Biofuels and the Nitrogen Cycle

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.


This entry was posted in Soil Chemical Attributes and Processes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Biofuels and the Nitrogen Cycle

  1. amalderm says:

    Biodiesel seems like a good idea, it is a renewable resource, the modification of an engine to make it able to run biodiesel in is easy to do to almost any car, and there would also be no net increase in carbon diooxide production. There are drawback though. Producing your energy source on farmland would cause a huge strain on the agricultural sector, not to mention the fact that we would be using the land we need to produce food, to produce energy. Also if we overharvest the lands for biofuel, it might start a famine we could never control. I believe that diofuel cannot be changed out for fossil fuel use, but it can however lower the amount we use.

  2. lpg42010 says:

    I agree! Great article Rynne. Although biofuels have had a positive connotation attached to them they do have very real tradeoffs that should not be overlooked. Yet, the facts are that it truly is an alternative energy source and anything that helps separate our addiction to fossil fuels should be considered. This source of energy, like fossil fuels, should not be consumed in high amounts because its overuse would definitely create a positive feedback loop. There should be some sort of balance to its use. Also, ethanol, or using corn, is a complete disaster considering almost everything we eat contains some form of corn. The answer lies within diversity and equal use.

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