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. 1
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.1 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.
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.2 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.2 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.1 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:
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.4 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.3 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.