As our quest for an ideal replacement of fossil fuel lags our energy needs, we must maximize every possible opportunity to reduce our dependence on fossilized carbon. While solar and wind are bound to grow and take care of our needs, their dependence on weather also means that there will always be a role of other alternative sources of energy. Clearly biofuel will continue to have a role.
Less than a decade ago, as the world was being made aware of the disaster that the humanity faced from the continuous mining of fossil fuel and adding carbon to the atmosphere, a lot of hope of generated about the future of biofuels. Given the importance of oil and gas in global economy, it could also mean immense business opportunities, especially for the small players in the developing countries that lack oil resources but are blessed with a green cover. Countries like India stood to gain the most. However, with passing years, while wind and solar became the flavor of the activists, biofuels seem to be getting shifted in the background, raising questions as to whether they are still relevant.
For making business decisions like investments in technology, research and development and financial commitments, it is a question of immense importance that will determine the fate of biofuel based businesses.
Our awareness about the impending environmental disaster arising from fossil fuels has risen by leaps and bounds during the last couple of decades. Simultaneous to this awareness campaign, there have also been serious efforts to find innovative solutions to the problem, in the form of green, renewable alternative energy options that can reduce our dependence on the fossil fuels in the short run, and enable us to be completely freed from their use in the long run.
During these years of awareness, debate and discussions, there are several learning points that we must not lose sight of. The first and foremost among them is that the mankind is unlikely to give up its energy consumption that it has now become used to, even if threatens the very existence of future generation.
The tragic political bickering on the global stage that has almost ensured the absence of any political consensus in immediate future exemplifies the human addiction with high energy consumption. It also means that the only way out is to find cleaner energy, which can replace the existing use of fossil fuels.
Fortunately, there has been considerable progress on several fronts, in particular the wind, nuclear and solar energy alternatives. However, each of these alternatives still suffers from serious constraints when it comes to using them as a permanent replacement of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy was the first to be harvested and it is also economical, but suffers from its own nuclear waste problem as well as the risks of mishap that makes it unwelcome among communities. Wind energy has also been successfully harvested, but we know now that its overall potential is not likely to be sufficient to replace fossil fuels on its own, apart from the fact that it has a lot of initial capitalization costs and is more successful in certain localities than others.
The greatest potential, which has not become a real alternative to fossil fuel in the long run, is the solar energy, which has little pollution impact of its own and has now become commercially viable localities that are blessed in good sunshine around the year. Yet, it has its own limitations that will restrict its use in the short run. First of them is a massive initial capitalization cost. Second is its dependency on nature and third is the problem of connecting micro-grids efficiently. It would be safe to say that solar energy, which is going to be the primary source of energy for humans in future, is unlikely to take care of all its needs in the coming decades.
This means that as of now, we need to look at every possible alternative that can help us reduce carbon oxide emissions and prevent aggravating the environmental damage that has already taken a threatening posture on the horizons.
This is where biofuel becomes so important!
There was a time a decade ago, when biofuel had generated immense interest as an alternative fuel. It may not be wrong to say that the expectations from it have moderated considerably after our experience in recent years. The first reason is the realization that common biofuels currently in use are harvested with significant use of energy, and hence the benefit derived from them is not as much as was contemplated earlier. The second is the debate about using arable land for growing them, and whether that can pose challenges to food security for the masses. The third is that in spite of the original hype, and the efforts for innovation, no technological breakthrough have come up so far that could revolutionalize their use.
As of now, the most important example of large scale biofuel usage is production of ethanol as fuel by several countries, including the United States, Brazil, European Union and China. Other countries that also produce significant quantities are Canada, Thailand, Argentina and India. Many countries follow a policy of blending gasoline with ethanol, which is legally required by law. Use of ethanol as fuel continues to grow and one can expect the trend to grow further. However, with growing energy needs of an expanding human population, this is unlikely to be a major alternative to gasoline.
The second most commonly used biofuel is biodiesel, which is used largely in the European Union for blending with diesel, as it makes the fuel less polluting. Biodiesel is generally produced by esterification of vegetable oils, and thus has a significant opportunity cost, which itself, like ethanol involves energy inputs in indirect forms.
There are many innovative biofuel ideas that are still in the pipeline. The one with greatest potential is the cellulose based biofuel. Trees and leaves have considerable amount of cellulose, which can theoretically be converted into a biofuel. However, as of now, a commercially viable mechanism for such conversion is still awaited. Another very interesting idea is that of producing biofuel from certain varieties of oil rich sea algae. If it succeeds, it could provide one of the biggest boosts to our fight with carbon emission, since sea algae grows fast and does not require arable land or other regular inputs required in other biofuels. Several other potentially significant but yet to be implemented ideas include producing biofuel from sweet sorghum in addition to the crops, generating biofuel from wild plants like Jatropa and developing biofuels from human waste or commercial waste. Each of these and several other potential biofuels is worth pursuing and any technological breakthrough can make a lot of difference to our quest for alternative fuels.
Thus, the mankind still has a long way to go before we are able to find our ideal alternative energy that can fully replace fossil fuels. Till that happens, we will need to maximize every potential alternative, including biofuels. Given the dependency of solar and wind on weather, even when they grow further, they would need to be supplemented with other fuels that are not so dependent.
Clearly, biofuels are going to remain relevant for human energy needs in the foreseeable future. This also means that those looking at business opportunities related to biofuels need not feel discourages. It is an industry whose time is approaching soon!
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