Difference between Fossil Fuels and Biofuels

A view of algae in Sepulveda Basin in Los Angeles river. Photo - das_miller via Flickr under Creative Commons License

by John Brian Shannon

The burning of fossil fuels over the past 90 years or so, has released trillions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere over that limited time frame.

Previous to the large-scale commercial extraction of petroleum beginning around 1920, the CO2 embedded within oil, gas, and coal, was permanently stored underground and had stayed there since the time of the dinosaurs. It wasn't going anywhere near the surface of our planet -- or into our atmosphere anytime in the next billion years -- until mankind started bringing it up to the surface and burning it.

The burning of fossil fuels recovered from deep below the surface of the Earth is a huge source of new CO2 introduced into our atmosphere, from our 21st century point of view.

Burning plant-based biofuels on the other hand, burns plant matter that grow in 21st century — plants which absorb CO2 out of our modern-day atmosphere 365 days a year for decades at a time.

Jatropha trees, for instance, live for 40 years or longer. Although only the plentiful fruits are harvested each year (several tons per hectare) for processing into biofuels, the rest of the tree continues to live -- drawing CO2 out of the environment 365 days a year, for decades.

Eventually, at the end of that tree's life almost exactly the amount of CO2 it captured during it's lifetime returns to the environment, making the Jatropha tree carbon footprint effectively CO2-neutral. (Exactly what it took in over 50 years, it released over 50 years.)

Then, new Jatropha trees are grown and the neutral process begins anew.

Not so for fossil fuels. Oil, gas, and coal, are a huge source of new CO2 which we are bringing up from deep underground, burning and adding to our atmosphere.

Therefore all fossil fuel burning adds to the overall CO2 level of our atmosphere -while plant-based fuels are CO2 neutral, as they merely recycle the same CO2 over and over again.

Where am I going with all of this?

We should be blending our fossil fuels 50/50 with CO2-neutral biofuels to taper our dinosaur era, CO2-additions to the atmosphere.

However, replacing food crops with biofuel crops is a bad idea. Corn, palm tree and sugar cane are examples of 1st generation biofuel crops, and they are poor choices for biofuel production, and almost always require massive subsidies to compete in the marketplace. In addition, these require billions of gallons of precious water, and plenty of fertilizer, pesticides, and land management with heavy machinery.

Fortunately, 2nd generation biofuel plants grow in conditions and areas which are quite inhospitable for food crops. Some examples of 2nd generation biofuel plants are Japtropha tree, Millettia and Camelina.

Biofuel produced with algae or enzymes, are known as 3rd generation biofuels, and are the most efficient way of producing biofuels using only water, plant matter, relatively small amounts of algae, and of course, the microscopic enzymes that do all the conversion work.

Green gasoline inside clear plastic pipes. Algae requires four days of sunlight and mild temperatures, to process the following ingredients into pure gasoline; water, small amounts of plant matter, CO2, enzymes, sugar.  AlgaePARC research facility (Algae Production and Research Centre) at Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands). Photo courtesy -AlgaePARC

Talk about good karma, the algae thrives when additional CO2 is added to the conversion chamber (called a 'biofuel reactor', which is basically a 500,000 gallon soup pot) to help it convert the ingredients into very high quality gasoline. In large algae-to-gasoline plants, tons of CO2 from nearby industry are added to the 'ingredient list' to help boost the speed of the process -- and to increase the final amount of gasoline produced.

Not only that, but like any other green plant on the planet, algae 'eats' CO2 and gives off pure oxygen, just like the trees in your neighbourhood. Each batch takes 5 days to produce, and at continuous production that equals every day of the year.

It is better to continuously recycle the same amount of CO2 through plants, to fuel, and back to plants, millions of times over than to bring unfathomable gigatons of petroleum and coal to the Earth's surface with its CO2 dense load to burn it - adding new CO2 to our present-day atmosphere.

John Brian Shannon enjoys writing about green energy, sustainable development and economics for the ArabianGazette.com, Borderstan.com, EcoPoint.asia, EnergyBoom.com, HuffingtonPost.ca, United Nations Development Program (UNDP.org), West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI.org) and other quality publications.

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