In a world where our energy needs are increasing unabatedly, our fossil fuel supplies are decreasing equally unabatedly giving much pause for thought. In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus published his famous “an essay on the principle of population”, in which he put forth the idea that the world’s population was growing at an alarming rate while our crop production wasn’t increasing fast enough. While we have improved our agricultural ability in leaps and bounds, we seem to be facing a similar situation today with energy – our needs are projected to outstrip availability.
If only we could grow fuel, like we do crops. Some say that’s exactly what we should be doing – grow biofuel. Fermenting starch crops like corn and sugarcane can produce Bioethanol. Biodiesel can be made from oil containing plants like canola, soy and the Indian Jatropha. With experts predicting that we may run out of fossil fuels within the next 40 – 50 years, growing these fuel-crops may be one way of subverting an energy crisis. After all, waiting for a crop to grow (1 year) is much shorter than waiting for fossil fuels to form (millions of years). What’s more, burning of biofuels is also cleaner – they create less sulphur emissions and are easily degradable. Finally burning them will not alter the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – a major source of global warming. In the case of fossil fuels, carbon trapped deep within the earth is converted to carbon dioxide and added to the air. With biofuels, carbon dioxide that was extracted from the air when growing plants is released back when burnt or decomposed.
Does it sound like the world must just stop crude oil extraction and start growing crops for biofuels. There is a catch. For one, in many countries crops such as maize and sugarcane are important staples. Should we grow them for food or fuel? Even if we identify a separate set of crops for fuel, we must finally grow all of them on the limited space available to us on the planet – while being respectful to the habitats of all other species who have an equal claim to our planet. 3 centuries after Malthus’s essay, 1 in 5 people in the world are still going hungry. If we adopt biofuel production on a large scale, some of that limited farm land will be diverted to fuel supply reducing the food supply further. Many believe that poverty is not due to lack of adequate food and that we’re simply not distributing it well. For a moment, let’s assume that we fix distribution issues and ensure that no one goes hungry. As people are released from poverty, they will need more food and then more energy. If not today, at some point in the future, there will be a pressure on the world’s farmlands. Therefore, the idea that biofuels is a perpetually renewable source of energy is somewhat tenuous.
Clearly, the problem is a complex one. Researchers are experimenting with ways to avoid using food crops directly for fuels. Instead they suggest that we rely on agricultural waste and woodland refuse – an idea that makes biofuel production a very pricy proposition. In the next few decades, the outcomes of these debates will frame our future. Till then, the good news will be that it isn’t all over when the fossil fuel tanks down deep run dry.
This feature is from Agastya International Foundation (www.agastya.org), which runs hands-on science programmes for students