Bio-fuels are constantly in news these days. Newspapers and magazines are filled with articles relating to new discoveries in the field of bio/alternative fuels, governments increasing the funds and subsidiaries for projects on environment friendly fuels. The use of bio-fuels certainly seems to paint a rosy picture now. But are they really what they seem? That is the question many are voicing today.
Theoretically bio fuels can be prepared from any biological carbon source, the most common being photosynthetic plants. The modern use of bio fuels can be dated back to the Second World War when the severe demand for oil forced Germany to start using alcohol, fermented from potatoes, along with regular fossil fuels to power its vehicles. That gave the first impetus to bio-fuels as the alternative fuel to petrol and diesel. But after the war, the price of oil eased and the concept of bio-fuels faded away from limelight. The Energy crisis of 1970’s saw renewed interest in Bio-fuels but did not last long. But bio-fuels have been given special attention since the dawn of the new millennium as experts predict that fossil fuels would dry up by the end of the century.
Multinational companies and developed countries started investing heavily in developing bio-fuel believing that it would be the redefining technology of the future.
This resulted in a situation similar to the Gold Rush of 19th century and there was a feverish search for new bio fuels. With investors rushing in to fund projects this led to a series of unwise and hasty decisions. With massive help from the tag ‘eco-friendly’ bio fuels are given a free hand. But some major concerns remain unaddressed. The chief among them is the Food vs. Fuel Debate. If growing bio fuel crops becomes lucrative because of better subsidiaries and support price from government, then the chances are high that any average farmer would start cultivating bio fuel and that production of food crops would fall resulting in increase in their prices. This would lead to inflation and large scale mal-nutrition, especially in the Third World countries.
The second challenge is that cultivating in large tracts of land would result in loss of habitat of animals and plants. This would put huge pressure on the already fragile ecosystem and bio diversity of the planet. And the third most pressing problem is the whole question of how effective bio fuels are, in controlling carbon emissions. Because it is yet to be conclusively proved that the entire process of growing, processing and burning of these fuels is more carbon efficient than conventional sources like fossil fuels.
No doubt, the world needs alternative fuels fast to meet its burgeoning energy needs. But it would not be prudent to consider bio fuels our saviours before addressing the major challenges and questions raised by their use.