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Biofuels: What they are and why they did not work in Mexico

It is not a novelty that biofuels emerged as an alternative to fossil fuels. A decade ago the term resonated strongly in Mexico , when the country tried to enter that market. In 2009, the National Forestry Commission established a financing program for the planting of jatropha in Chiapas, granting 7,400 pesos per hectare, with the aim of promoting the production of biodiesel from the plant.

Actions in Mexico were boosted by an ambitious program launched in 2003 by India, which sought to boost global biodiesel production. However, the project did not prosper and in the last decade biofuels have faded after the emergence of new alternatives, ranging from synthetic fuels (or e-fuels), hydrogen and lithium batteries.

Guillermo Rosales, president of the Mexican Association of Automotive Dealers (AMDA), points out that the jatropha project “did not give results”, mainly because it competes against the use of the land for food purposes . Today there is no statistical information on the use of biofuels in the country, however Rosales says that “the use is minimal .”

What are biofuels and what are they used for?

The Law for the Promotion and Development of Bioenergy (LPDB) in Mexico defines bioenergy or biofuels as fuels obtained from biomass from organic matter from various primary activities, such as agriculture .

Biodiesel, for example, is obtained through a chemical process called transesterification. Anhydrous ethanol, another biofuel, is a type of ethyl alcohol characterized by having a very low water content.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) points out that most bioethanol is produced from corn, accounting for about 64% of the total, followed by sugar cane and molasses.

Regarding biodiesel, it estimates that 77% is produced from vegetable oils, where canola stands out, while the remaining percentage is concentrated in waste cooking oils.

The United States and Brazil are the two most relevant countries in the world on the subject , as they focus their ethanol production on corn and sugar cane, respectively. In 2019, 109.582 million liters of bioethanol were produced around the world, of which the United States contributed 59.691 million, about 55%, and Brazil 30.553 million liters, according to the latest data from the consultancy LMC International.

The United States is also the main producer of biodiesel. In 2019, the neighboring country produced 6.9 billion liters, followed by Brazil with 5.4 billion, Indonesia with 4 billion, Germany with 3.5, and Argentina with 2.8 billion.

Advantages and disadvantages of bio fuels

In recent years, most companies and sectors have announced strategies and changes in their production schemes, aimed at greater preservation of the environment, a scenario in which the use of biofuels stands out as an alternative to reduce greenhouse gases. caused by freight transport.

The promoters of biofuels defend that they are an alternative to reduce the energy dependence that the markets have on hydrocarbons.

“The international biofuels sectors are strongly influenced by national policies with three main objectives: to provide support to the producer, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce energy independence”, adds the OECD.

According to the study The production and trade of biofuels in Mexico and in the World, from the Center for Studies for Rural, Sustainable Development and Food Sovereignty, sugarcane stands out as the most variable input for the production of bioethanol in Mexico. , mainly because of the surpluses they have had in recent years.

However, detractors point out that by encouraging the national production of cane-based ethanol, through government regulations and programs, it could lead to competition between the two main uses, sugar and biofuel, which could affect the increase in the price of the sweetener if shortage problems arise .

Another environmental risk related to the development of biofuels is the expansion of cultivation areas , a scenario that goes hand in hand with deforestation, the occupation of natural areas and the intensive use of agrochemicals , such as fertilizers and pesticides, water , among others.

Being an industry of very small size, the Mario Molina Center considers that motivating the industry could require large subsidies from the government , as has happened in the United States.

“Subsidies in the United States have reached record levels and are an expensive way to achieve public policy objectives with potential impacts on the environment and the economy,” he adds.

“It is not a priority in Mexico”

Miguel Elizalde, president of the National Association of Bus, Truck and Tractor Producers, stresses that most of the countries that have adopted the use of biofuels have done so because agricultural producers have requested it.

“I don’t know of a country where the auto industry asks for it. Usually the one that pushes the issue is the agricultural sector… But in this administration the issue of biofuels is not a priority, but neither is it a request from the automotive industry”, he says in an interview with Expansión .

In addition, the heavy vehicle fleet in Mexico is 19 years old and the adoption of biofuels would imply heavy investments to be able to use them in old engines, but also in new ones.

“Engines have different conditions. You cannot put fuel of any kind, especially in more advanced engines, because they cannot work with regular fuel, sulfur, ultra-low sulfur and also biofuel, because they have certain systems that block when identifying that the necessary oxygenation or emission processes do not occur,” says Javier Valadez, director of operations at Kenworth Mexicana.

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