Over the past several years, there has emerged an obvious need for alternative sources of energy than the current ones in use today. Various problems exist with the use of fossil fuels, defined as an energy source that is derived from biological material that is long dead and buried in the earth’s crust.
Burning coal, which is one form of fossil fuel, can produce very bad effects for the environment, among them the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases, acid rain, and overall air pollution. Likewise, crude oil can be expensive to mine, and as the industrialized world increasingly becomes dependent upon this source of energy, it can be held hostage by those parts of the world where oil is more abundant. Obviously, this creates political challenges, often resulting in conflicts.
But the biggest problem with the use of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy in the world is that it is a non-renewable resource. Since these fuels are formed from long-dead biological matter over a process of millions of years, the world today uses it up far faster than it can form. This means that one day this source of energy will run out, causing disruption to the world on a massive scale unless alternative energy sources are in place before then.
Fortunately, many people around the world are working on this very problem, and one alternative that is becoming more mainstream is the use of biofuels. Where fossil fuels are made from biological matter that has been dead for eons, biofuel is formed from organic material that died a relatively short time ago. In theory, these fuels can be made from any source of carbon, but photosynthetic plants are emerging as the most common source.
There are several ways to produce biofuel, and one popular method is to grow certain crops such as sugar cane, sweet sorghum, or corn, and then produce ethanol through the process of yeast fermentation. This product can then be used as a fuel by itself or added to gasoline. In fact, the first Model T Ford was designed to run on pure ethanol, although the most common practice today is to use a mixture with the majority of the compound being gasoline.
Another way to produce biofuel is to grow crops containing a high amount of oil, such as soybean, algae, or oil palm. The oils are harvested from the plants and then heated, the product of which can then be processed into biodiesel. This new fuel can be used in unmodified diesel engines, and is in fact in use around the world today.
The use of biofuels is not without controversy, as many claim that the widespread adoption of this fuel source would create food shortages around the world, as farms would be dedicated to producing fuel instead of food. In addition, questions arise as to whether the world’s water resources would be adversely impacted as well. Clearly, more research into the long-term effects of biofuels needs to be done, but so far this alternative energy source is one solid contender in the race to supplant fossil fuels as the world’s primary source of energy.