Attributes of best biofuel: Cost-efficient, eco-friendly


February 11, 2007

Disparate, powerful factions are unified that the world needs to find an alternative to fossil fuels. The World Economic Forum and President George W. Bush's State of the Union address both sounded the alarm on America's dependence on foreign sources of energy. Hopes are high for the United States to find ways to become less dependent on gasoline

The tides have finally begun to shift, and the world is now embracing the challenge of reducing greenhouse gases. Companies that participate in the process intelligently can reap significant economic benefits.

A key emerging opportunity is biofuels - fossil-fuel substitutes developed from renewable green plants. The path to a greener world includes government subsidies and grants as well as private enterprise.

But when governmental monies are in play, some programs get funded that otherwise would not. Ethanol is a great example of a biofuel "solution" that may be creating more harm than good. Ethanol, produced naturally from fermentation by yeasts and other microorganisms, is subsidized heavily by the federal government. Currently in the United States, corn grain is the main feedstock for ethanol production. American taxpayers are billed heavily to subsidize the country's privately owned ethanol plants.

What problems exist when a large amount of ethanol is produced from corn? Corn is a primary source of livestock feed, and feedlot owners have seen their costs rise dramatically because of ethanol production. These costs will be passed on to consumers.

Additionally, these crops are not sustainable. When crops are harvested, the embedded nutrients are removed and not replaced through the natural process of recycling dead plants back into the land to provide nutrients for the next generation. Ethanol production uses large amounts of water, which could exacerbate the water shortage worldwide, which is already occurring in some arid countries. Another factor: Farm machinery and vehicles burn fossil fuels to harvest and transport the crops. This process contributes considerable amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.

The most environmentally and economically attractive segment of biofuels opportunities is biodiesel developed from vegetable oil. The oil is extracted from a variety of crops, including soybean, rapeseed and palm oil. However, these sources have significant drawbacks. They require extensive land use, which displaces food crops, and are not the most productive or efficient source of vegetable oil. Private enterprise is flocking to the biodiesel business sector and is opening up the floodgates for research and development of eco-conscious and cost-effective solutions.

As necessity is the "mother of invention," exploration of algae as a potent biofuel is exploding. Private enterprise sees algae as the source of a new renewable biofuel to meet the needs of a "green" market. Cost-effective eco-technology practices could produce rapidly growing algae that require minimal water or agricultural land.

Today, nearly 60 percent of oil is used for ground transportation. Algae-to-oil technology could significantly reduce dependency on fossil fuels while providing a generous financial return on investment. Supplementary income can also be generated from the secondary byproduct of the algae harvesting, which can be utilized in animal feed or agricultural fertilizer.

While the government can afford to champion green practices that do not produce green returns, the same cannot be said for eco-technology companies, which rely on investors. Private enterprise will ultimately champion the biofuel solutions that deliver on their promises of being cost-effective and environmentally positive.

DOUG FRATER is the president and CEO of Global Green Solutions Inc., which develops and implements eco-technology solutions to produce renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in energy-industry applications.