Surprise Contenders in Global Biodiesel Race

Fields of corn surround the Golden Grain Energy ethanol plant, Thursday, June 30, 2005, in Mason City, Iowa. (Image credit: AP Photo)

Thailand, Uruguay and Ghana could become the leading producers of biodiesel, according to a new study that ranked the potential of 226 countries to generate large volumes of the fuel at low cost.

Not surprisingly, the researchers uncovered the United States—a top grower of soybeans—and Brazil, currently a major biodiesel producer, as major players in the field. But they wanted to identify developing countries that already export significant amounts of vegetable oils but have not considered turning the oil into biodiesel.

Biodiesel—a promising renewable fuel that could become an alternative to fossil fuel—is made through a chemical reaction of alcohol and vegetable oil or animal fat. Although this fuel could be used in traditional diesel engines, proponents say that the use of biodiesel will significantly reduce environmentally harmful emissions.

Attracting investment

The study, detailed in the journal Environmental Science and Technology last month, ranked Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Uruguay and Ghana as developing countries likely to attract biodiesel investment.

"A lot of these countries don't have any petroleum resources and so they're having to import petroleum," said study co-author Matt Johnston of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at University of Wisconsin at Madison. "At the same time, they're exporting vegetable oil that they could be turning into biodiesel and using domestically."

Johnston witnessed this when he was visiting Fiji—an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. He noted that the islanders used petroleum diesel brought to the island via boats—costing around $20 a gallon—to run their generators but were producing coconut oil and selling it for 50 cents per liter.

"The price disparity was just incredible and it prompted me to think about where else in the world countries might have this biofuels potential but not necessarily realize it," Johnston said.

“So, I wanted to do an inclusive study and look at every country equally and [see] which countries are most likely to be able to produce large quantities of biodiesel at low costs,” Johnston told LiveScience.

Grim outlook

The rise of oil prices and the grim outlook on the future of Earth has brought on a growing interest in biofuels over the past couple of years. Agencies such as the United Nations are, however, concerned that crops used for food in poor countries will now be used for fuel instead.

“I think one of the things that’s valuable with the study being inclusive across the world is that it allows us to see which countries and which feed stocks are to be affected as biofuels continue to be developed,” Johnston said.

Environmental organizations are also concerned about the impact of biofuels on nature. Demands for palm oil, for example, have led to increased deforestation in Southeast Asia. Boosting crop yields could also raise demands on water supplies for irrigation and increase nitrogen runoff from fertilizer use. But the researchers hope that the analysis will be used as a tool to foresee and mitigate potential impacts.

"We're not saying, 'There's all this potential out there, go get it,'" Johnston said. "Instead, we're looking at which vegetable oil feed stocks are most likely to be affected and which countries will most likely be doing this at a large scale. That way, we can anticipate some of the impacts, as opposed to having to react after the fact."

Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.