Monday, February 19, 2007

Unintended consequences

Speaking of fossil fuels...

I see that the Law of Unintended Consequences is hitting hard with respect to bio-fuels. Biodiesel is a mixture of diesel oil and a biologically created fluid that is capable of being burned in a diesel engine. One of our clients sells B2, B5, B10, B20, B50, B99 and B100 biodiesel (the number represents the percentage of biological fluid, usually derived from vegetable oil or processed from soy beans, in the mixture; B2 is 2% soy, while B100 is 100% soy).

Biodiesel is touted as cleaner burning than diesel (which some have debated) and it's made from a renewable resource (which is not debatable).

There's a problem, though. Biodiesel has become successful enough that it's driven up the demand for soy products. As such, there's a new demand for soy bean fields. In Brazil, huge tracts of rain forest have been cleared to make way for soy fields to catch up on the demand.

The problem is that rain forests are dense with vegetation. Soy bean fields are nowhere near as dense with regard to vegetable biomass. The rain forest is much, much better at scrubbing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide than a soy bean field. There's a big fear, now, that because of this clearing of the rain forest to make way for biodiesel-fueled (pun intended) soy bean fields, the atmosphere will actually end up with more CO2 in it, not less!

There's also the problem of how many years you can plant a soy bean field in one place...

A better solution would be to figure out a way to convert rain forest biomass into a fuel, particularly from fast growing vines. Then growing and harvesting the rain forest might be a viable alternative. Instead, developing nations are pushing biodiesel and ethanol without considering what the consequences might be.

Hydrogen fuel would be the way to go, as it's clean and abundant, if it wasn't for the little problem of most of Earth's hydrogen being tied with oxygen in water. You can pass electricity through water to release the hydrogen, but that requires more energy than you can get out of a hydrogen atom short of fusing it (and no one has figured out how to make a working, self-sustaining, viable fusion reactor). The solution to this problem is more electricity... in the form of nuclear reactors.

Let's face it, there are no easy answers to the global warming and fuel scarcity problems. A fundamental law of the universe is "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch".


JAM said...

I haven't heard this about biodiesel, but I have read that Ethanol which is being touted as an alternate fuel burns hot enough to warp many of the aluminum engine blocks produced these days.

Unknown said...

Have you heard of "Bio Willie"? It's the same thing. It's biodiesel that Willie Nelson has been pushing for years.

What's interesting about biodiesel is that it can be produced from bi-products of cooking processes. French fry grease can be used to make the bio component of biodiesel. Biodiesel is a good alternative to regular diesel, providing that we're not chopping down rain forests to grow soy...

I heard that it's questionable whether ethanol reduces carbon emissions.

I've also heard that the amount of energy used to process ethanol is more than the energy you get out of it. Of course this is true of any energy source, it's just that the energy used to produce it usually came from the Earth or the sun. In the case of ethanol, it's we humans who have to put the energy into converting crops to the fuel. This could still be viable if the conversion process used solar or wind powered plants. If the process requires electricity which, in turn, comes from coal fired plants, we are worse off than if we just burned gasoline.