The Role of Biofuel in Tackling Climate Change

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Issue 3, Volume 112

By Oscar Wang 

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Let’s face it. You’ve heard of climate change and its disastrous implications for years; yet current data suggests that though we are trying to stride forward, our growing world keeps pulling us back. The global energy-related carbon emissions were at 33.4 Gt CO2 (gigatons of carbon dioxide) in 2019 and while last year’s lockdown reduced that number by seven percent to 31.5 Gt CO2, data from 2021 shows that we have rebounded back up to 33.0 Gt CO2 after resuming our pre-pandemic activities. While last year’s lockdown proves that we as individuals can reduce emissions by consuming less fuel, transportation still made up 16.2 percent of global emissions by the end of the year.

Despite this, the clean energy industry still made several advancements last year. Namely, research in biofuels, alternative sources of fuel that release less carbon dioxide when burnt, yielded promising results that could change the way we produce biofuels in the future. However, a more in-depth look at the history of biofuels and their applications can tell us more about their environmental impact.

Unlike fossil fuels, biofuels are renewable resources derived from modern-day organic plants and waste. The most primitive form of biofuel is ethanol, which is alcohol mixed with gasoline to reduce the emission of carbon monoxide and other pollutants like formaldehyde and nitrogen oxide. Ethanol produced by fermenting plant waste using bacteria and yeast has been commercialized since the 1970s. According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), over 98 percent of gasoline in the country contains E10 today, a mix of one part ethanol to nine parts gasoline. While there are fuels, like E85, that have a higher concentration of ethanol, they cannot be used efficiently without special car engines.

Biodiesel is another form of biofuel that, unlike ethanol, is based primarily on recycled vegetable oils, and underwent commercialization just 10 years after ethanol, in the 1980s. However, just like ethanol, biodiesel must first be combined with its nonrenewable counterpart to be compatible with traditional engines.

While both forms of fuel are cleaner and more energy-efficient than traditional fossil fuels (diesel, petroleum, gasoline), neither eliminates carbon emissions completely because of the modifications needed to make them compatible with our engines. Nonetheless, ethanol and biodiesel have laid the groundwork for present-day research aimed at improving these flaws.

One result of this research is biobutanol, a biofuel that emits 85 percent less carbon than gasoline and can be used in car engines without any prior modification, greatly reducing the cost of switching. However, separating the fuel from the rest of the byproducts of fermentation is a difficult and costly process. One way around this is using metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which are molecular machines designed to move and separate substances. Applying this technology to biobutanol production, researchers from Oregon State University reported that they successfully developed a novel MOF that successfully isolated biobutanol from its fermentation mixture in April 2020.

To fund more projects like these, the DOE announced on September 9 that it would provide $65 million to fund biofuel research to reduce carbon emissions of airplanes and ships. This ambitious project falls in line with the administration’s goal of decarbonizing air travel by 2050. Even with this funding, however, researchers still face significant barriers before biofuels like biobutanol are optimized for our growing needs. One major obstacle lies in the agricultural sector, which uses massive quantities of water to grow the crops needed for biofuel production.

Though electric vehicles (EVs) serve as an alternative that circumvents these challenges, they are not without their own faults. For example, EV production still relies on the energy provided by fossil fuels. Additionally, EV travel is currently limited by the lack of charging stations throughout the country. With this in mind, biofuels area necessary temporary fix until we have the means to sustainably produce EVs and other alternatives. That is also not to say that all our biofuel research will one day go to waste. In fact, one study concluded that the same biomass used to create biofuels is 80 percent more efficiently used to create electricity, producing no carbon emissions.

Though biofuels themselves are imperfect solutions to climate change, they, along with electric vehicles and biomass electricity, are still necessary parts of the same whole. However, much of what we are told today does not reflect this notion. A popular, but largely inaccurate, narrative nowadays is that everyday consumers must alter their choices to reduce global carbon emissions. Companies like BP Oil and Coca-Cola have been pushing campaigns around carbon footprint for years. These campaigns distract consumers by pushing the narrative that reducing carbon footprint is the individual’s responsibility, rather than a global issue that requires everyone’s—especially big corporations’—attention. The truth is that no matter how many people switch to electric vehicles, no matter how much energy we all collectively save, carbon emissions will continue to rise unless we target the systemic, root cause of it all.

So will we ever get to the root cause? While individuals like us may feel powerless against the keystones of our economy, we shouldn’t lose all hope. Advancements in science and technology will undoubtedly bring us closer to a zero-emission future. However, without pushing for changes on the policy to regulate various sectors of the economy, new technologies like biofuel, EVs, and biomass electricity will never be fully implemented. In the meantime, we can make choices that reduce our carbon footprint not because it will fix the issue by itself, but because these choices will motivate and change the mindsets of the next generation of researchers, engineers, and educators who will carry on the fight for our planet.