Biofuels Have a Big, Big Problem Nobody Talks About

Corn for biofuels 6 photos
Photo: Estudio Bloom/Unsplash
Extracting OilCorn for biofuels USACorn fields taking more agricultural landPhotosynthesisFilling up with E10 biofuel
Think of economically viable alternatives to traditional fuels like gas and diesel. Nothing makes more immediate sense than biofuels. They use waste, produce fewer emissions, and lower the supply of untreated fuels needed everywhere else.
The United States alone is a powerhouse in the cultivation of corn – an ingredient that has now become extremely important for biofuels. When driving across the Upper Midwest, you will be met by vast corn fields stretching to the horizon in either direction. This agricultural giant was the bedrock of the American diet. Corn flower, corn bread, corn meal – all staples of traditional American food – are now being actively forgotten. Farmers and companies are pivoting toward the energy industry. Today, nearly half of all corn production is used for making ethanol. Mixing this liquid with gasoline results in a reduction for the carbon footprint of all those commuting.

For most Americans today, the gasoline they use is composed by up to 10% of ethanol and farmers are making more than ever because of the government mandate. Moreover, the current administration is being lobbied to up the percentage of ethanol found in fuels.

Why this is happening

There is nothing inherently wrong with burning fuel as long as we develop a method to capture its products. Unfortunately, we have become like the yeast trapped in a brewer`s vat: we are using the fuel provided and releasing toxic byproducts. At some point, the alcohol produced reaches a concentration that is extremely harmful. Here, survival is no longer an option. Moreover, nobody is interested in investing in a dying economic sector like hydrocarbons. But, for us humans, biofuels try to address this imbalance before it`s too late or, you know, before EVs completely take over.

Extracting Oil
Photo: Delfino Barboza Unsplash
The theoretical cycle of biofuels is comprised of the theory that they can be restored over a short period of time, unlike fossil fuels. You take the corn, you ferment it and, voila, you have fuel that can be burned, can release CO2 and it will all be taken back by next year`s crop.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2019 only 5% of the total energy was biomass. Almost half of that has been ethanol. The primary method of producing this liquid is from yeast. Without oxygen and with the help of bacteria, it uses anaerobic respiration where it converts sugar into energy and ethanol. The U.S. is the largest producer of ethanol, and the quantity made is growing yearly.

What we will face

Given the fact that it`s being requested to double the percentage of ethanol in fuels and turning them into biofuels, the land needed to plant corn only will amass over 30,000,000 hectares. One fifth of the U.S. farmland will be used only for producing ethanol.

Farmers are getting more cash for their crops and the need for larger quantities of corn will only encourage the use of land in this direction. Croplands are expanding at an explosive rate: over 1,000,000 acres per year! Therefore, natural habitats are suffering in the U.S.

Corn fields taking more agricultural land
Photo: Red Zeppelin Unsplash
Food prices have also risen because of this growing interest in ethanol. Corn is being used for chickens, cows, and other animals, so, naturally, the prices of eggs and milk are now much higher than ever before. This vicious cycle will continue, and the average U.S. citizen will pay even more.

On top of all that, one liter of ethanol contains only 5.130 kcal, and to make it you need 6.600 kcal of energy. This means that from the start there is a loss of 22,3%. It is a negative process. This is not a green technology because, in reality, photosynthesis is also a very inefficient way to turn sunlight into usable energy. On average, plants can capture and convert about 1% of sunlight, while humans can use up to 20% of the sunlight with photovoltaic cells. Corn is even worse at this than your average plant – 0,25%.

Growing plants for food is a necessity, growing plants for power is irrational

Corn also needs a lot of water to grow properly and is, as stated above, inefficient. Water is incredibly scarce, and its absence is already causing havoc in some parts of the world, not only U.S. Using it for that part of the agriculture that in the end produces biofuels is wrong. The water footprint of biomass energy is 72 times higher than that of fossil fuels and 240 times more than solar! More, over 80% of freshwater is already being used for agriculture in the States. Increasing crops for biofuels will just raise this percentage to an unsustainable level.

That is one of the reasons why the E.U. already put a mild stop to this since 2014.

Filling up with E10 biofuel
Photo: Vincent Guzman Unsplash
Nonetheless, the government will keep subsidizing this sector just because it represents over 300,000 jobs, which cannot be lost under any administration that wants a second term.

Viable alternatives

Batteries are still heavy and still short ranged for heavy duty vehicles or planes.

The precious freshwater can be preserved by using algae. This, however, is expensive. The cost is now somewhere between $300 and $2600 per barrel. It has great potential and that is why researchers like those at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are already working on it to make it as cheap as possible. They are trying to create new strains of algae because it has a greater fat content, which can be turned into green crude oil that can eventually become fuels for transportation.

Finally, we need alternative technologies, and we should invest in them. Unfortunately, we don`t. Biofuels obtained from ethanol and fossil fuels are not at all green or sustainable.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram
About the author: Florin Amariei
Florin Amariei profile photo

Car shows on TV and his father's Fiat Tempra may have been Florin's early influences, but nowadays he favors different things, like the power of an F-150 Raptor. He'll never be able to ignore the shape of a Ferrari though, especially a yellow one.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories