The premise of biofuels offers hope for an alternative fuel that can ease the country’s dependence on petroleum. It contributes nearly 30 percent to total greenhouse gas emissions. Anything that can lessen its impact would be welcome, hence, the focus on biofuels. Unfortunately, the promise is eclipsed by the reality.
Carbon Dioxide and Biofuels
The production of biofuels necessitates the release of carbon dioxide emissions. There is the equipment needed to plant, maintain and harvest the crops. There is the environmental cost to get it to market. There is also the processing of biofuels, all of which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. This is all to say nothing of the fact that combustion of biofuels releases carbon dioxide, albeit less. However, another more potent danger lurks.
Nitrous Oxide and Biofuels
To maintain crops for biofuels requires the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Essentially, plants would not exist without nitrogen. It serves some of the most basic functions for plant life, including photosynthesis, energy transfer and protein synthesis. Use of fertilizers with nitrogen helps increase crop yields by supplying plants with this vital nutrient.
The result is that combustion of biofuels releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. This chemical has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. While not released in the same quantities as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide remains a serious environmental threat.
According to Professor Lars Bakken, with the Nitrogen Group at the University of Life Sciences (UMB) in Norway, the potential of biofuels means virtually zero gain with using biofuels instead of petroleum. In fact, the scale may tip toward an increased environmental risk from climate change. This threat holds true whether it is corn, soybean or algae. All plants contain nitrogen. Synthetic and organic fertilizers both contribute to the problem.
The risks don’t end there. With an increase in nitrous oxide emissions comes soil acidification. The potential for then acidifying water sources exists. The chemical breakdown of nitrous oxide into ammonia presents another concern regarding acid rain. The reality is that biofuels promise more than what is actually delivered, along with other negative environmental impacts. The path toward reducing fuel emissions must then rely on technology for answers.