Negative environmental consequences of fossil fuels and concerns about petroleum supplies have spurred the search for renewable transportation biofuels. To be a viable alternative, a biofuel should provide a net energy gain, have environmental benefits, be economically competitive, and be producible in large quantities without reducing food supplies. The study used these criteria to evaluate, through life-cycle accounting, ethanol from corn grain and biodiesel from soybeans. Ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel yields 93% more. Relative to the fossil fuels they displace, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced 12% by the production and combustion of ethanol and 41% by biodiesel.
Neither biofuel can replace much petroleum without impacting food supplies. Even dedicating all U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12% of gasoline demand and 6% of diesel demand. Until recent increases in petroleum prices, high production costs made biofuels unprofitable without subsidies. Biodiesel provides sufficient environmental advantages to merit subsidy. Transportation biofuels such as synfuel hydrocarbons or cellulosic ethanol, if produced from low-input biomass grown on agriculturally marginal land or from waste biomass, could provide much greater supplies and environmental benefits than food-based biofuels.