Alternative Fuel Sources
Unusual — and successful — biofuel sources you may have never heard of
With fossil fuels falling out of favour due to environmental concerns and rising oil prices, research into alternative fuel sources have been picking up pace in the last few decades.
Although more renewable energy sources have yet to entirely replace conventional ones such as fossil fuels and coal, various parliamentary and corporate initiatives aimed at cutting carbon emissions are gradually making room for mainstream use of biofuels.
Biofuels are one of the most popular forms of renewable energy that is constantly being researched, and given that they are namely derived from organic materials such as plant and animal matter, it offers a wide scope of material to convert into usable fuel.
Whilst biofuel has been popularly sourced from prevalent crops like corn and canola, science has branched out and sought to test more uncommon organic materials.
Given how broad a category ‘organic’ is, researchers have successfully (and unsuccessfully) tested a plethora of materials, including: pond scum, soft drinks, leftover food, leftover booze, hemp, and fat extracted from liposuction procedures.
Water hyacinths in Kenya
Once thought of as a nuisance to the locals whose livelihood is derived from Lake Victoria, the water weed is now being embraced by the locals as an abundant and carbon-friendly fuel source.
The species arrived from South America in the 1980s as an invasive species, and thrived to a point where it now clogs a significant portion of the lake’s waterways. As a result, the locals have been experiencing great difficulty fishing and some of the lake’s fauna has suffered as a result of oxygen deprivation caused by the plant’s prolific growth.
A great deal of research has gone into the plant’s biogas potential, and a couple of decades of research have revealed that the plant’s high carbon-nitrogen ratio makes it ideal for biogas production. Even better, mixing water hyacinth with animal manure yields even more biogas.
In 2018, two biogas digesters were donated to the village of Dunga as a means of combating the water hyacinth problem and the area’s dependence on firewood; the frequent burning of the latter has caused a great deal of respiratory issues amongst the local population.
So far, the biogas digesters have proven to be successful, sustainable, and burning of this alternative fuel source produces far fewer carcinogens.
Various studies have estimated that 4kg of dried water hyacinth is more than enough to power the household needs of a local household.
This is a slightly unexpected one, but thanks to the high content of amino acids, which are converted into nitrogen, significant yields of watermelons that are considered unsuitable for supermarkets can be converted into bioethanol.
According to data gathered by the US Department of Agriculture, around 360,000 tonnes of watermelons aren’t considered ‘suitable’ for supermarkets, due to significant blemishes or appearing misshapen.
From the high yield of watermelon wastage, researchers have been able to generate around 2.5 million gallons of ethanol per annum.
The added benefit of using watermelons as a biofuel is that 90 per cent of its composition is water-based, which means far less water is required during the fermentation process.
Researchers at the University of Warwick built a Formula 3 racing car entirely from renewable materials in 2009, and this included bioethanol composed of waste chocolate (e.g. cocoa husks) and vegetable oil. The waste chocolate in the fuel was provided by Cadbury.
As for the composition of the car itself, it was made largely from root vegetables. For example, the steering wheel was made from carrots (yes, carrots) and other root vegetables; and the racing seat was made from flax fibre and soybean oil.
Although the car itself meets the requirements for Formula 3 racing and was able to accelerate from 0–60mph in 2.5 seconds, the series does not accept any cars that run on biodiesel.