Biofuels Start to Make Their Mark

“Biofuels” such as ethanol and biodiesel account for only about three percent of all transportation fuel sold in the U.S., but they are coming on strong, with domestic consumption doubling just since 2001. With a little extra help from Congress in the form of strong biofuel incentives in the new omnibus energy bill, ethanol and biodiesel could eventually emerge as key players in the high-stakes fuel wars.

Biodiesel and ethanol are manufactured from ultimately renewable agricultural crops like sugar cane, soybean and rapeseed. Furthermore, since the fuels start their lifecycles as growing plants that absorb carbon dioxide, burning them up in automobiles does not contribute significantly to global warming. Biodiesel can run in standard diesel automobile engines.

© Warren Gretz/NREL

Perhaps not surprisingly, biofuels are making inroads abroad even more quickly than in the U.S. According to Newsweek, Brazil is becoming the “Saudi Arabia of ethanol.” The news magazine reports that the country’s sugar cane fields now provide the raw materials for 320 ethanol plants, with 50 more planned in the next five years. “Most of Brazil’s 20 million drivers still tank up with fuel that is cut with 25 percent ethanol, but a growing fleet of new-generation (flex-fuel) cars can run on straight ethanol, which goes for as little as half the cost of gas at every service station from downtown Rio to the remote Amazon outback,” Newsweek reports. To keep up with demand, local sugar barons and multinational energy companies like BP and Shell are planning to invest $6 billion in new sugar cane plantations and distilleries in the next few years.

While Brazil is definitely ahead of the curve on ethanol, Germany leads the pack in terms of biodiesel production. Similar stories are unfolding from Malawi to Pakistan to China. What makes biofuel production so attractive, especially in less-developed countries, is that it provides struggling farmers with a lucrative new channel for their crops.

So what’s the problem, then? “For either the United States or Europe to replace just 10 percent of transport fuel using today’s crops and technology would require around 40 percent of cropland,” writes Newsweek. So, like many of the other promising alternatives to petroleum, biofuels are likely to serve as one of many choices to bridge the gap until a new energy economy becomes a reality.