Biofuels are fuels that derive their energy from biological carbon fixation via photosynthesis. Biofuel sources include a whole variety of plants such as corn, sugar cane, soybeans, sunflowers, maize as well as aquatic algae. The most common compounds used to make fuels are sugars, starch and vegetable oil. A wide variety of fuel types are included under the biofuel umbrella including bioalcohol (most often known as bioethanol), biodiesel, vegetable oil, and solid biofuel. Biofuels were recently considered a vital part of the world's future energy portfolio, and the most compelling argument for their production in the US was energy independence and the low of cost production. Recently, however, traditional biofuels have fallen somewhat out of favor, partly as a result of environmental and ethical concerns, and partly due to the surge of natural gas production.
Biofuels are a very complicated and constantly evolving issue as research on them intensifies and the global energy portfolio changes. Research is being directed at fuel production, for example, the development of fuels that produce the most energy and the least land area to grow. However, the key ethical issue is that the production of biofuels uses land that could also be used to grow crops to feed people. In Brazil, which is the world's second-largest producer of bioethanol, large agribusinesses are devoted to its production. However, subsistence farmers often make more money producing biofuels than crops for food, and this has led to a loss in land area for producing crops for consumption. In addition, deforestation to develop acreage for biofuel production helps to accelerate climate change. Finally, the use of agricultural land to produce biofuels has the potential to drive up the price of food.
These ethical issues are forcing the biofuel industry as well as governments around the world to invest in research into fuels that are ethically acceptable. If biofuels are to be an accepted part of our energy future, fuel sources must be developed that require less land area and less water per unit of energy. Alternatively, fuel such as cellulosic ethanol can be produced from crops or waste products that cannot be consumed; other potential fuel sources include aquatic algae and agricultural or human waste.
The following video describes the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels.