Group 5 - Biofuels

The following article presents a supporting position for the creation and use of biomass, biofuels, and biotechnology as an alternative, renewable form of energy. This article is mainly in response to two stimuli. The first is the billion ton study ( which determined the feasibility of a wide-scale biomass industry within the borders of the United States. The second was the senate vote on June 16th, 2011, to end government subsidies for ethanol ( The following presents and introduction as well as supporting arguments for the use of biofuels from environmental, technological, economical, and social points of view.


Biofuel is an emerging fuel source that comes from biomass. One of the most important biofuels over the past decade is bioethanol which is an alcohol made by fermenting the sugar components of plants and most of them are made from sugar and starch crops. Biofuel has become a heated debate in the scientific world. Proponents for the use of biofuels often argue that they are beneficial because they are a renewable source of energy and are much cleaner to burn than fossil fuels. Biofuel also provide developing countries significant economy increase. Many argue that the use of biofuels, especially in the short term, addresses the issue of finite fossil fuel resources without requiring the major infrastructure and technological changes other renewable sources of energy would demand. Opponents often argue that the land-use and resource requirements for large scale biomass production would be unrealistic and detrimental to society and nature. Also, opponents believe that the large water requirements of cultivating biomass would be too devastating to society as it is already a scarce resource. The following research supports the cultivation and use of biofuels to meet increasing energy demands. In order to demonstrate this view, we are going to discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels from environmental, technological, economical and social standpoints.

Environmental Background

When a method of energy production is considered, the environmental risks associated with the form of energy must be calculated. There are many factors to be considered before an energy resource can be weighed against other energy resources. It should be observed and calculated as to how a method of energy production will impact aspects of the environment such as the rate of soil erosion, biodiversity levels, water resource availability, deforestation, carbon emission levels, and air quality.

Although biomass can form renewable energy created from plant and animal waste, there are negative impacts that it can place on the environment in addition to the benefits that it can have against other current dominant energy methods such as coal and petroleum. The risks associated with biomass may be dependent on the situation in which it is used, the amount that is used, and the specific makeup of the biomass.

Air Quality
The combustion of biomass is responsible for releasing toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates into the air. The amount of harmful emissions produced can vary depending on the biomass resource, the conversion technology used, and the pollution controls that are installed at the biomass production plant. If proper fluidized bed and gasification systems are installed at the biomass plants, the emissions can be significantly reduced.

Although biomass has one of the largest impacts on air quality among other renewable resources, it produces far less sulfur and mercury than coal does. One study completed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory observed the amount of direct air emissions from wood residue facilities and found that the stoker boilers (technology used to process biomass or coal) produced 0.8 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur oxide from biomass and 20.2 ppm from coal. The same technology also produced 2.1 ppm of nitrogen oxide from biomass and 5.8 ppm from coal. The particulates produced from coal and biomass were similar in amounts but the carbon monoxide levels differed greatly. Biomass contributed far more to carbon monoxide production than coal. Biomass produced 12.2 ppm of carbon monoxide and coal produced 2.7 ppm (Bain, 6.2). Appropriate controls can be attached to the combustion technology to reduce the amount of carbon monoxide being emitted from biomass production.

There are different types of biomass resources that may reduce or contribute to carbon emissions. Biomass is often placed into two separate categories: beneficial biomass and harmful biomass. There are biomass resources available that can potentially reduce net carbon emissions such as wheat straw, corn stover, sustainably harvested wood and forest residues, clean municipal and industrial wastes, and energy crops (crops that can be grown on farms and don’t displace other food production). Harmful biomass resources can be derived from clearing forests to grow energy crops or displacing food production. Therefore, if biomass is produced in a sustainable fashion, carbon emission levels can actually be reduced.

Water Resources
The process to convert biomass into energy requires a large amount of water. The boilers at the plants use water in order to produce steam and then cool the final product. Often, power plants remove water from lakes and rivers, which serves as a very unsustainable practice. Biomass facilities can alter their practices to re-use water and require less water for future production.

Soil Erosion and Deforestation
The largest source of renewable electricity and biomass-based heat is derived from bark, sawdust, and other byproducts of milling timber and processing paper (“Union of Concerned Scientists”). Removals from the United States forest inventory have totaled nearly 20.2 billion ft^3 per year. 78% of the volume of forest removed was for round-wood products and 16% went towards logging residue (Perlack, Wrights, Turhollow, Graham, and Stokes 9). Biomass created from resources in the forest is termed “woody biomass”.

If woody biomass is created sustainably and responsibly, damage to forests are not as high. Deforestation can occur if trees are unnecessarily cleared to go towards the production of biomass. Excessive rates of deforestation not only alter the visual aesthetics of an area but also contribute to biodiversity loss. Biodiversity loss can decrease the level of food security that humans have as well as disrupt the well being of thousands of plant and animal species. When clearing land for energy crops, as mentioned above, or disrupting forests when gathering woody biomass, soil erosion is also expedited.

The environmental impact of biomass energy production can be lessened depending on the methods and strategies used. If controls are placed at the production plants and the methods for gathering biomass are more sustainable, less harm will be done on the environment and biomass can serve as a viable source of energy against coal and petroleum.

Technological Evaluation

Technological capabilities play a vital role in determining the feasibility of biomass as a widespread alternative source of energy. The limitations of biomass walk hand in hand with the limitations of technology to develop a biomass industry that is efficient, economical, and beneficial to the environment and society. There are a host of opportunities for technology to help discover new and more incredible ways for converting all kinds of biomass into biofuels. The following section outlines only some of the processes that are making biofuels a more practical and readily accessible source of energy.

For years the best and most common way to create biofuel out of biomass was to convert plant matter into ethanol which could be combusted for energy. This process was extremely costly and energy intensive because it requires completely filtering out all the water in the solution (Jaffee, 2005). For the past decade a great deal of research has been directed towards developing superior ways to develop biomass into biofuel. There have been extremely exciting and beneficial studies that have been published in the past half of a decade that have created more simplified processes for synthesizing useable biofuels.

An incredible discovery for biomass processing came from researchers at the University of Wisconsin. Traditionally, creating biodiesel was only made from the fatty acids of plants, which only comprise of 10% of the biomass. The researchers discovered a process using “aqueous phase reactions” which utilized 100% of the plant matter without requiring the expensive water distillation process. Also, the process is exothermic, which is a chemical process that releases heat, and so the heat from the conversion process can be harvested and used as energy. (Jaffee, 2005)

There has also been a great deal of research into the use of algae and other microbial organisms for producing biofuels. Many types of algae secrete chemicals as a waste product. Genetic researchers are constantly trying to develop ways to get algae to secrete waste that could be used as a biofuel. For example, researchers in California have genetically engineered a type of microbe that can consume biomass and secrete methyl halides, which is the main ingredient for creating gasoline (Bayer, 2009). Perhaps the most intriguing part of this new process is that the microbes can digest crop waste to produce the methyl halides. This helps relieve the stresses of the “Food vs. Fuel” debate, and can make use of the wastes from the food production industry. This technology is in direct contrast to typical ethanol production and ways of biomass which rely on the production of a plant for the sole purpose of using as an energy source. This process has the ability to bring biomass efficiency to an unprecedented level.

Genetic engineering is making algae a front runner in the production of biofuels for a variety of other reasons as well. Exxon Mobil has provided funding for Synthetic Genomics, Inc. to develop species of algae that are efficient for the creation of biofuels. Exxon Mobil, an enormous oil company, has an invested interest in algae’s because they believe it can help replace the use of fossil fuels. The use of algae is an attractive alternative because it has many potential benefits. Not all microbial processes require the consumption of plant matter. Many forms of algae only need to consume sunlight, water, and carbon-dioxide to produce useable wastes. Therefore, algae could help create energy and actually reduce carbon dioxide levels in the environment. Also, algae often will thrive in water that is too unsanitary for human consumption or food production, which means it can have minimal impact on water resources. Due to the rate of propagation of algae, it can be produced in large quantities easily. Algae has the ability to yield over 2000 gallons of fuel per acre-year, whereas products from corn and soy have the ability to produce 250 and 50 gallons of fuel per acre-year, respectively (Exxon Mobil, 2010).

There are so many possible applications for biofuels in the future. The best feature of biofuels that almost anyone can acknowledge is that it is a renewable source of energy. The main hurdle has been creating processes that make harvesting this energy an efficient endeavor. It truly seems that the only limits on the plausibility of biofuel production are the limits of creativity and persistence of scientific research. There have been great strides made in the development of biofuel technologies, and it appears to have a very bright future.

Social Considerations

“Food vs. Fuel Debate”
The "Food vs. Fuel" debate is always one of the most important social arguments according to the way to produce biofuel. Jeremy Wakeford, University of Cape Town senior lecturer in economics said, ”This is particularly acute in the case of maize, on account of nearly 30% of US production now being converted into fuel ethanol. This poses a potentially severe threat to food security among the world's poor, especially in Africa." Most of us know Africa and other poor countries are lacking of food. From his opinion, we can see most of the biofuel came from crops such as wheat, cane, and potatoes. Ethanol is the most common biofuel that we use in the modern days. It’s easy to produce and useful to all industrial production. Although biofuel is a clean renewable energy, it took away a large amount of food production as a result. However, there was a misunderstanding regarding crop production. Jonathan Scurlock, UK National Farmers Union's biofuels advisor. He thinks that greater demand for food and fuel could help agriculture in developing countries such as Mexico, which for many years have had their farming industries crushed by cheap imports. Jonathan Scurlock also states, “It would be a very good thing if developing countries could produce something that we in the West were prepared to pay a fair price for." From this, it would seem like a good idea that we support the cultivation and use of biofuels to meet increasing energy demands.

From the Japanese earthquake and resulting nuclear crisis on March 3, 2011, we learned that nuclear energy requires too much of a risk to be a viable energy source. “Early estimates placed insured losses from the earthquake alone at US$14.5 to $34.6 billion, 15,505 deaths, 5,386 injured, and 7,305 people missing during the earthquake”. From the fact, we saw that nuclear energy not only give Japan energy, but also a disaster. More and more people decided to turn off all nuclear reactors and use safer energy sources. As a result, biofuel became very important to us. Unlike other renewable energy such as hydro power and wind power, biofuel supplies stable amount of energy. We agree that biofuel will give us more advantage compare to disadvantages.

Poverty Reduction Potential
Biofuel is a great source to help developing countries. Mr. Steen Riisgaard, Novozymes A/S, Denmark state that” biofuel can help developing countries by stimulate rural development, save foreign exchange, increase energy supply security, reduce harmful pollutants from vehicle exhaust, and reduce CO2 emissions.” Those are very good points for the advantage of biofuel. Developing countries are always trying to find a better way to improve their economy. In this case, biofuel provides a better way to increase job opportunities without harming their environment. Under this situation, people could supply most of energy they need by themselves and make a fair trade to West countries. However, the production of biofuels can do more harm than good if pursued irresponsibly. So it’s very important to explain everything about biofuel to everyone which indicate “what is biofuel?””what can biofuel do?” “is biofuel good for us?”. We need to teach everyone to use biofuel correctly in order to create the best advantage.

From the social view, we can state that biofuel provide significantly more advantage than disadvantage for developing countries. Mr. Steen Riisgaard also stated that “encroaching on areas with high conservation value and using poor farming practices with inappropriate exogenous crops can do more harm to land than good; and in some countries poor irrigation practices can result in ver-consumption of scarce water supplies.” Those are the disadvantage point of biofuel. However, it’s not difficult to solve those problems. Government of developing countries can plan well on how they are going to produce biofuel regarding to professionals’ opinions. And then they could set up a well policy to help rural people produce their own biofuel. Under that situation, everyone can receive the advantage of biofuel instead of disadvantage. In conclusion, from Poverty Reduction Potential, we support biofuel production.


Bayer. (2009). Synthesis of Methyl Halides from Biomass Using Engineered Microbes. Journal of the American Chemical Society .

ExxonMobil. (2010, July). Algae Biofuels. Retrieved June 2011, from ExxonMobil:

Jaffee, S. (2005, June 7). Biodiesel: A New Way of Turning Plants into Fuel. Retrieved June 2011, from Technology Review - MIT:

“Food versus fuel debate escalates”, Esmarie Swanepoel, 2nd November 2007

"Damage Situation and Police Countermeasures associated with 2011 Tohoku district – off the Pacific Ocean Earthquake" Japanese National Police Agency. 20 April 2011. <>

“Biofuel and the Potential for Poverty Reduction” Mr. Steen Riisgaard, Novozymes A/S, Denmark, bio environment

Bain, R.L. "Biopower Technical Assessment: State of the Industry and Technology." Technical Report(2003): 6.2. Web. 29 Jun 2011. <>.

"Clean Energy: How Biomass Energy Works." Union of Concerned Scientists. N.p., 29/10/2010. Web. 29 Jun 2011. <>.

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Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply. Oakridge: , 2005. Web. 30 Jun 2011. <>.

Nicholas Nguyen

Revised portions of the article for more flow within sections.

After reading this article, something that stuck out to me was the organization of the article. When reading the first part I felt like the article was giving many reasons to why development for biofuels should not be supported. It was later on that I realized that you introduced the counter-arguments first to show how recent developments in biofuel account for these negative aspects. I think that a more concise introduction is in order that states that the complications of biofuel will be addressed and then upcoming solutions will be offered. While reading the “Social Considerations” section, I felt like I was reading a background section. I think that this section could have gone along with the section addressing concerns for biofuel research. Different sections within the article also had different voice that seemed to make the article less coherent. Perhaps transitions would help ease the changes in each section’s voice. Also, not having known much about biofuels I think that it would be appropriate to learn the basics of biofuel quickly from reading a wiki article. The beginning of the article had left me with some loose ends regarding biofuel. Perhaps the article may have assumed the reader to be more knowledgeable on the subject and would have been more effective if it had not done this.

Eric Johnson

Interesting article however I find it incomplete without the inclusion of the environmental impact of growing such a large amount of corn. We're already seeing enormous problems from the corn belt in middle America. Look into what the runoff of pesticides, herbicides, and (the big one) fertilizers are doing to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers will do anything to improve the yeild of their government subsidized corn. The US Govt currently pays farmers to overproduce corn that much of it goes to rot in lots. I find the "food vs fuel" debate to mostly be a diversion from the real topic at hand, biofuels, in their current form aren't sustainable whatsoever. We simply do not possess the technology to effeicently harvest that energy. Money, time and effort would be wiser spent on perfecting solar technologies, and protecting the small man inventor from the sway of multi-million dollar deals from oil tycoons. This article highlyights what seems to be all positive aspects of biofuels. They do help to reduce our dependency on foreign energy, but at the end of the day, how much oil is used in the creation of that corn?

Also on another note, there are some really interesting investegations going on with USAID, the agency that dissemenates aid food to various countries around the world. Peer behind the veil of philanthropy and you'll see a very different world in actual locations. Not all situations are like this, but there are many examples of corruption and a worse way of life for those in poor countries.

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