The Benefit of Biofuels From Plants

Subject: Environment
Pages: 10
Words: 2496
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College

Introduction

People have used petroleum as the primary transportation energy for a long time. Nevertheless, petroleum is not the only fuel that can power trucks and cars. Individuals have come up with an alternative, environmentally friendly sources of fuel. Today, people extract biofuel from plants such as soybeans and corn. The fact that fossil fuel is non-renewable leaves biofuel as the best alternative source of energy in the contemporary world. There are two categories of biofuels, which are first-generation and second-generation.1 The first-generation (conventional) biofuels are obtained from vegetable oil, starch, or sugar. Examples of first-generation biofuels include ethanol, butanol, and propanol. Ethanol is the most commonly used biofuel across the globe.

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Second-generation biofuels are also referred to as advanced biofuels. They come from different forms of biomass. Currently, the use of biofuels derived from plants is on the rise due to the perception that they are environmentally friendly. Besides, an increase in oil prices has compelled many people to opt for alternative sources of energy. Nevertheless, a majority of the existing biofuels have been criticized for their contribution to environmental pollution. Besides, critiques of biofuels allege that the fuels compromise land use and food security.1 In the light of these criticisms, this article will discuss if biofuels are a better alternative to fossil fuels. Besides, the report will identify if there are unintended consequences that might arise from the increased use of biofuels. It will also determine if biofuels can help to resolve the challenge of climate change and overreliance on fossil fuels.

Current Understanding of the Topic

Unlike fossil fuels, biofuels do not emit a high amount of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, this does not imply that biofuels derived from plants do not play a role in air pollution. Brazil is one of the key producers of biofuels worldwide. A study conducted in Sao Paulo, where biofuel is widely used, confirmed that the fuel contributes to air pollution.2 numerous economic, technical, social, and environmental concerns are associated with biofuel production and consumption. Scientific journals, as well as excellent media, discuss a majority of these concerns. Some economists argue that the production of biofuels contributes to food insecurity, deforestation, carbon emissions, and soil erosion. Conversely, they claim that biofuels facilitate the moderation of oil prices. Automobile engineers maintain that the use of biofuels would call for the modification of the car engines.2 The International Resource Panel argues that different forms of biofuels have varied effects on the environment. As a result, it is imperative to examine both the social and environmental effects of a biofuel throughout its lifecycle.

Recent Research

A study by scientists at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) discovered that planting sweet sorghum had numerous advantages compared to growing grain sorghum. Sweet sorghum acts as a source of biofuel and food.3 Currently, most Asian farmers have stopped growing grain sorghum and embarked on farming sweet sorghum. Researchers have also confirmed that algae can serve as an important source of biofuel. Scientists claimed that algae contained an enormous level of natural oil content.2 The use of algae to manufacture biofuel is yet to reach a commercial scale. Nevertheless, researchers have carried out a feasibility study and confirmed that it is a viable venture. Apart from the extraction of biofuels from algae, scientists claim that the Jatropha tree is a primary source of biofuel. A past study on Jatropha curcas confirmed that the tree is a potential source of biofuel. The researchers have come up with numerous extraction methods to enhance the production of biofuel from Jatropha curcas.

The scientists are working on soil science and genetics improvement to increase the overall per acre biofuel production. In San Diego, Jatropha developers use biotechnology and molecular breeding to generate superior hybrid seeds.3 Plant Research International from the Netherlands has a Jatropha Evaluation Program that studies the viability of large-scale Jatropha farming through laboratory and field tests. In the United States, research is underway to examine the feasibility of ethanol production. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has researched the possibility of manufacturing cellulosic ethanol. American companies like Dyadic, Novozymes, and Diversa are in the course of generating enzymes that could facilitate the production of cellulosic ethanol.3 In 2013, the United States witnessed the first large-scale farming of plants to process cellulosic biofuels. Currently, many companies are investing in various feedstocks of biofuels due to the high demand for energy-efficient and environmentally friendly sources of fuel in the United States.

Mechanisms Used in Manufacture of Biofuels

The production of biofuels entails two primary mechanisms, which are direct fermentation and indirect fermentation. Direct fermentation relies on the transformation of different plant matters into biofuels. It constitutes two stages. The first phase entails the breakdown of the original plant matter into fermentable sugars. The second stage involves the transformation of sugar into alcohol.4 The manufacturers use genetically engineered strains of bacteria or yeast to convert sugar into ethanol. The first stage is the most critical in the entire process of manufacturing biofuels. The producers ought to have adequate knowledge of the best microorganisms, engineering schemes, incubation conditions, and enzymes that can result in effective depolymerization. Indirect fermentation is not applicable on a large scale. The mechanism relies on the burning of the original plant matter, followed by the transformation of the generated gas into ethanol. Acetogenic bacteria facilitate the conversion of the generated gas into ethanol.

Advantages of Biofuels

Biofuels obtained from plants serve as the best alternatives to fossil fuels. Biofuels are cost-effective compared to fossil fuels. One may argue that both fossil fuels and biofuels go at comparable prices in the market. However, it is imperative to consider the overall cost of using fossil fuels compared to biofuels.5 Biofuels are clean and generate less emission on burning. Besides, they are compatible with a majority of the existing engines and are efficient under different conditions. On the other hand, biofuels are produced from numerous sources. Therefore, they are not only easy to source but also inexhaustible. Biofuels help to minimize the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The contemporary population is environmentally conscious.

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People prefer using products that do not contribute to global warming. Biofuel is one such product. Unlike fossil fuels, biofuels do not emit a high amount of carbon dioxide.5 They facilitate the mitigation of global warming, therefore making them the best alternatives to fossil fuels.4 Biofuels guarantee the economic security of nations that do not have vast reserves of crude oil.1 Importation of crude oil affects the economies of a majority of states. As a result, the production of biofuels can help a country to cut down on its expenses, therefore securing its economy. Production of biofuels enables a country to cease depending on foreign oil. The prices of fossil fuels continue to rise. Thus, there is a need for countries to look for alternative sources of energy and stop depending on crude oil. Biofuels can satisfy a majority of the domestic energy requirements, hence cushioning a country from increased oil prices.

Disadvantages of Biofuels

Numerous unintended consequences might result from the increased use of biofuels. Greater use of biofuels would lead to excessive water usage. A lot of water is needed to grow the plants used in the production of biofuels. As a result, increased use of biofuels may lead to depletion of regional and local water resources.5 For instance, the production of corn-based ethanol requires a lot of water, which can result in an untenable strain on local water resources. Increased use of biofuels may lead to food shortages.4 Biofuels come from crops and plants that are rich in sugar. Unfortunately, a majority of these plants are used as food.

Supporters of biofuels argue that a company can use waste materials from plants to manufacture the fuels. However, the waste materials cannot meet the demand for biofuels. Therefore, a country has to rely on food crops for the production of biofuels. Greater use of biofuels might lead to most agricultural land being used to grow plants that are rich in sugar for fuel production. Such a move might subject a country to a severe food shortage. Currently, some people worry that the increased use of biofuels will lead to an increase in food prices. The increased use of biofuels is likely to encourage a monoculture model of farming. People are liable to focus on growing a single variety of crops year after year.

Even though monoculture may seem economically viable for farmers, it can affect land productivity. Monoculture deprives the land of nutrients that are injected into the soil in the course of crop rotation.5 Therefore, land productivity is bound to decrease with time. Apart from reduced land productivity, increased use of biofuels may have adverse effects on biodiversity. The farmers use fertilizers to grow the crops employed in the production of biofuels. The fertilizer may find its way into the nearest lakes leading to water pollution. Additionally, the fertilizer constitutes phosphorous and nitrogen that might have adverse effects on aquatic life as well as the environment.

Level of Use of Biofuels

Many countries have embraced biofuel as an alternative source of energy. Indeed, the demand for biofuels continues to rise in the United States, Europe, and Brazil. In 2013, the production rate of biofuels went up by more than 462%. The chief impediment to the use of biofuels is the determination of the amount of biofuel that can be used together with conventional transportation fuels.6 Many countries are working towards the development of flex-fuel cars to guarantee the stability of the biofuel industry. Flex-fuel cars run on ethanol. Besides, their engines can run on a mixture of ethanol and diesel.

The United States already has over 16 million flex-fuel vehicles. Brazil is leading in the number of flex-fuel vehicles. Even though the United States Environmental Protection Agency has authorized the use of fuel that comprises 85% gasoline and 15% ethanol, fuel retailers are yet to embrace this blend. Therefore, the United States is yet to exploit the benefits associated with biofuels altogether. Additionally, the country is yet to come up with attractive prices for blend fuels.6 For instance, the E85 blend is more expensive than gasoline. Thus, many customers opt to use gasoline. The United States should lower the cost of the E85 blend to make it competitive. The diagram below shows the United States’ energy consumption.

Gaps in Knowledge

Countries are yet to understand the socio-economic, environmental, and supply chain effects of biofuels despite their increased demand. There are no mechanisms for analyzing the lifecycle of biofuels. As a result, individuals do not have adequate knowledge of the environmental impacts of biofuels.7 Biofuels are believed not to contribute significantly to air pollution. However, people do not have precise knowledge of all the tailpipe emissions related to biofuels. They only focus on the amount of carbon dioxide that gets into the atmosphere during combustion. There is a need for further research to understand the effects of biofuels on the ecosystem and natural resources. People do not understand the environmental implications of planting biofuel crops on a large scale. The production and consumption of biofuels have adverse impacts on both enterprises and households.7

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Nevertheless, no adequate research accounts for the effects of biofuel on businesses and households. Consequently, there is a need for researchers to focus on this area to enable the governments to prepare before investing in the biofuel industry. There is a knowledge gap in the establishment of international standards to guarantee the sustainability of biofuels. Countries are yet to harmonize their endeavors on sustainability. Thus, it is hard for nations to ensure that producers of biofuels comply with standard guidelines. Plans are underway to formulate criteria for assessing if biofuel producers adhere to sustainability policies.7 Besides, countries that produce biofuels require coming up with energy regulations that do not discriminate against small producers and suppliers of the fuels.

Sources of Controversies

Numerous controversies surround the production of biofuels. Many people do not agree with the use of food crops to manufacture biofuels. They claim that it is unethical to use food crops in the production of biofuels when many families in the developing world continue to suffer from hunger.8 On the other hand, supporters of biofuels maintain that it is unethical to continue to use fossil fuels while the entire world is looking for measures to curb global warming. Additionally, the supporters of biofuels argue that people have been using forestry and agricultural products as fuel for a long time. They maintain that biofuel was used in transport long before the discovery of fossil fuel. In 1898, automobile engineers came up with the first engine that ran on peanut oil.8

The claim that the production of biofuels contributes to increasing food prices is baseless. Numerous factors contribute to fluctuating food prices. Ceasing to manufacture biofuels would not guarantee the stability of food prices. Additionally, stopping the production of biofuels would not bring to an end the competition for agricultural land. People have been using charcoal, firewood, and crop residues to cook, light, and heat their households for a long time. Thus, people would still require land to plant trees for the production of charcoal and firewood.8 The rising cost of energy and increased demand for food are among the factors that influence food prices. Therefore, states should come up with policies, which can ensure that there is adequate land for growing both the food crops and “energy crops”. Such policies would reduce competition for agricultural land and guarantee food security.

Conclusion

Biofuels from plants will help to resolve the problem of climate change and dependence on fossil fuels. Countries continue to exhaust their reserves of fossil fuel. Moreover, environmentalists and the international community are calling on the governments to institute measures to curb global warming. There is no doubt that governments are looking for alternative sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels. The fact that biofuels are compatible with a majority of modern engines makes them the best alternative sources of energy. Additionally, biofuels emit a limited amount of carbon dioxide. Thus, their contribution to global warming is minimal compared to fossil fuels. Biofuels are readily available and affordable. Further, the production cost of biofuels is tenable. Biofuels guarantee the economic security of countries that do not produce fossil fuels. Nations that use biofuels do not incur huge expenses in the importation of fossil fuels. Despite the numerous benefits, many unprecedented consequences might arise due to the increased use of biofuels. For instance, the production of biofuels may result in competition for agricultural land. In return, it may compromise the food security of many nations. Additionally, the production of biofuels requires a lot of water. Thus, it might result in overexploitation of water resources. The primary risk associated with the manufacture of biofuels is that countries do not have adequate knowledge about the socio-economic, environmental, and supply chain effects of the fuels. Hence, it is hard for countries to guarantee the sustainability of biofuels.

References

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Childs B, Bradley R. Plants at the pump: biofuels, climate change, and sustainability. Washington: World Resource Institute; 2008. Washington. 203 p.

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Gupta R, Demirbas A. Gasoline, diesel and ethanol biofuels from grasses and plants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2010. 40 p.

Bindraban P, Bulte E, Conijn S. Can large-scale biofuels production be sustainable by 2020? Agricultural System. 2009;101(3):197-199.

Balat M. An overview of biofuels and policies in the European Union. Energy Sources, Part B: Economics, Planning, and Policy. 2010;2(2):167-181.