Biofuels – Overview

Due to global recognition of diminishing oil reserves and the devastating ecological impact of modern fossil fuel consumption, the urgent need for alternatives increases. The availability of energy in our current global framework, which is basically the fundament of global prosperity, relies extensively on the availability of fossil crude oil. As fossil fuels provide around 95% of the world’s total energy demands, it becomes obvious that the call for feasible alternatives is of global economical and ecological importance. In the search for replacements, biofuels have attained great attention because they promise lucrative new markets for farm products or cheap biomass.

Although a broad variety of feedstocks are globally available for biofuel production including energy crops, agricultural residues, forestry residues and algae, the biggest part of commercial biofuel production still relies on the proceeding of sugar cane, corn, rapeseed-, sunflower- and palm oil.

Generally, biofuels are divided into two classes: first generation biofuels like bioethanol, biodiesel, biogas,… and second generation biofuels (which derive from non-food crops) like: cellulosic ethanol, biofuels that implement biomass to liquid (BtL) technology, algal fuels, synthetic natural gas from biofuels (BioSNG),…..

It is believed that second generation biofuels made from plant wastes, or other energy crops specifically grown for this purpose on land not suitable for food production, offer greater promise than the biofuels being commercially produced today. But the technology to make these newer fuels is in its infancy and the promises have yet to be proved for large scale industrial production.

Even though biofuels are regarded as a legitimate replacement for fossil fuels, concerns about the widespread use of land, water and other resources to produce the required biomass do exist. Nevertheless, biofuels already offer benefits in terms of reducing green house gases and fossil fuel savings. Second generation biofuels are believed to enable far greater reductions in green house gases than those derived from the first generation. Certain criteria like location and environmental sensitivity of land used for cultivating biofuel feedstocks have to be considered with reasonable care to ensure sustainability of biofuel production and social acceptance.

Negative effects of intensive agriculture like soil erosion, water shortage and excessive use of pesticides or destruction of the rainforest for palm oil production (the cheapest sources of vegetable oil) do have harmful environmental impact and need to be overcome to guarantee a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels. A further crucial topic is land availability. As global population and energy demands rise, the competition between food and energy production increases. This dilemma is still subject of discussion needs urgently to be solved. Second generation biofuels (which use raw materials that do not compete with food production) are likely to reduce the threat of food shortage and the related price increase.

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