What is the Future of Biofuels? Can Biofuels Replace Gasoline?
In the vast world of renewable and alternative sources of energy, one major segment we cannot ignore is biofuels. Biofuels are by no means a new invention, so before we can discuss the future of biofuels we must first understand their underlying nature and historical development. From there we can understand their disputed role in today’s energy market and assess the feasibility of claims that biofuels may one day replace gasoline and diesel.
What exactly are biofuels?
In a general sense, the term ‘biofuel’ refers to any fuel in liquid or gaseous form that is produced from recently living biological matter (or biomass). Organic materials such as plants, wood, and industrial bio-waste are the most common sources of biomass. Common biofuels include bioethanol (potential gasoline substitute) and biodiesel (potential diesel substitute). Because we can sustainably produce biomass due to its quick regrowth, biofuels are often considered renewable sources of energy. However, this does not necessarily imply that biofuels are more ‘green’ than fossil fuels — though in the long term they usually are.
Bioenergy makes up the largest percentage of renewable energy produced worldwide, with most of it being in the form of wood biomass. However, roughly 10% of the bioenergy comes from biofuels, predominantly bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol is an alcohol created by fermenting any biological material with large carbohydrate content, typically corn in the case of the US or sugarcane in the case of Brazil. Biodiesel is similar in concept, but is made by mixing vegetable oil or animal fat (mixtures containing triglycerides) with methanol.
Today, both of these biofuels are used as additives to fossil-based gasoline or diesel fuel in automobiles, rather than as full substitutes.
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Historical development of biofuels
In fact, the first use of biofuels came long before the invention of the automobile or the internal combustion engine. Biofuels such as bioethanol were widely used to power street lamps when the only alternative was the more expensive whale oil. Eventually, as scientists and engineers such as Samuel Morey and Nicholas Otto pioneered the first internal combustion engines suitable for automobiles, their designs were dependant on alcohol-based fuels such as bioethanol. This led to the first production vehicles being alcohol-fueled, with the most common fuel being bioethanol. Therefore, we can see that the future of biofuels was looking very bright over 100 years ago, until various economic factors and policies led to fossil fuels gaining the upper hand on biofuels. This implies that the prominence of gasoline and diesel today is not a testament to their superiority over biofuels, but rather a symptom of the unfair advantages that made them the more popular choice.
Can biofuels replace gasoline or diesel in the future?
Greater demand for biofuels as well as increased hostility towards reliance on fossil fuels due to climate change in recent years would suggest that the future of the biofuel industry is destined to grow. This is further supported by growing investment and research in new forms of bioenergy, such as algae-based biofuels and advanced harvesting techniques of new forms of biomass to create bioethanol with higher energy density.
However, opponents of biofuel also have worthy critiques. There are considerable concerns over the economic feasibility of a world dependent on biofuels for transportation. Despite the fact that biofuels are better suited for internal combustion engines due to their higher octane rating, they tend to be less efficient (on a Joule per kilogram basis) than their fossil-fuel alternatives. Furthermore, as a result of biofuels being renewable sources of energy, arable land that would otherwise have been used to produce food would instead be used to produce the biomass needed to create biofuels. This gives rise to conflict between land use for food versus fuel and can result in mass deforestation or in food shortages such as Mexico’s tortilla riots in 2011. Additionally, the infrastructure overhaul required to shift our reliance from fossil fuels entirely to biofuels in the transportation sector would probably result in temporarily higher GHG emissions per joule of energy created by biofuels compared to fossil fuels. This would be a detriment to global efforts in reducing GHG emissions.
Read more about Why is deforestation a threat to the environment?
Nevertheless, even if biofuels cannot solely replace gasoline or diesel in the future, they present a great opportunity to decarbonize the transportation sector until EVs become the norm rather than the exception. The technology is already here and is constantly being improved upon, so if we implement the right policies that ensure adequate food supply and acceptable levels of CO2 emissions, biofuels can surely become more dominant on the world stage than they currently are.
Conclusion on the Future of Biofuels
Taking into account all the above, it is reasonable to conclude with the positive outlook that biofuels have a lot of potential for further development and global implementation. However, we shouldn’t expect biofuels alone to overtake gasoline or diesel anytime soon, or indeed, ever. Rather, it will take a collective effort in developing and implementing several types of renewable energy sources to carry us into the post-fossil fuel world.