Will Biofuels Help Reduce Global Warming?

By Charlie Nardozzi, October 8, 2007

Biofuels are all the rage. With soaring oil prices and a desire to reduce our dependence on foreign energy resources, there's a lot of interest in growing corn and other crops to be processed into fuel, such as ethanol. Also, many believe that burning biofuels will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and slow global warming. While biofuels can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, new research raises questions about whether they will help slow global warming.

Much of the concern about global warming has been focused on carbon dioxide, but nitrous oxide has been found to have 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. Corn and other biofuel plants that need high nitrogen levels for growth generally release high nitrous oxide levels into the atmosphere when burned, so researchers wondered about their potential impact on global warming.

The scientists investigated the amount of nitrous oxide produced by corn, rapeseed, and other plants commonly used as biofuels. They found that these plants had more potential for contributing to global warming than offsetting it because of the nitrous oxide they emit. The scientists calculated that growing nitrogen-rich plants as biofuels could result in a zero net gain in reducing global warming and might even increase the warming. Plants that require less nitrogen and therefore release less nitrous oxide might be better choices for biofuel.

For more information about this research, go to: Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

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