Biofuels: Benefits and risks of the third world

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Posted By Irma J. McKeehan

Just as biofuels offer enormous potential, they also present risks that can be countered with strong and coherent development policies.

Global biofuel production is growing steadily and will continue to do so. Biofuels offer greater energy security, lower greenhouse gas and particulate emissions, rural development, improved vehicle performance and reduced oil demand.

But they also raise pressing questions that must be addressed before biofuels can spread across the world and particularly to Africa. These relate to land requirements, availability, policies, knowledge, standards, awareness, participation and investment.

Africa has relatively small biofuel development, except for South Africa, and more information is urgently needed on the few activities that are underway.

Globally, but particularly in Africa, policymakers and researchers are in need:

  • A better understanding of how biomass production affects food production
  • Identify appropriate biofuel feedstocks and investigate the most suitable production and processing procedures, environmental impact and potential for biofuel trade at national, regional and international levels.

Focuses on liquid biofuels: bioethanol and biodiesel. Of these two, bioethanol is currently the largest industry. Of the nearly 130 million barrels produced worldwide in 2004, 95 million barrels were bioethanol.


Commercial bioethanol is produced mainly from sugar cane, beet and corn. Other sources are sweet-stem sorghum and cassava, in addition to cellulose-rich material such as grasses, trees and various crop waste products, wood processing and municipal solid waste.

Bioethanol can be mixed with conventional fuels up to at least ten percent (10 percent ethanol: 90 percent gasoline). Kenya used 20 percent alcohol blends in the 1990s without significantly affecting engine performance. And if the engines are modified, a much higher percentage of bioethanol can be used.


Biodiesel, a dark yellow liquid, is biodegradable, non-toxic and has significantly lower emissions than petroleum-based diesel. It is virtually impossible to mix with water, has a high boiling point and low vapor pressure. It is produced from a wide variety of raw materials, including fresh soybean oil, mustard seed oil, waste vegetable oil, palm oil, rapeseed, sunflower (marigold), soybean and jatropha, copra, palm, peanut and cotton seed.

With a similar viscosity to diesel oil, it can be used in diesel engines (cars, trucks, buses, construction equipment), aircraft engines, and heating and power generation systems. It mixes easily with diesel oil and can be used as an additive to ultra-low sulfur diesel to increase its lubricity.

Almost all diesel-driven equipment can use blends of up to 20 percent biodiesel, and many engines can use high-level blends or even pure biodiesel with little or no modification. Most storage and distribution equipment uses low-level blends but requires special handling for high-level blends.

Benefits of Biofuels

Biofuels offer many benefits. By reducing the demand for oil, biofuels could make the energy supply more secure. Their use would also reduce import costs to energy-deficit countries and provide a better balance of trade and payments. All these developments would thaw the resource shortage for other pressing needs.

Greenhouse gas, carbon monoxide and particulate emissions could be significantly reduced. And biofuels also improve vehicle performance; in fact, the lubricity of biodiesel extends the life of diesel engines.

There are potential benefits for agricultural and rural development, including new jobs and income generation, which undoubtedly help achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

In addition, moving towards biofuels will create new industries and bring an increase in economic activity. It should also provide opportunities for carbon trading for many African countries.

Biofuels are renewable and both bioethanol and biodiesel are clean burning. Another important aspect is that they can be traded more easily than other alternatives, because they can be stored and distributed using existing infrastructure.

Biofuels should play a significant role in climate change policies and this will certainly open up opportunities for biofuel development in developing countries, including those in Africa.

Before biofuels become widely available, we must address a number of urgent issues. Biofuel research is still needed to identify suitable feedstocks, the most appropriate production and processing procedures, environmental impacts, potential conflict between land use and food cultivation, and international trade opportunities.

Food and biomass require the same resources for production: land, water and agrochemicals. Food and fuel needs do not necessarily compete, particularly when there is thoughtful planning for ecological conservation and sustainable production methods. But the real situation is not so clear.

Scientific perspectives

Globally, large-scale biofuel production is increasing rapidly.

More research and development is expected in several areas:

  • Continuous fermentation and immobilized cells,
  • Development of organisms with increased alcohol tolerance, wider substrate ranges and higher temperatures
  • Lower energy requirements to recover alcohol.

In some regions with high agricultural productivity and no oil sources, carbohydrates are already converted into alcohols. This trend is likely to become more widespread in the coming decades with technical progress.

Major global energy challenges

The critical importance of energy in socio-economic development and environmental protection is now universally recognised.

But the way energy is currently used is not sustainable. The challenge facing the international community is how best to move towards sustainable energy development and use.

The potential contribution of renewable energy sources and technologies, particularly in developing countries, is high. Several factors have hindered their development, including inadequate policies and limited access to existing investments and technologies.

Development must now be accelerated to help resolve critical aspects of inadequate primary energy sources in many areas. We must encourage massive investment in the development and use of energy sources and put in place training mechanisms in the energy sector.