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Biofuels – A Work In Progress

WHAT ARE BIOFUELS?

Biofuels are any solid, liquid or gas fuel, obtained from living things, or biological waste that is produced by living things. Providing biofuels are produced and managed in a responsible and sustainable way, they have the potential to provide us with a natural, environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels that would enable us to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.

THE RENEWABLE TRANSPORT FUEL OBLIGATION

Bioethanol and biodiesel can be used safely in all road vehicles, providing they are mixed in small proportions with the fossil fuels they were designed to run on. In the UK, The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) has made it a requirement that all fossil fuel suppliers who supply in excess of 450,000 litres of fuel per annum include 5% of fuel that has come from a sustainable and renewable source in all road vehicle fuel sold.

In addition to setting this target for the suppliers, companies are also required to submit detailed reports documenting the carbon and sustainability of the biofuels used.

REDUCING CARBON EMISSIONS

The goal for the future is to work towards significantly reducing carbon emissions by reaching a point whereby a larger percentage of fuel used by the transport sector in the UK is produced from sustainable biofuels. This would reduce our dependency on non-sustainable fossil fuels, a dwindling resource that is bad for the environment and hugely expensive financially.

There are now four generations, (or categories) of biofuels, divided by the way they are originally sourced. Bio ethanol and biodiesel fall into the category of first generation biofuels, made from, starches, oils and animal fats, processed and converted into fuel.

Other first generation biofuels include biogases, bio alcohols and methane.

IS IT ALL GOOD?

This is a developing industry with a variety of advantages and disadvantages. Despite the fact that the goal is to be carbon neutral, the reality is that biofuels are not carbon neutral, due to the energy that is used to grow crops and subsequently convert them into fuel.

Biofuel supporters argue that with careful management, there is a potential for biofuels to become substantially greener than fossil fuel alternatives, but opponents of this industry have highlighted the fact that it makes no sense to use some of the best farmland around the globe to produce biomass for fuel instead of food.

In some parts of the world, large areas of natural habitat including rain forest have been cleared to make way for biofuels production. In others biofuels production has been prioritised over food production, creating a situation where food prices have risen dramatically, this is a particularly detrimental situation for those in developing countries who spend a far higher proportion of their income on food than we do in the West.

WORK IN PROGRESS

By tightening environmental requirements across the globe, many of these negatives could be balanced out and with the development of second and third generation alternatives, focussing on greater efficiency whilst minimising any negative impact, biofuels could be the way forward for a greener future.

For now, biofuels are very much a work in progress and we will have to wait and see where these new technologies and methods will take us.