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Biofuels between marketing, resource depletion and environmental pollution

23 March 2023

The European requirements establish the replacement within 25 years of liquid fuels (gasoline and diesel) with other forms of energy, among which biofuels will become the main liquid fuels, according to an analysis by the Intelligent Energy Association (AEI).

“This requirement is attributed to the environmental advantages conferred by biofuels. Even if the development of biofuels must be supported, it must be based on scientific truths and not only on marketing schemes that have as their goal profits, but implicitly also higher costs for consumers.

“When the automobile industry was born, oil and its derivatives were not widely used. It is therefore very natural for engine manufacturers to turn, among other things, to what were not yet called biofuels: Nikolaus Otto, the inventor of the internal combustion engine, had designed it to run on ethanol. Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the engine of the same name, ran his cars on peanut oil. During the two world wars, gasifiers quickly appeared in occupied countries to cope with the shortage of diesel or gasoline. Abundant and cheap oil explains industrialists’ disinterest in biofuels,” says the AEI study.

After the start of the decarbonization strategy, several generations of biofuels appeared. The first generation of biofuels was produced from rapeseed, corn, wheat, sugar beet and that affects the food of the population and thus it is desired to be replaced in the present with biofuel of the second generation (vegetable residues) or the third generation (algae product).

The carbon emitted during the combustion of biofuels (the oil sector or the ethanol sector) comes from plants (palm, canola, corn, wheat, wood, etc.) that fixed it through photosynthesis. The carbon footprint may seem neutral and the use of this energy helps avoid additional greenhouse gas emissions. But the production of these biofuels requires human labor, hence the consumption of fuel and possibly other products, the use of which also produces GHGs. Thus, approximately 1 tonne of oil equivalent would be needed to produce 3 tonnes of diester equivalent.

An European Commission study published on March 2016 and taken over by the Transport and Environment NGO shows that most first-generation biofuels, far from being virtuous for the climate, actually emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels; this mainly concerns biodiesel: 1 liter of biodiesel emits on average 1.8 times more greenhouse gases than a liter of fossil diesel; In more detail, the liter of biodiesel produced from rapeseed represents 1.2 times more emissions than the liter of diesel, twice as much from soy and three times more from palm oil. The very negative balance of palm oil is mainly explained by land use change: its production is the main cause of deforestation in Southeast Asian forests.

In another study published in Natural Resources Research, researchers David Pimentel and Tad Patzek conclude “that there is no energy benefit from using plant biomass to produce fuel,” after a calculation that tends to show that the total energy required to produce ethanol from corn and for that of biodiesel from soy or sunflower is for each of these cases 27-118% higher than the energy produced (the amounts of energy spent in the manufacture and during the conditioning, transport and spreading of the pesticides were also taken into account and fertilizers, in the manufacture of agricultural implements, drainage, irrigation, as well as the energy expended by the workers themselves outside their work).

Burning bioethanol produces more aldehydes than gasoline, but bioethanol noxes are less toxic. According to Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, burning ethanol results in the formation of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to the formation of ozone, which is primarily responsible for smog.

Researchers are looking for solutions that reconcile both the goat and the cabbage. And, at least at first glance, engineers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts (USA) have discovered a method by which they can obtain biofuel from the food scraps thrown away by the population.

So, through a hydrothermal liquefaction process, heat and water are used to turn food waste into a liquid. The process is very similar to how algae is turned into biofuel, and the researchers also added a natural mineral to increase the energy value of the biofuel by up to 30%.

The next step is to find an efficient method to simplify this process of transforming food waste into biofuel, which would provide a good part of the fuel needed in certain economic activities, if we consider that only in Romania about 2.5 million tons of food annually are thrown to trach bins.

The Intelligent Energy Association launched in 2022 the “Stop throwing away used cooking oil” project, which aims to raise awareness of the devastating impact that spilling used cooking oil can have on the environment and to help inform consumers about the benefits of collecting can have on our daily lives by improving the quality of drinking water and air. At the same time, the use of used cooking oil in the production of energy from renewable sources will make it possible to meet the European Union’s targets for reducing carbon emissions, without resorting to the use of specially cultivated plants to obtain biofuel.

A study carried out at the initiative of the Intelligent Energy Association regarding the use of used cooking oil for the production of biofuel shows that Romania is only at the beginning of implementing a system for collecting used cooking oil. Its growth potential was estimated at 40% in the professional sector and 49,000 tons from households, according to a Greenea report on used oil collection systems in the European Union carried out in 2016. To encourage the collection of used oil from the population, a number of companies and organizations have run collection programs through authorized collectors. Despite these initiatives, the level of collection of used oil, both from the population and from economic operators remains low, requiring a series of campaigns to raise awareness of the harmful effects that used oil can have on the environment and at the same time the importance its appropriate collection.

The project “Stop throwing away used cooking oil” also aims to raise the awareness of household consumers about the dangers of pouring used cooking oil into water drains and the impact this type of waste has on the environment and the benefits of separate collection of used cooking oil which it is mainly reflected in the increase in the quality of drinking water and possibly in the reduction of its cleaning costs, which could be found in the utility bill.

”At the same time, we want the initiation of a legislative proposal regarding the adoption of measures regarding monitoring, reporting and responsibility for the collection of used cooking oil.

Encouraging the collection of used cooking oil at local/county level in a separate system for economic operators/household consumers, through an improved system, following the model of other countries in the European Union such as Austria and Germany is also another target of the association’s project, in the context in which thus it is possible to contribute to the achievement of the targets regarding the production of energy from renewable sources, the reduction of the carbon footprint and the fulfillment of the national waste recycling targets as a contribution to the achievement of the transition to a circular economy (an approach that is not only national, but also European),” adds AEI officials.

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