One of the most heated environmental debates concerns biofuels. Using biofuels is nothing new and, in fact, diesel cars were originally designed to run off of peanut oil, but diesel fuel ended up being cheaper than peanut oil. Now with pollution and the very real threat of drying oil wells, car manufacturers and scientists are once again turning to biodiesel fuels in order to solve this problem.
Biodiesel fuel is generally made from vegetable oils (soy being the most popular) or animal fat, either way it is biodegradeable. Besides this, biofuels emit 60% less net carbon emissions than standard diesel and is partially produced from atmospheric carbon dioxide via photosynthesis [Source: Treehugger]. Sounds great, until you get to the gritty details. Since many of the biodiesel fuels are based on plantlife, increased production of these crops could lead to deforestation. Countries like Brazil are already experiencing these effects. While the expansion itself does not directly lead to deforestation, many of these farms displace ranches. These ranches then must move and build further in forestland. A recent report done by the University of Kassel stated that the expansion of biofuel crops contributes to 41-59% of indirect deforestation [Source: Treehugger] and has endangered species like the flat headed cat in Malaysia. Other than deforestation, another issue concercning biofuels is the food vs. fuel debate. Should biofuels become lucrative to farmers, there may be more crops like corn, soy and sugar grown to create biodiesel instead of feeding the populous. This could in turn lead to a decreased biodiversity in crops and forestlands [Source: The Green Car Website]. To combat many of the environmental and economic concerns, some of the newest biodiesels are made of either camelina or algae.
While this plant may seem like a weed, it has grown in popularity for the creation of biofuels. In fact, the US Navy has contracted the use of camelina biodiesel for their new FA-18 Super Hornet [Source: Clean Technica] and Japan Airlines tested ablend of camelina, algae and jatropha blend on a B50 with good results [Source: Biofuels Digest] . The major player in both of these projects is the Sustainable Oils company. Based in the Great Plains region, Sustainable Oils is a partnership between Targeted Growth and Green Earth Fuels. The company focuses on giving farmers information on growing camelina. The company has been incredibly successful and has helped double the amount of camelina acreage in the Great Plains in 2010. Camelina itself is also very easy to grow and can exist in diverse climates. It also requires less fertilizer and pesticides and many insects to do not feed on the plant [Source: Earth2Tech]. Due to these qualities, the plant can be grown in rotation with wheat, helping to increase wheat yields 15% [Source: Ecogeek]. The oil also good for humans as it is high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants [Source: Wikipedia] and can also be used as food for livestock.
Out of all of the biodiesels, algae has influential supporters. In January 2010, the Department of Energy announced a $78 million stimulus for advanced biofuels research and fueling infrastructure. $44 million went to the National Alliance for Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts (NAABB), which is trying to commercialize algae biodiesel fuels [Source: CNET]. Even ExxonMobil has invested their money into algae biodiesel research, investing $600 million in Synthetic Genomes (the company that mapped the human genome) [Source: Gas2.0]. Unlike other biofuel crops (like corn) algae is extremely efficient at converting carbon dioxide into biomass and does not require much land but to compete with other biofuel crops, algae must minimize fertilizer and freshwater use. Growing algae around wastewater treatment plants or facilities that emit carbon dioxide could help increase the economic viability of algae [Source: Science News]. One company, Aurora Biofuels, has created an algae species that creates 25% oil content daily. With a 50-acre pond, the company could create 100 gallons of oil a day and offer diesel fuel for around $2/gallon to the public [Source: Green Tech Media]. Byproducts of the algae production could also be packaged into pet food in order to cut down on waste.
While camelina and algae are the newest superstars of the biodiesel fuel industry, the fact remains that there are flaws for both crops. Camelina still requires farm land and could lead to more deforestation. Algae is most cost-effective in areas that already exist. Algae grown in uncontrolled environments do not create as much oil yield, which would end up driving algae fuel costs. It’s unclear whether biodiesel fuels can not only replace fuel, but be environmentally friendly as well.