As conversations continue surrounding renewable energy sources, biofuels are one of the leading products in the industry. These fuels are produced from biomass materials and can be used for transportation and, in some cases, heating and cooling. Government programs have been increasing the use of these kinds of fuel since the 1980s, and they continue to be a crucial part of the current infrastructure. This is an overview of biofuels and how they are made for people who are unfamiliar with them.
Kinds of Biofuel
Biofuels come in three primary varieties: ethanol, biodiesel, or renewable hydrocarbon “drop-in” fuels. Ethanol is the variety most people are familiar with–it is blended with standard petroleum fuel for vehicles and is the most widely used and produced biofuel within the United States. It is made from plant materials through a fermentation process, and researchers are currently exploring other possible materials for production.
The next most common kind of biofuel is biodiesel. It is similar to ethanol but is made from vegetable oils and animal fats. It provides a cleaner burn than traditional petroleum diesel, and the two are often blended together for use in diesel-powered vehicles.
Renewable hydrocarbon fuels are less common but are nearly identical to their petroleum counterparts. It can be produced from biomass and requires complex processes, but it can be used to entirely replace petroleum fuels in engines, pumps, and other machinery.
Biofuel producers must go through a variety of processes. First, the biomass must be deconstructed to break down the plant cell walls. This can be done using either extreme heat and pressure or certain enzymes and chemicals.
Then, the fuel must undergo an upgrading process to make it suitable for use. Upgrade processes can be either biological or chemical. In a biological process, microorganisms such as yeast or bacteria are used to ferment the deconstructed biomass into fuel blendstocks and chemicals. On the other hand, chemical processes use catalysts to remove unwanted compounds.
Once this process is complete, biofuel is ready to be sold on the commercial market or sent to petroleum refineries to be finished. Biofuel is an excellent renewable energy source, and the industry continues to expand as its products find more and more uses. Embracing biofuel allows countries to reduce their use of petroleum products and burn cleaner fuels.