Posted on 14 November 2013.
I’ll tell ya, it seems like getting a straight answer on whether or not biodiesel is good for the environment is damn near impossible. First off, everything you hear is about how great it is and how it’s going to replace fossil fuels. I mean jesus, even Willy Nelson was hawking the stuff. Then it turns out all the fertilizer and other chemicals needed to process the organic material into fuel might be doing more harm than just using good ‘ol gasoline. Well, I did my own research and here’s what I found.
Over the past few years the quest to find energy alternatives to the processing of fossil fuels have received new emphasis. As deposits of crude interest to many is biodiesel–diesel fuel created through processing of living plant or animal matter (usually derived from soy or other energy-efficient plant matter) rather than crude oil. Across the world many organizations have begun the process of weaning themselves off of petrodiesel by using petro/biodiesel blends or switching to one hundred percent biodiesel fuel. However, significant obstacles remain to biodiesel’s widespread use.
Here are a few of the pros and cons of biodiesel:
Like traditional fossil fuels, biodiesel offers significant energy output in a highly efficient package. Biodiesel burns more efficiently than diesel fuel refined from crude oil, meaning that less fuel needs to be used to produce the same amount of energy.
Because it burns more efficiently, biodiesel produces fewer particulates, and thus does not have as strong of a negative impact on air quality as traditional fossil fuels. Where fossil fuels release carbon that has been locked away for countless thousands of years as a side effect of combustion, burning biodiesel only releases the carbon dioxide the plants from which it is processed absorbed as they grew.
Any engine or furnace built to burn petrodiesel can burn biodiesel. There is minimal retrofitting involved in preparing an older diesel engine to accept the new fuel; newer diesel engines can process it with no retrofitting whatsoever. This conserves time, money, and resources, as existing vehicles do not have to be removed from service for long amounts of time, nor do extensive parts of their engines have to be rebuilt.
Traditional fossil fuels are already out there; they just need to be extracted, transported, and refined. Biodiesel has to be cooked up from scratch, quite literally. In order to create it one begins with living plants and must go through the steps of processing and refining that end with usable biodiesel. This is more expensive than extracting crude oil and refining petrodiesel from it.
Current estimates say that from start to finish, creating biofuels uses up twenty-nine percent more energy than what is provided when those fuels are used. Until methods of production can be improved upon, attempting to replace fossil fuels with biofuels like biodiesel will cost us more than we gain by implementing their widespread use.
Even in a society with a strong agricultural base like the United States, our ability to produce cash crops is limited. We can only grow so much of any given crop, and we only have so much space to grow it. In order to make biodiesel a widespread replacement for petrodiesel, significant percentages of current harvests would need to be diverted from production of food to the production of fuel.
There are significant benefits to using biodiesel, either alongside petrodiesel or as a replacement for it. However, a number of inhibiting factors reduce its viability as an alternative to cheaper fossil fuel derivative petrodiesel. In order for society to truly benefit from the use of biodiesel as a fuel, these problems will have to be addressed and resolved.