The need to find alternatives to fossil fuels is driven by two things: dwindling resources and carbon emissions. One of the most lauded alternatives to fossil fuels over the last few years has been biofuels. Rather than taking vegetable matter that is millions of years old, why not take new bio-matter to make fuel for car engines and power plants? It is an idea that seems great but has led to problems.
The first problem has been to do with economics. If people can grow crops to turn into fuel they can make more money from doing this than from growing food. Both fuel and food are needed, but in the context of big corporate entities entering an area and sequestering the best growing land for fuel that is taken away does create a bad situation. The world population seems to be on an unstoppable upward curve and so food demand is ever increasing. Taking land away from the food production process thus seems counter intuitive.
Part of the solution to making biofuels a viable alternative to oil, coal or natural gas is to make it more efficient. The major constraint in the past has been the transesterification process: it produces about 5 liters of waste glycerine for every 100 liters of product. This glycerine is contaminated and has been uneconomic to purify and use in the past.
John McNeil at the UK company called Aquafuel Research has developed a cheap process that allows for the conversion of any conventional diesel engine to a ‘fuel flexible’ engine that can run off glycerine.
This is exciting news for the biofuels business. It means that the formerly waste product of glycerine could be used as a fuel. This makes the process more efficient and helps to reduce carbon emissions. Certain big users of fuels such as consumer product shipping could convert to glycerine. The added advantage of this is that glycerine if spilt in the ocean is not as toxic and damaging as oil.
Now is the time for engineers to step forward with ways to utilize the extra 5% of potential fuel that using glycerine represents in the biofuels process.
Image taken from www.abc.net.au
This shows clearly the price saving of using biofuels. The story also highlights how demand for cheaper biofuels is outstripping supply.