The world is moving towards alternatives to our current fuel sources. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels?
Biofuels provide a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. However, biofuels also come with higher costs and contribute towards global warming in different ways from the fuels we use today.
As with all things, there are plenty of pros and cons to biofuels that should be taken into account when considering whether or not you want to use biofuels or not.
Biofuels are not as common as other kinds, but there has been extensive research in the field, and we have compiled that information for convenience in this article.
What are Biofuels?
Before we look at the pros and cons of biofuels, let’s cover what they are and where they come from.
The term ‘biofuels’ is pretty self-explanatory. They are fuels that come from biological sources (called biomass) through contemporary processes rather than the slow geological processes that form the more widely used fossil fuels used today.
Biomass is the term used to describe plant or animal material that can be used as fuel for electricity or heat. This includes wood, waste material from forests and farms, or even energy crops. Sometimes, biomass is used directly as fuel, while other times it is used as raw material to make biofuels.
Sometimes, people use biomass and biofuel interchangeably, and while this is not wholly incorrect due to the fact that biomass is used for fuel, the two are considered to be different by most, including the US Energy Information Administration. Generally, biomass is considered the raw material used to make biofuels or the solid end product that is thermally or chemically modified in some way – such as briquettes or pellets.
Biofuel, on the other hand, usually refers to the liquid or gas fuels used in transportation. These are pretty much equal to petroleum or natural gas fuels in functionality and are compatible with the existing infrastructure where petroleum products are more commonly used. This means that you don’t need to modify the engine in any way to use biofuels instead of petroleum.
Types of Biofuels
This is one of the most basic forms of fuel derived from organic sources and is also the first thing you’d usually think of when you say ‘biofuel’. Though wood would fit better in the biomass category, it is also considered a biofuel.
Trees and plants provide biomass that is burned for fuel in the form of firewood, charcoal or sawdust, etc., and is one of the most commonly used forms of fuel around the world. In fact, wood was being used as fuel even before we’d discovered fossil fuels as energy sources.
People in different parts of the world gather different kinds of wood and use it for warming their homes, cooking food, or even powering small appliances within the household.
This is a gaseous form of biofuel, and it burns just the way natural gas does, which is why you find it slowly taking over its place.
Biogas is composed mostly of methane that is produced during the process of biomass being broken down anaerobically. At the moment, many agricultural firms are already using biogas, and there has been work done towards packaging biogas in cylinders to be used within households.
Biogas comes from a mix of both plants and animals and each contributes specific elements. For example, since methane is comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, it needs an abundance of each of these three elements to form. Plants have significant carbon and hydrogen composition, whereas animals have higher nitrogen content, which is why both plants and animals are needed to make biogas.
Biodiesel is another kind of biofuel, but this one is liquid in nature. It is renewable and clean-burning, and is made from the waste of animal fats, recycled grease from restaurants, or vegetable oils – quite often a combination of all or some of these.
Alcohol is also another ingredient that is used in manufacturing biodiesel.
A good source for the oils used is sunflower seeds. There are a number of chemical processes involved in the manufacture, such as transesterification, which involves alcohols and esters to produce biodiesel.
Ethanol is an alcohol and is also a biofuel. It is naturally a liquid and is produced from plant and animal biomass – most often plants. Ethanol is made by fermenting biomass with high carbon content such as sugars and cellulose, though sugarcane is more preferred.
Because of how clean ethanol is, it is often used with other fuels – even fossil fuels – in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. It can also be used as is for vehicles. In fact, in Brazil, where sugarcane is produced at a large scale, ethanol has been successful in powering vehicles.
As the name suggests, methanol is also an alcohol and just like ethanol, it is used to power engines in vehicles, especially racing cars in different parts of the world.
In terms of chemical composition, methanol is very similar to methane, with the only difference being that methanol is liquid, where methane is a gas. Methane is converted to methanol via gasification, which is done at high temperatures, and this process requires a catalyst.
This is another type of alcohol used as a biofuel. It is formed through fermentation and is a liquid that has significantly higher energy per unit than both ethanol and methanol. It’s very similar to gasoline in both its chemical composition as well as its efficiency, but butanol is very difficult to produce.
Butanol comes from plants, especially those that have grains with high energy content, such as wheat or sorghum. Because of the high energy content and the longer hydrogen chain, you can inject it into gasoline engines without having to modify the engine in any way.
Advantages of Biofuels
Now that we know what kind of biofuels are commonly used, let's look at some of the major advantages that make biofuels worth using.
Renewable Energy Sources
The demand for energy is very high all across the world.
Fossil fuels have been in use for a long time, but fossil fuels take thousands of years to form and are used up very rapidly. Aside from being non-renewable, they are also major contributors to the greenhouse effect and have the potential to result in serious environmental problems.
Biofuels, on the other hand, are extracted from plants and animals, which are not just clean fuel sources, they are also environmentally sustainable.
Fossil fuel deposits are found in only a few countries, which create something of authority around the production of fuel when depending on these non-renewable resources. On the other hand, biofuels can be produced by any country since biomass and organic matter can be found all over the world.
In the past, countries with fossil fuel deposits have always taken advantage of their resources by defining the fuel prices around the world. When countries are able to produce their own biofuel, they can set their own prices and face few restrictions.
The renewable nature of biofuels has led countries all around the world to encourage the reduction of fossil fuels as energy sources and turn towards biofuels. Instead of importing expensive fuels from other countries, states are able to reduce their dependency and provide cheaper fuel.
When created locally, biofuel would improve the security and stability around energy and thus help the economy. Since fuel imports would decrease, the economy would do better and sustain itself.
Most biofuels are not just easier to produce; they are also much cheaper than fossil fuels. This can reduce the cost that falls upon the consumer and thus help with lifting their living standards since the total amount they’d spend on energy would be reduced.
Fossil fuels aren’t just non-renewable, but they also produce a very high amount of carbon which can result in very significant levels of pollution. Carbon also combines with greenhouse gases like methane to have a terrible impact on climate conditions.
On the other hand, biofuels do not release this carbon and they are thus considered clean fuels.
Reduce Toxicity in the Atmosphere
Both kinds of fuel – biofuel and fossil fuels – produce carbon as an end product when the fuel is burnt. However, the carbon released in biofuel combustion does not have the same effect as that of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is toxic, especially when in the presence of methane and water vapor.
Biofuels release carbon that is naturally occurring and is used by plants to carry out photosynthesis, and therefore does not contribute towards air pollution.
Additionally, vehicles that use fossil fuels will often release a lot of smoke into the atmosphere. Smoke consists largely of soot, which is made of carbon. Some fossil fuels like coal also release sulfur during combustion that contributes to acid rains.
The chemical composition of biofuels consists of oxygen, which helps it burn better, and produces fewer carbon deposits, which results in biofuels emitting less smoke. Additionally, biofuels do not contain any sulfur content.
Disadvantages of Biofuels
Despite the benefits, there are some disadvantages of biofuels that make the general population hesitant to use them.
High Cost of Production
Though there are many reasons to want to use biofuels, they do have a very high cost of production and are too expensive to produce, especially considering current market conditions. At the moment, there is little interest in biofuel production, and as such, so is capital investment. However, there is a fair amount of demand as consumers become more and more conscious about the environment.
As demand for biofuels increases, it is likely that supply will eventually catch up, but because the operation is a long-term one, it will take quite some time to get to that point, and also a lot of money. This kind of disadvantage has a major role to play in keeping biofuels from being more widely used, though there has been work done towards using biofuels for energy instead of fossil fuels.
Monoculture is a term used to refer to producing the same crops every year, instead of producing different crops in the same field over time. Though it may seem economically attractive to grow the same crop every year to reap the benefits, there are some concerns around how sustainable this is. Growing the same crop every year may end up depriving the soil of nutrients that are put back into the soil when you opt for crop rotation over monoculture.
There are problems with growing a single crop over large areas of land. For one thing, if you grow only one crop, the environment for pests changes and you may find yourself at a huge disadvantage if a pest attacks and destroys your entire harvest.
Even if you manage to treat these pests, some of these pests will most definitely become resistant to the chemicals used to kill them, and this can then result in these pests inhabiting your field. These will then reproduce and these new pests will all be resistant to the chemicals you use to kill them.
Another problem comes up when you try to modify the crop to find a solution to the pest problem without using pesticides. Most likely, some pests will still remain unaffected and the problem continues.
Therefore, not only does the soil get depleted of essential nutrients over time, but your crop is put at risk by relying on monoculture. The key to a healthy crop is biodiversity. Having different types of plants and animals is important.
Biofuels are produced from crops, and for the crops to grow better, they need fertilizer. While this can help with crop production, fertilizers do come with the downside of having harmful effects on the environment. Since fertilizers contain nitrogen and phosphorus, if these nutrients are washed away from the soil to any nearby water bodies like ponds or lakes, they may cause water pollution.
Shortage of Food
As mentioned earlier, biofuels are extracted from crops or plants with high sugar content. However, most of these crops are also used for food, and while waste material from these crops and plants can be used as raw material, there is still a requirement for food crops. These will take up agricultural space from other crops, and this can create other problems.
By using existing land to grow crops for biofuels, there may be an acute shortage of food that will put pressure on the current crop growth. One major worry that people face when considering biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels is that they may face a rise in food prices.
Though biofuels have a lower carbon footprint than traditional forms of fuels upon combustion, the process of production renders any of that useless. Production of biofuels depends on water and oil, and large-scale industries that produce biofuels release large amounts of emissions, as well as result in small-scale water pollution.
Unless we manage to come across a more efficient method of production, the overall carbon emissions in the atmosphere do not change much.
Large amounts of water are needed to irrigate the crops grown for biofuel, which can impose a heavy strain on water resources if not managed well. To produce corn-based ethanol, massive quantities of water are used and these can end up putting significant pressure on resources in ways that may be unsustainable.
Rise in Prices
The technology currently in use for biofuel production is far from efficient. Though there is plenty of research being carried out to try and make this process better, the cost of this research as well as that of future installation can easily result in a spike in prices.
Not only would this result in biofuels becoming expensive, but added to the likely food shortages, prices would rise for both fuel and food, which can result in trouble for consumers.
At the moment, the price of biofuels is comparable to gasoline and considered feasible. However, rising prices can be harsh on the economy and cause problems.
Change in Land Use
If land is to be used for growing biofuel feedstock, that land will first have to be cleared of the native vegetation, which can result in ecological damage through the destruction of local habitats as well as the ecosystems and species living within that habitat. It also results in the health of natural resources available in that region.
On top of that, if biofuels feedstock is grown over land, CO2 will become trapped and won’t be released because the native forests are always better at removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere.
The carbon debt created from deforesting an area and preparing the land for biofuel feedstock can result in a net positive production of greenhouse gases even before the first biofuel is produced. It can take hundreds of years to repay the carbon debt produced by deforestation.
While biofuels do produce less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels, they are still comprised mostly of hydrogen and carbon, which produces carbon dioxide when burnt. Though less than fossil fuels, this is still a significantly high amount of CO2, and biofuels will thus not be able to stop global warming altogether nor reverse it – only slow it down.
Therefore, while biofuels may sound appealing and might be able to help reduce the problems around our current energy sources, biofuels actually have as many disadvantages as they do advantages, which makes them less than ideal to switch over to as our primary energy source.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker