Water, Water, Everywhere
“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”
This often quoted phrase from the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner reminds us that the earth is rich in water resources. However, this water is not immediately useful for most consumer needs. It takes energy to provide clean water in a useful form. That’s why use of renewable fuels such as biodiesel is so important to secure our future access to clean water.
With all the talk of Earth Day coming up and what people are doing to help preserve the planet it is important to keep in mind that more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by vast oceans of saltwater. Modern desalination plants can turn this plentiful resource into endless supplies of fresh water, but this takes lots of energy. Freshwater sources like lakes, rivers and groundwater aquifers require treatment to remove natural and manmade impurities for drinking water and other uses. Even the most pristine sources of water require energy to move it by pumping or shipping it in containers, like plastic bottles. With a planet covered in water, and the realization that it takes energy to provide clean water in a useful form, we quickly see that wise use of water and wise use of energy are linked.
That’s where biodiesel comes in. By switching to renewable fuels, like biodiesel, we help ensure future access to energy and future access to clean, fresh water. For every unit of energy put into producing biodiesel, 5.45 units of renewable solar energy are stored in the usable form of liquid fuel. Biodiesel is the best way to store energy from the sun in a dense, liquid fuel for transportation uses, but it can also be used as a renewable fuel for stationary uses.
We must also protect our water resources by minimizing pollution. Biodiesel production reduces wastewater by 78 percent and reduces hazardous waste production by 96 percent compared to producing petroleum diesel. These numbers are based on the entire lifecycle of the fuel. The conversion of fats and oil to biodiesel uses very little water, and can be done consuming no water at all, if necessary. The year 2011 was a record year for biodiesel production in the US. Even during that record production, the entire US industry used less water than a handful of golf courses use to water their lawn. In the context of our societal uses of water and the benefit it brings, biodiesel production represents a very meager use of water.
Biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable. This means the threat to the environment is much less than conventional fuels if there happens to be an accidental spill. Biodiesel also reduces the threat of water pollution by utilizing wastes that otherwise present the need for disposal and treatment. Biodiesel has long been made from recycled kitchen waste, animal fats, and vegetable oils. New technologies are being implemented now that intercept even more grease from sanitary sewer systems. These existing and emerging technologies have potential to revolutionize wastewater treatment and collection with enormous benefits to public health and the environment worldwide.
Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. His previous experiences in protecting water resources include eleven years as an Environmental Engineer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Chief of Surface Water for the Missouri Water Resources Center.