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article imageJust how ethical are biofuels?

By Tim Sandle     Jun 19, 2015 in Environment
Geneva - One subject sure to divide opinion is biofuel. Are they a a sustainable energy supply or a product harmful to the environment? Swiss Federal Laboratories have developed a new way to answer this question.
Biofuel refers to any fuel made by processing something biological (normally a biomass) and many processes involve using microorganisms, as with the production of bioethanol, or, alternative, the creation of hydrocarbons. Here biofuels differ from fossil fuels, which are the products of long geological processes, or something a little more recent, in the form of nuclear power.
In terms of positive factors, biofuels provide an answer to the diminishing quantities of fossil fuels around the world. They may also be more environmentally friendly (or rather less polluting than fossil fuels). Here a product like biodiesel naturally contains little sulfur, especially when compared with the carbon version. Moreover, by being of biological origin they are also potentially sustainable.
The downside, however, is many biofuels use crops. The crops used are less likely to come from richer countries. Instead, what seems to be happening is that crops that could feed people are used to provide the raw materials for biofuels. This means less food for poorer people and a hike in prices.
To help answer the ethical question, scientists from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, plus the Swiss Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) and the HTW Berlin, Germany, have come together to come up with an online tool to assess the sustainability of biofuel production.
The new software uses 12 principles to solve the ethical riddle for a particular biofuel process. Among the criteria are: greenhouse gas emissions, food security and human and labor rights. These are then fed into a complex algorithm in order to produce the answer.
Commenting on the free-to-use tool, Rainer Zah of the Swiss Laboratories, said: "As such, the tool is targeted at all stakeholders in the biofuels sector, ranging from energy crop farmers and biofuel producers to traders who want to demonstrate the sustainability of their products."
In related news, Digital Journal recently reported that water-borne algal blooms caused by farm fertilizer runoff are a major pollutant. However, now scientists have a new solution: using the algae to make biofuels.
More about Biofuels, Fuel, carbon change, Climate change
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