Biofuels: Pros & Cons

Posted on June 30, 2010 in Environment

Nehal Jain:

In present times, when everyone is concerned over depleting reserves of much valued “petrol” and “diesel”, or simply to say over fossil fuels, a lot of attention is being paid to a category of alternative fuels called biofuels. Perhaps the best definition for biofuels can be “the fuel which is derived from biomass, which is from living or recently living organisms or material”. It may include wood, waste, alcohol fuels etc. The main argument over which biofuels are researched upon is the ever dwindling supply of fossil fuels and the environmental concerns.

Some of the fuels falling in this category, which have been the cynosure for some time, include bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol falls under the category of alcohol fuels which are derived from the action of microbes through the fermentation of various sugars. Sugars used are derived from wheat, corn, sugarcane etc. Biodiesel is the most common biofuel used in Europe. It is produced by trans-esterification of oils and fats. Oils are mixed with Sodium Hydroxide and subsequent chemical reaction produces biodiesel. The feedstock of biodiesel includes animal fats, vegetable oils, soy, rapeseed, jatropha, mahua, mustard etc. Biofuels are mainly aimed to be the substitutes for fossil fuels. Consequently, many automobiles are now made which are flexible enough to accommodate biofuels as the driving source of energy.

Though they may be derived from agricultural constituents and can be perceived as eco-friendly by anyone who is reading about it for the first time, they have major drawbacks which are raised from time to time. After all, looks can be deceptive!

There are some major flaws found in these fuels. First is the very concern of increasing food prices since lot of grains are used in the making of these fuels. And when we talk about them as substituents of fossil fuels, the lands required are enormous and in many cases non-sufficient for the whole country. In the U.S. even if the entire corn and soybean crops are turned into biofuels, they would replace just 12 percent of our gasoline and a paltry 6 percent of the diesel. This fact is very harrowing and puts a big question mark over the feasibility of biofuels. Another important factor about them is the energy output we get from the biofuels. Bioethenol from corn has output efficiency of 1.36 to 1, that is the gain in energy is not significant to convert it into a major fuel. Though other crops have better output ratios, but they are too expensive to produce, as for now. Another major drawback is the technology used for production. It is said that the techniques used are not at all eco-friendly and hence the whole cause of biofuels is lost.

These aspects make seem the very point of researching biofuels as non-feasible. But let us not forget that any idea needs proper research before it can be turned into major success. May be, we can make the procedure of manufacturing biofuels more sustainable and highly efficient as the research goes on. But again we live in the present and, as of now; their future seems to be in dark shades. But who knows!