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Biofuels to Power the Future

With the launch of The Green [www.sundance.tv] television programming tonight on the Sundance Channel concentrating on green fuels, we thought we’d take a minute to dig a little deeper into fuels that aren’t as harmful to the planet as gasoline and diesel. Biofuels, like biodiesel, ethanol and even straight or waste vegetable oil that we mentioned yesterday, offer a greener way to fuel the cars we drive today, and are a great short to mid-term solution for avoiding oil. This is a huge topic, of course, so, for today, we’ll look at a few of the alternatives for making some of the biofuels you might find at a gas station near you.

One of the knocks on biofuels is that they require food crops, or crops that can be used for food production — corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel are the most common. The demand for fuel crops is raising prices, making them less affordable as a food source. Another issue is that virgin land is being stripped for planting as demand for these crops grows. Sugarcane producers are moving into the Brazilian cerrado, soya farmers into the Amazon rainforest and palm oil plantations into the Malaysian rainforest. Often, these areas are burned clear before planting, which releases more carbon than will be saved in many years of producing biofuels. Thankfully, there are sources for biofuel that don’t require food crops to be grown, or rainforest be clearcut:

    [*] Algae [www.treehugger.com] is one of the most promising sources for producing biofuels, so much so that TreeHugger had had look at it again [www.treehugger.com].
    [*] Grass pellets [www.treehugger.com] work well because grass grows so quickly; they have a much more sustainable 70 day cycle compared to the 70 million years it takes fossil fuels.
    [*] Beef [www.treehugger.com] is not just what’s for dinner; animal fat works just as well as vegetable oils for biodiesel. A large meat processing plant in Australia has received state government funding to assist in the conversion of their waste animal fat into biofuel. From the 1.6 million or so livestock they slaughter each year, the abattoir is expecting to recover about 12,000 tons of waste fat annually; they’ll convert this into almost 3 million gallons of biodiesel.
    [*] Plain old coconut oil [www.treehugger.com] can be used as a diesel replacement (similar to the veggie oil we mentioned yesterday), which is particularly helpful in regions and in developing countries where the petroleum version is particularly hard to come by.
    [*] Switch grass [www.treehugger.com] has tremendous potential for use as a biofuel: it has a high yield per acre, low production cost, low pesticide use, and doesn’t compete with itself for use as food.

Of course, as with many things in the green sphere, biofuels aren’t the only answer, and are really just in the infancy of their development. But with improving technology and raw materials (like the ones we listed above), they stand a pretty good chance of changing the way we drive, not in 2050, not in another ten years, but before the decade is out.