Food for Fuel- is it Sustainable?

What exactly IS biofuel?

Food provides power to the human body. What if I told you food can power more than just the human body?  We’re talking about a piece of machinery or a car; and it is possible! This is something that is a reality today and it is called biofuel.  So, what exactly is a biofuel? A biofuel are fuels that are produced that directly or indirectly from organic matter, including plants and animal (Green Facts, 2016).  Biofuel is most commonly known as ethanol, which can be essentially used in place of gasoline.  Ethanol can be derived from plants such that have a high sugar or starch content (Green Facts, 2016). Some examples of sugar plants that are used are sugar cane and sugar beet, while starches include corn and wheat (Green Facts, 2016).  In this blog, we’re going take a look at biofuels and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of using them, along with facts about this energy source.  Finally, we’ll discuss the future of biofuels, and where we’re headed with them.

cornfield

Click here for a quick video about biofuels and their applications.

How did we start using food for fuel?

This may come as something of a surprise, but human have been using biofuels for a very, very long time.  How long, you ask?  As long as civilization is old; the original biofuels were items that could be used to make fire, including wood, dung and charcoal (Webb, 2013).

During the 19th and an early 20th centuries, biofuel use continued as the main source of energy; they were used mainly for cooking, heating and illumination (Kovarik, 2013).  There were several different types of fuels that were popular during this time, and they included vegetable oils, animal fats (especially whale fat), ethanol from crops and methanol and turpentine from wood (Kovarik, 2013).  Lamps during these times were generally lit up with fats and oils, but eventually were replaced with camphene, a mixture of turpentine, campor oil and ethanol (Kovarik,2013).  The production of camphene to light American and European cities required the processing of tens of millions of gallons of alcohol, and this was at its peak in 1860 (Kovarik, 2013).

Some other information you may find interesting- some of the first cars were designed with internal combustion engines were designed to run on ethanol and turpentine; and in fact, Henry Ford designed his famous Model T to run strictly on ethanol (Webb, 2013).

Image result for model t henry ford
Henry Ford’s Model T’s, designed to run on biofuel.

Source: Here.

So, what happened?  The Civil War.  Wait, how did the Civil War impact our use of biofuels? In 1862, the United States Congress imposed a per gallon tax on alcohol production to help fund the War (Kovarik, 2013).  This tax gave a huge boost to the newly discovered petroleum business, and decimated the biofuel industry (Kovarik, 2013).  Fossil fuels were cheaper to produce at this time, and so they became the fuels of choice.

However, during World War I and II, biofuels came back into use.  Ethanol was mixed into gasoline to create suitable motor fuel for vehicles (Webb, 2013).  This was done because there were oil shortages to contend with, and countries wanted to decrease oil imports (Webb, 2013).

Today, gasoline is still blended with ethanol to a certain percentage, either 10%, 15% or 85%.  This is done to meet with regulations set in the 1990 Clean Air Act (RFG Fuel) and the Renewable Fuel Standard set forth in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2016).  Today, biofuels are being researched more in order to determine if they can supplement, or at even replace, fossil fuels.  The graph below shows the increase in biofuel production in Canada over the last few years.

2016-11-17-2What’s so great about biofuels?

There are many advantages when it comes to using biofuels as a source of energy. When comparing costs to regular gasoline, it is relatively the same; however, the long-term costs are very beneficial as they are much cleaner for the environment (Rinkesh, 2015). The reason it is better for the environment is because this form of energy tends to produce far less greenhouse gases, which are very harmful to the environment. Another advantage to using this kind of resource is that it is much easier to obtain opposed to gasoline or other resources. If it is easier to obtain it could essentially be more cost effective or be obtained more quickly than other resources. This resource is also (most importantly) renewable! This is something that is very important for a resource, because it means that more of it can be created and therefore can be continued to be used without fear of shortages. Some resources such as water, are “non-renewable”.  This means that we can run out of it. It is also an advantage for some countries to use this as an energy source because they may not have access to reserves of crude oil which is needed for gasoline production.  They may, however, have the land to grow crops for the production of biofuel (Rinkesh, 2015). In addition to this fuel being better for the environment, it has also shown to be better for human health. This was supported by a study done by the University of Sao Paulo, where they were able to come the conclusion that replacing all car fuels with biofuel in their densely populated city could save an upward total of 1,400 lives each year. (Michael, 2015) Lastly biofuels, although not completely safe, are much more safe than other fuel sources.  If these fuels were to spill into water it would have the same impact and kill living organisms but it would be a much smaller scale of damage (Biofuel, 2010). When considering all of these different areas, although very close in comparison to fossil fuels, there are overall more benefits to using biofuels. The reduced impact on the environment and the fact that it is a renewable resource, makes this form of fuel an ideal option for many countries, and should be hugely considered in the future as a main source of power.

They sound good!  What’s the down side?

Although the use of biofuel is better for the environment compared to gasoline and diesel, the production of these biofuels is a large disadvantage. Not only do we need the land to grow the crops that will be turned into fuel, but we’ll also need loads of water to care for them. “A 2009 study suggests that, in the rush to produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet federal alternative energy requirements, biofuel demand is already putting stress on fresh water supplies in the Great Plains and central Southwest” (10 Disadvantages of Biofuels, 2011). With all this water needed to harvest healthy crops, scientists have been trying to engineer less thirsty crops that can still grow to full size with significantly less water (10 Disadvantages of Biofuels, 2011). It’s important to remember that water is a finite resource that needs to be conserved. Along with water usage, growing crops for biofuel can taint the surrounding environment. Most crops grow much better with the aid of fertilizer but can have seriously harmful effects if digested by nearby animals inhabiting the area. This could then spread sickness throughout the animal population and kill off many essential parts of our ecosystem. All in all biofuel seems like a good idea on the surface; but when you look closer you’ll see that it’s just as harmful to the environment as fossil fuels.

Further to these issues, biofuel presents a problem in that we are using food to produce energy.  This food could be used to feed other humans in need.  There is also concern that growing crops for biofuel will take away from lands used to grow crops for consumption (Rinkesh, 2015).

Image result for biofuel images

Source: Here.

What does all of this mean?

The use of biofuels has decreased since the 20th century, being replaced by cheaper alternatives: fossil fuels such as petroleum, gasoline and electricity.  As we have noted in this blog, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to using biofuels for energy production.

However, biofuels present us with a wicked problem.  On the surface, they seem like an excellent solution to our concerns with fossil fuels.  While they could possibly replace, or at least supplement, our finite fossil fuel resources, there are many sustainability issues connected with their use.  Land use is a major concern- through monofarming, or just using the land to plant these crops rather than food for human consumption.   In countries where arid land is scarce, it may have devastating impacts should companies purchase the land to grow corn for fuel rather food for its communities.

Click here to watch a video on Economic, Environmental and Social Effect of Biofuels

That being said, humans are beginning to look at other alternatives for fuel, like what can be provided with algae.  Algae are a rich source of energy, and possibly something that we could look to for energy production in the future, rather than using our consumable food.  Is algae a sustainable alternative for biofuel use, or will it create for us another wicked problem to solve?  Only time will tell.

For a list of advantages and disadvantages of algae biofuel, click here.

For a video with more information on algae biofuel, click here!

References

“10 Disadvantages Of Biofuels”. HowStuffWorks. N.p., 2016. Web.

“Economic, Environmental And Social Effect Of Biofuels | Chemistry For All | The Fuse School”. YouTube. N.p., 2016. Web.

Original Content

“Canadian Biodiesel Production 2007-2017 | Statistic”. Statista. N.p., 2016. Web.

“Petroleum & Other Liquids – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)”. Eia.gov. N.p., 2016. Web.

Biofuel. (2010). Advantages of Biofuels. Retrieved 18 November, 2016, from http://biofuel.org.uk/advantages-of-biofuels.html

Conversions done on http://www.metric-conversions.org/volume/liters-to-us-oil-barrels-table.htm

Green Facts. (2016). Liquid Biofuels for Transport Prospects, risks and opportunities. Retrieved 18 November, 2016, from http://www.greenfacts.org/en/biofuels/l-2/1-definition.htm

How much ethanol is in gasoline, and how does it affect fuel economy? – FAQ – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2016). Eia.gov. Retrieved 12 November 2016, from http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=27&t=10

Kovarik, B. (2013). Environmental History/Biofuels. Retrieved 12 November, 2016 from http://www.environmentalhistory.org/billkovarik/about-bk/research/cabi/

Michael, B. (2015, December 10). Back to basics: 4 advantages of biofuels. Retrieved 18 November, 2016, from Best practices, http://thinkbioenergy.com/back-to-basics-4-advantages-of-biofuels/

Rinkesh. (2015, July 26). Advantages and disadvantages of Biofuels – conserve energy future. Retrieved 18 November, 2016, from Energy Articles, http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-biofuels.php

Webb, A. (2013, July 31).  A brief history of biofuels: from ancient history to today. Retrieved 12 November, 2016, from http://www.biofuelnet.ca/2013/07/31/a-brief-history-of-biofuels-from-ancient-history-to-today/

 

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