Skip to main content

What are Biofuels?

Introduction

With prices for crude oil spiking in the recent past, and an unstable Middle East and intensifying effects of climate disruptions, the Obama administration and governments around the world have been promoting the development, and deployment of newer, more sustainable forms of energy generation, amongst which are biofuels.

What are Biofuels?


At the heart of every hydrocarbon based fuel (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, coal) are anaerobic degradation processes of organic material. For fossil fuels, the source of organic material comes from planctonic life, plants, and animals that lived and died millions of years ago. For biofuels, the source of organic material comes from planctonic life, plants or other sources of much more recent origin.

The important concepts to note are:

1.) Building up organic matter removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
2.) Burning hydrocarbon based fuels releases the carbon originally tied up in the form of carbon dioxide.

So when we pump up the oil and burn it, we are releasing carbon dioxide that was removed from the atmosphere millions of years ago. The idea behind biofuels is that instead of releasing all the carbon dioxide stashed away millions of years ago, we become "carbon-neutral" by only relying on carbon sources that recently died to make gasoline.

Take corn for instance. When corn is growing, carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere as the plant incorporates the carbon into various cell components of the growing plant. Corn fermentation, the same process that also makes beer and fine wines, produces ethanol which can be used as a fuel to run cars. So when ethanol is burned in a car, the only carbon released into the atmosphere again in the form of carbon dioxide is the one that the plant absorbed before. Different plants can be used depending on climate and local geographical conditions. But the previous example, describe the basic idea behind the first generation biofuels. Theoretically, this describes a closed loop circuit which is close to carbon neutral because carbon dioxide released does not come from oil but from the plants we grew to make the fuel.

Disadvantages of First Generation Biofuels

In reality, however, especially corn-based ethanol has many problems. First, there are certain technical issues related to the inefficiencies of converting food crop into ethanol. Energy cost of production, and transportation of crops and fuel further reduce the theoretical yield and make these first generation biofuels less carbon neutral.

More importantly, there are concerns that high demand for energy crops could lead to increased deforestation because it may become more profitable to make more room for energy crops. Clearing of land for energy crops often happens in the form of burning forest land which releases more carbon dioxide than would be absorbed by growing just monocultures of corn. Scientist call this a "carbon debt".

Lastly, corn is also a food source for humans and other animals. Faced with limited arable land mass and water resources, increasing the demand for corn so that it can be used for fuel generation also increases the food price of these products. Because poor people can ill afford to pay more money for basic food sources, even small increases in the price can have devastating consequences on a families ability to buy basic sources of food in the third world.

Further research and careful policy making can potentially contain each of the above mentioned problems. In the next post, we shall look at the advantages one such approach and ask how algae can generally be used to solve some of the energy challenges we face today.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Popular posts from this blog

Sustainable Living: Sunscreens

This is an important topic and so I want to get the most important things out of the way first:

Chemical sunscreens containing the following ingredients contribute to coral bleaching: 
OxybenzoneOctinoxateOctocrylene (used to also stabilize avobenzone)4-methylbenzylidine camphorAnything containing Parabens Don't be part of the problem and avoid using them! It's important to note that claims on sunscreens are not regulated and therefore, companies can put the wording "coral reef safe" on the packaging even though they contain the above chemicals. This is misleading if not outright false. Instead use "physical" sun screens that contain non-nanoparticle zink oxide. Physical sun screens differ from chemical sunscreens in that the sit ontop of the skin to reflect or scatter UVA/B rays away from the skin before it reaches it. Chemical sunscreens absorb the UVA/B rays instead to neutralize them.

To be clear, I am not proposing not using sunscreen! Instead use phys…

Focus on Algae - Part II: Energy

In the last focus section, we discussed how algae can be used to treat waste waters and mitigate CO2 in the process. Today's post will explore how algae can be used for energy generation. As already mentioned in the last time, biofuels have become very visible as of late due to environmental, economical and geopolitcal reasons. If at the heart of traditional biofuel generation lies in the creation and decomposition of biomass, then it would be easy to substitute corn or other less controversial land-based plants with algae. Although a lot of attention is paid to the use of algae in biofuel generation, and this article also mainly focusses on this aspect, it should be noted that algae can also be used to generate electricity by direct combustion of the biomass. Plans for these kinds of schemes are already on the way in Venice and a few other European locations [1].

Algae and Biofuels

What happens to the biomass after it has been created depends on the type of biofuel that is desired…

Sustainable Living: One man's trash...

Since Earth Week is starting tomorrow, I wanted share with you some concrete ways of how individuals like you and me can make an impact on a wider scale. I then also wanted to use this example to challenge everyone to think creatively about the larger context.

So you know how the saying goes: "One man's trash is another one's treasure." Today, I want to talk to you about garbage. Plastic garbage specifically. Plastic is quite a wondrous material. Made from oil by man with just a few additives can turn this polymer into so many different sorts of plastics with so many different properties from thin and flimsy plastic bags, to the carpet on which I am standing, to this plastic bottle from which I am drinking.