Smart Bio-Fuels Crops
Bio-fuels have tied oil and food prices together as never before. Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -- which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year. In the US corn-based ethanol has become the rage. As a result corn inventory is at its lowest levels with pressure mounting on the prices of wheat and rice, which are being used as substitute for corn.
 Why should I be aware of this?
With news of world hunger reaching front page, there is a new scramble to develop smart bio-fuels crop which would bring in the poor farmers of the dry-lands to the bio-fuel market, without compromising on their Food Security, or causing environmental damage.
The bio-fuel industry in the US has not only triggered increases in the prices of corn, oilseeds, and other grains but also in the prices of seemingly unrelated crops and products. Feed price rise is also putting pressure on the livestock industry, which is bound to increase the prices of chicken, turkey, pork, milk, and eggs.
The European Commission is using legislative measures and directives to promote bio-diesel from rapeseeds and sunflower seeds. It is also into production of ethanol from a combination of sugar beets and wheat with direct and indirect subsidies. Brazil is using sugarcane to produce the same amount of ethanol as the US.
 All about Smart Bio-Fuel Crops?
Smart bio-fuel crops are those that ensure food security, contribute to energy security, provide environmental sustainability, tolerate the impacts of climate change on shortage of water and high temperatures, and increase livelihood options.
 Sweet Sorghum
One such crop is sweet sorghum. It is a carbon dioxide neutral crop which has three product potentials. It contains grain, juice for ethanol, and bagasse (crushed stalk waste) for livestock feed and power generation. With a shorter crop cycle of 4 months, as against 12 months required for sugarcane, it is also a cost-effective feedstock. While sugarcane requires 36,000 cu.m of water to produce a kiloliter of bio-ethanol, sweet sorghum requires only 4,000 cubic meters.
Sweet sorghum is also environment friendly as it is carbon dioxide neutral and does not add to greenhouse gas emissions. One hectare of sweet sorghum cultivation absorbs and emits 45 tons of carbon during its growth cycle.
The US, the world's largest sorghum producer, is exploring the possibilities of using sorghum as bio-fuel. Other countries exploring this possibility include Mexico, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Mozambique, Uganda, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil.
Another very likely alternative is switchgrass, a perennial grass that is native to North America. It was part of the mix in the tall grass prairies that covered most of the Great Plains and has been identified often as an efficient bio-energy crop.
Switchgrass, when co-fired with coal, can produce electricity in existing power plants. Pelletized switchgrass has been tested in pellet stoves for general home heating in some rural areas. Switchgrass is already grown as forage for livestock or as a ground cover, to control erosion. With minor adjustments it can be cultivated as energy crop.
Alfalfa too has been identified as a potential feedstock for bio-fuel. But it is not in the contention as the economic return as a forage crop for milk and beef production is far greater than for bio-fuel.
Alfalfa has not only bio-fuel potential but also all the byproducts such as leaf can be used for protein source for feed, lignin can be used for combustion, roots can be used for carbon sequestration and most farmers know how to grow it. Corn uses more fuel to produce bio-fuel and it needs more nitrogen to grow it. Alfalfa hardly has any fertilizer input if it is grown without irrigation.
Pongamia is another crop which can be used for bio-fuel as it can grow on marginal land, waste land not suitable for other crop production. The seed pods of Pongamia, a perennial tree which can grow in a wide variety of environments, including arid areas and also in estuaries, are harvested and crushed for the oil, which can then be refined for feedstock for bio-diesel.
Pongamia can be grown even by remote communities who can use it as their own fuel source, cut down on greenhouse emissions and even have their own electricity.
Algae have emerged as one of the most promising sources for bio-diesel production. Algae are made of vegetable oils, proteins and carbohydrates - like any grain.
The theory is that algae biomass can circumvent and relieve the food-for-fuel controversy because it appears to be a cost-effective source of high-grade oil for bio-fuel and edible oils and proteins for food and animal feed. Algae are very similar to any other crop. With exposure to sunlight photosynthesis occurs. The algae absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, just like a tree or anything else does.
- Experts believe that even if high-yield bio-fuel crops were grown on all the farmlands on earth, only 20 percent of the total fuel requirement of the world will be met.
- The grain required to fill the petrol tank of a Range Rover with ethanol is sufficient to feed one person per year. Assuming the petrol tank is refilled every two weeks, the amount of grain required would feed a hungry African village for a year
- In Brazil the Amazon is being cleared to plant more sugar and soybeans for making ethanol which will be exported to Europe. In Southeast Asia palm plantations are destroying the rainforest habitat of orangutans and many other species. Species are dying for our driving
- Growing maize, which the US uses to make bio-fuels, appears to use 30% more energy than the finished fuel produces, and leaves eroded soils and polluted waters behind
- Meeting the 5.75% target would require, according to one authoritative study, a quarter of the EU's arable land
- Using ethanol rather than petrol reduces total emissions of carbon dioxide by only about 13% because of the pollution caused by the production process, and because ethanol gets only about 70% of the mileage of petrol
- Ancient tree provides fuel for thought
- Biofuel crop
- Bio-fuels from Switchgrass
- Bio-diesel from Algae