Biofuels: It’s Time to Go Green!
The world is warming. Every year, it seems the impeding threat of dangerous storms increases. Hurricanes grip our past, sudden heat storms rise up all over in mid-America for no apparent reason. Global warming was the powerhouse behind hurricane Katrina. We all know its devastating effects it had on our nation, the effects that still hurt the lives of many people today. Global warming is pushing our limits, our feeling of security, and dashing any hopes of a safe future. All it promises is a bleak and menacing life of doom and destruction. Do we want this? Do we want this to rule our life?
There is another problem too that has a significant tie to this, and that is of the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are known to release a lot of CO2 into the environment. Scientific researchers point out that the average temperature and the amount of CO2 released interact with each other, that they usually follow the same slope of change. What does this point to? Fossil fuels are contributing greatly to Global warming. Now let me first get something straight: I am not here to pursue the argument of global warming. This essay is explicitly about the difference of CO2 released into the atmosphere from different types of fuels, so people who are already thinking up a rebuttal about how Global warming doesn't exist, take a breath. I am not here to prove that, but I am here to show what we can do to escape from Fossil Fuels, something that is starting to become more popular in the eyes of the people around the earth. We need an alternative fuel that can power our cars and homes, while lowering emissions greatly enough to rival gasoline. We need a plan that seems within reach, not a plan to reuse carbon emissions that are released in major factories, not the plan to replace 1,400 coal power plants with natural gas power plants, and especially not the plan to stop all deforestation. (McKibben, 37) We need a simple plan. We need biofuels.
Biofuels are fuels made of plants. When we hear about biofuels, one of the most widely known biofuels that we think about is corn ethanol. Corn ethanol is popular, subsidized. Anyone can make corn ethanol. This fuel is really easy to make: the workers get the kernels of corn, mash them up, set enzymes and yeast on them, and distill the alcohol. One plant can make 122,000 gallons of fuel a day. (Mandelbaum, 2006) Farmers find the process very profitable, and have turned many crops to the sole process of farming corn. The government has endorsed the product, and many companies are using the fuel. Now you can find pumps labeled E85, a fuel that is mostly corn ethanol. Oh, and by the way, you shouldn’t buy it, because Corn is one of the worst biofuels ever invented. Why? Firstly, let’s address the fact that farmers are switching crops. They are switching because the government raised the price of corn dramatically to entice the farmers to grow corn and sell it for more profit. Because of this, Corn ethanol has a pretty good chance of surviving, looking at the current gas prices. The bad thing about that is that lower class citizens will now have trouble finding inexpensive food. Some may ask, “Well, at least there’s bread, right?” Well, the fact is, there isn’t. Farmers have abandoned their old crops (such as wheat), therefore driving up the prices for those crops because they are now rarer to find. C. Ford Runge, a professor of applied economics and law, wrote an article titled “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor”. He says, “It is clearly the case that milk prices, bread prices, are all rising at three times the average rate of increase of the last ten years. It’s appreciable, and it’s beginning to be appreciated.” (Runge, 2007)
Down to facts, how does this fuel compare with gas? Well, horribly. Corn ethanol is 68¢ more per gallon than gasoline, scaring customers away. It isn’t as efficient either: if you say the amount of energy you put into the production is 1, you get 1.3 energy back. With gasoline giving back an energy ratio of 1:5, there is almost no point in paying for the ethanol. One good thing is that its emissions during use compared to gasoline are 22% less. (Bourne, 44) Another sad fact that does not lie in the efficiency of the fuel but in the efficiency of the production of the fuel itself, and that is that more CO2 is released into the atmosphere while making Corn Ethanol and burning it than making gasoline and burning that. In the long run, we are only killing ourselves with a mockup of a green fuel that is really as black and sooty as coal. Corn ethanol is dirt. Another controversial fuel that is commonly heard of is biodiesel, but it is a similar story.
But if you are now discouraged, don’t be. There is another possibility – another possibility that is so efficient that the country with its biofuel is estimated to break away from the Middle East’s oil by the end of this year altogether.
Brazil has made much better progress toward finding the worthy ethanol to use. In the 1970’s, the country was importing 75% of its oil. Brazil’s dictator directed state owned companies to generate cars made for ethanol. Álcool, a Sugar cane based ethanol, is a true competitor of U.S. corn ethanol, as álcool produces twice as many gallons per acre. Combining all the research, Sugar Cane more than triples the efficiency of Corn Ethanol. The Volkswagon company came into the picture when they created a car made for the fuel called the Gol, meeting the “goal” of fuel change.(Bourne, 48) It quickly caught on throughout the whole country. Not to say that the movement is perfect. In order to harvest the Cane easily, the workers must burn the fields first, releasing greenhouse gasses.(Bourne, 53) Also, gathering cane requires people, and Brazil doesn’t have machines to harvest the cane, so the labor is manual. “Cutters die of exhaustion every year, [say] leaders of the union.” (Bourne, 53) The government though has taken this fact into consideration. Soon, the country will have machines to harvest the Cane without having to burn it and minimize the death toll. After this, Sugar cane ethanol will have the appearance of the most ideal fuel in the world. So why don’t we try it here in the US? Sugar Cane simply won’t grow here. Then what can our country use to make an efficient fuel? Are we overlooking something? Ethanol is made of fermented sugars, and that fact has led scientists to another possibility on a whole new level, and that is cellulosic ethanol.
All organic matter contains cellulose, a chemical that is made of bonded sugar molecules. Most of the plant is cellulose. Breaking the bonds and fermenting the sugar could lead to many possibilities of biofuels, without competing with food crops. Many have a dream of turning common growing plants into ethanol without destroying habitats, such as using switch grass. The nice thing about switch grass is that it will grow anywhere. You can grow it in the most extreme weather, in the most arid soil, and it will still grow. There are many other sources to get the cellulose, and here are some of them: Corn farming leftovers (Wow, already more efficient!), woodchips and scraps from lumber mills, and household paper garbage. This last item has been already taken advantage of, and there is currently an Ethanol plant running off a garbage dump in California. The ultimate rewards of this are that it solves where to put waste and puts the methane being released from the dump into good use: instead of contributing to the greenhouse effect, they burn it to power the plant. Even though the sources are plentiful though, the process to turn it into ethanol isn’t. (Bourne, 53) Currently, the longest cellulosic ethanol producer creates 70 gallons of ethanol out of a ton of biomass in about a week. Basically, the production is still too inefficient. Referring to the article “Green Dreams”, Cellulosic Ethanol is still in the labs. Obviously, the efficiency problem needs to be worked on, and scientists are working hard to find a solution. Besides these facts, the efficiency is what the fuel is mainly all about. With an energy input of one, you can get up to 36 times more energy than Corn ethanol, depending on how you produce it. Not only this, but gas emissions are 91% less than gasoline. For environmentalists, this solution seems like it fell straight from heaven. If only we had the technology to process the cellulose more efficiently. Once they figure out a way to get past that, there are other concerns to attend to, but we don’t need to fret because we can solve scale & infrastructure problems. The real issue: how do you make cellulosic ethanol?
So you’ve learned some of the pros and cons of biofuels. But how will this affect us now? Can we make the change? Some people wonder if we are even ready. Interestingly, “Some 5 million automobiles here can run on [ethanol], even though most of their drivers probably don’t know it.” Also, Henry Ford, the man who populated automobiles with the Model T Ford in the US, expected the cars to run on ethanol. (Mandelbaum, 2008) Wait a minute… We were supposed to use ethanol in the first place. We’ve always known it. We’ve always had some kind of obvious need for ethanol. Why did we switch? Did we get sidetracked? Did we want oil because it was cheap to boot? Did we know it was bad for the environment? Now all around the world, people are waking up to an entirety of the knowledge that we had in the beginning, a knowledge that can lead us to a new beginning free from oil. A world free from oil would make our world even more beautiful. A world free from oil would prevent horrible storms from existence. A world free from oil would stop a never ending war over oil in the Middle East, saving hundreds of lives. We know our major purpose now, and that is to change things now to the right things. Ethanol is our inevitable future, we know it, we knew it, and it is waiting for us to use it. Let’s go change the future. Let’s “Go Green”, with ethanol!
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