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Biofuels are good for the economy, the environment and the people!

By Ray Kearney - posted Monday, 22 March 2004

In the USA, Canada and Brazil, the ethanol industry is now the fastest-growing energy industry in the world. Today, in the USA, ethanol is blended in 30 per cent of the nation’s petrol. Ethanol has become a vital and ubiquitous component of the US fuel market and has full support of the parent oil companies including Mobil.

The Renewable Fuels Association in the USA, this year reported ethanol use consumed more than 1 billion bushels of corn in 2003 and reduced nearly 3 million tons of carbon monoxide, 300,000 tons of ozone-equivalent volatile organic carbon, and 5.7 million tons of CO2–equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. It would seem then that ethanol use represents the only effective tool to combat greenhouse emissions from the transport sector in the next 10 to 15 years.

By not enacting public policies like the renewable fuels standard, and not mandating ethanol-blended fuels at the pump, the Australian government appears to have acted recklessly against Australia's interests. Such measures would have increased the use of ethanol, boosted the sugar-cane industry, cut greenhouse gas emissions as well as enhanced energy security, spurred rural economic development and reduced harmful air pollution.


Adverse impacts on health and well-being

The following highlights the growing body of international and Australian scientific evidence of the risks posed to the public by traffic-related air pollution. The coarse, fine and ultra-fine particles, gaseous irritants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) either alone or in combination are known to be associated with:

  • inflammatory lung diseases e.g., asthma, bronchitis and alveolitis
  • increased cardio-vascular disease
  • risk for exercise-induced heart damage
  • limited blood flow and increased blood clotting
  • increased mucous production and airway hyper-responsiveness
  • up to a fifth of lung cancer deaths (USA) and accelerated tumour growth
  • premature death
  • symptoms of anaemia e.g., tiredness, headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath
  • low birth weight and small head circumference of neonate
  • intra-uterine growth retardation (for each 10 nanogram PAH’s /M3 increase)
  • certain leukaemias e.g., from exposure to benzene
  • loss in productivity, absenteeism from work and school
  • increased sensitivity to bacterial products in airways
  • more severe common viral asthma, and
  • reduced male fertility

The effect is a major increase in sickness-care costs to the nation’s health budget. Reports show these costs mainly occur when levels of pollution are below the national standard for particulate matter (PM).

The Prime Minister is urged to put in place clear policies in support of measures that immediately address and substantially reduce these risks to human health as well as the escalating associated costs.

A clear policy in support of the expanded use of renewable and alternative fuels such as ethanol, biodiesel, and liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) would represent the introduction of known and proven measures to reduce these risks posed to human health by petrol and diesel fuels. Ethanol is particularly suitable as it is renewable and is not a carrier of toxic particles etc found in petroleum fuels such as petrol and diesel.

Further health impacts of traffic-related air pollution

  • Traffic-related air pollution remains a key target for public-health action overseas including Europe, Britain, USA, India and Japan.
  • In a major study in Austria, France and Switzerland by Kunzli et al (2000), air pollution caused 6 per cent of total mortality or more than 40,000 attributable cases per year. Traffic pollution accounted for more than 25,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis (adults); more than 290,000 episodes of bronchitis (children); more than 0.5 million asthma attacks; and more than 16 million person-days of restricted activities.
  • A report published in September, 2003 by the Australian Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics disclosed that for Sydney, an estimated twice as many people died as a result of vehicle exhaust than the 267 road fatalities in 2000. The total cost of morbidity and mortality due to vehicle pollution for this capital city alone in 2000 was approximately $1.5 billion.
  • Vehicle emissions account for up to 65 per cent of urban air pollution.
  • About 85 per cent of the particulate pollution of diesel exhaust is in the fine mode, less than 1micrometre (1/1000mm) diameter. Such fine particles are respirable, mainly soluble, carry cancer-causing PAH's and remain suspended in the atmosphere for days to weeks.

Current biofuels in Australia and overseas

  • Ethanol is mainly derived here from two renewable sources – fermentation from sugar cane and ‘C’ molasses as well as starches in grains such as wheat and corn.
  • Brazil is currently the largest producer of ethanol at 12-15 billion litres per annum.
  • Biodiesel is derived from treatment of vegetable oil or animal fats.
  • Canola oil is our principal oil seed and is harvested in November and December.
  • The European Union in 2001 introduced a proposal to promote biofuels such as biodiesel, bioethanol or hydrogen fuels. The Commission’s goal is to increase biofuel use from two per cent in 2005 to 5.75 per cent in 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020.
  • About eight per cent of diesel fuel sold in Germany is biodiesel.
  • Australia’s Federal Coalition in October 2001 made a commitment to promote the use of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel to ensure biofuels provide two per cent of our transport consumption by 2010.

Other advantages and benefits of ethanol-blended fuels

  • Ethanol contains 35 per cent oxygen. Adding oxygen to fuel results in more complete fuel combustion, reducing harmful tailpipe emissions.
  • Ethanol also displaces the use of toxic petrol components such as benzene - a carcinogen known to cause leukemia.
  • Ethanol-blended fuels reduced the C02-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by about 3.6 million tons in the USA in 2001. i.e., equivalent to removing 520,000 cars from roads.
  • Ethanol reduces tailpipe carbon monoxide (CO) emissions by as much as 25 per cent.
  • The American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago credits ethanol-blended reformulated petrol with reducing smog-forming emission in the city by 25 per cent since 1990.

Experience with biodiesel

  • Emission reduction for particles, CO and gaseous hydrocarbons but increases in oxides of nitrogen (NOx).
  • In particulate emissions, the insoluble fraction (coarse mode) decreases while the soluble fraction (fine mode) increases with a net reduction in total PM. The soluble fraction can be reduced by using oxidation catalysts.
  • Biodiesel fuel has a biomodal distribution of fine particles with a 30 per cent reduction in the 0.05 and 0.1µm diameter particles, but remains the same for larger and smaller particles.
  • Recent studies showed biodiesel can reduce emissions of particulate matter by 47 per cent when compared with petroleum in unmodified diesel engines.
  • Biodegradation of biodiesel is much faster than for diesel fuel.
  • Studies show that, for greenhouse emissions, biofuels substantially out-perform fossil fuels (but to a lesser extent) gas fuels.
  • Biodiesel has significantly less ecotoxicity than diesel and ideal for sensitive rural areas.
  • USA EPA report verified a 67 per cent reduction in unburned hydrocarbons and a 48 per cent reduction in CO2 levels with pure biodiesel (B100). Smaller reductions (12 per cent) were obtained with 20 per cent biodiesel and 80 per cent petro-diesel.
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About the Author

Dr Ray Kearney is Associate Professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, The University of Sydney and a community advocate for the installation of filtration systems in traffic tunnels to remove noxious exhaust pollution.

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