There is a lot of discussion these days about biofuel, and there should be. Biofuel is an excellent fuel – it burns cleaner than gasoline and it also is easier on the internal combustion engine. Moreover, we can grow biofuel, which means it is totally renewable. But can biofuel really replace crude oil?
The answer, at least for now, is absolutely not. Not even close. Even if a fairly high-yielding biofuel crop were planted all over the world, yielding 2,000 barrels of either biodiesel oil or ethanol per year per square mile, and even if this biofuel were grown on every available scrap of farmland on earth, we would only replace 40% of the energy we’re currently getting from crude oil. The algebra is immutable – about 10% of the world’s land area consists of arable farmland, about 5.7 million square miles. If 100% of that land was planted with biofuel crops yielding 2,000 barrels of oil per square mile, that would produce 11.4 billion barrels of biofuel. But world consumption of crude oil currently stands at 85 million barrels per day, which equates to 31 billion barrels per year. Biofuel can supplement crude oil supplies, and is an important part of future energy solutions, but that’s as far as it goes.
This certainly doesn’t mean we should stop developing biofuels. Much biofuel is grown on land that is too marginal to support food crops and may as well be planted in biofuel crops which can even fight desertification. Other biofuel crops, such as sugar cane turned into ethanol, can yield up to 8,000 barrels per square mile per year, an unquestionably viable venture. A high-yielding biofuel such as Jatropha is very interesting because it can stablize and even restore marginal soil, requires minimal inputs of water and fertilizer, and can yield compost and even animal feed with the waste left over after processing the oil – that is one heck of a cash crop, that doesn’t displace land needed for growing food.
Moreover, biofuel crops are basically converting sunlight into energy. As such, in future years it’s possible biofuel crops may be developed that can more efficiently convert sunlight into biomass, creating potentially far higher yields. An excellent website for learning more about biofuel is JourneytoForever; it includes tables showing the yields of all well-known biofuel crops, as well as information on how to refine biofuel.
By the way, this blogging stuff is great, but it’s too easy. Blogging could crowd out developing feature stories. Assuming that doesn’t happen, look for more in-depth information on biofuel and biodiesel in the near future on EcoWorld’s main home page.