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“The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything,” the CEO of the Ford Motor Company told a reporter for the New York Times. “There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented.”
Those words, which capture the sense of excitement and potential surrounding biofuels today, were actually spoken in 1925 by Henry Ford. Nearly a century ago, the Model-T was designed to run on either gasoline or a corn-based fuel called “ethanol”. Even before that, in 1897, Rudolph Diesel demonstrated that his engine could run on peanut oil. Today, following an eight-decade detour in the petroleum age, biofuels are back – fueled by a powerful combination of advancing technologies, rising environmental concerns, farmer support, and soaring oil prices.
Today, we have a growing understanding of the problems related to petroleum products. Climate change is caused in large part by CO2 emissions, the biggest man-made source of which is transportation. A near-epidemic of asthma is closely linked to diesel exhaust and particulate matter. Oil spills, arctic oil drilling, and strip mining for coal represent other potential environmental problems associated with fossil fuels.
Technology and science
have invented ways to make bio-based products less expensive and more
adaptable. Currently, bio-based products can be used to replace:
The prospect of a
society with much greater use of these products is often referred to as
either the “bio-based future” or a “carbohydrate economy”.
Significant resources are being invested in this future. Biofuels get
the most attention, and have the greatest investment; for good reason,
the prospect of replacing the black gold that our economy runs on is exciting
and potentially lucrative.
primarily used in cars, ethanol is a type of alcohol and is most commonly
made from corn or sugarcane. Based on sugars.
It is important to
distinguish between two major energy needs in North America: transportation
While solar power and wind turbines are alternative sources of electricity, these technologies do not reduce our need for transportation fuels.
– HOW IT WORKS
Ethanol may be in your car right now. All cars can run on a small percentage of ethanol mixed with regular gasoline, and either ethanol or MTBE is often added to promote complete fuel combustion. There are over 5 million “flexible-fuel” cars in the US, capable of running on any combination of gasoline and ethanol, though the majority of them actually just use gasoline. It costs automakers less than $100 extra to make a car flex-fuel.
While there is no perceptible difference driving a flex-fuel car running on ethanol, miles per gallon would be 15% lower.
Brazil is an example: in Brazil, the sugar cane industry is huge. They use it to make ethanol to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. Now most Brazilians drive flexible-fuel cars, and buy whichever fuel is cheaper.
1) Ethanol is currently
made from corn, and the way corn is grown in the US is not sustainable.
Corn is often genetically modified, and grown using fossil fuels, synthetic
fertilizers and pesticides, which have environmental ramifications.
The U.S. government has set a target of 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012, with some states setting ambitious goals of their own. Minnesota is aiming for ethanol to replace 20% of its gasoline by 2013.
Outlook for Future Ethanol
Production: Ethanol from Corn
Outlook for Future Ethanol
The following table illustrates some of the benefits of cellulosic ethanol compared to corn-based ethanol:
If you were driving a diesel car – as many people in Europe do – you could just fill up with biodiesel one day, instead of regular diesel. It is actually better for your engine, and it makes your exhaust smell like French fries.
Biodiesel is not perfect, but it is an improvement from petroleum diesel, even when you only consider the usage of these fuels, and not the production. Issues of peak oil, climate change, and geopolitics are the same as mentioned above for gasoline vs. ethanol.
The efficiency of making biodiesel is better than that of ethanol, but it still is not very efficient. Proponents suggest that new methods will increase efficiency, opponents suggest that there is a long way to go.
Like ethanol, there are limits to how much biodiesel can be produced. Land use, water availability and competition with food crops all limit the production levels. It would require a major technological advance for biodiesel to replace all diesel fuel currently used in the US.
Outlook for FutureBiodiesel
Long term, the picture
is quite different once corn is taken out of the equation and cellulosic
The biggest negative
with biodiesel, and with ethanol, may be that it serves as a distraction:
it holds out hope that we can build a new supply of renewable fuels, and
not have to change our lifestyles or take other steps to reduce demand.
BIOFUELS: ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
Worldwatch Institute report: Biofuels for Transportation
Natural Resources Defense Council’s biofuels resources:
National Biodiesel Board, General info on biodiesel: www.biodiesel.org
Map of US gas stations selling biodiesel: http://www.biodiesel.org/home
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