Over the past few articles we have taken a look at some of the more popular alternative energy technologies. We have seen that while wind and solar power are certainly on the upswing, they both face major challenges to replacing oil and petroleum products as the world’s most popular energy choice. We looked at a device called the Bloom Box, which is produced by Bloom Energy. The mysterious energy producing contraption captured the imagination of the country about 2 ½ years ago when it was first unveiled. But, in the time since then, both Bloom Energy, and the Bloom Box, have been little heard from. Though the company is growing, and insists the orders are pouring in, there is significant doubt that the technology will ever reach the world changing levels once though possible.
So, where do we go from here? Every week scientists seem to release a new, catastrophic, report regarding global warming and its effects. A report just released within the past few days says that the warming of the oceans may cause the fish to grow to a smaller size at maturity. The reasoning is that colder oceans hold more oxygen, and warmer oceans hold less oxygen. For a number of reasons higher oxygen levels tend to correspond to more abundant and larger sea life. This is just another reason humans must learn to wean ourselves off oil – because its carbon producing side effects will affect all aspects of life.
Another alternative energy candidate we would like to review, seen as a potential oil replacement, comes in the form of so-called “biofuels.” A biofuel is a fuel whose energy is derived from biological carbon fixation, which is the process of the reduction of inorganic carbon to organic compounds by living organisms. Biofuels are growing in popularity, and one form of biofuel, bioethanol, is already widely used in the United States as an additive to gasoline.
Bioethanol Is Already Common
Bioethanol is an alcohol which is produced by microorganisms and enzymes in the fermentation process. Sugars derived from corn, sugar cane, wheat, and other plants are used in the bioethanol production process. In fact, the country of Brazil has received much attention and praise as their automobiles run mostly on ethanol produced by sugar cane, which is grown in the country. Most cars in the United Sates can run on fuel which is up to 15 % ethanol. The ethanol found in America is mostly produced from corn. Because ethanol has a lower energy density than gasoline, it takes a greater volume of ethanol to do the same amount of work as gas. Ethanol has actually come under criticism in the United States because the fuel is seen as being too highly subsidized. There have been reports of corn prices spiking due to the diversion of food corn, or farm land used to produce food corn, to ethanol production. Though many are not aware of it, much of the fuel sold in the U.S. contains ethanol.
In Europe biodiesel is the most commonly used biofuel. Biodiesel is made from a variety of base ingredients, including animal fats, hemp, flax, and palm oil. The market in the United States for biodiesel is huge, as an estimated 80% of commercial trucks and city buses run on diesel fuel. Biodiesel production is certainly growing by leaps and bounds. But, considering the average passenger car does not use diesel fuel, its growth seems to be largely limited to the commercial sector.
The Challenges For Biofuels
One of the largest challenges for biofuels is that of public perception. Especially in the United States, people just want to stick with that which they know. Oil has been in popular use for over 50 years, and is the first widely adopted form or fuel for automobiles. The fact is that oil, in the form of gasoline, is itself almost synonymous with the car. Any company looking to cut in a significant slice out of the pie will definitely need to have a fair bit of clever marketing on their side. But, as with many other turns of history, societal factors could change this equation. Should gas suddenly spike to $5 or $6 per gallon or more, the people will not have to be sold on the any alternative, they will beg for it.
But, under current circumstances, the average American has gotten used to $3.50 – $4.00 per gallon gas. One of the major hurdles to brining alternative fuels to the market is the fact that in order for the average car to be able to use the fuels – it is often necessary to get an engine conversion. These conversions themselves could cost up to $3,000 or more, which must be factored in when considering what savings that would be realized by using the alternative fuel. Also, for those looking to buy a new car, the decision of whether to purchase a standard gas car and then convert, or not, could be tricky.
Another challenge for biofuels is that though they are alternative energy, they are not necessarily clean energy in the way that solar or wind may be considered. Firstly, burning biofuels does release carbon into the atmosphere, though the overall release may be less than that of the same quantity of burned gasoline. Secondly, because the base ingredient in biofuel is biomass, plants and animal matter, there is concern that the production of biofuels themselves could lead to further deforestation. Of course, the forests use atmospheric carbon for growth. So, on the one hand biofuels could release carbon, while on the other hand the forests which would use the carbon for growth, and thus take it out of the atmosphere, may be cut down to produce more biofuels.
A final consideration regarding biofuels is that they are often produced using edible food products. Or, they are produced on farmland that could grow food. Both of these options seem to indicate that the world would potentially have to deal with higher food prices, and/or food shortages, in order to produce fuel for our cars. To many proponents of biofuel, this scenario would be unacceptable.
The Future Of Biofuels
So, what does the future of biofuels look like? Well, in a way there are many considerations which must be taken into account when trying to answer this question. One reason ethanol has the grip that it does in the United States fuel market is due to clever lobbying by the ethanol lobby. So, any alternative which will supplant ethanol as the country’s top choice alternative fuel, or even supplant oil all together, is going to need to be two things: cheap and reliable.
The next generation biofuel is going to have to be easy on the wallet. There is no way to know in advance exactly how consumers will go about determining what they consider a good value. Will they consider a more expensive fuel, one that gives them greater range and performance, a better value? What if the fuel is priced at about the same price point as gasoline? Will people switch just because they are concerned with helping the environment? These are considerations which will have to be worked out in the market over time. But companies are well aware of the cost and value considerations that consumers make. One way companies are looking to make cheap biofuels is by using genetic modification of microorganisms in order to more easily produce a more consistent biofuel product.
Microorganisms To The Rescue
Because the quality and composition of oil is not consistent around the world, oil refineries have to do a lot of adjusting to the refining processes in order to make sure the end result is always consistent. This means spending a lot of money in order to produce usable oil. The same kinds of challenges currently face biofuel producers. One of the ways this problem may be overcome is to use microorganisms to essentially make the fuel from scratch. This would allow companies to make so called “drop in” biofuels, which are hydrocarbons that can be burned in regular car engines. This would help avoid having to ask consumers to make costly conversions to their cars in order to use the cutting edge biofuels.
Current biofuels are made from sugars and starches. Biofuels of the future may be produced from cellulose, which is the fibrous part of the plant. Just a few years ago the process of converting cellulose into fuel was considered difficult, though not impossible. There have been some recent breakthroughs however, in using enzymes, microorganisms, and other cutting edge chemistry, to help convert cellulose into fuel. A recent report of a fungus found in Patagonia, called Gliocladium roseum, has introduced a new term into the biofuel lexicon – “myco-disel.” The fungus apparently has the ability to break down cellulose into medium length hydrocarbons, which are commonly found in diesel fuels. Other approaches involve using waste gases, such as carbon monoxide, as feedstock microbes in ethanol production plants.
Biofuels Will Be One Of Many Future Alternatives
As we continue to look at the future of clean energy, it is becoming ever clearer why the capitalist system, when working properly, is a great system for selecting a winner. Despite the interference of government subsidies and tariffs, a system of competing ideas, business models, products, and technologies is the best way to ensure that the end result is the most desirable result for the consumer. Though the process of competition may take some time, the end result should be more consistent with the expectations of the populace, than if there had been a mandated change to a specific alternative energy.
The fact is that the future seems to hold a smaller role for many different kinds of alternative energies, rather than a dominant role for a single replacement to oil. With the solar and wind revolutions just getting started, advances in biofuels, and other more exotic technologies and energy alternatives being sought in basements and laboratories around the globe, it is too soon to tell what the future of clean and alternative energy will look like. However, one thing is for sure. Judging from the volatility of the Middle East, and the pressing warnings regarding climate change, alternative and clean every technology is on its way to a car and home near you. But, not just yet – oil will be with us for quite some time more before it is unseated as the world’s primary energy source.