Fossil fuels are still an integral part of our daily activities. We burn petroleum in our cars, use natural gas for heating our buildings and burn coal to produce electricity to run our many electronics and appliances. But the use of fossil fuels comes with many liabilities such as global warming and increased air pollution. With the emergence of biofuels many people are wondering if they would help cure many of the problems currently caused by the use of fossil fuels while at the same time providing the same energy benefits as fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels come in three main forms: coal, petroleum and natural gas. Coal must be extracted from the Earth by either strip or deep mining, presenting both environmental and health problems for humans. The majority of coal is used for producing electricity or generating heat for manufacturing purposes. Since coal is made up mostly of carbon, burning it releases that carbon into the air as well as sulfur oxide, mercury and other harmful compounds. Coal can be turned into a liquid like natural gas, creating synthetic crude oil and significantly reducing harmful emissions, but the current expense of the process outweighs the benefits.
Petroleum or oil is a fossil fuel commonly used to power vehicles, like in the production of motor oil, gasoline or diesel, although it can be used in the production of durable goods like tires, plastics and ink. Extracting petroleum from the Earth involves drilling in various areas, even in the ocean floor, which can present negative environmental consequences. Sometimes oil spills and makes its way into waterways, killing aquatic life and cutting off water supplies for plants, animals and humans until the petroleum spill is completely cleaned up. And extracting petroleum is difficult, with about half of the petroleum deposits left behind after using cost-effective modern extraction methods. Burning petroleum to fuel vehicles, generators and other devices puts off fine particulates that contribute to global warming and respiratory problems.
The third kind of fossil fuel, natural gas, is commonly used to heat homes, manufacture products and even produce some electricity. There is a growing trend to use compressed natural gas to power vehicles, but this application is used mostly for large fleets such as city buses. The big advantage of natural gas is that burning it does not produce nearly as many pollutants as burning coal or petroleum. In fact, combusting natural gas leads to 30 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than burning petroleum and 43 percent less than burning coal. Still, burning natural gas does produce greenhouse gases. On a positive note, natural gas can also be produced with the methane gases found in landfills and manure dumps from livestock. While methane is much more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, extracting and burning the gas to produce heat prevents the methane from being released directly into the atmosphere where it can cause maximum harm.
All three forms of fossil fuel produce carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions when burned, leading to increased pollution. Much of the worlds energy depends on coal, petroleum or natural gas, meaning we cannot suddenly stop using fossil fuels. Because of this dependence on fossil fuels, a growing number of governments and even private corporations are exploring the use of alternative fuels that still provide enough energy for our needs but do not produce the same amount of pollution.
Biofuels have quickly come to the forefront of the race to develop alternative energy sources. The question many are asking is whether biofuels are really any better than fossil fuels. To understand the benefits and drawbacks of biofuels, you must first learn where they come from. Biofuels are literally any fuel that is made from biological materials. This can include vegetable oil, animal fat or even grains. Sometimes the fuel is produced by distilling the biological ingredients to produce an alcohol.
For example, ethanol is a fuel source commonly used to power cars in the United States. About 90 percent of ethanol produced in the US is made up of corn, with the other 10 percent is made of biological materials like tree bark, grasses and leaves. By contrast, in Brazil where ethanol is catching on as a fuel source the main ingredient used to produce the fuel is sugarcane. Ethanol usually is mixed with gasoline for use in cars as a way to improve the cars gas mileage. While the mixture costs more than pure gasoline, it provides a clear benefit to the environment. Carbon dioxide emissions are 39 percent less than from pure gasoline. Not only that, but ethanol is carbon neutral, or in other words it produces the same amount of carbon dioxide as the plants used to produce the fuel took in while they were alive. Still, ethanol does not present the energy efficiency to rival petroleum, meaning you cannot drive as far with a full tank of ethanol as with a full tank of gasoline.
The other common form of biofuel is biodiesel. Biodiesel is made of fats from either plants or animals, which are made into a clean-burning fuel through a chemical process known as transesterification. The good news is that biodiesel comes with almost the same amount of energy as regular diesel and can be used to fuel virtually any diesel-powered vehicle. Not only that, but pure biodiesel produces about 75 percent fewer emissions than regular diesel, meaning it does not contribute to pollution and global warming nearly as much. The other good news is that while you can purchase biodiesel at a fuel station for about the same price as gasoline, you can make it at home using organic materials that you might even be able to get for free. For example, many times restaurants dispose of old fryer oil which you can use to make fuel for your car.
While mining or drilling for fossil fuels can wreck natural habitats and potentially lead to spills, the production of biofuels can also bring negative ramifications. Since the production of biofuels uses farmland and sometimes food normally used for feeding people or animals, the demand for biofuels can lead to increased deforestation which in turn contributes to global warming. Not only that, but high biofuel production could lead to increased food prices.
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