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Biowaste and Biofuels: Where Are We Headed?

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With global climate change and the cost of gas a concern, there has been a push to develop more sustainable and environmentally friendly fuels. But what exactly has been created?

Let’s start with the basics: Biowaste is waste that is composed of organic matter, such as manure, plant waste, and animal waste. Biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel, are produced either directly or indirectly from organic material, and include fuels made from biowaste.

However, not all biofuels are created equal. There have been a number of controversies surrounding the use of agricultural products as biofuels. One ethical issue surrounding corn ethanol production in the United States is the effect it has on food prices. As more crops go toward creating biofuels, there are less being used for food, and the price of staple foods may continue to increase. Another concern is the effect changes in land use have on greenhouse emissions. One of the arguments for moving away from gasoline products is to slow down the rate of climate change. Yet some calculations show that changes in land use may actually make the greenhouse problem worse.

This is where biowaste comes in. Using waste to make energy is not a new idea. Coal has been used to create energy from wood for thousands of years. An ever-increasing population means more waste and more opportunities to convert this waste into energy. In an attempt to mitigate the corn ethanol controversies, scientists have come up with a way to make cellulose ethanol from agricultural wastes, rather than the crops themselves. A plant in Iowa operates with the goal of converting agricultural wastes such as cornhusks, wood chips, and grass clippings into cellulose ethanol. In contrast to corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol may reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent when compared to reformulated gasoline. Without subsidies from the government, plants like the one in Iowa may struggle to stay afloat.

A recent scientific breakthrough has been to create energy out of fish scales. Researchers at Jadaypur University have developed a biodegradable energy harvester from raw fish scales that could be used to create pacemaker devices for the heart. It turns out that fish scales contain certain fibers that generate an electric charge when exposed to mechanical stress. Fish biowaste could also be used to make other biodegradable and transparent electronics.

Algae-derived biofuels have also recently entered the spotlight. The photosynthetic abilities of these organisms are being used to generate energy at a much larger scale than ethanol. Algae’s ability to harness CO2 is an additional benefit that may help to reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change.

With such an abundance of alternative fuel options made from biowaste, we now need appliances and electronics that are able to use these fuel sources. Using waste products instead of food crops and petroleum has the potential to benefit both human and environmental health. The reduction in greenhouse gases, reallocation of agricultural land to food crops, and improvement of fuel security in the United States could add jobs and help mitigate pollution for generations to come. But with the controversies around biofuels, energy innovation must always take into account its impact on global health.

Photo Credit: TheFriendlyFiend via Flickr

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