PLANTS AS FUEL 14
PLANTSAS FUEL: PROJECT EXAM
PLANTSAS FUEL: THROUGH HISTORY AND INTO THE FUTURE
Historyis rich with data on how humans have searched for ways of utilizingand generating energy. There has been great technological developmentand industrialization which now threatens the sustainability ofenergy resources available. The present day concern for humans is howto create new sources of energy while enhancing sustainability of thetraditional sources of energy. Fuel is the most used form of energyin many parts of the world. However, there has been a great concernand research on new sources of fuel based on the fact that thecurrent fossil fuel has caused and continues to cause muchenvironmental degradation. In addition, the resources used forgenerating fuel are running out and thus the need for new sources ofenergy. In this respect, people are looking for more sustainable fuelsources that do not have an environmental problem (Willkrans, 2005).Fossil fuel is the commonly used source of energy in the modernsociety, but it is facing depletion threats due to increased humanreliance on its energy. Fossil fuel comes from the remains of deadliving organisms millions of years ago.
Throughouthistory, man has derived fuel from plants in various forms the earlyman used wood fuel derivatives for cooking and to run steam engines.Later in the 19th century, gas fuel was retrieved from wood forlighting and generating electricity. In the 20th century, fossil fuelwas largely used in many industries. However, the threat of depletionand environmental pollution has led modern man to shift the trend torenewable and sustainable plant fuels such as bio-fuel. Although,other sources of fuel remain relevant from the historical assessmentof plants use as fuel, it cannot be disputed that plants have beenthe main source of fuel and hold a promising future in renewableenergy production (Willkrans, 2005). Various plants are now used inresearch and in the production of bio-fuel used for running engines.These plants include the oily plants such as Soybeans, palm, oilseedrape or the sunflower the sugary and starchy plants such assugarcane, wheat and corn the jathropha and other plants like grassor decomposing plants mass. Thereare several uses of plant fuels, however, bio-fuel remains the mostrenewable and sustainable plant product for engine fuel especially ata time when other sources of engine fuel production are diminishing.
Everythingthat is combustible or can be turned into fuel has its origin from aliving thing plants or animals. As such, all fuels can be regardedas ‘bio-fuel,’ but such connotation is used to delineate fuelobtained from recent living organism and fossil fuel which is as aproduct of decomposed living organism millions of years ago.
Thehistory of bio-fuel indicates that, it is as old as the civilizationof man bio-fuel was the primary source of fuel in the 1700 to 1800s.It is recorded that, whale oil was used extensively before it becameexpensive and diminished as whale populations declined. It is at thistime that people turned to cheaper fuel sources like fossils.Historians record that it is the fossil fuel that saved whales andforests during the 18thcentury. In addition, it is recorded that the first car was designedand functioned using bio-fuel as opposed to fossil fuel(Sigel, 2012).
Thefirst car by Samuel Morey ran on a blend of turpentine (sourced frompine trees) and ethanol in 1826. Nicolaus August invented a fourstroke alcohol powered automobile engine in 1876. Henry Ford designedhis car model to run on ethanol in 1908 while Rudolph Diesel inventedhis car to run on vegetable oil (Sigel,2012).In 1917, giving his opinion on bio-fuel, Alexander Graham observedthat, ‘Alcoholmakes clean and efficient fuel from readily assessable plantmaterials…as such there is no need of worry about future exhaustionof present fuel suppliers as long as plants could be used to makealcohol when desired to run engines’ (Sigel,2012).In another instance in 1925, Henry Ford is recorded to have said,“Thefuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out bythe road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything. Thereis fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented”(New York Times, 1925). However, this promise was never realized asgreat political and economic challenges diminished the idea ofbio-fuel.
Towardsthe mid 17thcentury fossil fuel became commercialized as more industrializationpicked up across the globe. This was followed by extensive drillingof commercial fossil wells. Consequently the increased supply offossil fuel encrypted and diminished appetite for bio-fuels. Inaddition, prohibition laws against bio-fuels also led to the declinein their production. However, it is recorded that during the WorldWar I, shortage of fossil fuel was noted and demand shifted toethanol fuel which was blended with gasoline fuel to make motor andaviation fuel. After war, gasoline (made from fossil) became cheapand was in great quantities leading to disinterest in alcohol (Sigel,2012).
However,a major fossil oil crisis in the recent times renewed interest forbio-fuel. These crises include the 1973 oil embargo crises from theOrganization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), the oilcrisis in 1979 after Iranian revolution and the oil price Shockduring the 1990 Gulf war. These crisis threatened economic activitiesin developed and developing countries which led to a renewed focus onbio-fuels. Gasohol (a blend of alcohol and gasoline) productionreturned in plenty and encouraged by tax credits during this period.In this sense, nations such as Brazil and USA began research,exploration and production of bio-fuel in large scale. The fossilfuel prices dropped later after the oil crisis again leading todiminished interest in ethanol fuel (Sigel,2012).
Modernconcerns on foreign oil dependency, changing climatic conditionsarising from harmful effects of fossil fuel have shaped global agendaon the use of bio-fuel as a way of addressing such problems.Recently, bio-fuel production has been globally approved as the onlyway of combating climate change, high (fossil) oil prices anddiminishing fossil fuel sources leading to a resurgence on bio-fuelinterest research and production (Webb& Coates, 2012).
From1992, various policies and procedures have been instituted by globalgovernments requiring automotive manufacturers to design models thatuse biodiesel and ethanol as alternative fuels. Such policy acts, asthe Energy Policy Act 1992, Renewable fuel standards (RFS) 2006, andthe Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) 2007 have beeninstrumental in pushing for large scale bio-fuel production as wellas putting a cap on the amount of bio-fuel produced to avoidinterfering with food production. Although the overall energy supplyfor future looks bleak, there is some certainty that bio-fuel willsignificantly play a great role as the main source of renewableenergy in the coming generation (Sigel,2012).
Advantagesof bio-fuel production
Bio-fuelis any fuel derived from plant or other living organisms, variouscrops have been used to produce biomass that is in turn processed toliquid, solid or gas fuel. In the modern society, bio-fuel has morerelevance owing to the diminishing sources of other natural sourcesof fuel and in particular it is less expensive and has highsustainability value compared to fossil fuel(Filemon, 2010).
Variouscrops have been used in the production of bio-fuel that do notrequire much production input crops like poplar, willow, switchgrass and others grow relatively fast without much application of fertilizers. These plants are also beneficial in minimizing soilerosion and water pollution as well as saving on green-house grassemissions. Land that may not be suitable for the other types ofagricultural food products may be transformed for growing theseplants thereby reducing the threat of food production by bio-fuelplants (Webb& Coates, 2012).
Inother instances, these plants could be bred with other varieties toreduce their water intake and maximize their bio-ethanol contentswitch grass and willow plants are such plants with high geneticcomposition that could be changed to improve their yield(Filemon, 2010).In addition, these bio-fuel plants have the capacity to alleviateharmful environmental problems as well as providing foliage foranimals. Residual products from plants used for food purposes such assugarcane and corn straws could be used to make bio-ethanol. As such,if the wastes of these plants are used in making bio-fuel foodproduction would become a dual-process of producing fuel and foodsubstances.
Thesupply of plant residues such as straws from oats, wheat and barleyis in great quantity in many countries and this could be used toprocess bio-ethanol. In this respect, there is a potential ofbio-fuel production from plant residues without diminishing foodproduction (Webb& Coates, 2012).In fact, the dual-purpose of plant use would increase the impetus togrow more crops thereby leading to more food production. In the sameline, the production of such fuel from plants residues would not leadto more demand for land as critics of bio-fuel production claims.
Furthermore,the production process of these fuels does not result inenvironmental degradation and the production process has the capacityto produce high quality liquid bio-fuel. Some plants used in bio-fuelproduction such as algae are grown in environments where food cropscannot be grown seas, deserts or in tanks, and therefore, do notpose any significant threat to food production. Similarly, the algaeplants could be harvested continuously and use waste water unlikemost food crops.
Disadvantagesof bio-fuel production
Althoughbio-fuel has been proposed as the most efficient and effective sourceof engine fuel in the contemporary and future societies, bio-fuelproduction is not as efficient and effective as this notionpostulates. It has been argued that, bio-fuel especially thebio-diesel is low in energy density in comparison to its counterpartdiesel made from fossil fuel. Engines running on bio-diesel use moreof it to cover the same work as that of fossil diesel (Mitchell,2010).In addition, critics observe that, biodiesel production hascontributed to deforestation where ordinary plants are cleared inforests to allow land for plants used in biodiesel production. Thisin turn is leading to increased green-house effects as forest firesand cutting down of the vegetation exacerbates the problem.
Othercritics observe that, clearing of forests and other plant coverage onlands to make space for bio-fuel plants will lead to extinction ofsome animal and plants species (Mitchell,2010).It is also argued that, some forms of bio-fuel such as bio-ethanolcannot be used as real fuels in engines without moderating them withother fuels. Common claim is that, if such fuel as bio-ethanol was tobe used to run engines, this would mean redesigning the engines tomake them compatible with the fuel (Biello, 2008).
Anotherdebate has been that, the production of bio-ethanol has led toincreased prices on corn food product(Kim, Seungdo & Bruce 2009).Analysts observe that, the need for bio-ethanol production hasdiverted arable land for food crop production thereby escalating thecorn prices (Kim,Seungdo & Bruce 2009).In other countries like Brazil, workers are subjected to harshworking conditions in sugarcane farms. Others observe that, usingplant waste for bio-fuel production reduces the use of such materialsas compost or fertilizers (Mitchell,2010).Therefore, although the future of fuel production rests on plants,great caution need to be taken to avert conflict of interests.Nonetheless, plants present the most viable sources of renewable andsustainable fuel in the current and future generations.
Plantsused in making Bio-fuel
Anyplant that produces fats can be used to produce bio-fuel thisincludes such plants as soybeans, palm, sunflower and corn(McCutchen, 1981). Biomass derived from recently living plantsorganism such as manure, crop residues could be used in theproduction of bio-fuel energy. Most agricultural food plants such asoats, wheat, corn, soybeans (USA), rapeseeds and sugar beets inEurope, sugarcane in Brazil, miscanthus and palm oil in South Asia,cassava and sorghum in China and jatropha plants in India are nowused as sources of bio-fuel (Booth & Jones, 2007). In otherinstances, biodegradable materials from industries, forest, cropresidues and kitchen wastes could be used in the production ofbio-fuel(Filemon, 2010).
Bio-fuelis increasing in popularity because of its cheap price and energysecurity. Ethanol is widely used in Brazil and USA where it is usedin automotive fuel while in its pure form but gasoline additive areadded to enhance vehicle emissions. Bio-diesel can be used as vehiclefuel in its pure form but used as an additive in regular dieselengines to lower carbon monoxide. Studies indicate that, there hasbeen a rising trend in the production of bio-fuel in the recenttimes as of 2010 worldwide, bio-fuel production stood at 105 billionlitters compared to 2009 (Webb& Coates, 2012).The United States and Brazil are the largest producers of ethanolfuel which accounts to 90% of global output (Booth & Jones,2007). The European countries on the other hand, have been creditedfor their largest production of biodiesel globally (53% of globaloutput) (Filemon,2010).The production of bio-fuel can be categorized into three branchesthe first generation bio-fuels, second generation bio-fuel and thethird generation bio-fuels.
Proponentsof this claim argue that bio-fuels are made from starchy, sugary andvegetable plant products. In this scope, ethanol production derivedfrom fermenting sugars in corns, sugarcane and wheat (McCutchen,1981). Ethanol fuel production is one of the oldest bio-fuelproductions which are still a significant bio-fuel production processin many countries globally. Ethanol bio-fuel can be used in petrolrun engines in its pure form or by adding gasoline additive toincrease its octane rating. Biodiesel is another form of firstgeneration bio-fuels which is made from vegetable oils and animalfats (Booth & Jones, 2007). It has been argued that, biodieselhelps to limit green-house emissions by 60%. Methanol is producedfrom biomass plant materials and could be used to run engines. Greendiesel is now produced by hydro cracking vegetable oils(Filemon, 2010).Other first generation bio-fuels include vegetable oils, bio-ethers,bio-gas and syngas. Under the first generation, conventionaltechnology is used to make bio-fuel.
SecondGeneration of Bio-fuels
Inthis category, proponents argue that there is need to have anadvanced way of bio-fuel production as a viable solution of usingnon-food plants in the production of bio-fuel. The Second generationadvocate for the use of plants residues and biomass such as the wheatstraws, corn and other plant crops that are specifically meant forbio-fuel production. A lingnocellulosic method is used to extractbio-fuel from the plant biomass(Webb & Coates, 2012).
Thisgeneration represents research been undertaken on aquatic plants thatare alleged to have greater contents of natural oils (Booth &Jones, 2007). These algae have been under research following decadesof controversy on the effects of commercializing food crops forbio-fuel production. Common argument proposed by the third generationof bio fuel proponents is that, production of bio-fuel from such nonfood crop plant species does not require much firms land or freshwater in their production. Algae can be used to make bio-diesel justlike oily plants and the processing method is less complicated.However, no feasible bio-fuel production has taken place as economicviability of the plant is still under study. Other pants under studyinclude the Jatropha plant and fungi(Plant Research International, 2012).
CurrentResearch and Debate on Bio-fuel
Therehas been a considerable political, economic and social concern aboutthe effectiveness and suitability of bio-fuel. Research is stillongoing to find suitable plants and improving the overall oilproduction. The current plant used in bio-fuel requires vast amountsof fresh water, arable land and complex process of processingbio-fuel compared to fossil fuel. It is argued that, to produceadequate bio-fuel to completely replace the use of fossil fuel, itwill require vast amount of resources diverted to bio-fuel productionwhich has the effect of interfering with food production (Hyungtae,Seungdo & Bruce 2009).Other critics observe that, it will take years before ‘repaying’the carbon emissions in the air through bio-fuel(Mitchell, 2010).In a rejoinder, others postulate that, no agricultural practice canalter carbon emissions in the air and that biomass planted inabandoned land has little effect in altering the already changedclimatic conditions (Webb& Coates, 2012).
Plantshave been used for decades as fuels, however, bio-fuel remains themost renewable and sustainable plant product for engine fuelespecially at a time when other sources of engine fuel production arediminishing. The history of bio-fuel indicates that, bio-fuel was theprimary source of fuel before the civilization of man. Modernconcerns on foreign oil dependency, changing climatic conditions anddiminishing fossil fuel sources have lead to resurgence of bio-fuelinterest, research and production.
Variousplants such as Soybeans, palm, oilseed rape sugary and starchy plants(such as sugarcane, wheat and corn), jathropha and other biomass arenow used in research and in the production of bio-fuel. Analystsobserve that, increased need and preference for bio-fuel productionwill divert arable land for food production thereby resulting in foodscarcity, starvation and high food prices. Others opine that, thecurrent plants used in bio-fuel require vast amounts of fresh water,arable land and complex processes to produce bio-fuel compared tofossil fuel.
However,despite these ensuing debates, plants remain the only viable solutionto greenhouse emissions, cheaper fuel prices and clean air. Inaddition, plants fuel energy is renewable and sustainable when wellmoderated and balanced with hood production. Similarly, although theoverall future energy supply looks bleak, there is some certaintythat bio-fuel will significantly contribute greatly as the mainsource of renewable energy in the coming generations.
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