Thursday, October 11, 2012

The energy-food crisis

Ah, petroleum, our boon and our bane. Common wisdom has it that oil will run out fairly soon...there's a limited supply of it.

Because of this, people are turning to alternative fuels. There are two major alternative fuels: Ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol is made out of, generally, corn. Perfectly good corn. Corn that we could be eating or feeding to animals. And herein lies the problem. Encouraging biofuels is causing farmers to sell their corn to ethanol manufacturers for a higher price. That means food prices have to go up...and up. Not just corn prices, but meat prices too, because corn is used as a high energy food to fatten up cattle and pigs and is a major component in poultry feed. So, the use of ethanol means less corn and what there is costs more.

And all of our food prices go up.

When third world countries get on the ethanol bandwagon, then people start to go hungry. People start skipping meals to save money and then they start starving.

So. Ethanol, at least in any large quantities, is bad. What about biodiesel?

Biodiesel causes another problem...Brazil chopping down the rainforest to plant soy beans to make it. However, it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, for normal street cars (diesel is not suitable for race cars and very high end sports cars), as well as for trains, trucks and farm vehicles, biodiesel is the IT fuel. Why?

First of all, biodiesel can very easily be made out of cooking oil. Used cooking oil. McDonald's started the trend in 2003. McDonald's, as you can imagine, uses a lot of cooking oil. Enough to fuel all of their vehicles...and that's the eventual plan. Smaller restaurants now often sell their used cooking oil to biodiesel manufacturers. This means that the used cooking oil doesn't end up in landfill or the sewer system and, instead, is turned into clean burning, renewable fuel. (It's also possible to modify a diesel engine to use vegetable oil, although used oil still has to be cleaned...and the engine will still run on regular diesel or biodiesel).

On top of that, to make ethanol, you need a still. To make biodiesel? More and more people are 'homebrewing' their own biodiesel (some recipes require ethanol, but it's easier to make with methanol, which is generally made from natural gas...a fossil fuel, but one which can be made from waste and will likely, thus, be with us for a long time). Biodiesel can also be made out of animal fat, which can come from renderers (renderers process carcasses that are unfit for human consumption, generally horses and livestock that have died of natural causes or disease).

Finally, plants are experimenting with creating oils for biodiesel from algae, fungi and yeast. A 'bioreactor' contains, generally, fast growing algae in a plastic tube, through which water primed with nutrients is pumped.

So, perhaps, one possible answer to the food energy crisis is to make your next car a diesel. Or, better yet, a diesel-electric hybrid, many of which have shown up this year. Any diesel engine can run on up to 20% biodiesel without modification and many new vehicles can run on B100 from the factory.

So...ethanol bad. Biodiesel good.