Bio-fuels

Essentially a bio-fuel is an energy source derived from organic/biological material. Bio-fuel is commonly sourced and produced from animal fats, vegetable oils and plants. Starch crops and sugar crops are among the most popular sources of bio-fuel, with corn and sugarcane also being widely-used. It is estimated that despite the benefits from using bio-fuel as a cleaner energy source than that derived from fossil fuels, it would take between 100-1000 years for bio-fuels to payback the carbon debt acquired due to land-use changes. Pros:
  • No new infrastructure or vehicles required: Unlike cars powered by hydrogen fuel-cells or battery-only arrangements that, as we have previously discussed, are extremely cost intensive in terms of initial infrastructure requirements, bio-fuels can be used with existing internal combustion engines, thereby reducing any need for excessive infrastructure requirements to vehicle and bio-fuel production and manufacture.
  • Can be carbon neutral: Bio-fuels are made from newly grown plant materials, which merely recycle the existing atmospheric carbon during the process of photosynthesis without adding new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, so they are technically considered carbon neutral.
  • Renewable energy source: The range of available biomass materials from which to effectively source and produce bio-fuels is increasing, as previously unusable organic material, such as the non-edible raw material of plants (known as cellulose) and waste by-products of food-based agriculture (such as citrus peels or used vegetable oil) have been found to not only manufacture an environmentally sustainable bio-fuel supply, but also reduce waste disposal costs.
  • Cost Effective: The cost of using bio-fuel is more effective when compared with fossil fuel based products such as regular unleaded petrol. Needless to say the more cost effective and efficient that bio-fuels become, the more popular they will become with large fleet and car rental operators, particularly in Sydney, where cost effective driving is becoming increasingly paramount and a sought after feature.
  • Reduced Greenhouse gas emissions: It has been concluded that although there is some tangible environmental benefits to using bio-fuels when compared with fossil fuels, not all bio-fuels perform equally in terms of impact on climate and ecosystems, and that these impacts need to be further assessed throughout the entire life-cycle of the product.
Cons:
  • Food vs. Fuel: There is an inherent risk in using organic material to produce bio-fuels and that is the risk of diverting precious agricultural land and crops in order to increase bio-fuel production, with potentially detrimental consequences to food supply on a global scale. Indeed, the 2007–2008 world food price crisis has partly been blamed on the increased demand for bio-fuels.
  • Environmental Impact: To transform the biological material, known as biomass, into bio-fuels requires a fairly energy intensive production process. If the energy for this process does not come from a renewable source then bio-fuel production does in fact cause pollution, potentially negating any environmental impact that would have resulted from using a cleaner carbon-neutral fuel source.
  • Older car and bike engines can be potentially damaged by the use of bio-fuel. In unsuitable engines ethanol will cause long-term damage such as the rusting of fuel lines.
  • Massive amounts of biomass required to meet the world’s fuel needs: The potential land requirements necessary to meet this need are vast, and although many scientists and researchers are working to develop bio-fuel crops that require less land and use fewer resources, such as water, than bio-fuel crops currently do, it will not be until more advanced bio-fuels (second generation) are readily in production and available for use that perhaps a truly sustainable and renewable energy market will emerge and become an established presence in the future of fuel.
Summary: Although there are many current challenges with bio-fuel production and use, the development of new sources and second generation bio-fuels attempts to circumvent these challenges. The development of techniques to obtain bio-fuel from non-edible sources will help to alleviate pressure on food sources, effectively eliminating one of the major problems with early bio-fuel production; the inevitable competition between food and fuel resources. Of all the potential renewable fuels that have been discussed over the past few weeks, bio-fuel products are the most commercially ready, with bio-fuel already being sold under the label E10 (ethanol making up 10% of the blend with regular unleaded petrol) in Australia and internationally, making it an obvious choice for car hire companies in Sydney and other major cities where access to bio-fuel products is readily available and more cost effective for use in large vehicle fleets than regular unleaded petrol.