The Growth in Biofuel Production

Compiled by Delores Broten

The growth in biofuel projects around the world has been
explosive since 2001, but not all biofuels are equal.

In Victoria BC, like many cities, the gases burped out in the landfi ll as materials rot are collected and burned in a fl agship project to make electricity. 

In Ottawa, the wastewater treatment plant puts the sludge through an anaerobic compost system andcollects enough gas to generate electricity for 6,000 homes, as well as run the treatment plant. The system cost $4.5 million in 1998 and saves Ottawa taxpayers $650,000 annually. 

In Montreal, meat packing company Maple Leaf Foods announced the opening of Canada’s fi rst commercial-scale biodiesel plant. The new facility has the capacity to produce 35 million litres of biodiesel annually from animal fats and recycled cooking oils. 

There’s also a wide range of exciting experimentation going on with the use of microbes to produce fuels from natural waste materials. 

At Sacramento, a municipal pilot project is collecting food waste from restaurants and institutions, normally destined for the land fi ll, and using bacteria to produce methane gas. 

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Green- Fuel Technologies has deployed a set of natural algae, bubbling in collection tubes, which, during daylight hours, eat the air pollution from a power plant, producing methane and acting as an oil-rich fuel themselves when they die. The algae only live a few hours, but multiply naturally and cut greenhouse emissions by one third while active. 

Whatever the economics of these projects, the environmental profi t is clear. All rotting material produces methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. That is the big greenhouse gas black mark against hydroelectric dams – the fl ooded plants and trees produce methane as they rot. The more methane we can collect and burn from sludge, agricultural waste, garbage, landfi lls themselves, — any organic material that is currently a rotten disposal problem — the more “free ride” we get on our fuel usage. 

But then there are the plans all over the world to grow the plant material – wheat, corn, sugarcane, oil palms – for use as fuel, schemes some hail as rural development. Brazil is clearing more of the rainforest to grow soy for biofuel. Biofuel developments are announced almost monthly in southeast Asia and Africa where oilpalms are the crop of choice. The subsequent ferocious land clearing has prompted journalist George Monbiot to call the biofuel “the most destructive crop on earth” and to conclude: “Trying to meet a rising demand for fuel is madness, wherever the fuel might come from. The hard decisions have been avoided, and another portion of the biosphere is going up in smoke.” 


[From WS January/February 2006]

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