The biofuels versus fossil fuels debate continues to heat as we slowly, but steadily, inch towards the exhaustion of fossil fuel stores on the planet. The need to replace fossil fuels with an environment friendly alternative has become all the more urgent, as reports on how they pollute the environment and contribute to the phenomenon of global warming pouring in continuously. Among the various replacement options put forth, 'biofuels' are believed to be one of the best alternatives to fossil fuels - predominantly for their environment friendly nature. But, are they really environment friendly? Critics don't think so!
Even though biofuels are being embraced by various countries of the world, there do exist some issues about them which need to be addressed. These issues related to biofuels go well beyond the issue of environmental pollution, to social and economic issues that are associated with use of food as fuel and the infrastructure that they require. At the same time, critics are of the opinion that it's a bit too early to consider biofuels as replacement options for fossil fuels as even they are under the scanner for their alleged role in environmental pollution. Everything seems to be a bit confusing, and thus one has to understand the difference between biofuels and fossil fuels to come up with a concrete opinion as to which is better among the two.
The term 'fossil fuel' refers to various fuels which are produced as a result of natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition in an environment without oxygen over the course of several thousands of years. Fossil fuels don't really need any introduction as we have been using them for quite some time now. Some of the most popular examples of fossil fuels which are in wide use today include coal, petroleum, natural gas, etc. Though efficient, these fuels are under the scanner the amount of pollution attributed to them. Basically, fossil fuels are known to release greenhouse gases, such as the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, in the atmosphere. These gases are notorious for their tendency to trap the Sun's radiations within the atmosphere, and contribute to global warming and climate change.
The term 'biofuels', on the other hand, refers to a range of fuels made from biomass i.e. biological matter from living organisms (or recently living organisms). Biofuels are categorized into two groups, the first generation biofuels and the second generation biofuels. While first generation biofuels include names like biodiesel, biogas, bioethers, bioalcohols, green diesel, vegetable oil, etc.; the second generation biofuels include names like cellulosic ethanol, algae fuel and biomethanol. Corn and soybean are widely used for the production of biofuels in the United States today, while crops such as alfalfa, switchgrass and hybrid poplar are being pitched as the future of different types of biofuels production.
Biofuels Vs. Fossil Fuels: Which is Better?
The answer to this question depends on which fuel and what factors you are taking into consideration. E85 ethanol, which happens to be one of the most popular biofuel in the world today is actually a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent fossil fuel. (Fossil fuels such as gasoline are added to biofuels to add to their efficiency.) Burning a single gallon of E85 ethanol produces 80,000 BTU (British thermal unit) energy, while burning the same amount of gasoline, which is one of the most popular fossils fuel in use today, produces 128,000 BTU energy. That makes it more than obvious that fossil fuels have a clear cut edge on biofuels when it comes to efficiency. Even if we opt for biofuels which are cheaper than fossil fuels, it doesn't really make sense in a long term. Though a gallon of biofuel will cost you less, as compared to a gallon of gasoline, the fact that you will require more of biofuel to generate the same amount of power will bring the difference in price to a negligible amount. Again, this is not the case with all the biofuels. For instance, biodiesel produces the same amount of energy as regular diesel does, and that too, without coming heavy on the environment like the latter.
As far as the arguments on environmental risks of biofuels are concerned, they are based on the fact that even biofuels are hydrocarbons like fossil fuels, which means they have the tendency to cause environmental pollution by releasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While the critics of biofuels put forth this reason to oppose the use of biofuels, those in support refute their claims by coming up with the counter-argument that biofuels are carbon neutral, i.e. they absorb whatever amount of carbon dioxide they produce, and thus do not add to the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, or other such greenhouse gases, like fossil fuels do. That, however, doesn't justify the use of food crops as fuel when a significant portion of the world population doesn't have enough food to eat. At the same time, this practice will also cause the food prices to spike when substantial amount of crops will be channelized for fuel production. The infrastructure required for the production of biofuels is also a major economic concern that has to be taken into consideration when evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels.
Both these fuel types have issues which need to be addressed, and these issues have caused a great deal of confusion among people leaving them unable to decide which of the two fuels have an edge, when it comes to fossil fuels-biofuels battle. If we continue to rely on fossil fuels even when we know that they are harmful for the environment as well as our health, it is only because they are much more efficient and easily available as compared to their biological counterparts. Can biofuels promise us such efficiency? If they do, it would be safe to say that it's high time we replace fossil fuels with biofuels.