🧠 Explainer: Biofuels

A 101 on biofuels

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What Are Biofuels?

And are they a viable solution to climate change? Let’s find out.

Biofuels are an alternative energy source that has gained significant attention in recent years. They are made from biomass (any sort of organic matter), which can be directly converted into liquid fuel.

This biomass can come from a wide variety of sources, including agricultural crops, wood, and waste materials.

Now, before we continue, I know what you’re thinking — what about poutine? And while yes, I suppose poutine could be considered biomass, I don’t believe anyone could make the case that it gives you energy — quite the opposite in my experience — so we’re going to rule it out right now at the top of the essay.

Moving on.

Petrol pump filling nozzles, Gas station in a service

What is an example of a biofuel?

There are several different types of biofuels, but the most common ones are ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol is made by fermenting plant starches and sugars, such as those found in corn. It's typically blended with gasoline to increase octane levels and decrease (but not eliminate) carbon monoxide and other emissions.

Biodiesel is made from new and used vegetable oils and animal fats. It's non-toxic, biodegradable, and can be blended with petroleum diesel (notably very toxic and not biodegradable) in any percentage.

Today gas at most gas stations is about 10% biofuel.

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Is biofuel clean energy?

Biofuels are considered a source of renewable — not clean — energy because they can be readily replenished.

Some even consider them to be "carbon neutral" because the carbon dioxide produced during combustion can be removed by growing the plants used to make the biofuel. However, this isn't necessarily the case in practice due to the carbon emissions produced during other production processes.

And remember, we already need to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere due to 200+ years of going buck wild on combustion. Diverting plants that were going to grow anyway into biofuel doesn’t remove any excess carbon and so can’t really be counted as an offset.

Not all biofuels are created equal.

Traditional biofuels from food crops like ethanol aren’t very sustainable (sure, they’re marginally better than fossil fuels, but that’s not saying much). Still, newer innovations of biofuel from non-food and waste biomass are more promising.

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What are the pros and cons of biofuels?

OK, so the ultimate goal is zero emissions, but many industries will take some time to get there based on where electric and battery storage technology currently stands, which means there's a lot of debate surrounding the use of biofuels.

On one hand, due to their similar combustion properties to fossil fuels, the infrastructure is already in place to use, transport, and store them. They're derived from renewable sources, and again, in theory, they can be carbon neutral, at least.

On the other hand, they're currently not particularly efficient to produce and often require the use of fossil fuels in the farming, fertilization, and distillation processes in production.

There's also the issue of land use efficiency, with some arguing that the land used to grow biofuel crops could be better used to grow food (something we really need to prioritize as the world population tips toward 10 billion people by 2050 and climate change greatly the alters the quality and quantity of arable land. I love it here.)

There is also some concern that the reductions in emissions from biofuels are achieved at the expense of other environmental impacts, including acidification, eutrophication, biodiversity loss, and an increased water footprint.

Algae as a biofuel

Second-generation biofuel technologies avoid land-use competition by using wastes from existing industries (like timber processing wastes, landfill methane, agriculture residues, and winter cover crops).

One of the more innovative examples of biofuel is algae biofuel, which would theoretically produce less than half the emissions of petroleum (again, still not zero), and because algae don’t require land for growth, algal biofuel is much better for land use compared to corn-based ethanol.

But it will be some time before innovations in science and technology provide a sustainable biofuel that can compete economically with fossil fuels, and companies like Exxon, who have long touted algal biofuel as a climate solution, are dropping their algae projects, largely due to the difficultly in scaling such technologies.

Geographies of Acrylic Paint

Why biofuels are not widely used?

Despite the controversy surrounding biofuels, net-zero plans (note the difference between net and actual zero) are heavily relying on them in the transition away from fossil fuels.

Though alternative biofuels can’t yet compete economically with fossil fuels, demand for biofuels — largely ethanol and biodiesel still — is expected to grow by 28% between 2021-2026.

Is this the best use of our very limited time and resources, when we have more efficient and proven alternatives to bioenergy that require much less water, like solar photovoltaic cells, and electric motors?

Probably not.

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