President Bush has called for a 20 percent reduction in American oil consumption in 10 years, and three-fourths of this reduction is slated to come from using alternative fuels. Recent events have pointed to positive changes in this direction. Chief executives from United States automakers met with President Bush on March 26, 2007, in order to encourage incentives for their efforts to bring ethanol and biodiesel to more pumps, as large car companies increase production of flex-fuel vehicles.
While the push to reduce America’s oil consumption is encouraging, the political cachet and burgeoning commercial popularity of alternative fuels often overwhelm debates over the sustainability and utility of these petroleum alternatives. As such, the growing status of alternative fuels requires greater examination of the implications of promoting popular fuel alternatives such as ethanol and biodiesel.
Alternative Fuels: An Overview
Several alternatives to petroleum and diesel, ranging in feasibility and cost, have surfaced in recent years. One option is Gas-to-Liquids technology—backed by Shell and ExxonMobil—which utilizes natural gas. This technology significantly reduces emissions from tailpipes; nevertheless, it’s expensive and requires large amounts of natural gas. Another alternative is hydrogen. When mixed with oxygen in a fuel cell, it can power vehicles. This alternative results in no pollution and the supply of hydrogen is practically limitless. This option, however, produces large amounts of carbon dioxide and is expensive to produce.
Some options are still considered fairly experimental. The company BioPetrol has adapted a process for turning coal into petroleum and has used this technology to convert human sewage to petroleum. Additionally, LiveFuels, in conjunction with Sandia National labs, has refined a technique converting algae into petroleum. These options are still in research and development stages, so issues of cost and large-scale production are still vague.
Ethanol and biodiesel appear to be the most viable options in the short-term. Ethanol is an alcohol produced from fermented mashed grain—corn, sugar cane, or other food products. Currently, Ethanol is available as E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that can be manufactured from vegetable oil and animal fats. Blends of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent traditional biodiesel can be used in unmodified engines.
Ethanol and Biodiesel: Food versus Fuel
There are several promising factors for the wide-scale production of ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol, for example, is well established and has received both commercial and political backing. Biodiesel has a ready-made market in Europe, where diesel is very popular.
There are consequences however, to the use of these alternative fuels. Ethanol requires significant amounts of energy to produce and puts out two-thirds the energy of gas. Secondly, the production of ethanol generates substantial amounts of carbon dioxide, which can turn into greenhouse gases if not properly contained.
While Biodiesel emits much less carbon dioxide, it has environmental consequences as well. Palm oil, which can be converted to Biodiesel, has been the source of recent controversy. Wetlands International, based in the Netherlands, led a study of the benefits of palm oil and concluded, “As a biofuel, it’s a failure.” The cultivation of palm oil can also lead to slash-and-burn farming and deforestation.
Most importantly, the possibility of wide-scale production of ethanol and biodiesel raises questions about the sustainability of fuel sources made from components of the world’s food supply. The growing popularity of ethanol resulted in the industry consuming 20 percent of the US corn crop, straining the primary use of corn domestically as feed for dairy and beef cattle, pigs and chickens. Rising corn prices have been felt in neighboring Mexico, where some citizens have protested the high prices of tortillas.
Alternative fuels are a short-term solution to relieve immediate needs and flatten peaks and troughs in the market. Drawbacks make alternative fuels unlikely long-term simple solutions.