Most of us fill up our car with gasoline or diesel at the filling station forecourt. Butt here are alternative fuels; biofuel has a long history as an alternative to fossil fuels and is the fuel of choice in some countries.
Sugar cane, sugarbeet, wheat and barley are the most common sources of the fuel. It has many benefits – lower greenhouse gas emissions than petrol; you don’t need to drill into the earth to extract it; and as crops can be homegrown it helps make countries self-sufficient in their energy supply, decreasing their reliance on other countries for essential fuel supplies.
In addition cars are easily converted to run on biofuel. And as biofuel is a liquid it can be dispensed from a forecourt pump, just like petrol. In fact petrol is already blended with 5% biofuel to improve octane ratings.
Biofuel production and use is growing quickly, but the reasons aren’t down to a love of the environment. Rather it tends to be down to hardheaded business decisions. In Brazil for example, vehicles have run on biofuel for decades. Following the oil crisis in the 1970s, Brazil’s military government decided it was too dangerous for the country to be reliant on other (potentially hostile) nations for fuel, so made the decision that Brazil should be self-sufficient in fuel. In a country blessed with millions of hectares of farmland, biofuel was the answer.
In Sweden, biofuel cars have suddenly become extremely popular; why? Well, if you drive a biofuel vehicle you’ll get access to free parking in all major cities and you won’t pay any tax duty on the fuel. The Swedes, despite their strong environmentalist credentials didn’t do this out of love for the planet. Rather they realized that Sweden was facing a large problem with rural unemployment. By encouraging biofuel use through incentives and tax breaks, many people in rural areas have moved into crop production and rural unemployment is under control.
But biofuels aren’t necessarily the panacea for all ills, environmental or economic. We’re a hungry world, with an ever-increasing population; changes in weather patterns have caused crops to be devastated in natural disasters. This has led to rising crop prices and this has increased the cost of biofuel. And there’s also the moral issue of using foodstuffs to power vehicles, rather than to feed hungry mouths. This is a difficult circle to square for many.
Whatever the ethical or economic arguments for and against biofuels, they’re here to stay. And in a world where we will sooner or later have to find a replacement for oil, that’s probably no bad thing. -Mark Lee