From Rainforest To Biodiesel  

Posted by Big Gav

The Herald has an article today about the accelerating destruction of the Brazilian rainforest, which is apparently being turned into soy bean farms. This soy is then being used to create biodiesel. So that means we're chopping down one of the last remaining buffers against runaway global warming to create biofuels. While I like biofuels in theory, in this case I have to ask if biofuels are really renewable if the end result of clearing all the forests is drought and desertification ?

I posted recently about creating ethanol from waste biomass in paper mills. In the comments, Kurt Cobb reminded me that the end result of massive adoption of biofuels is Easter Island syndrome. While I still think some use of biofuels is a good thing (with the reuse of waste products being a good example), cutting down the remaining rainforests to do so is insane and proves Kurt's point.

First and foremost, Brazil has always been an alternative fuel leader. It's a national security issue in a developing country that, according to one estimate, imports 100,000 barrels of diesel fuel daily at a cost of $2 billion annually.

Brazil is so eager to avoid petroleum dependence that the country aggressively encouraged development of a program to switch many cars to using 100% alcohol in reaction to the energy crisis of the 1970s. Interestingly, many of the experiments in this country, which produces more sugarcane than any other, involve a dash of alcohol in the vegetable oil and diesel mix.

A big test in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, where urban buses logged 400,000 kilometers since 1997, and where a liquid biofuels conference was held a year later, helped spur interest in the product. However, it was an interest that was already there. Sixteen years ago, the heavy earth-moving equipment used in the construction of South America's largest airport, Guarulhos, in São Paulo, used vegetable oil fuel.

Recently, a number of factors have made biodiesel an interesting proposition. For one, soy complex prices have dropped, making soy-based biodiesel a relatively less-expensive alternative. Meanwhile, the Brazilians aren't limited to just soy when considering what crops they can stuff into a fuel tank. Palm oil, babassu and castor beans all can make biodiesel — not to mention used fast-food oil.

While it seems clear what is happening to the Brazilian rainforest, no one is quite sure where this Russian lake went (although even I won't blame the american government for this one, unlike one Russian villager).

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2 comments

Yep, somehow I think ultimately fields of sugarcane and soy will be a poor replacement for the rain forests.

I agree with you that bio-diesel has some promise, for many specific circumstances.

On the other hand, building a massive infrastructure that makes it easy to turn plants (of all types) into fuel really scares me, and I think what is happening in Brazil shows me that my fears may be well founded.

I think people should start experimenting more with porducing biodiesel from algae and perhaps even exotic things like biodiesel from castor oil biodiesel...

My feeling there are more feedstocks that can be explored, and these feedstocks need not necessarily destroy areas such as the rainforests of Brazil...for instance, crops such as jatropha and karankj are being tried in India...both these can grow in arid regions and are not edible...in fact, I think Jatropha seeds are poisonous!! ( BDPedia.com - The Biodiesel Encyclopedia has a section on the various plants considered for biodiesel)...

I personally like biodiesel from algae, since these can grow in water and apparently have oil yields that are over 100 times for the best yielding oilcrop!!

NS @ Plant Oils Database

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