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Everything You Need to Know About Biofuels

Everything You Need to Know About Biofuels

What Are Biofuels? 

Biofuels are a class of renewable fuels derived from organic material known as biomass. These organic materials include agricultural waste, corn, algae, and trees. Biomass is turned into fuel which then produces bioenergy. 

This sort of energy uses what has been stored in biomass through natural processes like photosynthesis in plants. The chemical energy produced through such processes can be conserved and utilized for human energy purposes.  

Currently, about 10% of the world’s energy needs are met from these sources. This number is likely to grow as countries continue to invest in and adopt green energy policies. 

What Are Primary and Secondary Biofuels? 

Biofuels are classified as either primary or secondary.  

  • Primary fuels use a main resource directly in some type of unprocessed form. For example, wood pellets can heat a stove used to heat a home. 
  • Secondary fuels convert the original biomass into a different form—usually liquid like ethanol or biogas. In this form, they can be used for vehicle fuel or other industrial purposes. 

Why Do We Need Biofuel If We Have Other Renewable Energy? 

A combination of solar panels, windmills, and a hydroelectric dam representing renewable energy.

We already utilize several other types of alternative energy such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. However, these resources can’t replace the feedstocks we need for products like jet fuel, gas, and diesel.  

This is where biofuels come into the equation. They serve as another type of alternative energy source to create fuels that other renewables cannot.  

What Are the Types of Biofuels? 

Several types of grains reflecting feedstocks used for biofuels.

1. Wood

Wood is the most direct and simple organic material used to create fuel. It is both a biomass and a biofuel used in the production of other alternative fuels. It can be burned in many forms:  

  • Campfire Wood 
  • Charcoal 
  • Pellets 
  • Sawdust 

This makes wood a common and highly adopted type of fuel throughout the world.  

Wood serves as an essential component in broader-scale energy use as well. Pulp and paper, forestry, and other wood processing industries are often left with by-products and waste. Otherwise known as woody biomass, these leftovers can then be used in secondary renewable fuel production. 

2. Ethanol

Ethanol is a liquid fuel produced by fermenting plant and animal biomass. It is an alcohol derived from high-carbon elements of feedstocks, such as cellulose and sugar. It is often made from a combination of plant and animal biomass.

Common sources of ethanol include fibrous, sweeter plants such as corn, sorghum, beets, and sugarcane. These materials are broken down and combined with yeast to ferment. Denaturants are also added to stop human consumption.  

Ethanol is mostly clean in terms of production and combustion, making it an attractive option for reducing carbon emissions. Global biofuel mandates require many countries to move toward higher adoption. For transportation needs like jet fuel, ethanol can help countries reach compliance levels. 

3. Biodiesel 

Biodiesel is a liquid fuel comprised of mainly animal fats and vegetable oils. Oils are combined with alcohol and processed into fuel. These higher energy sources allow for improved energy output within transportation. 

Biodiesel offers several advantages. It can be made from oils that would otherwise become waste such as used cooking oil and yellow grease. Animal byproducts from meat processing can also be salvaged. 

The conversion process from feedstocks into fuels also produces a coproduct: glycerin. Glycerin made from this source reduces the need for production elsewhere. This conserves even more resources and improves biodiesel’s carbon footprint. 

4. Methanol 

Methanol is another liquid fuel used in specialized areas such as auto racing. It is a type of alcohol fuel like ethanol. Methanol was mostly used as an early alternative fuel in the 1990s. Its higher resource demand and production costs make it mostly obsolete today. 

5. Butanol

Butanol, another alcohol fuel, contains more energy per ounce than either ethanol or methanol. It is also closer in chemical structure to gasoline than other alternative energy. Butanol is derived from many of the same ingredients as ethanol but has higher production costs leading many producers to make ethanol instead. However, ongoing research and development may position butanol as a top choice among alternative fuels in the future. 

6. Biogas 

Biogas serves as an alternative to natural gas and is produced by breaking down methane. As methane emissions significantly contribute to climate change, converting it into biogas can lower greenhouse gases, converting them into a critical fuel source. 

About 40% of methane emissions come from the world’s cow population. Agriculture already uses biogas to conserve methane. It is also gaining popularity in consumer-level applications, such as gas cylinders. 

What Is Biofuel Made From? 

Several plastic tubs of used cooking oil (UCO), a biofuel feedstock.

Alternative fuels are produced using a wide range of feedstocks derived from organic, renewable sources. Examples of feedstocks include:  

  • Used cooking oils 
  • Crude palm oil 
  • Soybean oil 
  • Animal fats
  • Corn oil
  • Yellow and white grease
  • Spent bleaching earth oils
  • Rapeseed oil

Other sources include woody biomass, various crops, organic waste, and manure.

Unlike fossil fuels, renewable feedstocks can be continually produced. This makes them a sustainable alternative to an otherwise limited stock of fuel sources. 

Ongoing work in this field will help find potential new feedstocks for fuel production. As we improve technology and efficiency, we will likely see even more available options. 

Are Biofuels Renewable? 

Yes, these fuels are considered renewable energy sources. They are derived from organic matter, such as plants or animal waste. The required organic matter can be grown and replenished over time, making them a renewable resource. 

In some cases, feedstocks come from material that would otherwise be thrown away. One example is used cooking oil (UCO). Restaurants must frequently dispose of this oil. Using UCOs as a feedstock stops them from going straight to a landfill. It conserves a large amount of energy that would have become waste. 

How Much Does Biofuel Cost? 

A calculator sitting atop some paper euros and wood pellets, indicating the cost of biofuel production.

The cost of these fuels varies depending on several factors, including: 

  • The type of fuel produced 
  • The feedstocks needed to make it
  • Current global inventories
  • Location of production
  • Local or regional supply and demand
  • Other economic factors

Initially, the development and infrastructure costs led to higher prices. However, as clean energy investments continue to increase, production costs are expected to decrease. Eventually, bioenergy will become more economically competitive with traditional fuels. 

What Are the Advantages of Biofuels? 

  1. Renewable and Cleaner: Bioenergy offers a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to traditional fuels. While fossil fuels release substantial amounts of carbon emissions, renewable ones emit significantly less carbon into the atmosphere. Derived from sources like crops, trees, and animal byproducts, bioenergy plays a crucial role in addressing the climate crisis and slowing global climate change.
  2. Energy Independence: Countries can reduce their reliance on other nations for fossil fuel supplies by producing their own alternative fuels. Unlike traditional fuels that are geographically limited, these resources are more accessible and available to countries without fossil fuel reserves. This independence provides more control over factors such as pricing, leading to increased stability and reduced regional restrictions.
  3. Economic Benefits: Renewable fuels contribute to job creation throughout the entire production process, from growing feedstocks to refining fuels. The development of energy facilities leads to an increase in quality jobs. And decreased reliance on traditional fuels enhances economic stability by mitigating the impact of fluctuating fuel prices. This stability helps businesses become and remain more resilient against market disruptions. 
  4. Waste Reduction: Current and future developments are focusing on methods to reduce garbage destined for landfill. For instance, the meat industry accounts for around 15% of total carbon emissions. However, those emissions can be offset by using the leftovers and byproducts from meat processing. With meat byproducts accounting for close to two billion gallons of biodiesel per year, that’s a major amount of carbon savings. 

Emerging technology is also being developed to help solve issues with contaminated recyclable materials. Take packaging or materials using both paper and plastic, for example. The plastic would contaminate the paper and prevent it from getting recycled. But developing techniques could find a way to convert these items into some form of fuel. This sort of innovation will continue to solve many of the waste and carbon emission challenges the world currently faces. 

What Are the Disadvantages of Biofuels? 

  1. High Production Costs: Alternative fuels currently face higher production costs compared to fossil fuels. For instance, biodiesel can be anywhere from 70% to 130% more expensive to produce than fossil fuels. One of the culprits behind current higher prices is the increased demand and strain on feedstocks like crops. However, production costs are expected to decrease and stabilize as investments in clean energy increase, feedstock availability improves, and economies of scale are realized.
  2. Land Use Competition: The production of bioenergy requires significant amounts of feedstock, potentially leading to competition for land use as global demand increases. This competition may result in a reduction of farmland for food production or an increase in deforestation to meet the growing demand for renewable feedstocks. This poses risks to food security and exacerbates deforestation, particularly in regions like the Amazon.

    The term for this is indirect land use change (ILUC). Many global mandates include provisions that try to account for these risks. But regulations may not be able to stop these situations from happening in all areas. Like the high cost of alternative energy, this risk factor will likely decrease over time. Technology and research will help improve efficiency for feedstock creation, and new innovations could also lead to a broader range of available renewable materials.
  3. Emissions Accounting: Properly accounting for emissions poses a major challenge. Current reporting practices may not consistently and accurately measure the carbon offsets achieved through renewable feedstocks. Different rules and standards across countries and regions further complicate emissions accounting.

    For instance, the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA) tries to reconcile emissions with the feedstocks that create alternative fuels. What is emitted from biofuels is not counted toward national greenhouse numbers. According to the USEIA, this is because feedstocks offset enough carbon to nullify their numbers. Striving for clarity and consistency in reporting emissions and offsets is crucial for evaluating the actual environmental impact.
  4. Carbon Reduction, not Carbon Elimination: While renewables emit fewer carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels, they are not a complete solution for carbon zero. The volume of emissions they produce remains significant and poses a risk of exceeding the global temperature threshold for irreversible world damage.

    To fully achieve climate goals, investments in cleaner energy sources, such as wind, solar power, and electric-based transportation, are essential. Continued innovation and progress in these areas are necessary to achieve a sustainable and carbon-free future.