Biofuels - pros, cons and discussion

They could, but would come at a significant cost. To replace all fossil fuels used in transportation with biofuels would result in direct competition with food crops. Replacing food crops with biofuel source materials will make feeding the world’s population more challenging.

Years ago I thought biofuels were the best solution, until I was made aware of the challenges of food security.

And yes, biofuels can be made from waste, but to replace all fossil fuels is impossible without competing with food production.


This is largely a myth propagated by fossil fuel companies.

Improvements in food production have meant the world is being fed on a shrinking area of arable land, and being fed at lower prices (in real terms) almost every year.

I can point you to billions of hectares of land around the world, including millions of hectares here in Australia, which used to produce food but no longer does so because it is no longer economic to use that land.

Not to mention all the acreage in America that goes unused because the American government pays farmers money not to grow crops so as to keep prices up for those who do. Likewise all the agricultural land in Europe whose inefficient use is protected by the Common Agricultural Policy.

And that’s before taking into account that there are feedstocks for biofuels, like hemp, which can be grown on marginal land without irrigation.

As someone who once grew food for a living, I can also assure you that farmers can double their output for a modest increase in price. With prices effectively halving in real terms every generation – so that we pay half what our parents paid who paid half what our grandparents paid who paid half what our great-grandparents paid etc – even if it were true that greater use of biofuels would bid up the prices of feedstocks that can also be eaten or fed to animals and birds, this would just mean the current generation continuing to pay what they currently pay for food rather than getting the benefit of increased agricultural efficiency.

And speaking of feeding animals, there is also the phenomenon of “distillers grains”, where crops used to produce ethanol are actually more valuable as stockfeed after they have been through the “still” than the original crop, precisely because much of the carbohydrate has been turned into ethanol and what is left is much richer in fats and proteins. Not only does this waste stream from the ethanol industry produce fatter animals faster, but cattle and fat lambs burp and fart less methane, which is also a win for action on dangerous man-made climate change.

That isn’t correct and there are many leading experts, completely removed from the fossil fuel industry, which has raised concerns about food security impacts of biofuels. One position being the UN FAO…

The CSIRO in Australia has also touched in food security (food competition) in their policy and economic paper…

It is worth reading these two documents, as well as that of other experts, to appreciate the impacts of fossil fuel replacement with biofuels, on food security.

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How much more arable land will be required to do that? Where is it? How much more water and fertiliser will be required? Where will it come from?

Why then? Because electric vehicles are preferable to those powered by infernal combustion engines, even ones burning biofuels, for a range of old-fashioned environmental reasons. And those using regenerative braking, that is, where the vehicle is slowed by recharging the batteries, are more efficient in their energy use.

And some might say an EV can be used to store surplus renewable energy from rooftop solar, although I prefer pumped hydro via the grid for backup, and the car battery slab can certainly have a second life as a household battery. (Every Tesla Powerwall started out life in a Tesla car – no longer good enough to power a car, but plenty good enough to power a house.)

As for how much additional arable land will be needed, that will turn on how far biofuels can be generated from various waste streams – all the ethanol produced in Australia at the moment comes from either flour-milling waste or sugar-refinery waste, and all the biodiesel comes from used cooking oil.

There is also the “waste” I mentioned in my reply to phb above, in the billions of tonnes of stockfeed which is fed directly to cattle instead of first being used as feedstock for ethanol production, with the “distillers grains” produced by that process being superior for feeding animals, so it is an economic win-win as well as a win for the planet.

Once all waste sources have been exhausted, it will turn on which crops prove the most economic.

As I outlined in my reply to phb above, there are vast tracts of land around the world which used to produce food but no longer do so, either because market prices for the food that land used to produce have fallen below the cost of growing on that land, or because governments (principally in America and Europe) have spent public money to stop that land being used because they fear a glut of agricultural produce, that is, to keep food prices up and to keep politically-powerful farmers solvent.

As for the use of water and fertiliser, many biofuel crops, like hemp, can be grown on un-irrigated land without fertilisers of any kind. But there is no shortage of water in Australia, with trillions of litres running into the sea every day, often causing billions of dollars of damage in floods along the way.

Not to mention the humanure which could be used as fertiliser but instead is pumped out to sea from all our major coastal settlements.

I am more than familiar with all of these arguments, and I can assure you their original source was inside the fossil fuel industry.

But as Vladimir Lenin once remarked, “thank God for useful idiots”. :wink:

It’s interesting that you quote the CSIRO, since my education in biofuels began with the draft report the CSIRO were asked to produce by the Whitlam government in 1975 (and were asked to throw in the bin by the Fraser government in 1976).

Whitlam wasn’t concerned about greenhouse gases – very few of us were back then – but rather about energy security in the wake of the first Arab Oil Shock in 1973.

Had his government not been sacked (and then defeated in a landslide at the 1975 double dissolution election) the CSIRO would have reported that home-grown alternatives to importing Middle Eastern oil lay in ethanol for petrol engines, in biodiesel for diesel engines, in bioavtur for jet engines, and in bio-something-or-other for shipping.

And speaking of shipping, at the turn of the millennium the 100,000 largest ships on the high seas released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than every privately-owned vehicle on the planet at the time.

The CSIRO boffins thought the principal feedstock for making aviation biofuel would be a species of marine algae which could be grown in tanks in a kind of fish farming. Something similar was being done recently adjoining one of New South Wales’ coal-fired power stations, diverting the exhaust through the tanks as a kind of carbon capture.

When Richard Branson flew one of his Virgin Atlantic 747s from Britain to Australia a few years ago entirely powered by bioavtur, his fuel had been produced from a species of marine algae, and as is always the case with biofuel production, more carbon was pulled out of the atmosphere in growing the algae than was released in burning the biofuel.

And yet the media continues to repeat the talking points from the fossil fuel industry that aviation cannot be decarbonised.

Not that Branson helped much – he dismissed the experiment as a failure because by his calculations, even once every jet on the planet was burning biofuels (and thus economies of scale had brought the cost down as far as he thought it would go) it would add 10 quid to the price of every seat, making it cheaper to purchase offsets (like paying someone somewhere to plant trees).

I am confused. First you say we should burn biofuel instead of wasting precious renewable energy on EVs. I asked why and you tell me the reverse.

How do you know this? I imagine those who buy Powerwalls believe the equipment they get is new not recycled, it may come as a shock to them.

You then give a number of qualitative arguments suggesting there are various ways that biofuel can be generated but no numbers about any of them. This does not establish that the idea that biofuel can replace petroleum is even feasible much less affordable in comparison to the alternatives. As for it doing this overnight, that is not mentioned.

That isn’t correct either. There has been many media reports of fuels to decarbonise aviation. The industry has indicated that traditional fossil fuels in aviation will be principally replaced with green hydrogen …

There has been some reports of batteries in aircraft, but these have significant limitations and likely to be only used for short flights…replacing light aircraft typically relying on cylinder engines.

There has been some trials using biofuels as a fuel in existing jet engines, but this it more likely an interim solution, until aircraft are specifically designed to run on renewable fuels such as hydrogen. Airbus is aiming to have its three concept hydrogen aircraft in operation by 2035, Boeing and other manufacturers are also going down the same path.

While not checking, this could have been an option in the 1970 to reduce reliance on fuel imports (noting Australia had oil production at the time in places like Bass Strait) As indicated above and from experts in the field, this won’t happen to any great extent due to competition with food production.

The most compelling reason for the future is energy efficiency?
Annually one hectare of solar panels can produce 10000m2 x150Wpsqm x4hpd x365days /1000 kWh of electrical energy.

Or about 2,190,000kWh of energy. Enough to power the average battery powered BEV around 11million km.

There are various reasons for choosing, waiting or suggesting one will never purchasing a BEV. It’s also true some still choose a horse or bicycle over a motorised vehicle.

Some of the previous posts pointed to references for those wondering about whether biofuel production is an effective use of resources. As a hint one hectare of sugar cane can be turned into fuel instead of sugar with a typical yield 6000l of ethanol. Note ethanol has around 30% less energy per litre compared to petrol.

Personally, I prefer to ditch ICE vehicles. They have many more moving parts that need to be maintained, they require internal lubrication of those moving parts, even though they use biofuels they produce particulates that affect peoples health. Even Hybrids generate pollutants as they run the ICE engine to charge the batteries, they also increase the maintenance requirements as they have two power systems that need to be maintained.

I think with the ongoing innovation in the battery sector, we will see much more km capacity, reduced cost of ownership, reductions in many pollutants, and better outcomes for the environment and climate change adjustments.


Do the biofuels fans and ICE fans not realize that whatever you burn if it has carbon in it, CO2 goes into the atmosphere?
I put these people into the same category as those who seem to embrace CCS as the panacea to all the problems of CO2 emissions from coal power stations.

Biofuel production at least should be cyclical in nature. The products used to produce the fuels adsorb the carbon again to grow and this turn around is usually quick, much quicker than burning petrochemical products made from long sequestered carbon sources such as crude. Biofuels would be a more neutral approach to the climate change dilemma than coal, shale oil, natural gas , LPG fuels.

I again state that I think we should be aiming to ditch ICE in favour of using BEVs to power our transport into the future, regardless of where the ICE fuel comes from.

I’m sorry for the confusion, syncretic, I assumed you had understood my original post, when I said, and I quote:

"When we have replaced every fossil-fuel-generated watt with a renewable watt, and when we have used any surplus renewable electricity beyond that to decarbonise all our materials industries (green steel, green aluminium, green cement, green plastics, green fertilisers etc), then and only then should we waste precious renewable electricity on electric vehicles.

“In the meantime, we have biofuels.”

I assumed you were asking why, once we had completed those priority tasks and now had renewable energy to spare, I would favour using that surplus of renewable energy to power EVs when we could continue to use ICEs powered by biofuels.

As for Tesla recycling the batteries they take out of cars, usually under their 10-year warranty, into Powerwall batteries, because they no longer meet the punishing requirements of powering a Tesla car but are still well above the specifications for household backup, Elon Musk himself tweeted about it a decade or so ago.

Producing green hydrogen is another waste of renewable energy until such time as "we have replaced every fossil-fuel-generated watt with a renewable watt, and when we have used any surplus renewable electricity beyond that to decarbonise all our materials industries (green steel, green aluminium, green cement, green plastics, green fertilisers etc)… In the meantime, we have biofuels.” (To quote my favourite authority on this subject.)

Aircraft that can be powered by hydrogen are like fuel-cell electric vehicles, they are a new type of transport which needs to be built from scratch as a replacement for existing aircraft. Existing aircraft can run on biofuels with relatively minor (and cheap) modifications, but they cannot run on hydrogen, just as existing cars can run on biofuels (with some of them requiring cheap modifications) but they cannot run on hydrogen (or indeed on electricity).

This is why biofuels can take transport fuels entirely out of the climate change equation virtually overnight, while hydrogen cannot. And it is why they are a threat to the current profits of the Fossil Fools, while hydrogen is not.

I apologise to you too, mark_m, for assuming you had read and understood my original post.

I have been beating the drum about dangerous man-made climate change for over 50 years, so clearly for me the most compelling reason for preserving precious renewable electricity is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases as quickly as possible. Transport can come last in decarbonising our society because we have biofuels, and in the meantime solar farms (and wind farms and other forms of renewable energy should they prove competitive with solar and wind backed up by pumped hydro) are needed for the priorities listed in my original post.

When we do get around to electrifying transport, it may well be there are many other reasons beyond energy efficiency, including the ones I mention in the rest of the sentence you partially quote, but I assumed I was responding to someone for whom energy efficiency would be a persuasive consideration to switch from biofuels to electricity.

Because I walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk when it comes to reducing my carbon footprint, I drive an elderly Subaru on E85, although my still is currently packed away while I renovate my kitchen, so I cannot claim to be currently producing my own ethanol from waste sugar (that is, from sugar spoilt in some way, usually just by getting wet, so it is no longer legally suitable for sale for human consumption but is rather being sold through stockfeed outlets as an ingredient in food for animals).

But I can vouch for getting about the same economy from E85 as I used to get from standard unleaded petrol, so I don’t know how you think ethanol can have 30% less energy per litre, at least in practice.

Burning petrol means taking carbon that has been stored for millennia underground and putting it up into the atmosphere (mostly in the form of CO₂) .

Burning biofuels means taking a fraction of the carbon that has been taken out of the atmosphere by the plants that provide the feedstock for the particular biofuel and putting that back up into the atmosphere. (No pun intended!)

As more plants are grown to produce more biofuels, more carbon is locked up in growing the plants than is released in burning the biofuel, so biofuels become an agent for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The problem with Carbon Capture and Storage for coal-fired power stations is not that it is wrong in principle to intercept greenhouse gases from their smokestacks and return them underground, but that it has so far failed in practice. And it is ruinously expensive.

Show me the numbers, a qualitative argument is not sufficient for the purpose. Your position needs studies in reputable journals that model this and show that biofuel growing and burning has the net result of sequestering carbon.

Similarly, where are the quantitative studies that show where the land, water and fertiliser will come from and that the net cost of this fuel will be less than the alternate route of larger solar and wind generation and EVs. Such analysis would need to include the cost to public health of continuing to produce fine particulate air pollution from burning hydrocarbons instead of EVs that do not pollute like that.

Thirdly, since the biofuel solution has obvious advantages in deployment, using existing service stations instead of building a charging network and using existing vehicles (or close to it) instead of developing new ones, why has the car industry not jumped on this like a kelpie on a sausage?

We do have the potential to produce enormous amounts of biofuels. But, as alluded to earlier, it depends in where priorities should lay and finite resources are used…feeding the world’s population or fueling vehicles/machinery/engines where alternatives exist. I personally would feed than fuel.

The three main problems with biofuels are that their production uses more energy than is given when used (burnt), land area required is far greater for a comparable amount of energy than that required for solar or wind, and lastly does nothing to address the problem emissions of CO2 into the atmospere.

A fourth concern is the nations most vested in biofuels are destroying tropical old growth forests to produce more product.

Close to home Indonesia is the third largest producer of biofuels.

The concerns are not just recent.

The lack of genuine Government support for biofuels coupled with uncertainty of economic outcomes has ensured a lack of progress on increasing biofuel uptake in Australia.

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