Ecology And Environment

Alternative Fuels

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Bio Fuels and Their Potential to Replace Fossil Fuels.

A fuel can be defined as anything that reacts with Oxygen to release energy. Most fuels that are used today are fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and gas. These were produced by plants which photosynthesized millions of years ago and where compressed over the years into small concentrations of fuel. These chemicals are also useful raw materials, they can be detergents for example. All of these fuels will run out some day (they are finite) and will never be renewed, well not for at least another 300 million years.
All fuels are compounds of Carbon, Hydrogen and sometimes Oxygen. The energy that is stored in the chemical bonds of the molecules can be released by burning or combustion. When a fuel is burnt, its chemical bonds are broken and the energy is released. New chemical bonds are formed and energy is release because the energy is lower than in the previous Carbon-Hydrogen bonds.

The formula for Combustion is;

* Fuel + Oxygen = Water + CO2 + Energy + Other Gases

Fuels are currently used to power nearly everything in the world today, from electricity, to transport systems and even to your electric shaver! In the United Kingdom, coal provided 15.7% of the energy consumption in 1999, oil, 35%, natural gas, 34.9% and hydroelectricity and other renewable sources provided the rest. The United Kingdom is also a large user of electricity, the United Kingdom was Europe's third-largest electricity market and 73% of this electricity was made by fossil fuels which will result in a lot of pollution.
Fuel is basically used to power the majority of the globe and a large portion of the recent technological advancements that have occurred would have not been possible without fuels. Space travel, electricity, aeronautic transport and road vehicles would all not have been possible to manufacture without the use of fuels. Even if you think about the recent and most important products in an average household then they will all use some fuel in the process, a television, a remote, an mp3 player, a computer and even a stove all need fuel to run. On a cold winter's day when you are nice and warm inside, that is down to the fuel that is heating up your house. Fuel can be used to power nearly anything and is one of the earth's most important resources.
The most common fuels that are used today are fossil fuels. This will consist of coal, oil and gas. These are currently the most commonly used fuels because they are cheaper than many other fuel sources and also provide a larger amount of energy than any other source fuel, in other words, they can provide the most money to a fuel company. The extraction and running of coal, oil and gas factories is big business because so much money can be made from it. Fossil fuels are an important finite resource and a lot of time goes into the purchasing of it by the companies, oil is extracted and transported in huge quantities and can boost a country's revenue by huge amounts. Every body knows how important fossil fuels are to us and also a countries economy, to some countries, oil is so important that they have to go to war for it. It is obvious why the USA have done this because if you look at where the largest oil reserves can be found, they are all in the middle east and the USA have all had some involvement with these countries;

Countries with largest crude oil reserves
Country Crude oil reserves (million barrels)
Saudi Arabia 264,310
Iran 132,460
Iraq 115,000
Kuwait 101,500
UAE 97,800

Source: OPEC
Fossil fuels are not only commonly used for the large quantities of energy that they produce but for also the power that comes attached with the owning of large oil and coal refineries. Fossil fuels have been the most common sources of fuels for a long period of time and it will still take another large period of time for this to change.
There are both environmental and economic implications surrounding the use of fossil fuels. The most controversial implication surrounding the burning of fossil fuels is the amount if waste products it gives off, it is the major source of air pollution, contributing in particular to acid rain and the greenhouse effect. As recent news suggests, these effects are not wanted and people are campaigning so that other sources can be used as they seriously affecting the earth's climate, due to this, the earth's temperature has risen by 1 Degree Celsius in the last decade. The profit that can be made may be worth it but do the environmental downfalls outweigh that? The extraction of oil, coal and gas can also be a difficult and sometimes costly procedure. Oil and coal reserves are positioned well beneath the earth's surface and these are firstly very hard to find. Either an explosion or special machines are used to locate the oil or coal as they both help analyse the structure. Once the oil, coal or gas is located, drilling still needs to take place and a pump system fitted to retrieve the oil, a very large system is needed. This is also not that simple because the oil or coal may not last that long and it may also be at the wrong sort of pressure for it to be used. So, although the selling and the profit is significant, the extraction can be proved to be very difficult and quite costly.
At the moment there are numerous bio-fuels available that can potentially replace the current fossil fuels that are used but as yet are not widely produced enough to completely replace fossil fuels. This is either because they do not produce the same amounts of energy as the fossil fuels or that they are simply to expensive to change to or manufacture. A new research by The USA Energy Foundation suggests that Ethanol is very capable of soon replacing certain products of fossil fuels such as petrol and although at the moment does produce the same amount of pollution as petrol, new advances mean that it could become a completely environmentally friendly fuel.
Another potential large producer of fuel is Palm Tree Oil. Palm Tree Oil is a form of edible vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the Oil palm tree. It is also the second-most widely produced edible oil as well as a bio-fuel. Palm Tree Oil wants to be used as a Bio diesel, especially by Asian countries. At this current time, the Malaysian government is refocusing their use of Pal Tree Oil to the production of Bio diesel to cater for the huge demands of European countries, it has encouraged the building of Bio diesel plants. This is due to the higher prices of fuel and increasing demand for alternatives sources of energy in the Western world. The plants, which will start operating middle of next year and produce 100,000 tonnes of Bio diesel annually. Strong demand for Bio diesel from Europe as well as Colombia, India, South Korea and Turkey was fuelling the industry's growth, as more countries sought to reduce their reliance on oil. Already, Malaysia have begun preparations to make a conversion to Bio fuels (Palm Tree Oil) from diesels in 2008 and a legislation has also been brought into place to make it mandatory. The main concern that is preventing this source from causing an immediate conversion is the fact that some forests need to be cleared to make way for the Palm Oil development and this has its own environmental implications.
Butanol is also being tipped as a potential replacement for the current fossil fuels that are used. Butanol is considered highly because of its high energy production with Butanol being the only liquid product. Butanol is formed by A.B.E Fermentation, this is where a bacteria called Clostridium acetobutylicum is cultured to produce Acetone, Butanol, Ethanol and starch. As time progressed past the 1950's when A.B.E Fermentation was introduced to industry, so did the process. Now, anaerobic fermentation using acetobutylicum has sparked interest again by using Butanol as a fossil fuel replacement. In modern times, the process uses tyrobutyricum to create the Butyric Acid and Hydrogen and the Butyric Acid is now pumped into a chamber containing acetobutylicum which converts the Butyric Acid into Butanol and therefore optimising the Butanol Production. This updated process now enables Butanol production to be considered seriously as a competitive replacement for fossil fuels.
The main advantages of Butanol compared to other Bio-fuels are;

* Butanol can be used in current vehicle engines without any changes.
* Butanol can be produced for less than fossil fuel based vehicle fuels.
* Butanol reduces vehicle emissions.
* Butanol has a higher octane fuel value than other fuels.
* Butanol does not absorb moisture as much as other fuels so therefore it is less affected by the weather.
* Butanol does not corrode any of the materials inside of a combustion engine.

The main advantage of using such fuels as listed above is that they are renewable sources. At the current moment in time, although the environment is being considered, the biggest worry is the amount of fossil fuels that is left, with as little as a 50 years supply of oil remaining. Using bio-fuels such as alcohols, Palm Tree Oils and Rapeseed will eliminate this factor so that the World's Governments do not have to think about discovering a completely environmentally friendly energy source as soon, and can produce these alternatives when the technology is ready and not rush in to it. So, these fuels are not only just renewable but also, to some extent, are also more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. This will slow down the effects of Global Warming. Despite some Bio-fuels not being entirely environmentally friendly, the majority will be more environmentally friendly than the fossil fuels used at the moment. For certain Bio-fuels such as Ethanol may not be any more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels at the moment, it is predicted that scientific advances will be able to come up with a plan to make these fuels more environmentally friendly, whereas fossil fuels do not have this potential ability.
In some cases, alcohols are produced by the process of fermentation, they are from biological sources. The process of fermentation is similar to the process of creating alcohol for every day use, but as described earlier, the bacteria that is used with the culture will vary depending on which alcohol is aiming to be produced. A.B.E fermentation is used to produce both Butanol and Ethanol. Alcohol fuels can also be produced by using raw, renewable resources such as crops, waste paper or even grass and tree trimmings. Methanol and Ethanol are two types of alcohol fuels used in cars. Ethanol can be produced from a variety of renewable resources, most commonly corn and sugarcane. Methanol can be made from renewable resources also, but today, methanol is primarily made from natural gas. If an alcohol is being produced using raw materials such as tree and grass trimmings, such as Methanol then the raw materials that are being used have to undertake a distillation process. Some of the alcohols that are produced will not be entirely used for all of a fuel, in some cases, Bio-fuels such a Methane can be used in conjunction with the fossil fuels currently used to save some of the oil used. This is done because Methane has a high octane level, which is good for fuels but is not used for all of the fuel because of its high toxicity. This is useful to us because it will save a certain amount of the fuels currently used.
I conclude that alcohols burn relatively well when being used as an energy source. I know this because of the experiment that was undertaken as part of this investigation. With reference to my experiment, Butanol managed to burn 4.90g in just 5 minutes which is quite a lot for a short period of time.
All of the alcohols ignited easily and burnt well for the duration of the experiment. Alcohols would be capable of replacing fossil fuels because they ignite very easily and will keep on burning for a long period of time.
The energy released from alcohols is nowhere near the amount that is released by the fossil fuels, oil, coal and gas. If you look at the energy release of the alcohols and compare them to the fossil fuels then you will see a large difference;

Alcohols Fossil Fuels
Methanol - 19.9 MJKg-1 Natural Gas - 34.8 MJm-3
Ethanol - 27.2 MJKg-1 Coal - 24.30 GJTonne-1
Propanol - 33.5 MJKg-1 Oil (Diesel) - 42.9 MJKg-1
Butanol - 36 MJKg-1

As you can see from this table, my conclusion is reinforced, alcohols do not produce as much energy as fossil fuels. This will be a major factor of considering whether or not companies decide to convert to using Bio-fuels. In industry, the energy companies will want to maximise their profits, and to do this they would need to provide the most energy with the smallest amount of fuel possible. At this current moment on time, Alcohols do not provide a sufficient enough amount of energy for the energy companies to maintain the current amount of profit that they are gaining. As the current energy debate continues, at the end of the day, the governments of the world and take control of the situation and to dictate what will happen by law because if they don't, (although you cannot blame the companies for wanting to make the best living) the energy companies will want to keep making these large profits for a longer period of time and will run risk of the planet being damaged beyond repair.
The energy efficiency of alcohols are also not as good fossil fuels, as I have found from an experiment that I conducted. The conditions that alcohol are burnt have to be quite specific and if they do not, the full amount of energy will not be released;

Alcohol In This Investigation Actual
Methanol 4.52 MJ/Kg 19.9 MJ/Kg
Ethanol 5.98 MJ/Kg 27.2 MJ/Kg
Propanol 11.17 MJ/Kg 33.5 MJ/Kg
Butanol 2.19 MJ/Kg 36 MJ/Kg

As you can see, a lot of energy has been lost during the combustion reaction and these amounts of energy would not be satisfactory to cater for the earth's demands. This would also mean that the combustion process would also be more costly for energy providers which is not good in any situation as they will be less willing to convert to this energy source so therefore the process of the energy switch will take a lot longer and my possibly use up time that the earth does not have.
From my knowledge of this investigation and the coinciding experiment I can conclude that at the moment there is uncertainty around whether bio-fuels should be used because there are both advantages and disadvantages from using bio-fuels as a primary fuel source;

Advantages Disadvantages
* Generally, more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. The effects of global warming can be slowed down. * Produces significantly lower amounts of energy compared to the fossil fuels.
* They are renewable. * Doesn't provide enough profit for energy providers.
* Reduce vehicle emissions. * May still require the use of fossil fuels to transport.
* Some alcohols do not corrode the inside of engines. * Harmful gases will still be a by-product (eg. Methanol and Carbon Monoxide).
* Does not have to be extracted from underneath the earth's surface. * A lot of extra energy can be lost during the combustion reaction.
* Useful as vehicle fuel because of high octane levels. * More amounts of bio-fuels needed compared to the amount of fossil fuels that are needed.

As with any fuel source, there are both advantages and disadvantages, this makes the overall decision on whether to convert to this fuel source difficult. From using this investigation, I conclude that bio-fuels are a POTENTIAL replacement for fossil fuels but at the current moment time, methods are not efficient enough to create a sufficient amount of fuel to cater for the earth's needs and I feel that some technological advances need to be made before bio-fuels can be converted to for use as a major fuel source.

More about this author: Andrew Smith - 344395

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