Ecology And Environment

Alternative Fuels



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It is easy to over simplify the debate on Bio-fuels. The issue, however, is one of the most important questions facing our nation and the world today. We owe it to ourselves to look at both sides of a story that will play a major role in our future.

Politicians are lining up to jump on the renewable energy bandwagon. Bio-fuels, produced from crops like corn and switch grass, are today's super heroes, according to many political pundits. Bio-diesel and ethanol are eco-friendly and decrease our dependence on foreign oil, they argue. If you drive a car and happen not to be independently wealthy, it is hard to disagree.

The other political hot button is the environment. Who wants to be on the wrong side of the issue when greenhouse gases are threatening to flood our coastlines and bake all of the farmland in between to a crisp?

Are Bio-fuels the way to avoid these evils? The answer is maybe.

With today's technology, it takes an equal amount of carbon-based fuel to produce an identical quantity of Bio-fuel. On the production side, gasoline runs the farming machinery necessary to plant, harvest and transport the crops to the refinery. The Bio-fuel refinery process consumes gasoline as well.

New discoveries at research centers such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have the potential of changing economic viability models for Bio-fuel production literally overnight. For example, enzymes used to break down organic matter more efficiently are constantly evolving in response to development efforts by the public and private sector.

There remains a considerable way to go, however. The cost of producing Bio-fuels, in terms of the amount of carbon fuel required and other factors, still requires significant reduction to make the enterprise economically feasible.

Another problem with Bio-fuels is production capacity. If all of the existing Bio-refineries in the United States were producing at a hundred percent, the output would be sufficient to run only twelve percent of the vehicles on our country's roads. Technological breakthroughs will undoubtedly increase available production capacity. Again, we have a long way to go before production catches up with demand. Can we get there fast enough?

One of the biggest questions in the Bio-fuels debate is food supply. Can farmers plant enough corn to feed the Bio-fuel industry as well as people in this country and around the world? The United States currently produces forty-two percent of the world's corn supply. Corn is the main feed ingredient for beef, poultry, egg, dairy, and hog production. The recent increase in the price of corn, fueled by increased ethanol demand, has caused food staple prices to rise. Higher food prices are exerting more pressure on the already over- stretched budgets of the poor and middle class.

Another factor to consider is the fertilizer currently used to grow corn. Some experts point out that the formation of nitrous oxide as a by-product of the nitrogen fertilizer offsets any savings in emissions achieved with the substitution of ethanol for gasoline.

Clearly, the Bio-fuels question is complex. The Bio-fuels refining process is by no means a mature technologically. The economic impact of Bio-fuels production is as sensitive and interdependent as the eco-system. Thoughtful planning and analysis must be implemented by government and private industry every step of the way.

Sources: Philpott, Tom, "Feeding the Beast," Grist Environmental News and Commentary, December 13th, 2006; National Renewable Laboratory, "Converting Biomass to Liquid Fuels," www.nrel.gov.

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