Much of the talk surrounding biofuels in the past has centered on corn, wheat, soybeans, and sugarcane, which are known as first generation biofuels. These food crops were seen by many as a way to become more energy independent, as they could be processed to create ethanol fuel that in turn could replace our dependence on oil. The excitement of this prospect led many countries, such as the United States, to implement mandates requiring specific amounts of ethanol to be mixed with gasoline. These countries hoped that ethanol could help by lessening the impact of oil prices on the economy and by saving the environment from the increasing use of oil.
While the intentions of ethanol were good, the results have not been as promising. Because ethanol is a first generation biofuel, it uses plants that could be used for human consumption instead. This raises ethical questions, as the US devotes 40% of its corn crop to ethanol fuel, while people in the world are starving. In recent years, new concerns about ethanol’s environmental impact have emerged that many did not expect. New studies have shown that ethanol actually has much less of a positive impact than once expected, with some studies showing it is not much better than crude oil. Ethanol mandates have led to much more undeveloped land being turned into agricultural fields, destroying habitats and cutting down trees. These fields use lots of valuable water, while also infecting the environment with pesticides and chemicals.
These problems have led to the reduction in ethanol mandates and greatly lessened the excitement in ethanol research. Luckily, researchers seem to have found a new source for fuel that would alleviate many of the issues with first generation biofuels. Second generation biofuels, made from inedible parts of plants, are the new lines of research that could be the answer to some of our energy independence problems. These biofuels use plant waste instead of produce, easing ethical and environmental concerns, as no food would be sacrificed for fuel and no new farms would be needed. These advantages have encouraged technological advances, resulting in a new second generation biofuel plant being opened in the United States this month. The new plant will convert corn cobs, leaves, and husks into biofuel, and it is projected to produce 20 million gallons of fuel a year and be profitable within 2 years.
The economics of second generation biofuels are also a reason for optimism. Biofuel plants will be able to spend less money acquiring their resources compared to traditional ethanol, since they are only purchasing the crop waste. Projections released by a second generation biofuel company show that they expect their ethanol to compete with gasoline prices in a couple of years, and even sooner if oil prices increase. Increasing oil prices could lead more companies and investors to open biofuel plants, especially in Europe, Brazil, and the United States, where investments of over $50 billion in the next decade could be seen.
Second generation biofuels could be the answer that first generation fuels tried to provide. Its smaller impact ethically and environmentally, and bigger impact economically, could help to decrease global dependence on crude oil. Reductions in oil dependence would dramatically affect economies around the world, shifting power and changing global politics.