Fill my tank please, and check the oil and water.”
“Cane or corn, M’am?” you may be asked, as your preferred choice of biofuel.

Sound a bit strange, or even crazy? Not really, because this is the question petrol attendants at filling stations may be asking in the not too distant future.

These crops provide ideal raw material for biofuel

Why cane or corn (or in South Africa, mielies)? These two crops provide the ideal raw material to produce biofuel and are increasingly being cultivated for just that purpose. We are all aware of the world-wide energy crisis and unless we cut down on the use of fossil fuel, we may run out of supplies. So what is the solution? We look for alternative energy sources.

Other alternative energy sources are not as viable

According to Michael Grunwald, an environmental journalist for Time Magazine, other energy sources include nuclear power but at this stage, attaching a mini reactor to the back of mom’s taxi is not a great idea. Gas is another option, but in the real world, has not had enough of an impact to make a real difference. The most promising is biofuel – which means fuel made from plants.

In the USA, Brazil, Spain and Indonesia, biofuel production is huge and other crops with a high yield production like soya beans and palm oil are also being produced.

The downside to the biofuel solution

This sounds fantastic, but there is another side to the biofuel debate. Firstly, the quantities of mielies needed to fill the tank of one ethanol-fuelled SUV could feed a person for an entire year! And in the present South African maize crisis, how could we consider corn as a viable option? For every acre of corn grown for ethanol, the same acre is not producing food. And as we know, increased demand for food crops leads to an increase in prices.

Deforestation increases carbon emission

In Indonesia, so much of the indigenous wilderness has been removed to make space for palm oil production that Indonesia is now ranked third in the world for the emission of carbons into the atmosphere. With the removal of every acre of any natural environment for replacement with a biofuel product, the ability of that acre to reduce carbon emissions is reduced.

At present, deforestation creates 20% of all carbon emissions globally, so the effects of creating land for biofuel production could have a devastating effect on the environment.

In Brazil 750 000 acres of rainforest was lost in the last six months of 2007. The USA is not exempt from this; last year seven billion gallons of biofuel was produced.

Biofuel production must be strictly legislated

For biofuel production to be environmentally sound, and to protect the production of staple food needs from unstainable price hikes, a carefully co-ordinated approach is needed. According to Grunwald, “Producers and investors must be held accountable and must be governed by strict legislation which should carry draconian penalties for non compliance”.

The environment and the production of biofuels must be in a harmonious balance, and strictly monitored, or it will be the poor (as usual) that will suffer and the Earth will experience not only global warming but the destruction of her plant life.

Latest News: Sweet sorghum – the “smart biofuel”?

Latest news on the biofuel front is that sweet sorghum may be the most environmentally friendly crop to produce fuel for the world.
According to Mark Winslow of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, sweet sorghum is a corn-like plant that can grow as high as three metres in some of Earth’s most arid regions and won’t cut into world food supplies.

Sweet sorghum – used mostly as animal feed in the United States – can be turned into ethanol without damaging the food grain that grows at its top. Apparently sweet sorghum produces eight units of fuel for every unit of fuel used to make it, unlike corn-based ethanol which uses one and a half times as much energy in its production as it offers as an end product.

Won’t deplete food supplies

Sweet sorghum grows in some of the poorest regions in Asia and Africa, but farmers who grow it can still use the grain to feed themselves and their livestock, turning it into traditional porridge and flatbread, while selling the fuel-producing sugary liquid contained in the stalks to the distillery. In addition, this also has the potential to keep limited resources from these parts of the world at home, rather than sending them to oil-producing countries.

Sweet sorghum doesn’t threaten rainforests

The crop is also extremely hardy; it can survive without irrigation but will also tolerate flooding and even some salinity. It doesn’t threaten sensitive rain forest like palm oil in south-east Asia and sugar-cane in Brazil because it grows in arid areas.

The US, the world’s largest sorghum producer, is organising a conferencethis year on using sorghum as biofuel. Other countries exploring this possibility include Mexico, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Mozambique, Uganda, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil. – Reuters