Biofuel: part 1

Biofuel as a sustainable energy source

If you burn a piece of wood in your fireplace – a certain amount of CO2 comes out of the chimney. However, the tree that you are burning was growing in a forest and was taking CO2 out of the air not so long ago. The CO2 from the chimney is in turns again used as food for future trees, that again serve as biofuel for the fireplace. This is a simple way of how a short CO2 cycle less harmful to the environment works.

The same principle applies to other biofuels, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and sunflowers or bioethanol from sugar beet, corn and sugar cane. These types of biofuel are currently very popular. Moreover, it is possible to mix them with fossil fuels for certain purposes.

Biofuel - sunflowers

Some problems associated with biofuels

Even though biofuel seems to be rather environmentally-friendly, switching to it completely poses certain problems. First of all, growing biofuel crops requires very large agricultural areas. In countries with limited agricultural land availability, biofuel crops then become competitors of food crops. This, of course, poses certain ethical problems.

Moreover, sometimes the producers need to create new agricultural lands for the purpose of growing biofuel sources. In that case the whole process becomes much less environmentally friendly. That happens because to grow the new crops, large ares of already existing vegetation need to be cut down. This, obviously, is not a very environmentally-friendly procedure.

Even more importantly, the question of biofuel sustainability is still open. Some calculations even show that burning biofuel of certain crops eventually releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than fossil fuels do.
This is particularly evident in the production of corn- and potato-ethanol. The main problems are the usage of artificial fertilizers, soil cultivation and the usage of special machinery for the whole process. Moreover, certain fertilisers have the ability to undergo chemical reactions in the soil, which result in the release of nitrous oxide. This gas has a very high greenhouse potential.

Another major disadvantage of biodiesel is that bacterial growth can take place inside of it. This is especially dangerous in diesel oil that is stored in storage tanks for long periods of time. As a result, large machines in the fuel systems can be severely damaged.

Biofuel from organic waste

In most cases deep-frying oil and some animal fats are the sources of this type of fuel. These are residual products; therefore, the main goal of their production is not related to the production of energy

Future developments

Despite of all the disadvantages listed above, we should not give up on biofuels. Improvements are still possible in most of the related technologies. Moreover, the sustainability criteria are still not entirely clear. The European Union is currently developing these criteria. Factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, food competition, energy supply, biodiversity, prosperity and the environment play a role during this development. Producers can set up a certification system based on these criteria. Such certification system will result in more transparent and environmentally friendly usage of biofuels.

Want to know more? Check this post about different types of biofuels!