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The Biofuel Dilemma

DieselFuel_195121818The push for more sustainable sources of energy for our cars is intensifying.  Biodiesel and ethanol are getting more and more common.  Slurping through large amounts of fossil fuel is considered irresponsible, as is belching out a lot of greenhouse gases.  In this sort of climate (both the metaphorical climate of opinion and the actual one, which is supposed to be changing), biofuels are looking like a very sexy option.

However, there is a bit of a problem when it comes to biofuels.  You see, while it seems like a great idea to grow a crop that can be turned into fuel, there are a few snags.  All commercially grown crops take up land, and they require nutrients and water.  This means that they’re competing with other crops – like the ones that you and I eat.  And this is where the problem lies: if we’re going to do away with world hunger, the people who are currently starving are going to have to eat something.  And that something will have to grow somewhere.

They tell us that it’s going to become more difficult to find enough land and other resources to feed the world.  This means that even if biofuels don’t increase, there’s going to be issues with growing enough food to feed us all.  On the one hand, we want to get from A to B more sustainably.  On the other hand, we don’t want people to die from malnutrition.  So what’s the answer?  Biofuel or not biofuel?  Should corn go to feeding people or to making oil to power vehicles?  (Let’s not even start on the feeding people versus feeding cattle debate.)  Which is the best option for the thinking person who cares for the planet and other human beings?

The answer is to keep on thinking and to look at the wider issue.  First of all, the food problem.  It might not be as difficult to produce enough food to feed everybody on the planet as you think.  For a start off, a large chunk of us (especially in the Western world) could probably eat less and be better off for it.  Secondly, an awful lot of the food grown in the world today ends up going to waste.  Some is damaged by pests and rotten weather while it’s in the field.  Some doesn’t make it onto the market courtesy of bureaucracy, food regulations and other rhubarb like that – things like the European Union’s standards that state the colour, shape and size of vegetables that are permitted on the market, even though wonky carrots and cucumbers with more than a certain amount of curvature.  A lot of perfectly edible gets dumped along the food pathway – things that are still good but are past their sell-by date, for example.  Thirdly, we can all have a go at growing our own fruit and veg. We can feed a hungry world, people, if we really try!

One has to wonder why all this dumped and wasted food doesn’t end up being turned into biofuels.  It certainly is possible.  One wonders why this hasn’t been tried yet.  Which brings me neatly to the next part of tackling the food vs biofuel dilemma.  Often, biofuels such as ethanol can be made from waste products of the food industry.  Take sugarcane – which is where most of Australia’s ethanol comes from.  The juice gets extracted and taken to the refinery to be turned into what goes into our morning coffee, plus other goodies such as golden syrup and molasses (used as a dietary supplement for dairy cows).  The leftover bits of cane are broken down to make ethanol.  The only snag here is that the leftovers are often quite woody, which means that it’s harder to break down and turn into ethanol.  In the world of biofuels, finding bacteria that are capable of breaking down tough woody stuff is a very hot topic. We might snigger at research papers that rave about the potential of some bacteria strain found in panda poop (actual example) but these bacteria might be the best way of turning, say, sawdust into what you put in your Toyota Corolla.

The third option for solving the dilemma is to find sources of biofuel that don’t compete with food crops for resources.  Things that grow on bad soil or on bad water are particularly popular.  This is where things like jatropha comes in.  Jatropha grows like a weed on bad soil… and it produces oil-bearing seeds that make great biodiesel.  To give you an idea of how well it can grow on marginal land, a close relative of the species that produces the best oil has been banned in Western Australia as an invasive weed.  The other biggie is algae.  Algae can be grown on sewage (something we’re not exactly going to run out of) and some strains produce a good dollop of oil that can be turned into biodiesel.  The hunt is on to find the best types of algae that produce the most bang for the buck.  Again, it doesn’t pay to snigger about research papers that rave about things that grow on sewage.

Algae even looks green.

So what is the average Aussie driver to do in the attempt to “think globally and act locally” when it comes to the biofuel dilemma?

  • As always, conserve fuel when driving (better for your wallet, too).
  • Avoid wasting food, as this means that there’ll be less chance of fuel crops having to compete with food crops (also better for your wallet).
  • Grow your own food.  You might not be able to grow your own biodiesel crop but you can grow your own tomatoes and lettuces.  Every little bit helps.  If we all grew our own, a few more farmers could concentrate on growing biofuel instead.
  • Use biofuels in your vehicle as often as possible – if we keep up the demand, the producers will know to keep up the supply.

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