Drawbacks of modern production of biodiesel

produzione biodiesel

Today many people talk about the benefits of using biodiesel. We also have an article about What is biodiesel, published last week.

However, many of us still ignore that the modern way of producing biodiesel may not be very sustainable.

In fact, the biodiesel production could be a double-edge sword solution if carried out improperly.

Today’s biodiesel issues

Today the biggest issue concerns the type of feed-stock utilised as primary source for biodiesel and biofuels production.

The illogicality of a world run by economic forces, ends up producing more than 95% of biodiesel from edible oil.

This is a delicate point because the limited arable land destined to oil crops, makes food industry competing with resources required for conversion into fuels.  [1]

In a world where population is expected to grow up to 10 billion people by 2050, it is evident that direct exploitation of food species and best arable lands for oil crops cultivation in order to obtain the best end product, may be a non-sustainable choice.

For this reason, large-scale production of biodiesel from edible oils may bring global imbalance to the food supply and demand market. [2]

To obtain biodiesel, vegetable oils (soybean, sunflower, palm oil) or animal fats (mainly from beef and pork) are subjected to a chemical reaction termed transesterification.

This chemical process simply involves the use of common alcohols like methanol or ethanol.
Ethanol is the most common alchol found in alcholic beverages and it is nowadays produced on large scale from sugar (such as sugar cane in Brazil) or starch (such as corn grain in the USA).

Since these raw materials can also be used as food or as animal feed, conflicts between the biodiesel industry and the food and feed industry have also been raised.


Possible solutions

To avert economic imbalances in markets, it’s necessary to avoid increases in starch price and other feedstocks.

A solution could be found in the reduction of the worldwide meat consumption, thus mitigating the contrasts between the food and feed indutry. 

(If you would like to be inspired about great plant-based recipes, don’t look further than our Nutraceutic section!)

At the same time, in order to reduce the problems associated with the conversion of food into fuels, others non-edible feed-stocks are needed.

One of the most interesting solutions is the use of lignocellulosic biomass, which simply refers to the use of dry plant biomass composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin.

Lignocellulosic biomass is the most common raw material that man can find in our planet to produce biofuels.

When we talk about lignocellulosic biomass we are talking about plants dry matter like forestry residues (trees, branches, foliage, roots resulting from logging and forest managment), agricultural resideus (straws from wheat, maize, rice and other cereals), municipal solid waste (kitchen and garden waste) and food industry processing waste.

In nature these raw materials are very common and inexpensive and their high content of cellulose and hemicellulose make them optimal sources of ethanol. [3]

The better usage of forestry waste would also mitigate another important problem associated with the modern production of biofuels.
In fact, the bigger demand of biodiesel pushes companies to find more good arable land, thus increasing in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil the deforestation process. [1]

The Brazialian example

Brazil’s production of biofuel is based on the cultivation of sugar cane, which is mostly classified as “sustainable”. However, the effects of indirect land use have been evaluated as detrimental, because exceeding the benefits derived from substitution of petrodiesel in favour of biodiesel. 
[4, 5]

Where should we focus in future?

The use of biomass in both energy and transport sectors promises many environmental benefits. It can substitute fossil fuels whilst reducing greenhouse effect, sequestrating atmospheric CO2 via photosynthesis.

The problems of large monoculture fields, even for biomass production, are always knocking at the door threatening the delicate environmental equilibrium.

Sources of biomass for both food and biofuels need to be produced in a sustainable way, avoiding waste of scarce water supplies, energies, nutrients and paying lot of attention to land and to quantities of pesticides utilised.

The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, considered fast-growing hardwood to be the best possible option. [6]

Cannabis may be also a very interesting option to be utilised in this area thanks to its high cellulose composition which is comparable to that of a hardwood, and due to the extremely rapid growth cycle compared to that of other high cellulose content organisms, may be more advantageous. [7]

If you want to discover why Cannabis is an optimal choice for biofuels, check out our article “Cannabis as a resource for biofuels”.

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[1] Ahmad, M., Khan, M., Zafar, M., & Sultana, S. (2011). Biodiesel from Non Edible Oil Seeds: a Renewable Source of Bioenergy, Economic Effects of Biofuel Production. InTech Europe.

[2] Ayhan, D. (2009). Progress and recent trends in biodiesel fuels. Energy Conversion and Management, 50 (1), 14-34.

[3] González-García, S., Luo, L., Moreira, M. T., Feijoo, G., & Huppes, G. (2012). Life cycle assessment of hemp hurds use in second generation ethanol production. biomass and bioenergy, 36, 268-279.

[4] Kerckhoffs, H., & Renquist, R. (2013). Biofuel from plant biomass. Agronomy for sustainable development, 33(1), 1-19.

[5] Lapola DM, Schaldach R, Alcamo J, Bondeau A, Koch J, Koelking C, Priess JA (2010) Indirect land-use changes can overcome carbon savings from biofuels in Brazil. Proc Natl Acad Sci 107:3388– 3393

[6] IPCC (1996) Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories

[7] Deeley, M. R. (2002). Could cannabis provide an answer to climate change?. Journal of Industrial Hemp, 7(1), 133-138.

Andrea Cristofoletto

Andrea Cristofoletto is a certified Yoga Teacher and has been studying the ancient science of yoga in India under the guidance of Sri Yogacharya Lalit Kumar from the Himalayan Tradition. He has deepened his knowledge on the therapeutic use of asana, pranayama, chanting, meditation and kriya techniques under the wise guidance of Ratheesh Kumar Atmaram. He has a BSc in Foreign Languages - Business Communication Specialist and graduated with a thesis on the socio-economic importance of the hemp fibre throughout history. Andrea has gained his experience through direct training in hemp fields practising organic agriculture.

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