After an early Easter dinner yesterday afternoon, and after escaping dish duty, I found an article in the Economist on the failure of biofuels. Biofuels from plants such as sugar cane and corn seem like a wonderful
alternative to fossil fuels. The idea behind biofuels is that when these fuels photosynthesize, they intake carbon dioxide so burning them would have little net effect. Biofuels are especially attractive as an alternative energy resource because they are renewable.
Many governments have made significant moves towards converting its energy resources into a renewable biofuel form. According to the report, Britain has about 5 percent of its total fuel, 10 percent of Frances’ fuel, 4 percent of Germany’s fuel, 10 percent of the Netherland’s fuel, 90 percent of New Zealand’s electricity, 7.5 percent of Poland’s fuel, and 12.1 percent of Spain’s fuel is made from biomass.
The International Council for Science has evaluated what gasses are actually released into the atmosphere when these biofuels are combusted. Carbon dioxide has received so much attention as the most important greenhouse gas but its only the most abundant gas contributing to climate change. Other gasses such as methane are much worse but aren’t as abundant. At the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry, it has been concluded that biofuels are actually worse for the greenhouse gas problem than they were thought to be. By combusting these fuels, much more Nitrous oxide is being released than originally thought. The Economist states that these fuels negate any advantage of reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Nitrous Oxide is worse than carbon dioxide in that it has almost three hundred times the warming capacity than an equal mass of carbon dioxide.
From class, we learned about the different compounds involved in the Nitrogen cycle. Atmospheric nitrogen converts to ammonia in soil organic matter, then into ammonium, then to nitrate through nitrification. Ammonium and Nitrate are then taken up by vegetation. Nitrate is able to then undergo anaerobic nitrification back into atmospheric nitrogen. Nitrogen is also available in water in ammonium, ammonia or nitrate forms. In recent history, this cycle has undergone many changes. The ratios that existed under a well balanced system have changed due to artifically adding nitrogen to soils and extracting it from the atmosphere. This has caused eutrophication due to runoff from farms and algal blooms. The balance of these components is very important for our climate to function properly. The Economist Biofuel article named that this imbalance of Nitrogen is due to the use of fertilizers and the natural process of nitrification and the release of nitrous oxide when these fuels are combusted.
As a solution to this particular problem, scientists are now trying to find ways to properly assess the issue and address the problem. Global warming, its effects, and in this instance, its solutions are obviously difficult to properly assess.