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Food versus Fuel: Biofuel's Bad Rap

a pond of green algae
Green algae like this may someday fuel your car.
(cc) Lee Nachtigal

The term “biofuel” may be a modern construction, but biofuel itself is ancient. People have been using fuels made from plant and animal sources for thousands of years.

The Bible speaks of pure beaten olive oil fueling the lamps of the Tabernacle. Of course, olive oil was also used as food.

Your great-grandparents probably lit their home using hurricane lamps burning either kerosene made from petroleum, or alcohol made from grain. Of course, those grains could also be used as food.

Today, in an effort to replace or at least supplement the use of petroleum-based fuels, some are advocating the mass production of biofuels, primarily ethanol and biodiesel. Of course, the source of these fuels — various grains, seeds, and corn — can also be used as food.

Do you see the problem?

Food versus Fuel

The idea of using food for fuel doesn’t sit well with many people, particularly when food prices are increasing and when a large percentage of Earth’s population is malnourished. It’s this food versus fuel debate that has given biofuel a bad reputation.

However, biofuels don’t have to be made from food sources. It’s possible to produce biofuel from agricultural materials that would otherwise go to waste.

Bioethanol is typically made from corn, a fact opponents of the fuel point to as one of it’s biggest drawbacks. Yet, most of the world’s corn today goes to feed livestock, not humans. Fortunately one of the byproducts of ethanol production from corn is distiller’s grains, a protein-rich mash that has higher levels of amino acids, fat, minerals, and vitamins than raw corn, and that is easier for an animal to digest. Thus, it’s possible to deliver ethanol in quantity while still producing the animal feed we require.

Biodiesel can similarly be made from plants typically used for food such as rapeseed and soybeans, but, again, it doesn’t have to be. It can also be produced from waste vegetable oil, animal fats, and algae. And here’s a fascinating option: The algae used to produce biodiesel can feed on sewage, cleaning the water at the same time. How’s that for an environmentally friendly process!

Advancing Biofuel Technology

It is true that using current technology it may not be possible to fully satisfy our present thirst for petroleum-based fuels. But, given time, the technology will improve; we’ll be able to produce biofuels more efficiently, from a greater variety of sources, requiring less energy.

We will also, in time, reduce our need for petroleum. Cars have become much more fuel-efficient in the last few years, a trend that should continue as hybrid vehicles become more common.

Biofuels have come a long way in the last few thousand years. While they’re not perfect, they may yet prove to be a valuable and viable alternative to petroleum.

Read Biofuels and Bioenergy: Processes and Technologies from Amazon.

Jules Smith is the principal of LightningStrike Studios, a professional writing firm specializing in Alternative Energy and Information Technology. Visit www.lightningstrikestudios.com to learn more.

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