Comparing biofuels, renewables and non-renewables

Doc Brown's Physics Revision Notes

Suitable for GCSE/IGCSE Physics/Science courses or their equivalent


In most power stations an energy source is used to heat water.


The heat is used to produce steam to drive a turbine that is coupled to an electrical generator.



chemical/nuclear energy (fuel) => heat energy (steam) => kinetic energy (turbine blades) => electrical energy (generator)

Non-renewable energy resources

The non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) which are burned to heat water or air. The burning of fossil fuels leads to all sorts of pollution and environmental impact issues. The carbon dioxide produced by combustion is a 'greenhouse gas' implicated in global warming and climate change. In the smoke are acidic gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides which are harmful to our health as air pollutants, and, by forming 'acid rain' wreak havoc with ecosystems (particularly aquatic ones and trees) and cause extra corrosion of stone and metal structures. It is possible to remove most of the sulfur from oil hydrocarbons before their use, and smoke from power stations can be treated with an alkali to remove acidic gases. There are other environmental issues eg the 'high price' dangers of coal mining, ugly open-cast coal mines, oil pipelines/tankers and oil spillage effects on wildlife.

In the UK, old coal/oil fired power stations are being replaced with cleaner less polluting gas fired power stations which have faster start up times - much easier to respond to higher/lower power demands.

Non-renewable fossil fuel power stations do provide a stable and reliable electricity supply, unlike some renewable energy resources which are distinctly unreliable eg wind power and solar power which depend on the weather.

The non-renewable nuclear fuels uranium and plutonium provide energy from nuclear fission (splitting atomic nuclei) and is used to heat water or carbon dioxide gas, either way, the hot fluid is used to make steam via a heat exchanger for safety reasons to drive turbines and generators. Environmental issues include how do we store, and where do we put, dangerous radioactive waste from nuclear power stations?, disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in Russia with its long term effects on people and the local flora (plants) and fauna (animals). Nuclear power stations may take over a decade to build and involve the most complicated technology of any means of power production. Safety standards must be exceptionally high and very costly.

Compare the uses of nuclear fusion and nuclear fission, but limited to the generation of electricity (notes to add).

Renewable Biofuels

Renewable biofuels that can be burned to heat water to make steam to drive a turbine and generator. Biofuels are renewable energy sources and come in a variety of forms eg woodchips (trees or waste from timber products), alcohol (ethanol from fermenting sugar cane), biodiesel (from vegetable oil) and biogas (methane from anaerobic digestion of sewage waste) and are all derived from plant materials eg crops or bacterial digestion/decay of waste organic material. The th

The theoretical 'carbon neutral' idea behind using biofuels is that the carbon dioxide released on burning is re-absorbed by plants and utilised in photosynthesis to create the next fuel crop. But, even though this sounds fine in principle, there are still environmental issues eg in Brazil and other countries, huge areas of ecological valuable natural rain forest (habitats, species rich) are being cut down to grow crops for biofuels.

Other renewable energy resources

These do not run out, but there both advantages and disadvantages to their use. For details ...

Renewable energy (1) Wind power and solar power

Renewable energy (2) Hydroelectric power and geothermal power

Renewable energy (3) Wave power and tidal power

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