What You Need To Know About Biofuels

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

a watering can gives water to glowing plants

In case you missed it, this past Sunday (August 10th) was International Biodiesel day, in honour of this momentous occasion I thought I would dive into the pros and cons of this alternative fuel source.

Fossil fuels (such as natural gas, coal and petroleum) are pouches of organic matter which have been pressurized and decomposed over long periods of time. In contrast, biofuels are made from live organic matter (ranging from canola, maize, sunflowers, animal fats and soy). Thus they provide a more sustainable alternative to the material depletion associated with traditional fossil fuels while performing in many of the same ways.

As the cost for fossil fuels continue to rise, part of the appeal of alternative fuels sources is their potentially low production cost. We should also consider the environmental impact of growing crops for fuels, CO2 (of of the greenhouse gases released through the combustion of fuel) is taken up by the crops. In other words, biofuels can provide a carbon neutral solution to help reduce the quantity of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Great! So why have we not made a complete switch from fossil fuels to biofuels?

Biofuels are far from perfect and their implementation is met with resistance due to several factors such as the high cost of changing traditional fuel infrastructure. Additionally, the energy output of biofuels tends to be lower than that of fossil fuels which means more will need to be consumed for the same level of energy to be attained. There is also a growing concern that the conversion of farmlands from food production to fuel production could lead to an increase in food prices. An increase in demand for biofuels could also lead to the conversion of natural spaces to agricultural land and thus a subsequent loss of biodiversity.

Biofuels have made large strides in recent years and as these continue to progress, we can expect more efficient techniques for production and higher grade fuels. For example, the next generation of biofuels use algae, grown in holding tanks, eliminating the need for large monoculture crops and reducing the quantity of water needed to sustain said crops.

Here at uOttawa, there are several groups that work on improving biofuels to make them more efficient and sustainable. Notably, prof Marc Dubé, who is looking at waste products and animal fats as an alternative to traditional biofuels. If you go over to La Maison, you can even buy soap made from the grease produced when making fries (no you won’t smell like poutine after using it but I am sure that there are ways to make that happen if you want).

Although it would be nice to see a change from our current fuel based society to a society dependent on varied and sustainable energy sources, biofuels provide a good starting point for reducing greenhouse gas emission and improving air quality. Let us know what do you think, do the pros outweigh the cons?

~ alice - outreach and engagement coordinator

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