We’ve all heard it. Whenever the topic turns to bio-fuels someone pipes in with “you know that ethanol takes more energy to produce that it yields…” Well, not according to the latest science. The University of Minnesota has released an extensive study on the overall energy used to grow, harvest, and process as well as the environmental impact of the fertilizers and pesticides used in the entire lifecycle of bio-fuels. The results show that both soybean based biodiesel and corn based ethanol produce more energy than is required to make them. Soybean took the lead, producing 93 percent more energy than it took in while the ethanol eeked out only a 25 percent gain over the energy used to produce it. Energy that we use to produce it that is. Energy is not truly created but merely changes form. Both the corn and the soy crops are constantly absorbing energy from the sun and in effect we are using them as a means to harness that energy. Solar panels are a more efficient way, but until we get the cost down on solar energy…well, we’ll save that for another day. We’re talking bio-fuels today.
So what about the environmental impact? Growing any crop in a large quantity requires fertilizers, and insecticides. You cannot ignore the impact of the runoff of these chemicals in to streams and rivers. Still, soy based biodiesel produces 41 percent less greenhouse gas emissions (and better by some studies), and ethanol produces around 12 percent less. Soy based Biodiesel requires less fertilizers than corn, so if only more vehicles in the world were diesel based soy would be the clear winner.
Dedicating all US soy and corn production would create only a small percentage of the currently needed gasoline and diesel supply. Farms that were struggling to sell all they were producing are now having to gear up to plant and produce more. Many consumers are noticing a sharp increase in the cost of everyday food items as demand exceeds supply. This may or may not be a temporary condition as a lot of farm land has gone unused in recent history.
The truth is that benefits to both ethanol and biodiesel are probably worth the downsides. Even in small quantities, as an additive, they both oxygenate fossil fuels which cause them to burn more completely resulting in reduced emissions. And while at present they cannot come close to the production levels that would be required to replace fossil fuels; the facilities and techniques being used and developed now for ethanol and biodiesel will be put to use for the next generations of bio-fuels.
Studies done just a few years ago pretty universally slammed bio-fuels as all requiring more fossil fuels to produce than they deliver; it goes to show that technology does not stand still. Throughout history this has always been the case. The first cars, televisions, home computers, and airplanes all started out as less than practical in real world applications.
An environmentally conscious consumer may not be making a huge impact by driving a biodiesel car, subscribing to a wind power electric company or installing solar panels on the roof. But demand is what drives the market for these things and as more and more people start showing that they are willing to make these choices you can bet there will be someone on the supply side that is listening. You have to crawl before you can run.