April 18, 2014
What Are Biofuels? Facts & Fiction – Advantage & Disadvantage
As energy consumption in the United States and around the globe continues to rise, governments are increasingly turning to alternative fuels to meet the ever-increasing demands of the world's energy needs. Solar, turbine, nuclear, and even hydropower plants all help to "feed the need," but a new crop of fuel types - known as biofuels - is really beginning to gain steam. In this blog, we are going to look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of this fuel type and discuss some common facts and fictions that pop up in biofuel discussions.
There are many different types of biofuels (ethanol, biofuel gasoline, bioethers, vegetable oil, and so forth), and while the different biofuels come in different matter types (liquid, solid, and gas), at the end of the day, all biofuels are made out of biological material that has recently become deceased - versus fossil fuels, which are created over millions of years.
These biological materials are not always plants. Other forms of biofuels come from deceased animals as well as biological waste, such as pig manure.
Below is a list of the different types of biofuels:
- Biofuel gasoline
- Green diesel
- Vegetable oil
There are many myths surrounding biofuels. Some claim that biofuels are actually harmful to the environment because they cause higher carbon emissions and require more energy to produce than they provide. Suffice it to say that research has shown the opposite on both accounts.
There is also a misunderstanding with regards to biofuels and subsidies. There are claims that biofuel producers will need massive subsidies (paid for by the taxpayers) to supplement them. While subsidies do help speed up the "commercialization" of biofuels and introduce them into the mainstream culture more rapidly, there are some cane and corn ethanol producers who no longer require subsidies to operate and have shown that with the right model, they can become profitable in the long term.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to biofuels is the fact that they are a readily renewable energy source, as the majority of them are created by plants, which can be replanted and grown again every year.
Biofuels are also "carbon neutral," meaning that the amount of carbon they release into the atmosphere is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon the plants they come from take from the atmosphere as they are grown. This can help to offset global warming issues related to greenhouse gasses.
Finally, biofuels are seen as a means to lower the price of fuel and - for those of us living in the United States - are seen as a way for us to become less dependent upon foreign countries to meet our ever-growing energy consumption demands.
Of course, like all things, biofuels have their perceived disadvantages as well. For starters, not all agree with the label "carbon neutral." While it is true that the amount of carbon released while the fuels are consumed is offset by the carbon the plants the fuel comes from consume, some argue that the machinery used to harvest and farm these biofuel crops creates additional carbon emissions. In addition, the machines that harvest these crops typically rely on fossil fuels versus agrofuels - a flaw that can probably be rectified in the future.
Even with the additional carbon release of farm equipment, however, biofuels are still believed to at least halve the number of carbon emissions.
Another disadvantage - both locally and abroad - is that biofuel crops require land to grow upon. In an increasingly industrial world, this can become a challenge, as less and less farm space becomes available. In addition, some bring up the fact that third-world countries are not able to create and sustain crops for food and that biofuel crops could exacerbate this problem.