Biodiesel Debate: Green Fuel in Your Future?

22 June 2008 By Lauren Beck

Rising fuel prices are grabbing more headlines than green fueling alternatives, but there’s still much to be said for keeping onboard operations squeaky clean and reducing the yacht’s environmental footprint.

Soothe your green conscience with the knowledge that if you choose biodiesel it’s so much better for the earth than diesel. Or is it?

When biodiesel first entered the scene, it was all about saving the environment and lowering oil dependence. But, years down the line, it now seems that corn-based ethanol biodiesel may not be quite so earth friendly.

According to Science magazine, previous studies had originally noted that substituting biofuels for gas would reduce greenhouse gases. But that’s all changed.

In response to the corn demand for ethanol, farmers around the world converted land to new cropland to replace the corn that went to biofuel production, Science says. This scenario was not originally part of the greenhouse gas equation. Researchers have since discovered that corn-based ethanol nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.

Science also maintains that biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50 percent.

If that wasn’t bad enough, biofuel critics are maintaining that the land devoted to growing corn for ethanol is taking up valuable food land resources. Recently, the hot issue of food production bubbled over with riots in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt and Mozambique over escalating food prices.

The contention is that corn-for-ethanol production has created a corn demand that’s responsible for throwing off world food prices. But the European Biodiesel Board maintains that plant-based fuel production accounted for just three percent of world demand for grains.

Some dissenters point out that, in fact, it’s not a problem with corn per se, but rather a population explosion that’s stretching food resources. And with oil prices soaring, food prices – indeed, prices in general – are rising to account for increased transportation costs. cites rice prices (which have risen by 75 percent) and wheat prices (which have risen by as much as 120 percent) as the products that have seen most price fluctuation, not corn. But even former U.S. President Bill Clinton has sided with anti-ethanol theorists, stating that he, too, believes corn-based ethanol drives up the cost of food.

Now leading energy theorists are talking about second-generation and third-generation biofuels. According to an article from The Economist, second-generation biofuel technologies have become the “great green hope.”

These biofuels can be made from almost any form of biomass, which includes any source of organic carbon that’s renewed as part of the carbon cycle. Biomass is all derived from plant materials, but can include animal materials.

Consider, for example, what the Earthrace team did to re-fuel their wave-piercing trimaran. Capt. Pete Bethune and two other volunteers underwent liposuction; the resulting 10 liters of human fat produced seven liters of biofuel.

According to a press release, “With the boat running slowly, that’s enough to get her about fifteen kilometers.” Talk about dedication.

Perhaps this isn’t on the cards for most, but third generation biofuels may hit closer to home.

Algae, anyone? Comparatively, algae is a high-cost/high yield biofuel and, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it can produce 30 times more energy per acre than land crops.

Algae grow at levels 37 times higher than corn and 140 times higher than soybeans, the two most common crops used for biofuel. Even better, algae can grow in salt water and other harsh environments, which aren’t so good for corn or soybeans.

Although the technology for algae fuel, or “oilgae,” is not completely refined, it’s becoming a viable idea.

Perhaps that green stuff isn’t quite so smelly after all….

How will biodiesel research and use impact the luxury yachting industry? Will your yacht soon use "green" fuels? If so, what effect will this have on yacht operations and overall environmental awareness?

Let us know. Leave your comments below and be sure to vote in our interactive poll.