Just a few decades ago, “biofuels” were all the rage in the media, as many well respected “power pundits’ predicted that they would eventually prove to be a leading “vanguard” movement amongst a variety of well touted alternate energy options.
Then recently, over the past 2 years, as the prices of crude oil began to rise to historically elevated levels and even the most dedicated “oil optimists” began to worry when or if the ascent would top off , ‘biofuels” where once again purported to be our “Super Saviors” that would eventually satisfy a great deal of our energy needs.
Now that we’ve had 40 years to observe the actual effects and realities of biofuels, we have a wonderful opportunity to truly gauge the “real world” results and determine for ourselves, whether they are a realistic alternative, or just another over hyped fuel.
First of all, what exactly are biofuels? Bio-fuels are what are known as “Renewable Fuels” in the sense that they are processed exclusively from organic materials such as plants and animals; often referred to as “Biomass.” There are two distinct types of fuel labeled as bio-fuels; one is “Bioethanol,” known to most people simply as “Ethanol” and the other fuel is “Biodiesel.”
Ethanol is the primary substitute for gasoline / petrol utilized to run most road driven transport vehicles. The fuel is produced by the sugar fermentation process, derived from carbohydrate rich plants such as corn, wheat sugar cane and straw, as well as willow and numerous other poplar trees, sawdust, wild grasses, cereal, sugar beets, sorghum, even Jerusalem artichokes.
Biodiesel is the alternative fuel utilized to replace conventional “fossil fuel” diesel. It is manufactured through a process called “transesterification” and derived from a vast number of raw, oil bearing crops such as soybeans, rape seed and palms and used vegetable oils, as well as algae, various animal fats, beef tallow and even fish oil.
So now that we know precisely what we are talking about, what have the results panned out to be? Judging from a neutral “Pros and Cons” perspective, have biofuels:
(A) Shown to be the highly hyped and hoped for harbingers of planet saving, inexpensive, renewable energy.
(B) Begun to show previously unsuspected limitations and disappointments, as many well intended but scientifically unproven predictions start to evaporate under the hot light of 40 years of factual observation?
On the positive side, biofuels are unquestionably renewable, which is a powerful benefit as we begin to face the facts about our progressively diminishing supplies of fossil fuels. Also, depending on where we choose to put our priorities, biofuels could quite easily prove to be practically limitless, as long as we are willing to take crops originally grown to feed people and animals and divert those food resources to the processes of making fuel!
Last but not least of the positive advantages of biofuels is the fact that these fuels do give off less harmful waste products, smoke and pollutants than traditional fossil fuel do, so that’s definitely a very big “Plus” for biofuels.
However, on the other side of the coin is the fact that even with all the media, corporate, governmental and social support, high hopes and big plans for biofuels, not only have these renewable, alternative fuel sources NOT replaced fossil fuels, but world wide, they are a mere “2.6%” of our fuel currently utilized to energize the planet.
Meanwhile, major oil companies such as Esso, Chevron, Murco, Prax and Topaz still have not successfully been able to supply a biofuels that actually meets environmental standards while BP (British Petroleum) reports a mere 4% of its biofuels as currently meeting necessary environmental standards!
World wide oil companies, research corporations, bankers, investors and governments around the globe openly confess that they are still loosing billions of dollars annually, simply trying to get biofuels “up to par” in both fuel efficiency as well as environmental regulations. Some companies are going broke while others have completely gone under!
Now many prominent ecologists and biologists are concerned that biofuels are not only eating up much of the worlds financial resources, but also in danger of eating up the worlds food resources, as more and more foodstuff is now being taken away from the moths of hungry people and processed to create energy and effectively drive industry.
Others scientists are beginning to bemoan the effect of all the additional methane and other gases now being released during biofuel production, doing great damage to the earth by increasing the “green house gasses!”
So, at least as far as the facts of today are concerned, biofuels are still, at this point, a mixed blessing with a side order of some unexpected curses that seriously need to be carefully monitored. Only time will tell if these renewable, alternative fuel sources ever prove to live up to the high expectations predicted back in the late 60s and early 70s, but it’s important to keep an open mind while we keep our eyes open regarding the future of biofuels!