Food for (Bio)Fuels

A Potential Solution to Non-Renewable Energies

Image via Adam Ward ( Licensed for further reuse with copyright.

Although global gas prices may be fluctuating, there has been a steady increase in global gas production and consumption, with highest rates seen in developed nations. Moreover, we are finding more gas reserves around the world, particularly in countries such as Russia, USA, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. These natural gas reservoirs can be extracted in the future years to provide tons of fuels for our motor vehicles, which are also polluting the planet.

Every year, motor vehicles emit 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere, usually in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). High amounts of CO2 can be trapped into the earth’s atmosphere, where it can further exacerbate the greenhouse effect (whereby more solar radiation is trapped in the earth’s surface, slowly increasing global temperatures).

Also, oil extraction commonly involves constructing pipelines (from the source of oil to the consumer) to transport the natural gas to consumers. Transportation of these resources often run the risk of exploding, destroying the natural environment, and even posing hazards to human lives. These pipelines can also be targets for terrorist attacks, vandalism, and sabotage.

Biofuels: An Alternative Approach

Biofuels are an alternative fuel source to the non-renewable natural gas the world is currently using. Biofuel production involves degrading certain material rich in organic carbon (known as biomass) to generate alcohols, such as ethanol (which are our biofuels!). Microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria can be added to the process the help degrade the biomass faster, to allow more efficient production of the biofuel.

Currently, biofuels are generated using crop waste (i.e. leftover stems and leaves) from soybean and corn feedstock, although recent studies have shown biofuel-yielding potential of large perennial grasses and cardoon species. Any material that is rich in sugar (often cellulose/lignocellulose) and starch is often used to develop the fuels.

Potential Challenges & Hurdles

Unfortunately, biofuel production still presents some challenges, considerations, and limitations. There are those that believe crops grown for biofuel production (i.e. corn, soybean) are more important for feeding our global population. Also, some woody crops those are rich in lignocellulose are often difficult to break down, and require additional measures to further degrade them, which can be costly.

The Current Situation

Nonetheless, the world is paving the way for biofuel production and consumption. The USA and Brazil currently produce 90% of the global biofuel that is available today (86 billion litres)! The European Union (EU) also produces a considerable amount of the fuel. Between 2009 and 2010, world biofuel production increased by 17%. Although only 2.7% of the world’s biofuel is used for road transport, 79% of cars that are produced in Brazil involve a hybrid system of ethanol and gasoline usage.

Will biofuels eventually phase out the non-renewable resource we currently rely on for transportation? Or are the staggering challenges involved in its production render biofuels unviable and impractical?

 Renee C. has received her B.Sc. in Honours Life Sciences at McMaster University. She loves educating others about different topics in science, and has developed a passion for scientific outreach. When she’s not writing articles for Hemtecks, she’s either volunteering or checking her social media accounts every 20 minutes. Along with Tiffany (Tianhemtecks), she also facilitates the blog’s Facebook page. 


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