Biofuels: More harmful than beneficial for your car?

The use of biofuels in vehicles is rapidly spreading across the world. It is common now to find fuels with at least some biofuel mixed in, and it might be a matter of time before all vehicular fuel is at least partially made of biofuel. And while there are many debates about the benefits and disadvantages of biofuels to the environment, the question remains: what are the advantages and disadvantages to the consumer's vehicle?

The most popular and widely used biofuels today are ethanol and biodiesel, ethanol being used for non-diesel vehicles. Many people think these biofuels are a good alternative fuel source. Here are the reasons why:

Some biofuels are biodegradable, less toxic than conventional fuels, and are safer to handle.

They can be domestically produced from plant products. Plants are quickly renewable compared to fossil fuels.

They can be used in most vehicles today. Newer ones are specifically made to accommodate larger amounts of biofuels. Additionally, biodiesel increases lubricity of diesel fuels, a major benefit to owners of vehicles with diesel engines.

When combusted, biofuels give off cleaner emissions and less greenhouse gasses. Particualte mattter emissions from biodiesel are much lower compared to petroleum biodiesel (but yield higher nitrous oxide emissions). And according to Agronne National Lab, gasoline blended with 10% ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12-19% in comparison to conventional gasoline.

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At first look, these advantages seem promising, but as research continues to delve into the details, the disadvantages seem to outweigh the advantages. Here are few facts to take note of:

For the consumer, the use of biofuels means lower fuel economy and engine power. According the EIA, ethanol's energy content is near 33% less than conventional gasoline, although this can vary slightly. Subsequently, when using E10 fuel (gasoline mixed with 10% ethanol), there may be close to a 3.3% decrease in vehicle mileage. It is important for the consumer to consider this information in light of the fact that biofuels are more expensive to purchase than conventional fuels.

Some biofuels are not suited for use in colder climates. Biodiesel especially can cause problems due to the fact that it has a higher gelling temperature than regular petroleum. In much the same way cooking oil can solidify when too cold, biodiesel can solidify too, making it nearly impossible to start a vehicle. A heating unit would need to be installed near the fuel tank to remedy this problem.

Also, there are not many vehicles on the market right now that could withstand higher blends of biofuels. To make a car run on pure biodiesel (plant oil), many alterations to the engine and fuel system would need to be made.

Finally, biofuels are not as environmentally friendly as many would like to think. According to a study at OSU, the cost-effectiveness of biofuels is lower than thought. When all the calculations are run, the production of biofuels actually raises greenhouse gas emissions. Not to mention the fact that using a food supply for use as fuel challenges many people's ethics and societal priorities.

 

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