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The Only Thing Green About Biofuel is The Marketing

by Archives September 4, 2007

OTTAWA (CUP) — Topia Green Stop gas station in Ottawa sells fairly traded crafts from Guatemala and organic sandwiches next to the windshield wiper fluid and ice scrapers.
A bank of glossy green pamphlets — “Ethanol – the American Fuel” and “Biodiesel and you” — extol the virtues of the plant-based fuels they sell outside.
Supporters of alternative fuels say everyone should run fuel made from plant material, either the alcohol-based ethanol that runs in gasoline engines, or oil-based biodiesel in a diesel engine.
On the surface these fuels seem like environmentally friendly alternatives to gasoline that will let everyone keep driving their cars, but the reality is much dirtier.
Recent research has found that biofuels have worse pollutant emissions than regular gas or diesel, and their carbon dioxide emissions are not initially lower. The economic implications of using corn or food products to create fuel are only beginning to be felt.
Scientists at the National Research Council in Ottawa have been testing biodiesel in a big backhoe diesel engine. They have found corn or soybean biofuels have more toxic nitrous oxide emissions than regular diesel. As for solid particles — the black stuff belching out of the old diesel trucks — biodiesel has slightly better or the same emissions.
Most cars today are running about a hundred times cleaner than they did 20 years ago. Soot emissions are greatly reduced and emission control systems like catalytic converters take out a number of other toxic chemicals. So car exhaust is pretty clean already, but the green fuels are slightly worse for chemical emissions than regular fuels.
Carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions are widely believed to be a contributor towards global warming.
As far as CO2 is concerned, there is no immediate advantage in burning a biofuel over gasoline. Any combustion engine will produce carbon dioxide — that’s just the nature of fire.
Plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere when they grow, and so burning fuel from a natural source is only returning that much CO2 into the air. But this analysis ignores the energy used in making biofuel. Energy intensive processes for making biodiesel or ethanol need to get their power from somewhere, and a strain on energy sources — often producers of CO2 themselves — won’t put us any further ahead in fixing the planet.
There is no perfect solution with our current technology. Greg Smallwood, an emissions specialist at the National Research Council, says the best answer for driving a combustion engine today is running a properly tuned diesel engine.
Diesels use a third of the fuel that a gasoline engine needs. With less fuel burned you have less emissions — of all varieties. Smallwood is working with a specially designed diesel engine that runs at low temperatures and can be so finely tuned that its pollution emissions can be only measured in the trillions of parts per million.
The average diesel engine will run on straight waste vegetable oil in warm climates. For a little extra work you can build a home reactor to make pure biofuel. All you need is an old hot water boiler and a few pumps. This makes a fuel that is liquid at lower temperatures and has fewer impurities.
Still, with a do-it-yourself fuel it is much harder to keep the engine burning cleanly. The hippie bus may be running for free, but chances are they won’t pass an emissions test.
Biofuels don’t offer a clear or clean solution to pollution or CO2 emissions. Even more concerning is the effects that are already being felt on world markets from the increased demand for corn to make ethanol.
The price of corn around the world has doubled since last year as a result of increased demand in the U.S. for ethanol production. In Mexico a rise in price of the staple food — and main ingredient in tortillas — has led to food riots this year. People who drive cars can afford to pay a higher price to make fuel out of the same products that are feeding the world’s poor.
Farmers will naturally react to these higher prices by planting more, but even if they can fully satisfy the demand, much of the increased production will come from planting in virgin forest.
The rain forest plays a huge role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere and destroying it to plant “green fuels” is more harmful in the long run.
Scrounging for waste fryer fat from McDonald’s is not a solution for the whole society of car drivers — there isn’t enough grease in all the fast food joints of North America.
The green packaging and organic nut bars may be a good way to sell plant-based fuels, but when it comes down to it, biofuels are only a feel-good alternative. Perfectly clean transport can’t be done with a combustion engine.

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