Top 10 Advantages of Biofuels

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More people are using biofuels as a way to save money and decrease their consumption of fossil fuels.
More people are using biofuels as a way to save money and decrease their consumption of fossil fuels.

Jonathan Goodwin is an inventor of the sublime. In his workshop in Wichita, Ks., Goodwin has fashioned a red 2005 H3 Hummer into a supercar. The Hummer is green and mean and includes an electric motor and a turbine that burns biodiesel. The former gas guzzler can now travel 60 miles (96.56 kilometers) on 1 gallon of gas. Like Dr. Frankenstein tinkering with his monster, Goodwin takes automobiles and slices and dices them into eco-friendly speeders. He's even working on a car that will get 100 miles to the gallon [source: Thompson].

Most people don't have to go to such extremes to help the environment. Instead, they just have to fill up with ethanol or biodiesel. Not only do biofuels help protect the planet from global warming by emitting less pollution than fossil fuels, but they also add jobs to the economy and by doing so, help farmers, construction workers and those living in poor rural, areas.

As gas prices rise and global warming becomes more pervasive, more people are using biofuels as a way to save money and decrease their consumption of fossil fuels. They release fewer pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, helping decrease heat-trapping gases. Biofuels are produced from so-called "energy crops" that include wheat, corn, soybeans and sugarcane, so they are sustainable. And if every nation can grow its own, there is a high likelihood these biofuels will never run out.

While there are some problems with biofuels, there are many advantages, too. Go to the next page to see what they are.

Reduce Greenhouse Gases

Whether it's the melting of the frozen glaciers that shroud Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, or the overall rise in the level of the oceans, global warming is reshaping the planet. While some people see global warming as a natural event, most scientists agree that fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, drive the temperature increase. When burned, fossil fuels release greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases trap radiation from the sun close to the surface of the planet, causing the planet to warm.

To stem the release of greenhouse gas, people around the world are using biofuels, such as ethanol or biodiesel, to power their homes, cars and factories. Some experts say that ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions up to 65 percent [source: Nebraska Ethanol Board]. Scientists in Australia say biodiesel made from cooking oil reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 87 percent compared with petroleum diesel [source: Science Daily]. Still, many people believe that growing and turning some energy crops -- especially corn -- into fuel, uses a huge amount of fossil fuel, contributing to the release of heat-trapping gases [source: Tillman and Hill].

Rapeseed has a high oil content, which means it can generate more energy when burned.
Rapeseed has a high oil content, which means it can generate more energy when burned.

One day the world will run out of fossil fuels, and with it, our main sources of energy will go up in smoke. But biofuels are different. They're made from plants that can grow and be replanted again and again. Perennial crops don't even have to be replanted. Still, not all biofuels are created equal. Some "energy crops" produce more energy than others. For example, rapeseed has a higher oil content than other vegetable plants, which means rapeseed can generate more energy when burned. Perennial plants, such as switchgrass, provide an abundant source of power, generating five times as much energy as they take to grow [source: Biello].

Positive Economic Impact

When gas prices in the United States topped $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, motorists were aghast. Many drivers began thinking long and hard about buying alternative fuel-powered vehicles, including those that run on ethanol and biodiesel. For example, a flex-fuel car that runs on both ethanol and gasoline gets about 40 miles (64.37 kilometers) to the gallon, according to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration [source: Consumer Reports].

While fuel economy is one way to measure the economic benefits of biofuels, there are others. For instance, biodiesel production has had a positive impact on the economy. Biodiesel production in the United States increased from 500,000 gallons (1.89 million liters) in 1999 to 545 million gallons (2.06 billion liters) in 2009, adding $4.28 billion to the gross domestic product [source: Biofuels Journal, and PBS].

While biodiesel remains more expensive than regular diesel, consumers need to look beyond the cost per gallon to really gauge the economic benefits. Biodiesel vehicles get 30 percent better fuel economy than gasoline-powered vehicles [source: Consumer Reports]. Biodiesel creates fewer emissions, including cancer-causing benzene, and it also produces less pollution by decreasing the amount of particulates suspended in the air [source:]. Less pollution means lower healthcare costs. In addition, as biodiesel becomes more fuel efficient, many businesses that use diesel engines, especially the trucking industry, could see more profits by gassing up with the green fuel.

High-Quality Engine Performance

The neat thing about biodiesel is that it can run in existing diesel engines with little or no modification to the engine or its fuel system. Performance is the same. However, some biodiesel vehicles are sluggish in cold climates. Since most vegetable oil is high in saturated fat, ice crystals tend to form in the biodiesel causing a vehicle's engine to struggle. However, biodiesel made from certain types of vegetable oil, such as canola (a form of rapeseed), is lower in saturated fat, which makes it harder for ice to form in frigid temperatures [source: University of Connecticut]. Biofuels help engines last longer, too. Oil has a high viscosity rate. Tests show that high biodiesel blends above B10 (10 percent biodiesel, 90 percent petroleum diesel) do not impact the vehicle's engine performance [source:].

Economic Development
Ethanol made from the cassava shrub could help reduce poverty in Tanzania.
Ethanol made from the cassava shrub could help reduce poverty in Tanzania.

In addition to reducing dependence on foreign oil, many countries expect the biofuel industry to fuel economic development in poor, rural areas. For example, experts at the International Food Policy Institute (IFPI) say in Tanzania, ethanol made from a shrub called cassava can help reduce poverty in that West African nation where 80 percent of the labor force is farmers [source: Arndt, Pauw and Thurlow].

Tanzania is one of the poorest nations on the planet. IFPI experts say that government investment in the biofuel industry might lower Tanzania's poverty rate by 5 percent in the next 10 years. However, there is a downside. Shifting crop production from food to fuel could cause a decline in food supplies and a spike in prices [source: Arndt, Pauw and Thurlow]. As a result, governments need to pay attention to how biofuel crops are grown to ensure an adequate supply of both food and biofuel crops.

Closer to home, the biofuel industry can help local communities by providing well-paying jobs for individuals and economic development for municipalities. According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, by 2022, the biofuel industry is expected to create 190,000 direct green jobs and 610,000 indirect jobs [source: Runyon].

Reduce Foreign Oil Dependence

In 1973, the oil-producing nations of the Middle East stopped exporting oil. Oil prices rose. Economies across the globe suffered. In the United States, people waited in line for hours to buy what little gasoline there was. The embargo was a cold slap in the face to the rest of the world. Governments scrambled to find new ways to deal with the energy crisis. Eventually the oil-producing countries lifted the embargo, but our thirst for oil continued. Today, humans consume 85 million barrels of oil a day [source: Cocks]. Americans use nearly 18.7 billion barrels a day [source: Central Intelligence Agency].

While growing sustainable energy crops at home will lessen the nation's reliance on foreign oil, most experts agree it will not solve our energy woes in one blow. Instead, biofuel use, coupled with long- and short-term solutions such as raising fuel economy standards for motor vehicles; enacting tax incentives for hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles; and increasing the use of all renewable fuels will help the United States -- and the world -- wean itself off oil.

Fuel Economy

Vehicles that run on biodiesel get 30 percent better fuel economy than gasoline-powered vehicles, which saves drivers money every time they visit the gas station [source: Consumer Reports]. In 2006, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) in Ohio and The Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Toledo began a three-year fuel comparison study to determine the fuel economy of B20 and conventional diesel. Preliminary results showed that some of the biodiesel buses created less pollution, had lower maintenance costs, and had a 5 to 8 percent increase in miles-per-gallon [source: Canterbury].

Biofuel Refineries Are Cleaner

When oil comes out of the ground, it doesn't magically transform itself into gasoline or home heating oil. Oil refineries must convert crude oil into useable products. There are 153 of these refineries in the United States and more than 90 million people live within 30 miles (48.28 kilometers) of them. Yet each year, these refineries release millions of pounds of cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, butadiene and formaldehyde into the environment. In addition, the refineries spew nickel, lead, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants that can cause heart disease, asthma and other health problems [source: Brune].

For the most part, biofuel refineries, which turn feedstock such as corn and soybean into biofuel, are more environmentally friendly. For example, ethanol plants fueled by natural gas emit very few pollutants, including greenhouse gases. However, coal-fired ethanol plants release copious amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases -- not to mention a significant amount of particulate matter -- into the atmosphere. On the other hand, ethanol plants fueled by biomass and biogas produce less gas emissions and are cleaner to run [source: Oregon Environmental Council].

Health Benefits
Ethanol generally burns better and more robustly than gasoline, generating less pollution.
Ethanol generally burns better and more robustly than gasoline, generating less pollution.

Each year in the United States, 10,000 people die from pollution created by gasoline engines [source: Reilly]. Among other irritants and pollutants, gasoline releases nitrogen oxide and acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde molecules react with sunlight to form smog. These emissions make thousands of people sick every year with respiratory ailments and cancers [source: Reilly]. Biofuels discharge fewer toxins into the air than fossil fuels. When compared to conventional diesel, biodiesel reduces smog-forming particulate matter, which reduces cases of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. In addition, biodiesel doesn't emit any sulfur oxides and sulfates, which contribute to acid rain.

For its part, ethanol generally burns better and more robustly than gasoline, generating less pollution. When compared with gasoline, an E85 fuel blend (15 percent ethanol, 85 percent gasoline) burned in an efficient engine produces fewer toxins, including 40 percent less carbon dioxide; 20 percent less particulate matter; and 80 percent fewer sulfates [source: Energy Future Coalition]. However, scientists at Stanford University in California say ethanol releases many of the same pollutants as gasoline. In addition, a large amount of unburned ethanol escapes into the air, forming acetaldehyde molecules and ultimately smog. But, engines fueled by ethanol emit fewer cancer-causing substances than gasoline [source: Reilly].

Biodiesel is Becoming More Energy Efficient

In a car or truck, petroleum diesel is currently more energy efficient than biodiesel, but things are changing. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the energy content of a gallon of diesel is 11 percent more than the energy content of a gallon of biodiesel. With all things being equal, a truck running on a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel gets 2.2 miles fewer miles per gallon than a truck running on just diesel [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. Nevertheless, biodiesel is more energy efficient than gasoline.

In addition, producing biodiesel is becoming easier and more energy efficient. How so? Researchers at the University of Idaho and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say for every unit of fossil fuel energy needed to grow and refine soybeans into biodiesel, four-and-a-half units of energy are gained. In comparison, for every unit of fossil fuel needed to produce petroleum diesel, the return is less than one. Researchers say that farmers and refineries are using less fossil fuel and better production methods to turn soybeans into energy-efficient biodiesel [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].


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