Biofuels: Fueling the Future

July 24, 2009
By Steven Lee BRONZE, Clarksville, Maryland
Steven Lee BRONZE, Clarksville, Maryland
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

With some studies suggesting that world oil reserves may run dry less than 50 years from now, it is clearly the time to start searching for the world’s next energy source. Throughout the past decades, many alternative fuel technologies such as solar cells, wind power, hydrogen power, etc have been proposed. Despite the progress that has been made in regard to those technologies, biofuels are emerging as the most viable energy resource of the future. Already comprising 10% of the nation’s total fuel consumption, biofuels are set to gain further ground as both private and government funding toward the development of biofuels are projected to skyrocket in the next decade. Such development may make biofuels even more energy efficient and cost efficient which will undoubtedly help biofuels gain a more mainstream status. As such, biofuels will be the most feasible alternative energy source in the next few decades because they help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are domestically renewable, and are the most practical to implement both quickly and efficiently.
Biofuels are fuels produced from renewable biological resources such as plant biomass and treated municipal and industrial waste. These fuels can be used to power cars and trucks as alternatives to gasoline. The three main types of biofuels are ethanol, cellulosic ethanol ,and biodiesel, with each of the three having distinct advantages and disadvantages. Of the three, ethanol is by far the most prevalent in the United States. Ethanol is defined as, “alcohol distilled from fermented, mashed grain (corn, wheat, etc.)” (Lavelle 1). To briefly summarize the production process, the plant mass is broken down by enzymes, proteins that speed up chemical reactions, to produce a certain type of sugar (Graham-Rowe 1). That sugar is decomposed with yeasts to yield alcohol which can then be purified to ethanol (Graham-Rowe 1). Ethanol currently makes up approximately 10% of the total fuel consumption in the United States (Bettelheim 6). Most of this ethanol is in the form of “E10” fuel which is a mix of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol (Bettelheim 7). One such reason for the rise of “E10” fuel is that the addition of ethanol increases the fuel’s overall octane rating which is the measure of how much resistance a fuel has to detonation inside an engine. However, ethanol is also less efficient than gasoline in terms of energy yields per gallon. This fact, combined with the inherently more expensive price per gallon of ethanol, does not necessarily make ethanol more financially profitable in comparison to gasoline. As such, much research is being done on cellulosic ethanol, which does not have the same downfalls as ethanol.
Essentially, cellulosic ethanol is almost identical to ethanol in that the general production process is the same. The main difference lies in the type of plant biomass used in cellulosic ethanol. Whereas traditional ethanol is derived solely from the more tender parts of the plant, cellulosic ethanol is derived from virtually every part of the plant. This includes the very tough material known as cellulose which is a plant material found in plant cell walls(Coyle). Because cellulose is so tough, scientists are still trying to develop enzymes that are powerful enough to digest the plant fiber found in cellulose (Coyle). If such development is successful, cellulosic ethanol would be a great improvement of the current energy yields in conventional ethanol. In cellulosic ethanol, virtually every part of the plant can be used to make fuel whereas in traditional ethanol, only specific parts can be used. Thus, cellulosic ethanol greatly increases the perceived potential of biofuels to become the predominant alternative to gasoline.
The other major type of biofuel is biodiesel which is defined as a “fuel manufactured from vegetable oil, animal fats, and recycled cooking fats” (Coyle). The fact that biodiesel can be made from waste cooking oil is a definite plus in that it allows for a recycling of oil and other waste products, which might otherwise be harmfully dumped into streams/lake, and putting it to good use. Animal fats, that would otherwise be thrown away, can also be recycled to make biodiesel (Williams). The main issue facing biodiesel currently is that there is not enough raw material to implement biodiesel into mainstream society (Peter 4). A possible solution for this problem may be the use of algae as the main base for the biodiesel (Peter 6). Preliminary research in algal biodiesel has suggested elevated energy yields in comparison to normal biodiesel but plans for a wide-scale use of biodiesel seem to still be far off. New technologies and advancements such as algal biodiesel have caused biofuels to steadily gain more and more traction in the national arena.
In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act which set a renewable fuels standard (Sissine 1). This mandated that the United States produce a certain number of gallons of biofuels each year. This number was to steadily increase each year, culminating in the ultimate goal to reach at least 36 billion gallons of biofuels in 2022 (Sissine 1). Such support basically guarantees that the development of biofuels will continue strongly for at least the next decade or so. This is especially important because funding and interest in biofuels from private funds and research organizations tend to fluctuate greatly in response to many factors. For example, a drop in global oil prices usually spells doom for future funding of biofuel development because investors will not see biofuels as a cost efficient solution to gasoline. The renewable fuels standard set by the government will keep biofuels development on the fast-track and prevent it from suddenly slowing. The government is also expressing its support of biofuels by giving subsidies (financial assistance) to farmers to encourage them to grow corn and other feedstocks for ethanol production (Barnett 4). This incentive is important because it gives farmers an incentive to grow certain feedstocks for ethanol production (Barnett 4). Without such an incentive, few farmers would support biofuels because they would likely see growing for human consumption as more profitable. Continued government support in the form of standards and subsidies will greatly help accelerate the development of new techniques and production methods, all of which will ultimately make biofuels more energy and cost efficient.
One major advantage of biofuels over gasoline is that biofuels are less polluting to the environment. For example, the use of corn-based ethanol (traditional ethanol) results in a 10-20% reduction in the amount of carbon output compared to gasoline (Ratliff 3). This effect is magnified with cellulosic ethanol which emits 90% less carbon compared to gasoline (Ratliff 3). Both types of ethanol also have relatively high energy yields compared to gasoline. An energy source’s yield is basically the ratio of the energy expended to process the fuel vs. the amount of energy that is outputted. Gasoline’s energy yield is estimated to be around .805 which means that the energy used to process gasoline is more than the energy one can garner from gasoline (Ratliff 4). In contrast, the energy yield of (corn-based) ethanol is around 1.25 and that of cellulosic ethanol is estimated to be 2-15+, depending on the production method (Ratliff 4). Both numbers depend heavily on the type of material used to produce the ethanol. For example, if one uses sugarcane instead of corn, the energy yield will be around 8 (Ratliff 4). The energy yields of ethanol,especially that of cellulosic ethanol, strongly suggest that ethanol is an efficient and practical energy source. Biodiesel is also environmentally friendly in that it can be made from used cooking oil. That means that the waste cooking oil in many fast food restaurants can actually be converted into a fuel that can power a car. Oftentimes, this waste cooking oil may be dumped into local lakes and streams, thereby polluting the water. Biodiesel is also environmentally friendly when it burns because it emits less particulates such as toxic carbon monoxide into that air. In fact, biodiesel reduces carbon monoxide emissions by over 40% compared to gasoline (Blagoev 2). All in all, by 2050, biofuels could reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion tons per year (Blagoev 3). That is equivalent to more than 80% of current transportation-related emissions (Blagoev 3). This evidence strongly suggests that not only can biofuels serve as a replacement for gasoline but also help save the environment as well.
An additional advantage with biofuels lies with the fact that is it domestically renewable. Biofuels are infinitely renewable because the feedstock, such as corn, wheat, etc, used to derive the alcohol necessary to make biofuels can be grown over and over again. This is an obvious advantage over current energy sources such as oil and coal which are both finite. The infinite sustainability of biofuels is an invaluable characteristic that is crucial for the energy source of the future to have. The fact that biofuels are domestically renewable is also a crucial advantage over gasoline. This is not the case with some of the other alternative energy proposals such as solar energy. Many places in the United States do not receive enough sunlight during certain parts of the year to adequately supply enough usable energy. However the feedstock for biofuels can be grown all over the United States. This flexibility is evident in the fact that there are biofuels production facilities in all parts of the country with many more to be built in the next decade (Sissine 3). Thus, biofuels, as of now, seem to be the most feasible alternative energy source that can be widely implemented inside of the United States. The fact that biofuels can be developed and produced all within the United States also greatly reduces foreign influence on domestic energy prices. For example, if a military crisis occurred in the Middle East, prices of oil in the United States would skyrocket. The inflated oil prices would have a negative impact not only on the consumers in the United States, but also businesses in various industries. Such a critical situation could be moderated, if not virtually eliminated, if the United States comes to rely on biofuels that are produced in the United States. The Energy Independence and Security Act has designated additional funds for more biofuels production facilities to be built around the country (Sissine 1). The massive spending from this program coupled with the jobs this program will create may stimulate the United States’s economy. Currently with traditional oil as the predominant fuel of choice, many jobs have been moved into foreign nations. This outsourcing benefits other countries but not the United States. If biofuels became the fuel of choice in the United States, the United States could greatly reduce its importation of oil. This would help reduce the large quantities of money being continuously funneled into foreign nations as a result of the current one-sided trade. Once again, only the foreign country benefits because money is being put into foreign markets while being extracted from the United States. Biofuels’ domestic renewability could potentially positively impact our country both politically and economically.
Another major advantage biofuels have over other alternative energy sources is that it is already developed to the point where it can practically be implemented on a wide-scale basis. What this means is that biofuels have the capability to sustain a large share of the energy consumption right now. In fact, biofuels already make up approximately 10% of the nation’s total fuel consumption (Bettelheim 6). With current biofuels production facilities, biofuels can sustain around 30% of the nation’s current fuel consumption (Bettelheim 6). This number is sure to rise in the future as more biofuels production centers are built. Also, new more advanced techniques will increase the efficiency of biofuels. A prime example of this is cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to sustain a greater portion of the nation’s total fuel consumption because it can be made from all the parts of the plant as opposed to traditional ethanol which can only be derived from certain parts. Thus, if the development of cellulosic ethanol is successful, biofuels might have the capability to support the majority of total fuel consumption. Government support via the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and other acts passed by Congress will help accelerate efforts to develop better biofuels (Sissine 1). Biofuel’s relative readiness makes it the most feasible alternative energy resource for at least the next decade or so simply because other energy sources are still quite primitive. Take solar energy for example. In terms of energy yields, Solar Energy is quite inefficient. In fact, it often takes several years for a solar panel to recoup the energy taken to make the solar panel in the first place. This primitiveness in terms of development is also evident in the cost efficiency of solar panels. Solar panels cost approximately $1000 per square meter (Gorman 1). Estimates show that this often takes 10 years or more to regain financially. This clearly shows that wide-scale solar panel implementation is still relatively far off and will need at least another 10 years to develop to become somewhat practical. On the other hand, biofuels are clearly catching on all around the country. Many states are pushing for legislation that would compel gas station owners to carry E10 fuel which is made of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline (Lavelle 2). Can manufacturers like General Motors have made an effort to make “FlexFuel” vehicles which are cars and trucks that can run on a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline (Lavelle 3). Around the country, more and more gas stations are carrying the blend of E85 fuel as more cars become capable of using it. Virtually every diesel car or truck made in the last 10 years can now run on a blend of 10% biodiesel and 90% diesel without any modifications(Coyle). All of these changes are proof that the nation is steadily moving toward a society where biofuels such at ethanol and biodiesel are more mainstream. As a result, biofuels are ready more than ever to take over a even larger share of the market and ultimately become “the fuel of the present”.
With support from both private industry and the government, biofuels development is set to accelerate in the coming years. New advancements in the production process of biofuels as well as new discoveries of various feedstocks are making biofuels more energy and cost efficient than ever before. These advantages, combined with it’s inherent low-polluting nature, renewability in America, and readiness to be implemented clearly make biofuels the most feasible energy source in the future.

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