Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Biofuels: Fields of dreams

We can run our cars on corn, sugar cane or wheat: limitless cheap energy grown on our doorstep. But are biofuels the answer to exhausted oil wells or just another nightmare scenario?
ohn Anderson is motoring with chip fat. Sir Rob Margetts swears by fizzy drinks and chicken feed. George Bush is banking on corn. Everyone, from pub to parliament, knows we’re going to have to do something about transport fuel. Oil prices have already passed the threshold of pain, and emissions targets for greenhouse gases will not be met unless we wean ourselves off petrol.

The solution is both easy and obvious. In place of fossil energy – the power of ancient sunlight – we can recover the solar energy locked up in field crops, which, unlike mineral oils, we can endlessly replenish. With plant oils in the tank, we will ride to work on sunbeams.

There are two kinds of biofuel – biodiesel, which is made from oil-rich crops such as rape, soy and palm; and bioethanol, which substitutes for petrol and is made from starchy crops such as sugar cane, beet, maize and wheat. The case against biodiesel is that virgin rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia is being cut down to make way for soy and palm. Result: more CO2 is being released into the atmosphere by deforestation than is being saved by reductions in fossil fuel.

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