Biofuel has been marketed as the fuel for the future, our key to independence from oil and the middle east, the solution to global warming, and everything else under the sun. But the reality is very different from the propaganda. As it turns out, the so called corn-based ‘clean’ fuel is not so clean after all. To understand why, lets see why people claim biofuel to be all that they say it is.
The most salient argument is that: since biofuel is ‘brewed’ from organic sources like corn, and its easy to grow corn, the source serves to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and since we are not burning fossil fuels, we are reducing global warming.
While its true that the source of biofuel is organic, not all sources are equally viable. For instance, consider corn. Corn gives you a 3:1 energy yield, i.e. you spend 1 unit of energy to get 3 units of energy from corn. Not the most efficient. Also, this one unit of energy often comes from fossil fuels. Secondly, ‘brewing’ ethanol from corn requires extremely sterile and specialized equipment. They require, for instance, large stainless steel containers. Now this 3:1 ratio does not take into account the kind of energy needed to manufacture such high grade stainless steel (this cost is assumed to be amortized across multiple crops of corn that can use it to produce energy). But the fact of the matter is, if everyone switches to corn-based fuel, then the manufacturing of such huge numbers of high-grade steel will only serve to make the CO2 emissions a more acute problem. Thirdly, corn is a tropical crop which needs large amounts of water, and is susceptible to diseases. This makes growing corn a resource intensive enterprise, not my idea of a solution to reducing our (non-renewable) energy consumption.
An unfortunate side effect of using corn for biofuel is the following: large amounts of corn is being diverted from food supple chain to the industry. This is raising the food prices world wide. This has made growing corn very profitable, and so countries like Brazil are deforesting the amazon at an alarming rate to plant corn. Such logging, deforestation, and burning is accelerating global warming even more! (for more details visit the Time Magazine article on Clean Energy Scam).
The problem, if fact, is not with biofuel itself, but with corn. Corn is not the most energy efficient choice, its traditional use is as food, and the procedure to brew fuel is too complex, sensitive, and sophisticated. So if we can have a source which is (a) energy efficient, (b) not a food source, and (c) easy to manufacture fuel from, we might be able to have a viable ‘green’ source after all.
We do have such a source: Biomass. That’s right, biomass, the dead and/or decaying compost of plant and animal remains. Think about it. Biomass has been used in rural India as a source of fuel for cooking (Gobar Gas). So can we use biomass as the source for biofuel like ethanol? Yes, we can! Mark Holtzapple from Texas A&M University is working on this. As he says it “I have been working on biofuels since before it was cool”.
In an interview (on Biofuel, in the radio show Biased Transmission) , Mark Holtzapple said that biomass can be used as a viable source for biofuel with tremendous success. The energy yield is as high as 18:1. The brewery is easy to build and maintain. The experimental setups he has is made of plastic buckets! It uses natural bacteria and enzymes to break the biomass down into ethanol. Its easy to use, easy to maintain, and can provide energy without taking away valuable food from the market, without incentivizing developing nations to destroy their forests and plant something profitable. Its all great and wonderful, but no one is paying attention.
Why, you ask? Its because the US government, and the oil lobby, has too much invested in corn that it doesn’t want to go back on it, not matter what the costs. So the next time someone talks of corn based biofuel, please cringe a little because that’s the right thing to do.