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These are dizzying times for biofuels - Metro US

These are dizzying times for biofuels

We have been following the discussions of alternative fuels with rapt attention for the past several years.

With terms like “carbon neutral” in connection to fuels swirling around our heads, these are dizzying times.

It seems like everyone is buying into the idea of biofuels, freeing us from the grasp of fossil fuels. Many governments are investing heavily, even those that so recently invested in denying carbon emissions were a problem. The domestic air travel industry, a disproportionately high emitter of carbon, is considering (among other strategies) a move to biofuels. Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines has even announced plans to fly an aircraft on biofuel by 2008.

Ethanol is made from a wide variety of plants, particularly corn and soybeans (Ontario’s two biggest crops), and new ethanol plants are popping up each year. In Europe, ethanol is even distilled from less drinkable wines. Biodiesel can be made from any vegetable or animal oils, with the most promising sources, in terms of yield, being algae. If biofuels can be produced so readily, why hasn’t anyone ever thought of this before? Oh, wait …

The expression everything old is new again applies well to biofuels. Remember “gasohol” in the ’80s? It is back, this time with much less fanfare, which I find surprising considering public interest in renewable fuels. Perhaps the marketing arms of petroleum companies think consumers will also remember gasohol, which was not a big hit the last time around. At most gas stations today, you will get a blend of ethanol (often 10 per cent) and gasoline.

The diesel engine was originally designed to run on vegetable oil. It still does. There are websites with recipes for homemade diesel. Occasionally, I am on the road and smell french fries. Suddenly hungry and searching for the source,

I am dismayed to find it’s only a diesel running on spent oil from a restaurant’s fryer.

Although some newer gasoline engines will run on E85 ethanol (85 per cent ethanol by volume), and diesels can run on vegetable oil, the bulk of most commercially available fuels is still petroleum. That’s worth remembering, as even the more environmentally friendly fuels available at filling stations (if you are able to find them) are not currently carbon neutral.

Can we achieve carbon neutrality using biofuels? It would be difficult. While you might want to kick the gas habit, do you want to buy a vehicle before the infrastructure exists to get fuel? And what incentive is there for a filling station to invest in infrastructure before there is a customer base? Biodiesel offers the greatest promise since current engines are already compatible with the fuel.

Should we try to achieve carbon neutrality using biofuels? How much land can be given over to producing crops for biofuels? This calculus will impact not only land available for growing food, but also land currently in non-agricultural use (such as forest). It would also impact nutrient management strategies. Growing crops for biofuels (like growing food crops) is fertilizer intensive. It often flies under the radar, but fertilizers (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus) can be major pollutants when they run off agricultural soil into aquatic ecosystems.

The potential benefits of biofuels are exciting. However, we should not be thinking of them as a straight-up replacement for fossil fuels. They could help us reduce carbon emissions, but conservation of fuels must stay in focus as we balance the need to reduce carbon emissions with the need to protect natural resources.

Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biology at Ryerson University and is a member of the environmental applied science and management program in graduate studies. His research is in the area of ecosystem ecology. Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, an environmental consulting company. Contact Andrew Laursen at earthtones.metro@gmail.com

Tips to improve fuel economy

Automotive manufacturers continue to make improvements to the internal combustion engine to maximize fuel efficiency and reduce both smog and greenhouse gas emissions.

Priority focus has also been placed on developing new, environmentally-friendly technologies including hybrids, biofuels, electric vehicles and fuel cells.

Here are some steps drivers can take to improve the fuel efficiency of their vehicles every day:

  1. Plan your trips and driving routes to avoid traffic congestion

  2. Observe speed limits

  3. Accelerate smoothly

  4. Maintain steady speeds

  5. Limit the use of accessories

  6. Don’t carry more than you need

  7. Make sure your vehicle is properly maintained – proper tire pressure, clean your air filter, etc.

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