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Bio-fuel – Food for Fuel?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on May 18, 2010

This is another segment in our series on alternative energy, in the past we have talk about nuclear energy and this week we are going to talk about another alternative to our traditional Petro-coal economy – Bio fuels.

First, what are bio-fuels?

Simply put, these are fuel sources that are derived directly from organic sources – ie plants. The simplest bio-fuel that we all may be acquainted with is firewood. But firewood cannot replace gas, but the real promise of bio-fuels can be seem more in things like palm or canola oil – we are all acquainted with these now as cooking oils.  Another promising bio-fuel is alcohol.

So, how do bio-fuels help?

Bio-fuels, in general, are seen as possible saviour to fuel-intensive society because they are renewable and are claimed to be carbon neutral. The current state of the technology…

Bio-Alcohol – extracting sugars or starches from wheat, corn, beets, sugarcane, etc… and fermenting then into alcohol or as its better known in the fuel sphere – ethanol. This is the most pervasive of the bio-fuels because of its easy adoption as an additive to traditional gas. If you see at the gas station ethanol blends, like Mohawks Natures Blend, they usually have up to 10% ethanol. You can find in more and more locations E85, which is 85% ethanol however this is not universal because it requires modification to the standard car engine.

  • Pros – Like with all bio-fuels it is renewable and it is based on a tried and true current technology –so no waiting for future development
  • Cons – Diverts food from people to cars, requires significant energy inputs to produce (ie for the distillation of the alcohol)

Bio-Oil – The use of vegetable oil as a fuel with little or no process. Vegetable oil can be, with little processing, be used directly as a fuel in a modified car. You might have seen these on TV almost a decade ago portrayed as deep-fryer or chip cars because they would recycle used deep-fryer oil as a fuel. Pure Oil (or not recycled) fuel come from plants that are not part of the human food chain and can grow on ‘agriculturally marginal’ lands – for example the Camelina which was used as a fuel oil in the bronze age but not a current agricultural crop.

  • Pros – renewable, Recycled is tried and test (it was used during WWII fuel shortages) but Pure Oil still in the research stage, recycle existing waste.
  • Cons –Recycling not really economically sustainable on a grand scale, threatens natural habitat not presently used for agriculture.

Bio-Diesel – Vegetable oil again but this time highly processed to for a more ‘standard’ hydrocarbon chain. Like ethanol it is often used as an additive to fossil fuel diesel, up to 15%, although modified or special designed engine are appearing able to handle B100 or pure bio-diesel. Bio-diesel is produced by mixing veggie oil with sodium hydroxide and methanol, the resulting compound is then processed to remove impurities and you get bio-diesel.

  • Pros – renewable, some forms well established, some forms high yield and used non-agricultural land (algae and the bio-oils mentioned earlier)
  • Cons – Requires significant energy inputs to create, established forms remove food from the system the other forms result in loss of natural habitat and are future tech.

Bio-Gas – The capturing of methane from decomposing organic material. This is usually the end product of natural bacterial digestion. There are two main ways to capture this gas, one is to “cover existing landfills” and collect the gas natural leaking from these dumps. This reduced local air pollution and takes a greenhouse gas and puts it to some use (although it will still ultimately be a greenhouse gas one way or another). Another way is to create “waste dumps”, be it manure or other bio-mass and again capture the methane emitted by the decomposition process. These tend to be cheap to produce, at least on small scale, making them ideal for less developed nations.

  • Pros – Cheap, natural, and in the small scale well established
  • Cons – relied on waste, hard to scale up (while remaining efficient and environmentally acceptable)

Bio-Hydrogen – the use of photosynthesis to produce hydrogen from water. Hydrogen has been seen, and therefore developed, as an alternative fuel source (at least for transportation). So the science of using hydrogen is well developed. However, the stumbling block has always been the actual production of hydrogen, which currently is an energy loss system (ie more energy in than out). Bio-hydrogen could solve this problem by producing the hydrogen organically, than making it an positive energy system.

  • Pros – cheap, environmentally sustainable, renewable
  • Cons – distant future tech

Now that we know what we are talking about, bio-fuels are very controversial.

First, current levels of technology rely heavily on crops like soybeans, corn and sugarcane. Do we notice what these things have in common? Yes, they are all also food crops. In 2008 there were riots around the world over the perceived food-shortage due to the idea that these crops were being diverted from tables to cars.

To answer this question we need to assess three points:

How much ‘food’ has been diverted?

To figure out how much potential food has been diverted we need to get a rough estimate about the amount of bio-fuel produced. Bio-Diesel about 6.5 billion litres, Bio-alcohol about 40 billion litres and the others don’t primarily rely on food crops. To simplify our analysis, we will just focus on the Bio-Alcohol, or better known as ethanol, because it’s better understood and accounts for about ¾ of bio-fuel production.

According to The World Bank, it takes about 2.4 kg of maize to make 1 litre of ethanol, so using that as rough average, which works out to be about 96 billion kg of maize. In Brazil, which accounts for the largest production of ethanol, sugarcane is used. Using that as a base about 2.2 kg of sugar is used to make 1 litre of ethanol, or about 88 billion kg of sugar a year. Well, of course it’s one or that other not both, so about 35% is from sugarcane and about 55% from maize.

Compare this to world production of maize (785 trillion kg) and sugarcane (1.6 trillion kg), it amounts to a small percentage (<0.007% maize and <2% sugar). There was a marked rise in crop prices in 2008 (which sparked the world riots) but that was largely (as time has shown) the result of commodity speculators – speculators quite likely influenced by the very organizations that were protesting food for fuel. So, one could make the argument that every little bit counts, but as a percentage, animal feed far out paces ethanol productions, so one could make a more compelling argument for veganism.,,contentMDK:21501336~pagePK:64167689~piPK:64167673~theSitePK:2795143,00.html

How is that diversion compared to ’boutique’ crops or crops sent to wealthy nations?

So, what other things remove food from the system? We already briefly mentioned animal feed, but another one is organic farming. Again, not wanting to make moral arguments about the ethicy of organic farming, the bare fact is that it is (at best) 5% less productive than ‘factory’ farming…meaning organics take out three to ten times more food than bio-fuel.

How much of the increase in crops are the result of bio-fuels and how much the result of speculation in bio-fuel?

In late 2007 and 2008 there was a huge issue regarding the pricing and availability of food crops. There were riots throughout the world as people complained that food crops were being diverted to fuel production and (more supportable) that the “bio-fuel rush” was causing a huge increase in food prices and thus causing more malnutrition and starvation among the world’s poor. It is true that for many developing nations the cost of importing food increased as much as 25%; the price of wheat doubled and many other crops (rice, soybean) and their derivatives (milk, meat) reached all-time highs in 2008. However, although more resources are being deployed into the production of bio-fuels, the price of most food crops has notable reduced, most to prices lower than 2007 levels.

Now many leaders of the developed nations claimed the rise was due to increases in world population and the increased demand placed by them on the global system. But this has only increased (ie more people today than yesterday), so one would assume a stable or increasing price for food crops – which is not true. Some blame increased ‘neo-liberal’ policies (which I think are inherently immoral) but again, these fail the price stability test. The only thing that seems to account for the temporary increase is “the market” in the form of commodity speculations. Now some might argue the law of “supply and demand” – Daniel?

IF, there is a problem, its root is our system of distribution – resources go not to those-in-need but those-in-greed…or those who can afford it but that is a topic of another show)

Another are of controversy is that some crops, including canola and palm oil, are being planted in virgin land, notably rainforest land being ‘converted’ to crop land. Parallel to this, a number of people around the world have claimed to be displaced from their land by large ‘corporate farms’ to grow these bio-fuel crops. Now this is perhaps more important than the idea of “food or fuel” because these crops are seen as second generation bio-fuels – the future of bio-alternatives.

To answer this question we need to assess some points:

How much land is being used by bio-fuel crops?

Now most people note that deforestation and ‘crop-conversion” has increased the most for bio-fuels compared to other uses. However, because bio-fuel use was so small to begin with, as a percentage of the whole it is still quite small. It is hard to assess exact numbers but the research I have done shows that most deforestation is for…well wood, although clearing for cattle production is also significant. In fact, the only real pressure that bio-fuels seem to put on ‘virgin land’ is to provide cover for logging (ie. Land set aside for bio-fuel is really just used as an excuse to cut down old growth forest) and it grows well in the poor soils that rain-forests grow in (ie. Once cleared, biofuel crops will ‘absorb’ the ex-rainforest land). Another area that shows an increase in bio-fuel crops in the reclaiming of swamp lands. This is notable in Palm oil crops in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Compared to other land-use, are these lands significant?

As implied above, although it is true that bio-fuels are having more of an impact each year, they are still relatively insignificant compared to other threats. The threat possed by wood harvesting is magnitude greater. That said, there is one area that maybe there is a good case – reclaimed land. Although in a pure human-centric capitalist view point, swamps are unproductive and are ‘improved’ by transforming them into ‘cash crops’, however environmentalist would argue that the loss of bio-diversity that swamps and similar ‘marginal’ lands possess is a great harm both to humanity and the biosphere as a whole – that there is something more important than money. In an odd way, the unproductiveness of these lands have served, in the past, to protect nature…that protecting, thanks to bio-fuels, seems to be lifting.

Again, another side issue not truly related to bio-fuel but more about equality, capitalism and environmentalism.,8599,1701221,00.html

One Response to “Bio-fuel – Food for Fuel?”

  1. Michael Bourque said

    There is one point that seems to be missed in the conversatiion about biofuel production, and that is soil fertility. The productivity of land can be “used up”. Rain forest land that has been cleared quickly loses its fertility, because most of the energy and nutrients go into the wood. This leads to further land clearing every few years as the land is exhausted. Organic farming can actually lead to increased fertility, but it still ends up producing much less per acre than land which depends on chemical fertilizers. Does anyone know where we get much of our chemical fetilizers from? Could it be …oil?

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