The boom in biofuels in the US stems from President Bush’s drive to reduce “dependence on imports of foreign oil” and so often we hear that biofuels are the salvation from the evil of high oil prices climate change. But what is the truth? Firstly, using ethanol rather than gas reduces total emissions of carbon dioxide by only about 13% because of the pollution caused by the production process, and because ethanol gets only about 70% of the miles per gallon of gas.
Secondly, and with all due respect to the intrepid folks defending biofuels, their defense falls very short. Some argue that developing a biofuel economy can actually help reduce hunger and poverty? The truth is to replace 1% of gas used in the US today would require 70% of the corn produced. So big deal you might say, but let me put it another way: the corn required to fill the gas tank of a SUV with ethanol is sufficient to feed one person per year; now let us assume the gas tank is refilled every two weeks, the amount of grain required would feed a hungry African village for a year. Not alone is this totally unacceptable but the economic, social and environmental damage would be further compounded by the fact that corn uses fossil fuels at every stage in the production process, from cultivation using fertilizers and tractors to processing and transportation.
Growing corn appears to use 30% more energy than the finished fuel produces, and leaves eroded soils and polluted waters behind. The defenders point out that biofuel refineries in the future will depend less on food crops and more on organic wastes and residues. The idea that biofuels can be made of agricultural “waste” is that those materials involve fertility pulled out of the ground. Sustainable farming relies on recycling those materials back into the soil. The more “waste” you pull out of the soil and don’t cycle back in, the more energy required to replenish said soil.
In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44 x 1018 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota”. In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries worth of plants and animals. The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy – and the extraordinary power densities it gives us – with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction.
So what is the way forward? Let’s face it, oil is going to be around for a long time. The fuel used in the distant future will not lie in biofuels but in hydrogen or renewable fuels, where the technology and research is very far from being completed and entirely under funded. In order to attain a practical solution to the problems that accompany the use of traditional fuels we must invest in research in these areas. In the short term, to reduce the problems we face using traditional fuels one has to look no further than reducing fuel consumption by driving smaller hybrid vehicles and increasing the efficiency of the engines used in vehicles; currently the average efficiency of a gas engine is ca. 22% which is clearly a poor return. While I admit that to increase this efficiency is no easy feat we must look to this problem as an area as a potential solution to the “dependence on imports of foreign oil”.
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