Using Biofules in Your Car

Wouldn't it be wonderful if biofuels were the answer to our energy problems? You could drive to your nearest fuel station, fill up with biodiesel, and cruise around happy in the knowledge that your vehicle was carbon neutral. Of course, life isn't like that, and the use of biofuels is as full of pitfalls as any other attempt you may make to save the planet.

What exactly are biofuels? Essentially they are fuels made from plant matter (or more rarely animal fats). Of course, if you go back far enough, coal and oil were once plant matter, but we're talking here about plant matter that was recently alive, as opposed to matter which has been stored in the ground for millions of years.

The two most common types of biofuel at present are biodiesel and bioethanol.

Biodiesel is made from crops such as oilseed rape, palm oil, sunflowers and soya beans as well as from waste oils left over from restaurants and chip shops. Most diesel engines can use a mix of biodiesel and mineral diesel without needing any modifications. Biodiesel which you can buy at petrol pumps is usually a mix of 5% vegetable diesel and 95% mineral diesel but many vehicles can run on a much higher proportion of vegetable-derived diesel.

Bioethanol is made from starchy plants, such as sugar beet, sugar cane, corn and wheat. It can be blended with conventional petrol and again, most petrol engines can run on a 5% mix without modifications. Appropriately modified engines can run on 100% bioethanol.

Biofuels are often claimed to be 100% carbon neutral. It works like this: when a plant grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. When the plant is turned into a fuel and burnt, it releases the same amount of carbon dioxide back into the air. The cycle of growing and burning, growing and burning continues to absorb and release carbon dioxide and is therefore carbon neutral.

The catch, as always, is in the detail. Some crops grown for biofuels are grown in a sustainable way. Small scale productions and the reuse of cooking oil are probably as near to being carbon neutral as you can get. However, even these use energy in their growth, manufacturing and transport so unless the fuel used in these processes are biofuels too then the process can't be called carbon neutral.

The real danger, however, comes from large scale production. Developing countries are quick to see the increased demand for crops such as sugar beet and palm oil, and are prepared to clear huge areas of rainforest, wetland and grassland to grow these cash crops. It's hard to claim that a fuel is carbon neutral if acres of Brazilian rainforest have been cut down to grow it. There are other hidden environmental costs as well. Evidence suggests that the huge forest fires which annually rampage through parts of Indonesia are often caused by palm oil producers. The greenhouse gases released into the air as a result of these fires could account for up to 40% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Loss of arable land, destruction of communities and exploitation of workers may all be part of the cost of producing ‘greener' fuels.

Use of Biofuels  in Reducing Greenhouse Gases

Biofuels can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gases if they are managed carefully. Environmental groups are calling for the government to insist that green fuels are truly green. This would mean some kind of certificate ensuring that fuels are produced in a sustainable way, providing at least a 50% saving on greenhouse gases compared to mineral oil products. The saving would have to take account of the change of land use, growth, production and transport of the fuel, not just the difference between burning that fuel and burning the equivalent fossil fuel.

We also need to keep in mind the fact that biofuels available on garage forecourts still contain high levels of mineral oils. Pure biofuels are often quoted as being 60%-70% ‘cleaner' than petrol or diesel. By the time they have been blended in a 5% mix the figure is nearer to 3% or 3.5%.

Understandably then, environmental groups are cautious in their support of biofuels. They can certainly play a part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and, at their best, could make a significant contribution to protecting the environment. But their use needs to be carefully regulated and they are only ever going to be a small part of the whole picture.

As ever, the message is that reducing our energy consumption is still the most important thing we can do to protect the environment.

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