Math   Science   Chemistry   Economics   Biology   News   Search

> Is energy from biofuel totally environmentally friendly? Issue: 2010-1 Section: 17-19


Energy is a very important resource which affects the whole of human population. It is needed for transport, industry and basic needs such as cooking and heating the home. The main source of energy today comes from fossil fuels, which is non renewable. This resource cannot be created again for the next generations. As we use this non renewable resource we also release gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by combustion. Great amounts of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere from power stations, travel and industry. The build up of the carbon dioxide causes the green house effect, which increases the global temperature. The increase in global temperature could have major effects to the planet.


Climate change

The global temperature over the past 100 years has risen 0.74 degrees Celsius. This is a great increase of temperature in a short time. In Earth’s history very low and high temperatures have been observed within a long period of time. During this time, the Earth’s inhabitants have been adapted along with the environment. Now with the dramatic increase in global temperature, which is taking place so fast, the Earth’s inhabitants have not had time to adapt to the changing environment. This causes loss of species, which could destroy ecosystems. [1] I think this is unfair to the inhabitants of Earth, as there will be less diversity of species on the planet.

Scientists have used ice cores form Greenland to find out the history of the Earth’s temperature. The snow present in the ice cores has different ratios of oxygen isotopes existing in layers. This can reveal how cold the air was at the time of formation. In the colder snow the concentration of light oxygen is higher. This is one of the methods that can help us find out the temperature of the earth. [4]

The increase in CO2 levels came from around the time of the industrial revolution. That period large amounts of fossil fuels were burnt, which released vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere [13].


How does global warming occur?

Gases which act as green house gasses are methane, water and carbon dioxide.

The increased level of carbon dioxide has an effect on global temperature, as the sunlight rays can travel through the atmosphere but carbon dioxide will trap the infra-red radiation heat. The earth needs a balance of heat radiation from the sun this can be explained by this equation:

Total power absorbed = Total power emitted [5]

This means that the release of CO2 is a major factor in climate change


Bio diesel

Bio diesel is produced when vegetable, animal and waste cooking oils are put though a process called trans-esterification. This is when methanol (alcohol) is put with oil and a catalyst is also added to speed the chemical reaction. The product of this reaction can be used as fuel.

This method uses a 65 ˚C temperature and converts 98% of the start products to the end products. [6][8]

Chemistry of the production of biodiesel

In order to produce bio diesel a chemical reaction has to occur between a triglyceride molecule (this can be oil) and a molecule of methanol. This reaction takes place with a sodium hydroxide catalyst. This will produce bio diesel and glycerol.

The glycerol by-product can then be used in soaps or cosmetics. [9]


Bio ethanol

Bio ethanol is produced when sugar or starch crops are grown and put through fermentation to make the alcohol ethanol.

The plants use photosynthesis to produce glucose, this may be stored as glucose and starch in the plant. Plants such as sugar cane have to go through hydrolysis which breaks down the complex sugars (starch) into simple sugars with the use of enzymes. Yeast or bacteria will be introduced to the solution. The yeast or bacteria uses the glucose for respiration and produces ethanol as a by product. [12]


Are biofuels environmentally friendly?

Positives for biofuels

We need renewable energy for the future so we can have energy for heating, cooking and business and we need jobs for people, so crime and poverty rates do not increase. We predominately use non renewable fossil fuels which will eventually run out and will need to be replaced. As the fossil fuels run out then the jobs that go along with the fossil fuel industry will go, leaving people jobless. If there is biofuel then new jobs will be created so that people will have access to new jobs. As biofuel is renewable then the jobs created will be a lot more sustainable. [27] Thousands of jobs will be created in the production of biofuels in the U.S. [32] I think this is a good for the economy creating more jobs and therefore more money and a better quality of life for people.

As biofuels are in demand as people are now more aware of environmental issues farmland is needed for the crops to be grown. Businesses are now employing farmers from less economically developed countries. This will give their economy a boost and improve their quality of life. [15] An Indian biofuel company has opened a farm which will produce biofuel in Ethiopia. This will give jobs to the people improving the economy. Also the country will not have to import the fuels which can be expensive. [36]

To continue to develop new ways, to improve the efficiency of alternative energy resources, we need to keep producing different biofuels, so that we can keep learning how to make them more efficient for the next generation. So future generations can come up with new improved ways of biofuels production. Second and third generation biofuels made from algae could be a very efficient source of energy. [7]. Scientists have programmed bacteria to self destruct, so the biofuels can produce high energy fats for high energy biofuels. [33]

Fossil fuels are our main source of energy for heating and powering our cars. Fossil fuels are also a non renewable source of energy so it cannot be created for millions of years. As fuel is always in demand, biofuel is a great alterative as it is a renewable source of energy which can be produced quickly for generations to come, since the plants that make the biofuel can be grown again. [26] As biofuels are renewable, developing countries can grow their own crops, as fossil fuels are not readily available to them. [34]

The US government is implementing a new law which will help people, who have environmentally friendly cars using biofuels, save money. So if your car has low CO2 emissions you could save money. As Biofuels are carbon neutral meaning that they use as much CO2 as is given out, they do not add to the CO2 already in the atmosphere. [14] So consumers can save money. I think this is good initiative as it indicates that environmentally friendly products are supported by the government. This law is important as it helps support 23,000 environment jobs.[35]

Biofuels are proven that they do not produce as much pollution as conventional diesel. This will improve the quality of air reducing so respiratory illnesses. [16]


Negatives for biofuel

A model produced by the Argonne National Laboratory states that biofuels can cut carbon emissions by half. However this did not include land use change.

Biofuels are carbon neutral, meaning that when the source of the biofuel (such as a sugar beet plant) used carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for its growth, the same amount of carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere when it is used as a fuel. However this does not include the energy needed to produce the biofuels, such as the harvesting and transportation of the biofuels. The production of the biofuel uses fossil fuels, therefore making the production of the biofuels not completely carbon neutral. [17] This has been proven by a leading scientist from Princeton University. He states that the continual use of biofuels will increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere due to external factors such as irrigation and harvesting. [31] I think this is a very important point as biofuels are being promoted as having no negative major effect on the environment, while they do. Biofuels are a lucrative product; this is due to the increase in demand, as the public become more aware of climate change. It is more profitable to produce biofuel crops than food crops. The farmers will then use their land for the biofuel crops meaning there will be less land for food crops, so less food. This will drive the cost of the crops up and the cost of the food for the public. This will affect the consumer as they will have to pay more for their food. [15]

This is true for poor countries such as Mexico, Senegal and Niger. Corn is one valuable crop for many poor countries, which goes for production of biofuel.[29]

A 5% government target of all UK fuel has to be biofuel by 2010. To produce the vast amounts of biofuel requires a large amount of land. In Malaysia and the Amazon vast areas of the forest have been removed. The removed plants have a store of carbon dioxide, so when they are removed, the plants may be burnt releasing the stored carbon dioxide, or the plant will decay releasing, by itself, the carbon dioxide. With this, we also lose the wildlife that lives in the forests which may affect ecosystems, or leads to the extinction of species. This has occurred in the forests of Borneo, where the population of orang-utans have decreased from 300,000 to 25,000, when the forests that they live in, were being cleared for biofuel crops. [28] [18]. I think this is a very disastrous problem, as forests are very important for ecosystems.

Bio ethanol uses vast amounts of water for its production. It is used for the irrigation of the biofuel crops and for the process of making the actual biofuels. For the production of bio ethanol 4.2 gallons of water is needed to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. So the water used is more than 4 times more than the ethanol produced. Clean water is becoming scarcer. In 50 years we may run out of clean water for food production and our sanitation needs. So water has to be used in an efficient manner. [19] This is true in the mid west of America, where they use vast amounts of water for the irrigation of biofuel crops. This contributes to their water shortages. [30]




UK chief scientist professor Robert Watson has had concerns of the sustainability and carbon output of biofuels. He had advised politicians to wait for his research results before they set biofuel targets. His concerns were also shared by other scientists [20]



Former PM Gordon Brown has set up Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation meaning all petrol fuel has to contain some biofuel. However with the rise in food prices partly due to the production of biofuels. Gordon Brown is cautious to completely invest in biofuels until he has all the facts. I think that this is positive, as Gordon Brown is listening to the scientists, so he is admitting that biofuels are not completely environmentally friendly. [21]



Exxon Mobil a petroleum business is investing millions of pounds in research for the next generation of biofuels from algae. So it is supportive of biofuels.

Shell, which buys and sells biofuels, is aware of the sustainability problems of biofuels. Shell is also looking at how to improve the production of biofuels by changing the feedstock and improving the efficiency. [22]



From my research it seems that the negatives outweigh the positives. The biofuels can create more harm than good from the release of CO2. This extra CO2 comes from the production of the biofuels, with machinery which uses fossil fuels. So this aspect is not environmentally friendly. Along with the vast water usage for production. The use of the unsustainable raw materials does not make this way of getting energy very sustainable, so it is not very environmentally friendly. The effect of deforestation is also a major problem, as the loss of species from the destruction of habitats may ruin whole ecosystems.

I do not think the continual production of biofuels will be good for the environment until biofuels, which do not emit emissions from their production and therefore be fully carbon neutral, can be produced. However, it does bring economic benefits creating new jobs for people, mainly in the developing countries. So I think improved methods and technologies for producing energy should be researched in order to find a truly environmentally friendly energy source.