Advantages of Biofuels

Biofuels and other renewable sources of energy are fast gaining importance due to the ever increasing energy requirements of the world. The advantages of biofuels over conventional energy sources are helping them overtake the latter. Developed countries’ rising production levels and developing countries’ swift attempts at catching up with world standards is pushing energy needs to the brink. Unconventional and environment friendly fuel sources which can maintain a reasonably supply over time are the need of the hour. These very points comprise some of the advantages of biofuels

Through this article we expound some of the basic advantages of biofuels which will reassert their importance in the world and display why they are the answer to our heightened energy crises. 

Biofuels and their types?

Biofuels are any type of combustible fuel generated from biomass such as organic plant or animal matter. They are divided into three categories: 

  • first generation bio-fuels – these are derived from sugar, starch, vegetable oils or animal fats
  • Second generation bio-fuels – these are derived from non-food crops
  • Third generation bio-fuels – these are derived from algae

 

Biofuel Advantage: It is a Renewable Energy Source

The conventional sources of energy production, like coal and oil have long been the primary means to generate energy. However, global reserves of coal and oil are depleting fast due to excessive usage and the exponential rise in need for electricity, fuel and other forms of energy, over the past few decades. This is reflected in the rising crude oil prices observed over a period of 15 years.

                                          Oil: Growing demand, rising prices and depleting reserves 

Source: International Energy Agency publications. 

The global requirement for energy is on an upward trend due to rising population and does not seem likely to dip in the near future. This calls for the need of newer, renewable sources of energy that will be available in a more or less constant supply. Biofuels are one of the few renewable sources of energy which have gained popularity over the past few years. They are mainly of two types: biodiesel and bioethanol. Biodiesels are vegetable-oil or animal-fat based diesel fuels which can be used in standard diesel engines. Since they use plant and animal matter for production they qualify as a completely renewable source of energy. Biodiesels are used as an additive in diesel fuels and can be used in diesel powered cars, buses, trains and airplanes without requiring any modifications in the engine design or type. Apart from being used as an additive it can also be used in its pure form, though this is rarely done.

Similarly bioethanol is an alcohol derived from the fermentation of carbohydrates present in crops such as sugarcane or corn. This is also widely used as a fuel to power vehicle engines. Further, the use of 10% blended bioethanol reduces harmful combustion chamber deposits and improves engine efficiency. Statisticians and economists have surely recognised these advantages of biofuels as is evident by the changing distribution of energy sources in the world. (refer figure below for OECD fuel trends)

 

                                                                     Biofuel: Gaining grounds, but way to go



Source: International Energy Agency publications.

As per the International Energy Agency (IEA), biofuels have the potential to meet more than a quarter of the world’s transportation fuel requirement by 2050. Other first generation biofuels include green diesel, vegetable oil, bioethers, biogas and solid biofuels. Biogas is basically methane and can be converted into electricity and heat with the use of a gas engine. The most thriving example of biogas production at a micro level is observed in the Indian sub-continent where millions of households, through anaerobic digestion of manure in small-scale facilities, produce biogas for use in electricity generation, heating and cooking etc.

The fact that biofuels are generated from renewable sources makes them highly beneficial as an energy source. This is one of the main advantages of biofuels.

 

Biofuel Advantage: It is Environment Friendly

The emissions produced on combustion of biofuels are significantly lesser than those produced from fossil fuels. (refer figure)

                                                      Biofuels emissions are lower than fossil fuels

Source: Mongabay

According to the above figure, CO2 emissions from bioethanol and biodiesel combustion are up to nine times lesser than those from gasoline combustion. According to a technique called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) first generation biofuels save up to 60% and second generation biofuels save up to 80% of carbon emissions as compared to other fossil fuels. The tightening of environmental requirements by various governments all over the world makes this a highly favourable feature of biofuels. The adoption of ‘green’ policies and the need for sustainable development is overtaking blind production and consumption patterns. The environmental advantages of biofuels are very important in making them the preferred fuel choice of the coming generations.

Biofuel Advantage: Positive Economic Effects

Although biofuels are currently not as prevalent in the world as other sources of energy, they are a promising alternative to fossil fuels. The price of biofuels is currently higher in comparison to oil derived products. However, with steadily rising oil prices and greater availability of biofuel technology, their prices will soon be on the positive side. Since their production requires crops and other plant/animal based matter, agrarian economies will have a distinct advantage over others in biofuel production. This is already being observed in India and Pakistan (as discussed above), where biogas is used to power over a million households and fulfil their requirements of heating and electricity. The millions of cows in the US have the potential to generate one hundred billion kWh of electricity since each cow can produce enough manure in one day to generate 3 kWh of electricity! 

Also, biogas and biodiesel provide sufficient environmental advantages to merit subsidy. The European Union has issued a binding biofuels mandate of 10% by 2020. The European Biofuels Directive of 2003 had set a target of 2% biofuels by 2005 which was not complied with. The other terms of the proposal included greater use of biofuels for transport and cutting down on dependence on oil in the transport sector. Promoting the use of biofuels was undertaken in a large scale through a package of measures including tax exemption, financial assistance for the processing industry and the establishment of compulsory rate of biofuels for oil companies. In the US, subsidies to the tune of $6 billion were given to the corn ethanol industry and other biofuels over the past three decades. Various other countries give economic incentives and model their policies to promote biofuels.

Thus, to conclude..

These advantages of biofuels qualify them as the right renewable energy source to be used in the years to come. Although further research is required to make more efficient and applicable on a wide scale, they have already created a niche for themselves in the renewable energy sector. Biofuels promise to be a reliable source of energy and after accounting for the disadvantages, the advantages of biofuels are sure to outweigh them in comparison. The future of biofuels is bright. 

EIA, National geographic, NREL.gov