Biodiesel Fuel: Is it Worth Your Energy?

With sky-high prices and the end of petroleum already in sight, the world turns its eye to alternative fuels and biodiesel is near the top of the list. Google in ‘biodiesel’ and you get 1, 260,000 results, a staggering amount of material to explore. Biodiesel promises a future free from dependence on petroleum and focused on a sustainable environment, but falls short on its delivery. Biodiesel, though fueling a profitable industry, currently takes more energy to create than it yields.

For biodiesel to work on a large scale it would have to overcome some enormous limitations. First, there is not enough arable land in the US to support everyone using biodiesel. One of the major crops used for biofuel production, Soybeans, yields a mere 48 gallons of fuel per acre, and leaves the land far from reusable.

With an increasing call for soy and corn from the biodiesel industry, farmers are trying to keep up. This often means growing single crops as fast as possible. Most biodiesel is produced this commercial mono-cropping, which causes soil erosion, pests and disease. Farmers usually plant multiple crops to combat these problems as they allow for the recycling of nutrients and the maintenance of soil.

Considering these problems, why is biodiesel even being produced from soy and corn? Algae yields almost two hundred times the amount of energy than either crop. This can equal as much as 10,000 gallons of oil per year! That’s a lot of oil. And think about how little resources it would take; we would only need about 3% of the Earth’s surface to produce enough energy for everyone in the world.

Pretty amazing, right? But the growth of an alternative like algae based biodiesel could be potentially stomped out because it will be cheaper than crude oil in the near future. And this has already drawn the attention of the government, soy/corn manufacturers and big oil. For example, a biodiesel group from the University of New Hampshire recently achieved their goal of extracting about 10,000 gallons of biodiesel from an algae growing pond. They planned to utilize the agricultural waste streams that flow into the Salton Sea as a source of fertilizer for further biodiesel production, but the government, who was subsidizing the project, pulled out at the last minute.

Is biodiesel, as it stands today, worth it? No. Biodiesel in its current form is far from fulfilling the energy needs of a growing world population. The amount of time and energy expended to produce biodiesel from soy and corn is about the same as it is for petroleum. Switching from your gas powered vehicle to that “eco-friendly” biodiesel Jetta isn’t necessarily going to make the world better. Will it be worth it in the future? We can only hope.

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