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Manage Your Knowledge on Biofuels

Lisa Richards, Educational Outreach Writer

Powering engines and equipment requires fuel. Different types of fuel exist -- fossil fuels and biofuels. Fossil fuels, such as petroleum and coal, come from ancient plants and animals that have decomposed deep beneath the Earth's surface. Biofuels also come from plants; however, these plants are not ancient and decomposed, and they do not require mining to extricate them from the earth. By utilizing renewable energy sources for power, it can be possible to reduce carbon emissions and become less dependent on fossil fuel sources.

First-Generation Biofuels

Biofuels can be divided into categories according to the time period in which they were developed and the materials utilized to create them. First-generation biofuels generally involve conventional technology, and contain materials, such as vegetable oil, animal fat, starches, and sugars.

  • Ethanol - Ethanol is fuel made from "biomass," which includes a variety of plant sources, but mainly corn. The ethanol production process involves growing the biomass, harvesting it, and transporting it to a facility that produces ethanol. At this facility, the ethanol will be extricated from the biomass and transported to another facility that will blend it with other fuels. From here, the ethanol fuel will be distributed for use.
  • Biodiesel - Some engines require diesel fuel to operate. Biodiesel is a renewable form of diesel made from different types of oil and animal fats. A chemical process separates glycerin from fats to produce the biodiesel. The glycerin is a byproduct used for producing other products.
  • Other Bioalcohols - Propanol and butanol are two other types of biofuel, typically created by fermenting sugars or starches. Wastewater algae is another renewable source of fuel, used to create a different type of bioalcohol.
  • Green Diesel - Green diesel differs from biodiesel because the materials used to produce it are biomass plant matter instead of oil and animal fats.
  • Biofuel Gasoline - Biofuel gasoline utilizes alternative sources of biomass to create the gasoline, so it differs from ethanol. A main biomass source is wood chips from pine trees.
  • Vegetable Oil - Vegetables oils such as canola, coconut, corn, palm, peanut, soybean, and sunflower will convert to biofuel after undergoing a chemical process of mixing with methanol and heating.
  • Bioethers - Bioethers are materials added to petroleum to make it burn more cleanly. Bioethers come from plant sources. The first bioethers were added to petroleum to replace lead in the 1970s.
  • Biogas - The term "biogas" describes a variety of fuels produced by converting organic materials into fuel. Forms of biogas have existed for hundreds of years as people used sewage for power.
  • Syngas - Syngas is a synthetic gas that combines carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen.
  • Solid Biofuels - Solid biofuels include materials such as sawdust, wood, and dried manure. Producing solid biofuels may require a manufacturing process, such as grinding and forming pellets out of sawdust.

Second-Generation (Advanced) Biofuels

Second-generation biofuels are more advanced than first-generation biofuels. The manufacturing process involved with producing second-generation biofuels generally encompasses more technologically-advanced processed and different materials. Some materials associated with second-generation biofuels include wood and agricultural refuse.

Sustainable Biofuels

Producing biofuels can involve negative impacts on the environment. The land needed to grow the materials can be depleted with the process. Designating food crops for biofuel also eliminates these crops as food sources. These potential issues make it important for biofuels to come from sustainable sources. New research and technology can help discover and develop newer sustainable resources for biofuel.

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