5 Things

5 Things

11 July, 2014
About Biofuels
That You Need to Know

Biofuels have been a very trendy talking point for green groups over the last decade.  And why not, the idea of growing fuel that is relatively clean to replace our use of fossil fuels sounds very intriguing but there are some basics that everyone needs to know about biofuels.
1. Biofuels have been around for a long time. Ford’s first cars were built to run on ethanol and the first diesel engines were using peanut oil.  The reasons that fossil fuels became “conventional” are because they are far cheaper and more convenient to develop.  Biofuels only have been discussed during shortages and price hikes.  World War 2, the OPEC embargo in the 70s and the rapid price increases in the 2000s all led to discussions about biofuels, but after prices dropped, biofuels became less interesting to the masses at large.
2. Biofuels can be made from any organic source. The two main biofuels that are being produced currently are ethanol and biodiesel.  Ethanol is derived from sugar or starch in sources like sugarcane and corn.  Biodiesel come from sources that contain fats and oils.
The two leaders in producing ethanol are the USA and Brazil.  However Brazil’s production is considered superior because its sugarcane requires fewer resources to make ethanol than the corn from the USA.  Biodiesel production mostly comes from Europe.
3. There are four generations of biofuels:
• 1st generation is generated from food sources like corn, soy and sugarcane.
• 2nd generation is derived from material other than food.  It is normally leftover material and waste such as stems, husks and bark.
• 3rd generation is from algae.  Algae has a chance to be the main biofuel of the future because at the moment it can produce the most energy within the least amount of space.  However, the biggest challenge against algae right now is the high cost and natural resources needed for production.
• 4th generation involves genetically modifying plants to have all the properties we want.  At the moment, we are far away from mass developing this technology.
4. As of 2014 we cannot produce enough biofuels to replace our need for fossil fuels. If we converted all of our farmland into energy yielding crops it still would not provide enough energy.  This is partially due the energy required.  For example, the process of producing corn-based ethanol includes applying fertilizer, harvesting, transport and refining at very high temperatures.  Often the refining process uses coal, which eliminates much of the benefits.
5. The future of biofuels is full of potential, but there are three general rules that most scientists agree need to be at the forefront of their designs.
• Don’t use arable land
• Don’t use food crops
• Don’t use fresh water
These three rules are certainly not the only considerations, but are essential for sustainable biofuels.
What about Hong Kong?  Is there anything we can do in our dense metropolis where land is scarce? Yes there is!
You are probably aware of our landfill problem.  What you might not be aware of is that approximately 40% of the waste going to the landfill is food waste.  Not only does this take up valuable space, but also the byproduct of decomposing food is methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. Thankfully though, concentrated methane can be used as a biofuel.  In fact, a recent study by CityU concluded that the methane produced by our food waste could generate 400 million to 800 million kWh (1-2% of HK’s demand).
Just like the current state of biofuels, we can’t solve all of our problems but we can certainly take some steps in the right direction.
Want to learn more?  Check out these fantastic TED talks:

Producing energy from floating algae ponds
Producing biofuel while using the big three
Reality check for renewables

By: Sean Cain


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