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What are Biofuels?




Biofuels are being touted by environmentalists around the world as the answer to the global fuel crisis. But what are Biofuels exactly? This is a look at whether or not biofuels can realistically replace fossil fuels as a source of energy.

What are Biofuels?

Biofuels are essentially any type of fuel produced from living things, or the waste they create. The list of biofuels is almost endless but to give you an idea, it includes the following:

  • Wood, straw and wood chippings
  • Bullets or fluids made from wood
  • Biogas or methane created from animal waste
  • Ethanol, diesel and other fuels created by converting plant material or waste oil into something that can be used as fuel.

Generally, the term “biofuel” refers to the last category in mainstream media. Crops include rapeseed, corn and and sugarcane. Biofuels have been around for years and you could think of the first biofuel being associated with the discovery fire – wood was the very first biofuel.

One of the first people who managed to convince the public of the benefits of using ethanol was the German Nikolaus August Otto. He created a diesel engine which ran on peanut oil. Henry Ford’s Model T car ran on biofuel created from hemp between 1903 and 1926.

As petroleum became cheaper, the amount of biofuels produced dropped for a while. Things picked up during World War II when the demand for alternatives to imported fuel rose. Germany was a pioneer in this field and did things like mix fuel with alcohol made from potatoes. Once the war ended and pressure eased, the need to produce biofuels diminished again.

What are Biofuels: Advantages

Advocates of biofuels love pointing out the advantages of biofuels (who doesn’t though) and the main ones are listed below.

  • Biofuels could become a lot cheaper than oil and other fossil fuels. This is especially true as the global demand for oil increases as supplies decrease and additional sources of biofuels are discovered.
  • Oil is a finite resource that comes from certain materials whereas biofuels can be created from wide variety of things which include manure, crop waste and similar by-products making it a fantastic way to recycle waste materials.
  • While fossil fuels take a long time (as long as 300 million years) to be created, biofuels are a lot easier to renew as crops take far less time to grow.
  • Since biofuels can be made anywhere in the world, they decrease a state’s dependence on foreign sources of energy. This allows nations maintain their integrity by strengthening the local economy by supporting local farmers instead of other governments.
  • Biofuels create jobs as they are produced locally. It also stimulates the agricultural industry as the demand for agricultural products increases.

What are Biofuels: Disadvantages of Biofuels

All of this sounds very promising but there are downsides to biofuels, some of which are more obvious than others. Below are some of the biggest concerns that have been raised by experts in the industry:

  • The production of biofuels discourages biofuels. Most of the western world is already heavily dependent on monocultured crops and many people are worried that large scale biofuel production will destroy the small amount of habitat still available to animals and indigenous plants. In Latin America for example, the main concern surrounds the destruction of rainforests for biofuel production - already diminishing at a rapid rate.
  • If more portions of food crops like corn or soy are used as a fuel source, it could push up the price of food. This normally affects those who can least afford it.
  • In Africa in particular, there is the concern that the production of biofuels has increased land grabbing.

Can the Demand for Fuel be met with Biofuels?

At the moment the answer is no. There are still one or two issues with technology and production so experts are saying that the focus should be on reducing our energy consumption instead of finding alternative fuel sources.

Furthermore, studies have found that especially in the United States, the production of biofuels increases greenhouse gas emissions instead of decreasing them.

On a more upbeat note, there is the hope that second generation biofuels will be able to meet this demand. These are biofuels made from organic materials but with more advanced technology.

While we have a long way to go, people are beginning to demand alternative energy sources such as biofuels. It is not just the technology that needs to catch up though, people also needs to change their mindsets. Biofuels need to be seen as more than just a hippie alternative for this to happen.

Interestingly enough, many adventurers are doing their bit to change mindsets by travelling through Africa (indeed even the world) on biofuels. Read about Chris and Elayne Clash, who travelled the world in a buggy that ran on waste vegetable oil.

Or follow South African comedian Mark Sampson, who is currently on a journey through Africa with his family in a truck fuelled on biofuels (and attempting to break the Guiness Book of World Records for travelling the furthest on biofuel).

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