Are Bio-Fuels All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

Is there any reason we should be excited about bio-fuels? Are they a better alternative to petroleum-based fuels? There are two main reasons why bio-fuels are under development and some in widespread use today. Primarily, dependence on foreign petroleum imports makes the case for bio-fuels very compelling. The politics and economics foreign petroleum forces buyers into cannot be ignored. Secondarily, but probably more important, is the damage petroleum-based fuels do to the environment. Carbon-dioxide [CO2] emissions from vehicles account for about thirty percent of all US CO2 output, including manufacturing and power generation. Can bio-fuels be the answer to these concerns?

Economics and Politics

Bio-fuels certainly seem to be a good fit in addressing the US’ dependence on foreign petroleum imports. Ethanol is already blended with about 95% of the US gasoline supply. Unmodified vehicles can burn a ten percent [E10] blend with no performance issues and the E15 blend has just been approved for vehicles newer than model year 2001. Flex-Fuel Vehicles [FFV] can use blends up to 85% ethanol, due to their modified fuel and ignition systems that can detect and adjust for the decreased energy content of higher blend fuels. Methanol blends are somewhat less common but work just as well in internal combustion engines. Bio-diesel is unique in that diesel-powered vehicles require no modifications to run any concentration up to pure bio-diesel with no discernible performance problems.

The main purpose of these bio-fuels are as additives. They extend the current fuel supplies, reducing the demand for imported petroleum. Bio-fuels can probably completely replace petroleum-based fuels to eliminate petroleum imports, but production and distribution will have to be ramped up considerably. Fortunately, the infrastructure for bio-fuels is already in place. Consumers would also have to adjust their thinking on vehicle performance because bio-fuels are less energy-dense than their petroleum-based counterparts.

Environmental Concerns

A case can be made that bio-fuels are at least CO2-neutral, if not CO2-reducing. As an additive, bio-fuel reduces overall CO2 emissions because of the CO2 captured by the bio-mass used to produce the bio-fuel. I think that bio-fuels fall short, though, because they are still carbon-based, and thus release CO2 into the atmosphere when burned.

Most scientists agree that CO2 emissions are to blame for global warming, but differ in opinion on whether it is too late to do something about it. Burning carbon-based fuels of any type could be too much. Use of pure bio-fuels might be a viable carbon-neutral option, but I believe that something different is needed if environmental concerns are going to be addressed.

Benjamin Jerew is an alternative fuel expert with a background as a master-level automotive technician.  He’s provided today’s article on behalf of, a leading provider of auto financing services for people with subprime credit.  Check out their blog for tips on evaluating vehicle resale value and controlling repair costs.

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