Biofuels' Environmental Promise Falls Well Short
Biofuels promised plenty of environmental benefits when their use became common in the US, Europe and elsewhere, but so far that promise has fallen well short of the reality. The idea of a carbon-neutral fuel that could be readily produced from plants, partially replacing non-renewable liquid fuels, spurred the Europeans to make a percentage of biofuel mandatory at filling stations throughout the continent. The EU wasn’t alone, with many other nations, including the US, mandating that a percentage of biofuel would be mixed with conventional fossil fuels.
Sadly, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The enthusiasm for biofuels has seen millions of hectares of Indonesian rainforest cleared and burnt to make way for palm oil production for biofuel. That’s released countless tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and devastated biodiversity. Growing biofuel crops such as maize sounds far more promising on the face of it, but even here the environmental benefits are frequently dubious. The ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is highly dependant on the feedstock used to produce the fuel. Brazilian sugar cane and so-called second-generation biofuels producing fuel from woody crops, agricultural residue and waste are the most efficient.
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Nitrous oxide problem
Many crops use nitrogen-based fertilisers with the result that nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, enters the atmosphere. Bioethanol produced from American maize is particularly bad, putting more greenhouses gases into the atmosphere than it takes out.
Fuel or food?
But there’s another problem with growing crops for fuel. Every hectare of land growing crops for fuel is a hectare that’s not growing food for a hungry world. It’s just one more factor that’s driving the push for a more environmentally and socially sustainable alternative. The quest is now on to mass produce third-generation biofuels from algae with much higher yields from lower inputs. It’s a promising development capable of producing fuels ranging from petrol and diesel through to jet fuels. Best of all algae can be grown on wastewater, producing fuel at the same time as it removes harmful nitrates and phosphorous from treated water. It’s potentially a great way to solve two problems at once. One New Zealand company, however, is taking a different approach to more efficient biofuel production.
Turning beef fat into fuel
Z Energy is a fuel company developing a NZ$26 million biodiesel plant in Auckland converting waste beef fat into 20 million litres of fuel per year. It’s a second-generation biofuel promising clean burning blended diesel that will remove 37,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. The only downsides seem to be that the fuel will be slightly more expensive than conventional diesel and its availability will be very limited, however the plant can be scaled up to double its size. The innovative New Zealand company is also examining financially viable ways to turn wood waste from the country’s forestry industry into high quality biofuel. Z Energy is having an each-way bet when it comes to the energy source of future vehicles. It’s also rolling out rapid charge stations for electric vehicles in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The New Zealand company may be a tiny player on the world energy stage but its innovation and adaptability might just be the shape of things to come.
The promise of the biofuel carbon cycle
Here’s a simplified diagram of the biofuel carbon cycle with the CO2 released in vehicle exhausts entering the atmosphere to be reabsorbed by growing plants, making the cycle carbon-neutral. Sadly, the reality is a lot more complex and biofuels have fallen short of their environmental promise.
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