What Goes in Our Cars: An Analysis of Biofuels

A biofuel is a form of fuel that is yielded through modern biological techniques, for instance: agriculture. Let’s break it down. The term is made up of two syllables: bio and fuel. The first refers to the process of biological carbon fixation, which explains how inorganic carbon (in the form of things such as CO²) is transformed into organic compounds. Secondly, the word “fuel” simply alludes to anything from which we can extract energy. The method is an alternative to the common geological processes used in the creation of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum. If you’ve ever had a conversation surface regarding the topic of biofuels (because who doesn’t talk about biofuels at the dinner table?), then you’ve probably heard about a common form: “Biodiesel.”


Biodiesel: The Basics

Biodiesel is reported to be a “renewable” replacement for petroleum diesel. However, we’ll have to look into, and revisit, the verity in the term “renewable.” Biodiesel has been involved in commercial-scale production for just over a decade. As of 2012, biofuel accounted for 7.1% of total transport fuel consumption, which rounds out to about 13.8 billion gallons.11 This type of biofuel consists of long-chain alkyl (which can be methyl, ethyl, or propyl) esters. Esters are chemical compounds that are derived from acids. To produce Biodiesel, one must chemical react lipids (animal fat, vegetable oil, soybean oil, etc.) with alcohol-producing fatty acid esters. In more simple terms, Biodiesel serves as a vegetable oil or animal fat-based diesel fuel. 

This alternative source of fuel can be used in standard diesel engines. It is distinct from the vegetable and waste oils used to fuel modified diesel engines, for in this case, no engine modification is necessary. Biodiesel can be used alone or blended with petrol-diesel in many different proportions. For instance, a product reading “B20” includes 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel. This is a common blend for usage in conventional diesel engines, as opposed to the pure B100, though there are many blends in between these two extremes.The clip below shows how Biodiesel can be home-brewed and utilized in real-life situations, whether behind a community member’s old barn or in Adam Schwartz’s Green Guild Biodiesel co-op.

The Benefits 

It now proves necessary to examine the benefits of biofuel. There are a vast, and growing, amount of biofuel products, so we’ll continue to concentrate on Biodiesel. When analyzing a new idea or concept, it is important to compare it with something known and familiar. In this case, we’ll compare with petroleum diesel. Biodiesel improves and adds ease to engine operation, enhances performance, helps the economy, and most importantly, benefits the environment. As these topics encompass a substantial scope of information, we’ll focus on the latter two.

Biodiesel provides numerous economical advantages; however, before continuing, it is important to note and always keep in mind the partiality (towards biofuel production) of information gathered from advocating websites such as “biodiesel.org.” Firstly, the use of Biodiesel has created a plethora of new employment options, currently supplying more than 62,000 jobs. This effect has increased GDP, house income, and tax revenues.1 With the continued use of Biodiesel, GDP is expected to grow by 2.96% per year and by 64.2% between 2005 and 2022. Private consumption, or personal spending on goods, in the United States is expected to grow at an annual rate of 2.86 percent.6

There are more than 200 biodiesel plants across the country, with the capacity to produce about 3 billion gallons of fuel. This advanced fuel can be produced at plants in almost every state, lowering transport costs.1 We’ll revisit this fact later, however, to see if and how the production can succeed with ease. In the early 2000s, 25 million gallons of biofuel were produced, and this number increased to 1.7 billion gallons in 2014. This number is a small but growing portion of the annual U.S. on-road diesel market of 35-40 billion gallons. Supporters aim for Biodiesel to produce 10% of the diesel transportation market by 2022.1 Biodiesel practice also reduces the U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum, as it can be produced in the country. As of now, the U.S. imports about 1/3 of petroleum, 2/3 of which is used to fuel gasoline and diesel vehicles. These statistics suggest that the U.S. is constantly at risk for trade deficits, price changes, and supply problems.Switching to U.S.-produced Biodiesel would eliminate many of these problems.

Now, let’s take a look at some environmental benefits. In simple terms, Biodiesel usage reduces greenhouse gas emissions. How? The CO² released from biodiesel combustion is completely offset by the CO² absorbed when growing the soybeans or other feedstock material utilized.B20 reduces CO² by 15%, while pure B100 lowers CO² emissions by more than 75% compared to petroleum diesel (B20 provides 20% of the benefits of B100 usage).2 The EPA, short for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claims Biodiesel reduces total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 57%. These assertions can be seen in the emissions graph below, produced by the EPA in 2002, as most emissions are decreasing due to Biodiesel (increase in NOx explained later).


The use of biofuels like these would also reduce tailpipe pollutants from petroleum diesel, especially in older diesel vehicles. Biodiesel is less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as fast as sugar.This means it is far less harmful (than petroleum) if spilled or realized into the environment, as it also proves less combustible. Finally, Biodiesel is the first, and only, EPA-designated Advanced Biofuel in commercial-sale production.1

Traditional biofuels are made out of soybeans or animal fat. However, some of the more environmentally-sensitive biofuels are those produced by algae. The algae is harvested to then be processed into raw materials for transportation vehicles, whether they be trucks, trains, cars, or planes. Many advocates claim that algae could be 10, or even 100, times more productive than typical bioenergy feedstock. It can also be grown using waste water or saline, causes minimal effect on freshwater sources, and is biodegradable. Although it costs more than more typical biofuel crops, many believe it produces between 10 and 100 times more fuel per unit area.8 The higher this productivity, the more sustainable and/or renewable the product can become.7 Check out this video to watch the process of turning algae into fuel:

The Downfalls

Of course, when examining the benefits of Biodiesel, one must also note the disadvantages. A very obvious economical downfall is cost. At this point in time, Biodiesel is about one and 1/2 times more expensive than petroleum diesel fuel.The comparative pricing of fuel types can be seen in the graph and table below. You’ll notice the diesel (light blue line) is below Biodiesel (purple, light orange, and dark green lines). When looking at the table, you’ll see that while the B20 is only slightly higher priced than diesel, B99/B100 proves almost a whole dollar more per gallon.


The negative environmental effects prove a bit more extensive. While advocates of Biodiesel claim an easy production process, an assortment of factors, some particularly harmful, must go into this operation. For instance, many worry about the growth of materials necessary for Biodiesel in a world already burdened with food shortage. We’ll now discuss the reasons for that. There will be limitations to where it can grow, as biofuel feedstock needs water and fertilizer. Its growth could invade on the growth of other crops, requiring a tradeoff between food crop and biofuel feedstock.3 As of now, the land area requirement of Biofuels is extensive and unreasonable. If trying to supply for the average US usage of 368 million gallons per day of gasoline and diesel fuel, we would need to use 5.6 million sq mi of land growing soybeans to provide the necessary amount of Biodiesel. Considering this would be about 1.5 times the nation’s area of 3.8 million sq mi, this process would be impossible.3 Using the algae process mentioned earlier, however, would only require a land growth area between the sizes of Arkansas or Maine.3 These numbers need to be compared to the land usage for crop growth, which was 1,578 sq mi in the United states in 2012.9 While the side-by-side growth of food crop and algae biofuel feedstock seems entirely plausible, the growth of soybeans to create food does not leave any room for crops. This hunger risk also increases due to inflating food prices. If agricultural land can “earn more” if planted with biofuels, then farmers will demand higher food prices to balance what they lose by not planting biofuel feedstock.While delving into the causes and effects of food shortage would stray too far from the issue at hand, it’s important to note that a decrease in food supply due to less land area for growth and increasing crop prices could result in a food shortage.

Changes in land use could potentially cause harmful effects. For example, many companies may turn to deforestation to create more land for growth, destroying animal dwellings, microcosms, and reducing the overall health of natural resources.3 Most of the deforestation for biofuels occurs to clear land for palm-oil growth. While it remains hard to estimate exactly how much pollution has occurred due to these efforts in specific, deforestation in general has accounted for approximately 15-20% of global CO² emissions. This same source, a biology study from Duke, went on to claim that “replacing peat forest with oil-palm plantations may not change the tree cover density, but it does lead to a large pulse of CO2 emissions because of reductions in both tree biomass and soil carbon.”10 Despite biofuel activists’ arguments regarding the reduction of CO², Biodiesel may create a carbon debt, as it takes an ample amount of energy to deforest an area and/or plant crops.3 As biofuel critic George Monbiot states, “Growing palm oil produces so much CO² that it makes crude oil look like carrot juice…it takes around 840 years for any carbon savings from burning this oil rather than petroleum to catch up with the emissions caused by planting it.”5 However, it proves extremely difficult to capture data that reveals, or verifies, whether this energy used balances the energy produced. Additionally, pure B100 could increase nitrogen oxide emissions, though many argue its ability to reduce CO² (as explained earlier) outweighs this. Some of the Biodiesel benefits are also canceled out with the requirement that all vehicles with engines from 2010 or later will have to meet the same rigorous emission standards, no matter the fuel type.2


While many critics find truth in the political cartoon above, the debate over biofuel usage continues. In conclusion, when considering the use of biofuels, and Biodiesel in particular, one must also examine both the advantages and disadvantages associated with this technology. Ultimately, one might find themselves wondering: “How renewable and/or sustainable are biofuels?” Our previously-stated acknowledgment of growth limitations, including available space and feedstock supply, proves that biofuel production cannot be effortlessly “renewed.” However, when compared with petroleum diesel made from crude oil, which may easily run out, it becomes clear to me that biofuels and Biodiesel in specific become the more sustainable approach to fuel production.



1. http://biodiesel.org/what-is-biodiesel/biodiesel-basics
















New and Improved: The Smart Energy Grid

In theory, something with the word “smart” in its title sounds innovative and beneficial to our society. But does that measly adjective always explain the vast scope of the topic? With our rapidly-expanding technology and increasing energy consumption, we need the Smart Energy Grid.

So what is the grid and the vast scope of information it encompasses? The “grid,” to which the title refers, serves as a system of electricity, which may be comprised of transformers, wires, substations, transmission lines, switches, and a multitude of other mechanisms. Together, this network transports electricity from wind farms or power plants to one’s home or industry. The electric grid on which on which our society relies came about in the 1890s. It began as a series of small grids, that in no way connected to each other and were hastily created without spending much money. In this video, Maggie Koerth-Baker speaks about her book, When the Lights Go Out, and the history of the first energy grids:


In the video, Maggie introduces H.J. Rogers, a name of which many people are unaware. Rogers, a very rich man, lived in Appleton, Wisconsin. In the 1880s, he received license to Thomas Edison’s work concerning electricity. Roger’s advancements would contribute much to the electric world, as Edison barely beat Roger in instituting his electric grid. However, as technology and understanding have developed over the past century, so too has the grid. For more on the electric grid and its history, click here.

The current energy grid is comprised of at least 9,200 electric generating units. Within this, there are more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. If you find yourself surprised at these statistics, you should be, as they are considered a feat in the realm of engineering. However, this electric network is reaching its capacity – the limit to its expansion – whereas our society and energy usage is not. We need an alternative, and fast. Here’s where the Smart Grid enters the scene, and rightfully so:

As the U.S. Department of Energy described in the video, The Smart Energy Grid will serve as a “new and improved” network, capable of keeping up with technological advancements that constantly occur in today’s society. How else will we be able to create the iPhone 14s? Besides the digital aspects, the grid will focus on two-way communication, rather than the common irreversible interaction seen in the previous system. In other words, the energy web will strive to counter to the demand of its customers: us. The transformation guarantees an increase in power efficiency, meaning a quicker and more dependent process of dealing with energy and electricity.

The Positives

Let’s address the hypothetical functions of this ideal grid. This system will work to incorporate power generation systems, including large-scale renewable energy systems. It will also provide better security, lower operational expenses of utilities, and reduce electrical costs by buildings, both commercial and residential. In an environmental sense, the new grid will decrease emissions such as greenhouse gas and increase energy conservation and efficiency, as mentioned above. The grid is expected to cut greenhouse emission by 13-25%, which is about equal to taking 1-2 million cars off the road each year¹. At the same time, energy consumption is expected to decrease by about 4%¹. While it would not be difficult to accidentally use more energy with the grid, the smart meters and other measuring devices record this energy usage, so we’re always in the know. Finally, the network will restore electricity more quickly following power outages, otherwise known as blackouts.


Blackouts impact security, communication, the economy, and many other aspects of life. They can be caused by a conglomeration of issues, sometimes completely unrelated to each other. For instance, in August of 2003, 55 million people and in eight states and Canada lost power in their homes. In addition, 246 power plants went offline. The blackout was caused by a generator outage and two defective monitoring programs. This event, known as the Northeast Blackout of 2003, had detrimental economic impacts. It ended up costing the U.S. somewhere between four billion and ten billion dollars. Blackouts like these occur all the time, usually due to factors like lack of communication, neglect to care for transmission lines and electrical sites, and the domino effect that can often occur in a network of smaller systems like this. More than anything, there were not people looking at the grid as a whole.


The Smart Energy Grid, however, is working to eliminate the causes and effects of these power outages. With more efficiency, it will take less than ten seconds for controllers to see the “big picture.” There will also be more significant retribution for failure to manage facilities, like trimming trees around transmission lines. In theory, the new grid will allow controllers to see the problem quicker and fix it either before, or directly after, the blackout. The grid will also isolate these outages, which avoids the possibility of them becoming even more spread out. It will also allow easy rerouting when systems fail or go offline. With smart meters dispersed, controllers can “ping” the meters to see if power is restored to all the customers. While there are still a number of components to sort out regarding the new grid, the prospect of saving $100 billion per year (average cost resulting from blackouts per year) motivates scientists and engineers to keep trying.

A smarter grid can also help during extreme weather events due to the increased resiliency. The two-way interaction, mentioned above, will allow the network to automatically reroute when equipment or systems shut down. This lessens the effects of emergencies, such as earthquakes, severe storms, including hurricanes and tsunamis, attacks, or large-spread fires. The grid will also ensure that power is returned to emergency services first, and utilize power generators, specifically customer-owned, when the utilities cannot provide electricity. Some Smart Grid technologies could be seen during the restoration of Hurricane Sandy, as customers with smart phones could receive updates. The key was communication, especially between field personnel and those in the control room. All these ideas add to the beneficial elements of the new grid. Read more to learn more about how the smarter grid could help in extreme weather situations.

After receiving a fund of $200 million by the Recovery Act, CenterPoint launched a pilot program, where they provided 300 customers with a smart meter (see picture below) and in-home energy monitor to allow them to observe their home energy use. When the company collected initial results from the experiment, more than 70 percent responded they had already taken steps to decrease their energy usage based off of the real-time information their in-home energy monitor provided. Also, 97 percent of the customers who participated plan to continue using their energy system after the pilot program is finished. This program showed how one may benefit from the new technology of a smart grid.


The Negatives

Unfortunately, we cannot decide to implement the Smart Energy Grid one day and install them all over the world the next day. There a multitude of economic, technological, and scientific obstacles that could go hand-in-hand with the transformation. First off, it would create a significant economic strain on governments. The National Electric Manufacturers Association, or NIST, have begun the installation of “smart meters,” which allow those living and working in buildings to monitor and regulate their electricity usage. NIST is expecting to invest around $40 billion to $50 billion in smart meters alone. The Federal Recovery Act funds has invest $7.8 billion dollars in ameliorating the grid³. While many initial programs, like the smart meter, have received funding from laws (stimulus law) or campaigns and a portion of the population argues that the system will save money, implementation of the Smart Energy Grid as a whole will require a substantial amount of economic aide to succeed nationwide. Read more about the start of the Smart Grid installation here.

There are also technological hurdles when it comes to updating the grid. One of the main problems is that society is constantly changing where we get electricity, how much we use, and who uses it. We have proven over the last decade alone how quickly technology can transform. Not only could the smart grid struggle to keep up with these advancements, but there could also be contradictory issues regarding the introduction of new technology during installation. The transformation to a Smart Energy Grid will require many users of the old grid, meaning most of society, to adapt to the digital aspects and requirements of the new one.

In this video, James Woolsey, former CIA director, claims smart energy grids are “stupid,” for devices such as smart meters are not resistant from hacking. He fears the technology will be broken into, and completely shut down the grid.

Many people also worry about the scientific factors of the Smart Energy Grid. More specifically, they fear for their own health. This process would include constant exposure to Radio Frequency radiation, because appliances would transmit data through power bursts that sit well above safety standards. Smart meters, explained earlier, will also let out an even higher frequency to hubs located in neighborhoods. In the past, many have claimed that exposure to RF radiation can lead to infertility and cause medical implants, like insulin pumps or pacemakers, to disfunction. This is not proven, however. The Environmental Defense Fund states that the radiation in smart meters is like that in cell phones, but less¹¹. While society worries about exposure to cell phone radiation, it is a non-ionizing form of radiation that is not extremely harmful, like Alpha or Beta radiation. This risks do not compare to the 30% cut in air pollution that the Smart Grid is expected to produce by 2030¹¹. Around the 30 minute marker in the video below, Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt speaks about the noticed effects upon smart meter installation. Of the many impacts he discusses, Klinghardt specifically notes copper increase, TGF-Beta 1 increase, and hormone abnormalities. These are often the effects that supports of the Smart Energy Grid either forget or purposefully disregard.

With the new grid, the storage of power could prove difficult. Some solutions? One idea is to store energy as large amounts of compressed air in geological vaults. Other have proposed a system of compact, energy-dense batteries in homes. The most popular idea, however, is to improve the existing lithium battery. This idea is most dependable, as they have high efficiencies, can be recharged, and can hold high densities of energy, which is very necessary for the Smart Energy Grid.

Finally, it is important to look at the expectations  of the Smart Energy Grid. The Brattle Group, which “provides consulting services and expert testimony in economics, finance, and regulation to corporations, law firms, and public agencies,” proposed 6.5% energy savings for customers. In addition, The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) believes that reductions in the loss of transmission lines due to voltage regulation could save from 3.5 to 28 billion kWh in 2030. It is also expected that net annual CO2 emissions could be between 0.7 Gt and 2.1 Gt by 2050².






  1. https://www.smartgrid.gov/files/your_smart_grid_environmental_benefits_toolkit_11-2008.pdf
  2. https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/smartgrids_roadmap.pdf
  3. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/smart-grid-nist-standards-commerce-department/
  4. http://www.c2es.org/technology/factsheet/SmartGrid
  5. http://boingboing.net/2012/08/03/blackout-whats-wrong-with-t.html
  6. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2011-03-23/problems-smart-grids
  7. https://www.ase.org/resources/realizing-energy-efficiency-potential-smart-grid-alliance-white-paper#DataDisplay
  8. https://www.smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid/smart_grid.html
  9. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_challenge_for_green_energy_how_to_store_excess_electricity/2170/
  10. http://energy.gov/articles/how-smart-grid-helps-homeowners-reduce-their-energy-use
  11. https://www.edf.org/SmartMeterResponse