With traditional fuel types getting increasingly scarce, the debate around what will be the next fuel type powering our vehicles is becoming louder and louder. It is clear that the next fuel we adopt needs to be sustainable in terms of production and needs to have little impact on the environment. One of the more advanced and widely accepted potential fossil fuel replacements is plant-based fuel.
Constant and consistent availability
We have been mining fossil fuels in the traditional sense since the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s through the 1800s. Due to the incredibly slow nature of how these types of fossil fuels are produced, there will come a day when we have none left. According to a study by BP in 2014 we have only 1.688 trillion barrels left, which is roughly 49 years’ worth at the current consumption rate.
Biofuels are produced from plants that can be grown quickly and easily. This means, unlike fossil fuels, it will take relatively little effort for us to sustainably produce biofuels for potentially endless generations.
Switching to a society that uses biodegradable fuel will create a huge number of job opportunities and chances to boost the economy. While in the oil and gas industry employment opportunities are primarily in mining and distribution, recent figures show that the advanced biofuels industry could create 29,000 new jobs and $5.5 billion in economic growth in the next three years. This is also likely to produce more opportunities for the employment of semi-skilled labor during the growing process.
In contrast, there may be some negative impact on the economy as a result of adopting biofuels. A large amount of land would be required to grow such biofuel crops as rapeseed, sugar cane, wheat, and soybean.
Put into context, growing enough soybean to fuel current needs in the US would require the equivalent land area of 1.5 times the entire United States. This will leave less land for growing food, which could result in food price increases.
Lowering harmful emissions
In some ways, biofuels can be classed as carbon neutral. Although CO2 is released during the combustion process, much like fossil fuels, that CO2 was originally absorbed from the atmosphere during processing. This creates a process where CO2 simply gets recycled over and over.
With many governments seeking to find carbon-neutral or carbon-negative fuels, this is a real possibility. However, in practice, the amount of energy that goes into growing, harvesting, processing, and distributing biofuels means many more efficiencies must be made to make it a practical choice.
Compatibility is a real issue for the alternative fuel types. Fuels that will not work with current combustion engines are likely to be less popular than those that will seamlessly integrate. Some biofuels, namely biodiesel, can be used in current diesel engines. However, biofuels that are being developed to increase efficiencies, such as bioethanol, do need certain engine modifications in order to work properly.
Threats to availability
Pests and predators are one major threat to biofuels and may affect their security as a fuel source. Unlike fossil fuels and other alternatives such as electric or solar-powered vehicles, the plants that make up biofuels are constantly under threat. Historical events such as the Irish Potato Famine have shown us that a lack of biodiversity could leave us subject to huge losses in biofuel crops. Although pesticides, with their own risks and downside, mitigate much of this risk, pests can quickly adapt due to short reproductive cycles.
Biofuels are clearly an option in terms of a sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. There is an array of challenges that must be overcome ranging from technical to environmental before it becomes a widely accepted alternative. Advances in other fuel alternatives may also see a slowly developing biofuel industry left behind if investment and innovation are not made.