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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Biofuels: The Future of the Fuel Industry

Today there is a rush to find a replacement for petroleum use and to reduce the amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This has led many in the United States, and even on a global scale, into a ‘green’ frenzy to find products that are environmentally friendly. There are several ideas on the subject ranging from new fuel types and designs for vehicles to alternate forms of travel. The automobile industry has been under strenuous criticism due to the amount of fossil fuels used and excessive amounts of carbon dioxide emissions from daily transportation. Auto makers are looking for ways to make vehicles more fuel efficient and in many cases looking for alternate designs that are less reliant, or completely eliminate the need for crude oil. Engineers, foreign and domestic, are working on auto designs that rely on energy sources of air, electricity, and organic materials. The idea of eliminating the use of crude oil is growing at a rapid pace since President Bush’s urging for new developments in the industry in a 2006 State of the Union Address. Several forms of alternate energy sources to power automobiles are being constructed in test labs; the best source of energy is biofuels, in the form of biodiesel and ethanol, which will reduce carbon emissions, create markets for new and existing agricultural practices, and reduce America’s dependency upon foreign oil.

Foreign auto makers have led the way in new technology in recent years. In France, designers at the Air Car Factories are completing a model vehicle that operates completely on compressed air. The vehicle is light weight and claims to have the capacity to function on the compression of air to engage the pistons, in place of the common combustible engine that uses gasoline (Air Car). Engineers in America are also working on new designs for electric cars. Tesla Motors is one company working on designs for electric cars that perform at speeds comparable to those of regular gas powered vehicles, and can last up to 200 miles on one charge (Tesla). These cars are still far from realistic market production because of costs of production and replacement of battery packs.

Biofuel production is gaining speed and popularity in many countries with the United States and Brazil taking the lead in ethanol manufacturing in 2006; combining to produce 69% of the world’s ethanol supply (de Vera 665). Many organic sources contribute to the production of biofuels; grain and seed crops, grasses, and even many organic materials found in landfills. Biofuels have an advantage over fuel sources originating from fossil fuels in that they are more carbon neutral. The plants used for biofuels remove carbon from the atmosphere during production and release less into the air when burned (Wikipedia). The production of biofuels will lead to research of new varieties of plants that will be much more efficient on lands unsuited for food crops. Using biofuels also reduces the dependency on foreign fuel sources, because the crops can be grown locally and are renewable resources.

Ethanol is a type of biofuel that is produced using plants high in starches or sugars in a process of yeast fermentation, resulting in ethyl alcohol. Materials high in cellulose, such as wood and paper products, can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Ethanol is currently used in vehicles in a 10% mixture with gasoline, but can be found in a mixture up to 15% (Wikipedia). Ethanol made from corn is the most common present day form, but corn is also a major feedstuff for ruminant animal production (Thompson 190). The competition for the grain has resulted in a major price jump in recent months in corn futures prices, but research is gaining ground in finding new crops to be used for the fuel production.

Scientists are now discovering plants that are not used as feedstuff make a better source for ethanol production and do not have the competition for food from consumers. Switchgrass, which is native to the central plains states, contains sufficient available starches for cellulose ethanol production and produces sufficient energy to justify the use for ethanol. The crop reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the air during production resulting in a negative net carbon emission. The crop requires little water and minor soil nutrients compared to that required of corn production; which makes it an ideal crop for land unsuitable for other uses (Biofuel-Switchgrass).

Biodiesel, or fatty acid methyl (or ethyl) ester, is another form of biofuels. Biodiesel is made from feedstocks that contain high amounts of vegetable oil, such as animal fat, soybean, algae, or jatropha. A process of transesterification is used to convert these products into biodiesel. The process results in one part glycerol to ten parts biodiesel. Biodiesel is very similar to diesel made from mineral sources and can easily be used in current diesel engines with little or no alteration to the engine. A 20% blend, B20, is used in several diesel engines in this country; although a full blend fuel of biodiesel, B100, is being used in some foreign countries. Biodiesel greatly reduces the amount of carbon emission in the atmosphere, by as much as a 50% reduction compared to that of petroleum diesel (Biodiesel).

The sources of biodiesel are commonly used feedstocks which cause a competition for land and products. Research is beginning to look into a new crop, jatropha, which is very sustainable in more tropical climates, especially in those of developing nations. The jatropha plant is similar to the muscadine and produces seeds that contain oil used in the production of biofuels. The plant can be grown as a companion crop on many farms or on land that is not suitable for many other crops (Boyd 55-56). Hybrid varieties of other crops are also being developed to produce varieties to produce the most amount of oil from a single crop.

Biofuels are not relatively new to this country; however, the application of mass production for use as a major fuel source is a new concept. There are still many questions to be asked about the efficacy and sustainability of biofuels as a primary fuel source, but much more funding is finding its way to the research for crops to produce biofuel. This will bring new opportunities to the agriculture industry, especially in places not suited for food crops. As new and more efficient sources for both ethanol and biodiesel are found, it will become easier to propose biofuels as the best source of alternative energy to reduce carbon emissions, create markets for new and existing agricultural practices, and reduce America’s dependency upon foreign oil.