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Nicholas Shea

Professor Semih Eser

Honors Energy and the Environment

9 April 2019


This paper will provide an overview of relevant information on biomass energy. This will

include a review of the historical prevelance of biomass energy, a discussion of technical

specifics of biomass energy and current relevant information. The rise of modern biofuels will be

examined and the effects of biofuels on the environment, society and economy will be analyzed.

Conclusions will be drawn about the outlook for biofuels in the future, based on current trends.

Biofuels in America: Past, Present and Future

Biomass is the earliest form of renewable energy to be utilized by humans, and has been

used since the first people harnessed the power of controlled fire. The term biofuel simply refers

to any biological material, usually plant based, that can be harvested and burnt to release heat

energy. Unlike fossil fuels, biofuels are considered renewable since they are able to be re-grown

and harvested in a short amount of time. Biofuels of many types have been used extensively

throughout much of the history of humanity, and have gained new relevance through the

industrial era. The biofuel industry now plays an important role in America’s modern

transportation and energy infrastructure. Overwhelmingly, the most significant use of biofuels

today is the use of biodiesels and ethanol in fuels for internal combustion engines. At this point

in time, these fuels contribute a non trivial amount of energy to America’s transportation

industry, supplementing fossil fuels in powering vehicles. America’s transportation industry is

incredibly robust at the moment, and just as robust is its fossil fuel consumption. Given the
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impending threat of climate change, it is clear that this institutional burning of fossil fuels is

unsustainable. It is difficult to accurately predict the future, but the need for America’s

transportation system shift away from the use of fossil fuels, coupled with the environmental

concerns associated with extensive biofuel production, will likely cause the role of biofuels to

diminish or be significantly relocated in the future. If biofuels are to play a significant role in

America’s energy future, that role will likely look much different than the role that they currently

play. This paper will investigate in greater detail the historical use of biofuels, the implications of

current biofuel use and the possibilities for biofuels in the future.

Literature Review: History, Relevant Facts

By definition, a biofuel in the modern sense is a liquid fuel that is derived from animal or

plant based biomass (Better Biofuels), but for much of human history, biomass has been

collected and used as a source of heat. As long as humans have utilized the technology of fire,

humans have been using biomass energy, making it the oldest renewable energy source (How

Biopower works). For thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution, humans all around the

world used biomass to cook food and provide themselves with warmth. Utilizing biomass for

these basic necessities is universal to the human experience, as essentially all cultures throughout

history have engaged in this practice. Even today, many people use biomass for heating and

cooking, especially in developing nations. The practice is so common that these traditional uses

of biomass resources account for approximately 90% of global bioenergy consumption (Energy


Though burning biomass in a traditional manner remains common globally, the most

economically significant use of biomass is represented by the liquid biofuel industry, particularly

ethanol, annd to a lesser extent biodiesel. The modern ethanol industry in America began during
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the 1970s. During this time, prices of crude oil increased significantly creating a demand for

alternative fuel sources for transportation. At the same time, concerns were growing about the

effects of leaded gasoline on the environment and public health, and an alternative oxygenate

was desired. Because of these factors, ethanol began to be used as an additive in gasoline

(Gustafson). Demand for ethanol increased significantly following the 1990s, when Tertiary

Butyl Ether was no longer to be used as an oxygenate and a desire to increase energy

independence and use of clean fuels existed. Throughout the 2000s several acts of federal

legislation have sponsored the production of ethanol. The energy independence and security act

of 2007 now calls for the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022 (Gustafson). Since

then, ethanol production has increased dramatically. From 2007 to 2017, actual ethanol

production in the US increased from 6.52, to 15.80 billion gallons per year, with global

production following a similar trend (Ethanol Production). Currently the US and Brazil produce

an overwhelming share of the worlds ethanol, with the US producing more overall than Brazil.

Corn is primarily used in the US, whereas sugarcane is used in Brazil. Ethanol is now plays a

notable role in the energy economy, with approximately 97% of gasoline in the United States

being mixed with ethanol (Biofuels Basics). Though biofuels only account for 5% of US

transportation energy (4% ethanol and 1% biodiesel), this amounts to a massive amount of

energy given the enormous size of the industry, and is greater than the contribution of natural

gas, which is 3% (Energy Use For Transportation).

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A chart from the US Department of Energy showing world ethanol production by country from
2007 to 2017 (Global Ethanol).

Discussion: Current and Future Impacts and Outlooks

Environmental Concerns

Biomass is generally considered to be a renewable resource due to its ability to be re-

grown in a relatively short amount of time, whereas fossil fuel take hundreds of millions of years

to form (How Biopower). The biomass used to make modern biofuels is generally grown on a

farm, harvested, refined then burnt as fuel. An article by the Union of Concerned Scientists

explains the process that occurs as biofuels are produced and consumed.

Through the process of photosynthesis, chlorophyll in plants captures the sun's

energy by converting carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground into

carbohydrates—complex compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

When these carbohydrates are burned, they turn back into carbon dioxide and

water and release the energy they captured from the sun (How Biopower).

The amount of carbon that is released when the fuels are burnt is equal to the amount that is

absorbed by the crops planted to produce the same amount of fuel, so, in theory, biofuels are a

carbon neutral resource. However, in practice it is debated whether or not the use of these
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resources reduce overall carbon emissions. A study conducted by scientists at the State

University of Campinas in Brazil concluded that, “Emergy accounting method showed

quantitatively that biofuels are not renewable energy sources,” citing that the carbon footprint of

the fossil fuels used in the biofuels industry offset the carbon that would have been saved by

using the biofuels (Ortega et al). The authors also specify that the biofuel industry is currently

very reliant on fossil fuels. Another significant concern is that ecosystems that provide a natural

carbon sink are being destroyed in order to create farmland for biofuel feedstocks, causing a net

gain in carbon release (Place). However, others have argued that ethanol is in fact legitimately

renewable, citing that the energy in the finished ethanol amounts to more energy than was used

in fossil fuel inputs by 20 to 40% (Mosier and Ileleji). Though biofuels offer a carbon neutral

energy alternative in theory, it is uncertain whether this is always the case given the notable

possible complications.

Social and Economic Impacts

Production of ethanol in the United States has become a major industry, and significant

economic and social implications are now associated with it. The renewable fuel standard was

created in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, and expanded in the 2007 Energy Independence and

Security Act. The program is a national policy that requires a set amount of petroleum based

fuels to be replaced by renewable biofuels, with a target of 36 billion gallons by 2022 (Overview

for Renewable). Since 2007 the amount of ethanol produced in the US has more than doubled,

increasing from 6.52, to 15.80 billion gallons in 2017 (Ethanol Production). To support this

massive production, production of corn increased, with a large share of total national production

being used to produce ethanol. In fact, in 2018 just under 40% of US corn production was used

to produce ethanol (US Corn). This means that a very large number of American farmers rely on
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income generated from the ethanol industry. This is concerning, because if a large scale retreat

from the use of ethanol were to occur, many farmers could lose their livelihood. The subsequent

collapse in consumption could be problematic for the economy as a whole, but would be most

devastating to those in the industry.

A chart showing US corn production and corn used for ethanol (US Corn).

Future Outlook

The future of biofuels and ethanol in the United States will be impactful for both the

environment and socio-economic society, and will be determined with the influence of several

factors. The most obvious concern for the future of biofuels is the rise of electric automobiles.

Ethanol is almost exclusively used in the transportation industry as an additive for gasoline. If

gasoline powered cars are phased out and replaced by electric cars, then the current market for

ethanol will become essentially nonexistent. The reason that this is likely to happen is that fossil

fuel powered transportation is contributing massively to CO2 emissions, which in turn are

causing climate change. It has been clear for some time that burning fossil fuels for

transportation is not sustainable, and that an alternative will soon be necessary. In this regard the
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future of biofuels seems limited, as they may soon become obsolete. It would be theoretically

possible to power internal combustion engines with pure ethanol; however, the amount of crop

resources needed to do this would be prohibitively massive, and the detriment to the environment

would not be worth it. If there is to be a future for the biofuel industry, it will likely look much

different than the current industry. Advanced biopower methods may be used to contribute to

electricity production once fossil fuels have been phased out, and could possibly provide a

contribution on the order of 15% of US electricity generation (How Biopower). However, before

this could become a reality, advances would need to be made in biofuel production technologies.

Some believe that advances in producing cellulosic ethanol could provide significant potential

for sustainable, clean ethanol production (Better Biofuels). Whatever the future may hold for

biofuels, it is likely that the current market structure will not persist far into the future.


Biomass energy has been and remains an important part of human anthropology, while

modern biofuels have gained socio-economic importance over the last decades. Particularly in

the United States and Brazil, production of ethanol has dramatically increased over the last

decade, and is now at record levels. It is unclear whether or not biofuels provide a net positive or

negative effect on the environment, but it is clear that, as with any resource, certain risks are very

possible if managed poorly. The economic implications of ethanol production are very

significant, given that a massive amount of US corn production is devoted to the industry. This is

concerning when one considers that the demand for ethanol for its current purpose may be short

lived. If gasoline vehicles are to be phased out, then the current ethanol market would become

obsolete, which could be problematic economically, especially for farmers and those otherwise

in the ethanol industry. If biofuels are to play a role in America’s energy future, it may be in the
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form of biopower, and through the utilization of advanced technologies. If one thing is clear, it is

that change is inevitable in the face of challenges like climate change. Society needs to be

prepared for these changes, and to engage in active dialogue to determine the best path forward.
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Works Cited

"Better Biofuels." Union of Concerned Scientists,

biofuels. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

"Biofuels Basics." Department of Energy,

Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

"Energy Resources: Biomass." World Energy Council, Accessed 8 Apr. 2019.

"Energy Use for Transportation." US Energy Information Administration, 23 May 2018, Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

"Global Ethanol Production." US Department of Energy, Apr. 2018,

Accessed 9 Apr. 2019. Chart.

Gustafson, Cole. "History of Ethanol Production and Policy." North Dakota State University,

policy. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

"How Biopower Works." Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Nov. 2015,

energy-works.html. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

Mosier, Nathan S., and Klein Ileleji. "How Fuel Ethanol Is Made from Corn." Purdue University, Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.

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Ortega, Enrique, et al. "Are Biofuels Renewable Energy Sources?" Global Bioenergy,

_Are_biofuels_renewable_energy_sources.pdf. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

"Overview for Renewable Fuel Standard." Environmental Protection Agency,

Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.

Place, Eric De. "The Problem With Biofuels." Sightline, 21 Feb. 2008, Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.

"US Corn for Fuel Ethanol, Feed and Other Use." US Department of Energy, Feb. 2019, Accessed 10 Apr. 2019. Chart.