Biofuels Issues

There are various current issues with biofuel production and use, which are presently being discussed in the popular media and scientific journals. These include: the effect of moderating oil prices, the "food vs fuel" debate, carbon emissions levels, sustainable biofuel production, deforestation and soil erosion, impact on water resources, human rights issues, poverty reduction potential, biofuel prices, energy balance and efficiency, and centralised versus decentralised production models.

Oil price moderation

The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2006 concludes that rising oil demand, if left unchecked, would accentuate the consuming countries' vulnerability to a severe supply disruption and resulting price shock. The report suggested that biofuels may one day offer a viable alternative, but also that "the implications of the use of biofuels for global security as well as for economic, environmental, and public health need to be further evaluated".

Economists disagree on the extent that biofuel production affects crude oil prices. According to the Francisco Blanch, a commodity strategist for Merrill Lynch, crude oil would be trading 15 per cent higher and gasoline would be as much as 25 per cent more expensive, if it were not for biofuels.[2] Gordon Quaiattini, president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, argued that a healthy supply of alternative energy sources will help to combat gasoline price spikes.[3] However, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas concluded that "Biofuels are too limited in scale and currently too costly to make much difference to crude oil pricing."

Rising Food Prices - Food vs Fuel

Food vs fuel is the dilemma regarding the risk of diverting farmland or crops for biofuels production in detriment of the food supply on a global scale. The "food vs. fuel" or "food or fuel" debate is internationally controversial, with good-and-valid arguments on all sides of this ongoing debate. There is disagreement about how significant this is, what is causing it, what the impact is, and what can or should be done about it.

Biofuel production has increased in recent years. Some commodities like maize, sugar cane or vegetable oil can be used either as food, feed or to make biofuels. For example, since 2006, land that was also formerly used to grow other crops in the United States is now used to grow maize for biofuels, and a larger share of maize is destined to ethanol production, reaching 25% in 2007. A lot of R&D efforts are currently being put into the production of second generation biofuels from non-food crops, crop residues and waste. With global demand for biofuels on the increase due to the oil price increases taking place since 2003 and the desire to reduce oil dependency as well as reduce GHG emissions from transportation, there is also fear of the potential destruction of natural habitats by being converted into farmland. Environmental groups have raised concerns about this trade-off for several years, but now the debate reached a global scale due to the 2007–2008 world food price crisis. On the other hand, several studies do show that biofuel production can be significantly increased without increased acreage. Therefore stating that the crisis in hand relies on the food scarcity.

Brazil has been considered to have the world's first sustainable biofuels economy and its government claims Brazil's sugar cane based ethanol industry has not contributed to the 2008 food crises. A World Bank policy research working paper released in July 2008 concluded that "...large increases in biofuels production in the United States and Europe are the main reason behind the steep rise in global food prices", and also stated that "Brazil's sugar-based ethanol did not push food prices appreciably higher".

Carbon Emissions

Biofuels and other forms of renewable energy aim to be carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Carbon neutral means that the carbon released during the use of the fuel, e.g. through burning to power transport or generate electricity, is reabsorbed and balanced by the carbon absorbed by new plant growth. These plants are then harvested to make the next batch of fuel. Carbon neutral fuels lead to no net increases in human contributions to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, reducing the human contributions to global warming. A carbon negative aim is achieved when a portion of the biomass is used for carbon sequestration. Calculating exactly how much greenhouse gas (GHG) is produced in burning biofuels is a complex and inexact process, which depends very much on the method by which the fuel is produced and other assumptions made in the calculation.

Carbon emissions have been increasing ever since the industrial revolution. Prior to the industrial revolution, our atmosphere contained about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. After burning coal, gas, and oil to power our lives, the concentration had risen to 315 parts per million. Today, it is at the 380 level and still increasing by approximately two parts per million annually. During this time frame, the global average temperature has risen by more than 1°F since carbon dioxide traps heat near the Earth’s surface. Scientists believe that if the level goes beyond 450 parts per million, the temperature jump will be so great that we will be faced with an enormous rise in sea level due to the melting of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

The carbon emissions (Carbon footprint) produced by biofuels are calculated using a technique called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). This uses a "cradle to grave" or "well to wheels" approach to calculate the total amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted during biofuel production, from putting seed in the ground to using the fuel in cars and trucks. Many different LCAs have been done for different biofuels, with widely differing results. The majority of LCA studies show that biofuels provide significant greenhouse gas emissions savings when compared to fossil fuels such as petroleum and diesel.[citation needed] Therefore, using biofuels to replace a proportion of the fossil fuels that are burned for transportation can reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. The well-to-wheel analysis for biofuels has shown that first generation biofuels can save up to 60% carbon emission and second generation biofuels can save up to 80% as opposed to using fossil fuels. However these studies do not take into account emissions from nitrogen fixation, deforestation, land use, or any indirect emissions.

In October 2007, a study was published by scientists from Britain, U.S., Germany and Austria, including Professor Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on ozone. They reported that the burning of biofuels derived from rapeseed and corn (maize) can contribute as much or more to global warming by nitrous oxide emissions than cooling by fossil fuel savings. Nitrous oxide is both 296 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and a destroyer of atmospheric ozone. But they also reported that crops with lower requirements for nitrogen fertilizers, such as grasses and woody coppicing "may also have moderately positive effects on climate, viewed solely from the perspective of N2O emissions."

In February 2008, two articles were published in Science which investigated the GHG emissions effects of the large amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development. The first of these studies, conducted at the University of Minnesota, found that:

...converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions these biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels.

This study not only takes into account removal of the original vegetation (as timber or by burning) but also the biomass present in the soil, for example roots, which is released on continued plowing. It also pointed out that:

...biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.

The second study, conducted at Princeton University, used a worldwide agricultural model to show that:

...corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.

Both of the Science studies highlight the need for sustainable biofuels, using feedstocks that minimize competition for prime croplands. These include farm, forest and municipal waste streams; energy crops grown on marginal lands, and algaes. These second generation biofuels feedstocks "are expected to dramatically reduce GHGs compared to first generation biofuels such as corn ethanol". In short, biofuels done unsustainably could make the climate problem worse, while biofuels done sustainably could play a leading role in solving the carbon challenge.

Sustainable Biofuel Production

Responsible policies and economic instruments would help to ensure that biofuel commercialization, including the development of new cellulosic technologies, is sustainable. Sustainable biofuel production practices would not hamper food and fibre production, nor cause water or environmental problems, and would actually enhance soil fertitlity.[18] Responsible commercialization of biofuels represents an opportunity to enhance sustainable economic prospects in Africa, Latin America and impoverished Asia.

Soil Erosion, Deforestation, and Biodiversity

It is important to note that carbon compounds in waste biomass that is left on the ground are consumed by other microorganisms. They break down biomass in the soil to produce valuable nutrients that are necessary for future crops. On a larger scale, plant biomass waste provides small wildlife habitat, which in turn ripples up through the food chain. The widespread human use of biomass (which would normally compost the field) would threaten these organisms and natural habitats. When cellulosic ethanol is produced from feedstock like switchgrass and saw grass, the nutrients that were required to grow the lignocellulose are removed and cannot be processed by microorganisms to replenish the soil nutrients. The soil is then of poorer quality. Loss of ground cover root structures accelerates unsustainable soil erosion.

Significant areas of native Amazon rainforest have been cleared by slash and burn techniques to make room for sugar cane production, which is used in large part for ethanol fuel in Brazil, and growing ethanol exports. Large-scale deforestation of mature trees (which help remove CO2 through photosynthesis — much better than does sugar cane or most other biofuel feedstock crops do) contributes to un-sustainable global warming atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, loss of habitat, and a reduction of valuable biodiversity. Demand for biofuel has led to clearing land for Palm Oil plantations.

A portion of the biomass should be retained onsite to support the soil resource. Normally this will be in the form of raw biomass, but processed biomass is also an option. If the exported biomass is used to produce syngas, the process can be used to co-produce biochar, a low-temperature charcoal used as a soil amendment to increase soil organic matter to a degree not practical with less recalcitrant forms of organic carbon. For co-production of biochar to be widely adopted, the soil amendment and carbon sequestration value of co-produced charcoal must exceed its net value as a source of energy.

Impact on Water Resources

Increased use of biofuels puts increasing pressure on water resources in at least two ways: water use for the irrigation of crops used as feedstocks for biodiesel production; and water use in the production of biofuels in refineries, mostly for boiling and cooling.

In many parts of the world supplemental or full irrigation is needed to grow feedstocks. For example, if in the production of corn (maize) half the water needs of crops are met through irrigation and the other half through rainfall, about 860 liters of water are needed to produce one liter of ethanol.[23] However, in the United States only 5-15% of the water required for corn comes from irrigation while the other 85-95% comes from natural rainfall.

In the United States, the number of ethanol factories has almost tripled from 50 in 2000 to about 140 in 2008. A further 60 or so are under construction, and many more are planned. Projects are being challenged by residents at courts in Missouri (where water is drawn from the Ozark Aquifer), Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas (all of which draw water from the non-renewable Ogallala Aquifer), central Illinois (where water is drawn from the Mahomet Aquifer) and Minnesota.


Formaldehyde, Acetaldehyde and other Aldehydes are produced when alcohols are oxidized. When only a 10% mixture of ethanol is added to gasoline (as is common in American E10 gasohol and elsewhere), aldehyde emissions increase 40%.[citation needed] Some study results are conflicting on this fact however, and lowering the sulfur content of biofuel mixes lowers the acetaldehyde levels. Burning biodiesel also emits aldehydes and other potentially hazardous aromatic compounds which are not regulated in emissions laws.

Many aldehydes are toxic to living cells. Formaldehyde irreversibly cross-links protein amino acids, which produces the hard flesh of embalmed bodies. At high concentrations in an enclosed space, formaldehyde can be a significant respiratory irritant causing nose bleeds, respiratory distress, lung disease, and persistent headaches. Acetaldehyde, which is produced in the body by alcohol drinkers and found in the mouths of smokers and those with poor oral hygene, is carcinogenic and mutagenic.

The European Union has banned products that contain Formaldehyde, due to its documented carcinogenic characteristics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled Formaldehyde as a probable cause of cancer in humans.

Brazil burns significant amounts of ethanol biofuel. Gas chromatograph studies were performed of ambient air in São Paulo Brazil, and compared to Osaka Japan, which does not burn ethanol fuel. Atmospheric Formaldehyde was 160% higher in Brazil, and Acetaldehyde was 260% higher.

Impact on Society and Water for Palm Oil

In some locations such as Indonesia deforestation for Palm Oil plantations is leading to displacement of Indigenous peoples. Also, extensive use of pesticide for biofuel crops is reducing clean water supplies.

Environmental Organizations Stance

A number of environmental NGOs campaign against the production of biofuels as a large scale alternative to fossil fuels. For example, Friends of the Earth state that "the current rush to develop agrofuels (or biofuels) on a large scale is ill-conceived and will contribute to an already unsustainable trade whilst not solving the problems of climate change or energy security". Some mainstream environmental groups support biofuels as a significant step toward slowing or stopping global climate change. However, supportive environmental groups generally hold the view that biofuel production can threaten the environment if it is not done sustainably. This finding has been backed by reports of the UN,[34] the IPCC, and some other smaller environmental and social groups as the EEB and the Bank Sarasin, which generally remain negative about biofuels.

As a result, governmental and environmental organisations are turning against biofuels made in a non-sustainable way (hereby preferring certain oil sources as jatropha and lignocellulose over palm oil) and are asking for global support for this. Also, besides supporting these more sustainable biofuels, environmental organisations are redirecting to new technologies that do not use internal combustion engines such as hydrogen and compressed air.

The "Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels" is an international initiative which brings together farmers, companies, governments, non-governmental organizations, and scientists who are interested in the sustainability of biofuels production and distribution. During 2008, the Roundtable is developing a series of principles and criteria for sustainable biofuels production through meetings, teleconferences, and online discussions.

The increased manufacture of biofuels will require increasing land areas to be used for agriculture. Second and third generation biofuel processes can ease the pressure on land, because they can use waste biomass, and existing (untapped) sources of biomass such as crop residues and potentially even marine algae.

In some regions of the world, a combination of increasing demand for food, and increasing demand for biofuel, is causing deforestation and threats to biodiversity. The best reported example of this is the expansion of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, where rainforest is being destroyed to establish new oil palm plantations. It is an important fact that 90% of the palm oil produced in Malaysia is used by the food industry; therefore biofuels cannot be held solely responsible for this deforestation. There is a pressing need for sustainable palm oil production for the food and fuel industries; palm oil is used in a wide variety of food products. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels is working to define criteria, standards and processes to promote sustainably produced biofuels.[45] Palm oil is also used in the manufacture of detergents, and in electricity and heat generation both in Asia and around the world (the UK burns palm oil in coal-fired power stations to generate electricity).

Significant area is likely to be dedicated to sugar cane in future years as demand for ethanol increases worldwide. The expansion of sugar cane plantations will place pressure on environmentally-sensitive native ecosystems including rainforest in South America. In forest ecosystems, these effects themselves will undermine the climate benefits of alternative fuels, in addition to representing a major threat to global biodiversity. Although biofuels are generally considered to improve net carbon output, biodiesel and other fuels do produce local air pollution, including nitrogen oxides, the principal cause of smog.

Potential for Poverty Reduction

Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute have argued that biofuels could help to reduce poverty in the developing world, through increased employment, wider economic growth multipliers and energy price effects. However, this potential is described as 'fragile', and is reduced where feedstock production tends to be large scale, or causes pressure on limited agricultural resources: capital investment, land, water, and the net cost of food for the poor.

With regards to the potential for poverty reduction or exacerbation, biofuels rely on many of the same policy, regulatory or investment shortcomings that impede agriculture as a route to poverty reduction. Since many of these shortcomings require policy improvements at a country level rather than a global one, they argue for a country-by-country analysis of the potential poverty impacts of biofuels. This would consider, among other things, land administration systems, market coordination and prioritising investment in biodiesel, as this 'generates more labour, has lower transportation costs and uses simpler technology'.

Biofuel Prices

Retail, at the pump prices, including U.S. subsidies, Federal and state motor taxes, B2/B5 prices for low-level Biodiesel (B2-B5) are lower than petroleum diesel by about 12 cents, and B20 blends are the same per unit of volume as petrodiesel.

Due to the 1/3 lower energy content of ethanol fuel, even the heavily-subsidized net cost to drive a specific distance in flexible-fuel vehicles is higher than current gasoline prices. A biofuel was released in New Zealand in August 2008 at "less than NZ$2 a litre"[50] by Gull, who said they would try to keep the price two cents under the price of their standard 91 octane petrol".[51] On April 25, a special biofuel filling station started to work in Chernivtsi, the first in Ukraine and in East European countries. The biofuel price is 50 kopecks less (UAH 5.50/l) against analogues of petroleum products

Energy efficiency and Energy Balance of Biofuels

Production of biofuels from raw materials requires energy (for farming, transport and conversion to final product, and the production / application of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides), and has environmental consequences.

The energy balance of a biofuel (sometimes called "Net energy gain") is determined by the amount of energy put into the manufacture of fuel compared to the amount of energy released when it is burned in a vehicle. This varies by feedstock and according to the assumptions used. Biodiesel made from sunflowers may produce only 0.46 times the input rate of fuel energy. Biodiesel made from soybeans may produce 3.2 times the input rate of fossil fuels. This compares to 0.805 for gasoline and 0.843 for diesel made from petroleum. Biofuels may require higher energy input per unit of BTU energy content produced than fossil fuels: petroleum can be pumped out of the ground and processed more efficiently than biofuels can be grown and processed. However, this is not necessarily a reason to use oil instead of biofuels, nor does it have an impact on the environmental benefits provided by a given biofuel. \

Studies have been done that calculate energy balances for biofuel production. Some of these show large differences depending on the biomass feedstock used and location.

To explain one specific example, a June 17, 2006 editorial in the Wall. St. Journal stated, "The most widely cited research on this subject comes from Cornell's David Pimental and Berkeley's Ted Patzek. They've found that it takes more than a gallon of fossil fuel to make one gallon of ethanol — 29% more. That's because it takes enormous amounts of fossil-fuel energy to grow corn (using fertilizer and irrigation), to transport the crops and then to turn that corn into ethanol."

Life cycle assessments of biofuel production show that under certain circumstances, biofuels produce only limited savings in energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Fertiliser inputs and transportation of biomass across large distances can reduce the GHG savings achieved. The location of biofuel processing plants can be planned to minimize the need for transport, and agricultural regimes can be developed to limit the amount of fertiliser used for biomass production. A European study on the greenhouse gas emissions found that well-to-wheel (WTW) CO2 emissions of biodiesel from seed crops such as rapeseed could be almost as high as fossil diesel. It showed a similar result for bio-ethanol from starch crops, which could have almost as many WTW CO2 emissions as fossil petrol. This study showed that second generation biofuels have far lower WTW CO2 emissions.

Other independent LCA studies show that biofuels save around 50% of the CO2 emissions of the equivalent fossil fuels. This can be increased to 80-90% GHG emissions savings if second generation processes or reduced fertiliser growing regimes are used. Further GHG savings can be achieved by using by-products to provide heat, such as using bagasse to power ethanol production from sugarcane.

Collocation of synergistic processing plants can enhance efficiency. One example is to use the exhaust heat from an industrial process for ethanol production, which can then recycle cooler processing water, instead of evaporating hot water that warms the atmosphere.

Biofuels and solar energy efficiency

Biofuels from plant materials convert energy that was originally captured from solar energy via photosynthesis. A comparison of conversion efficiency from solar to usable energy (taking into account the whole energy budgets) shows that photovoltaics are 100 times more efficient than corn ethanol and 10 times more efficient than the best biofuel.

Centralised vs. Decentralised Production

There is debate around the best model for production.

One side sees centralised vegetable oil fuel production offering

  • efficiency
  • greater potential for fuel standardisation
  • ease of administrating taxes
  • possibility for rapid expansion

The other side of the argument points to

  • increased fuel security
  • rural job creation
  • less of a 'monopolistic' or 'oligopolistic' market due to the increased number of producers
  • benefits to local economy as a greater part of any profits stay in the local economy
  • decreased transportation and greenhouse gases of feedstock and end product
  • consumers close to and able to observe the effects of production

The majority of established biofuel markets have followed the centralised model with a few small or micro producers holding a minor segment of the market. A noticeable exception to this has been the pure plant oil (PPO) market in Germany which grew exponentially until the beginning of 2008 when increasing feedstock prices and the introduction of fuel duty combined to stifle the market. Fuel was produced in hundreds of small oil mills distributed throughout Germany often run as part of farm businesses.

Initially fuel quality could be variable but as the market matured new technologies were developed that made significantly improvements. As the technologies surrounding this fuel improved usage and production rapidly increased with rapeseed oil PPO forming a significant segment of transportation biofuels consumed in 2007.

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