, long-term effectiveness (both as a fuel and as a stalwart environmental ally) and economic sustainability of biofuels in a general marketplace.
As you can see, there’s a great debate going on in regards to biofuel; it’s a viable alternative to petroleum-based fuels, but is it the next step we as consumers and environmental advocates should take in order to safeguard both our health and the health of the Earth for generations to come? Do your own research and determine if biofuel (and the potential upgrades you may have to have done on your vehicle in order to make it compatible) is for you.