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On the Road to Sustainability: How Biofuels Can Drive Gains for the Environment

Biofuels are fuels made up of organic matter. Technically, these energy sources can come from any plant or animal-based materials. Common ingredients include corn (ethanol), algae, plant and animal oils, and recycled cooking grease. 

Biofuel is not a new concept. Rudolf Diesel, inventor of the diesel engine, experimented with using vegetable oils as fuel. Today, many alternative fuels are considered biodiesel because they work in diesel engines. 

In vehicles, biodiesel and corn-based ethanol are usually mixed with traditional fuel. However, since they burn cleaner and come from renewable sources, they are more environmentally friendly than pure fossil fuels. 

Here is a closer look at biofuels and how they are vital tools in the drive for sustainability and environmental friendliness in transportation and industry. 

The Current State of Biofuels

Biofuels cover a fraction of the overall gas consumption in the U.S. In 2022, the country consumed 135.06 billion gallons of fuel. During that year, the country produced 15.4 billion gallons of ethanol and 3.1 billion gallons of biodiesel. 

However, demand and production should increase in the coming years as demand for environmentally-friendly fuels increases. In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected a 28% increase in demand for biofuels by 2026 worldwide. The agency points out that policies in the U.S. and Europe already led to threefold increases in production in recent years. 

Environmental friendliness is the most common motivation for biofuel-friendly policies. In addition to being renewable, these fuels burn up to 86% cleaner than traditional fossil fuels, reducing the impact on air quality and global warming. 

What Are the Most Commonly Used Types of Biofuels?  

Today, consumers have two primary options for biofuel: ethanol and biodiesel. Here are the differences between these two energy sources. 

Ethanol  

Ethanol comes from plant material. Most of the fuel relies on corn, but producers also use wood pulp, crop byproducts, and switchgrass. 

Ethanol is actually very common. Fuel producers add it to traditional gasoline for oxygenation. The most common mixture is known as E10, which means it has 10% ethanol and 90% gas. Vehicles made after 2001 can also handle an E15 mixture, and cars with specialized flex-fuel engines can use an E85 mixture. 

Corn-based ethanol production involves grinding corn into flour and fermenting it into alcohol. Other plant materials require chemicals or heat to extract the sugars they contain. Refineries can then ferment these sugars into ethanol. 

Biodiesel  

Biodiesel requires a less involved refining process. It utilizes animal fats, oils, or used restaurant oil and grease. As the name suggests, biodiesel only works in diesel engines. 

Biodiesel is produced through a process called transesterification, which involves combining oils or fats with alcohol to make fuel. 

As with ethanol, biodiesel often mixes with traditional diesel. For instance, B20 has 20% biodiesel and 80% regular diesel. B5 has 5% biodiesel and is common in cold climates when fats or oils could become too thick to work. However, unlike ethanol, pure (B100) biodiesel is available to consumers. 

Pros and Cons of Biofuels  

Biofuels come with advantages and disadvantages. Some of these pros and cons are obvious, but others, such as those related to geopolitics and food prices, are much less clear. 

Here is a look at the positive and negative effects of biofuels

Pros

Biofuels are more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, but they also have other advantages. 

  • Lower emissions: Biofuels burn up to 86% cleaner than traditional gas. This means less air pollution and fewer greenhouse gases (GHG). 
  • Domestic production: Unlike fossil fuels, which are often imported, biofuel production can occur domestically. The U.S. does not have to rely on other countries for its energy supply and isn’t at the mercy of volatile oil markets. 
  • Renewable sources: Plants and oils are sustainable fuel sources. Crops grow annually, so there is a potentially endless supply of ingredients to make biofuels. Traditional gas relies on oil reserves, which will eventually run out. 
  • Engine longevity: Some fuels, such as biodiesel, naturally lubricate engine components, improving performance and longevity. 

People trying to travel more sustainably can use biofuels to limit the impact and carbon footprint of their trips. 

Cons

You should also be aware of the negative aspects of biofuels, especially if you plan to rely on them for energy. 

  • Increased food prices: Demand for biofuel increases the price of corn, vegetable oil, and other ingredients. Since corn is a feedstock, its price increases indirectly affect the price of meat and other agricultural products. 
  • High production costs: Biofuels are twice as expensive to produce. They require government subsidies or incentives to be profitable and affordable for consumers. 
  • Lower fuel economy: Ethanol burns faster than traditional fuel. Even E10 gasoline is 3% to 4% less efficient than pure gas. 

You also need to consider climate factors. For instance, biodiesel becomes too thick in low temperatures, forcing users to adjust the mixture they use (down to B5) in cold weather. 

Applications of Biofuels 

Consumers typically encounter biofuels when deciding how to fill up their vehicles. However, the applications for these energy sources go far beyond the road. Here is a look at the different uses of biofuels. 

Transportation   

Biofuels burn significantly cleaner than traditional fuels. This reduces pollution and carbon emissions, which harm air quality and contribute to global warming. For instance, B100 diesel fuel reduces carbon emissions by 75%. Even B20, which is more common, lowers carbon output by 11%. 

In addition to consumer vehicles, biodiesel can power heavy-duty engines, including Cummins diesel engines. It can even work on remanufactured diesel engines. Engines for light-duty trucks, or even replacement engines for older trucks and cars also run on biodiesel. 

Biodiesel can also increase the cleanliness of other forms of diesel-powered transit, including trains, buses, and boats. 

Oil Spill Cleanup 

Biodiesel contains acids called methyl esters. This substance serves to lower the viscosity of the fuel so that it reaches the consistency needed to run engines or equipment. 

The acids can help reduce the thickness of crude oil, making it easier to clean up oil spills. Oil viscosity makes it difficult to clean up. It adheres to surfaces and is difficult to clean. Biodiesel helps dissolve the oil so that it does not do as much damage. Since biodiesel is not toxic, it does not damage the environment like traditional crude oil.  

Electricity Generation 

Fossil fuels, including coal, petroleum, and natural gas, account for 77.6% of U.S. energy production. These fuels effectively generate electricity, but they release carbon and other pollutants when they do so. 

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) points out that biofuels come from plants that absorb carbon during their growing period, only releasing it when burned for energy. Theoretically, this dynamic takes them closer to carbon neutrality than fossil fuels. 

Like auto fuel, energy producers often rely on a mixture of traditional and biofuels. They use a process called co-firing, reducing the amount of carbon emissions. Co-firing often occurs with unrefined biomass materials, eliminating the high costs of biofuel production. 

Heating 

Heating oil fuels furnaces, boilers, and other heating elements in cold weather climates. Traditionally, heating equipment required diesel fuel. Most states now use ultra-low-sulfur heating oil (ULSHO), which burns cleaner and produces less carbon. 

However, biodiesel blends can further reduce carbon emissions. Most heating oil relies on a mixture of biofuel and traditional ULSHO. The ratio is typically 5% biofuel to 95% oil. 

Biofuel heating oil reduces emissions, but it has one drawback. It has less energy density, which makes it less efficient than pure heating oil. 

Charging Batteries 

Biofuels can charge batteries for electric vehicles, equipment, or electrical power in two ways. First, the energy created by biomass fuel or co-firing can create electrical currents that charge batteries. 

Second, new advances in biofuel cells could one day provide more efficient charging. Scientists at the University of Florida used ethanol-based fuel cells to create electrical currents to charge batteries. These cells are more efficient and work with pure ethanol rather than the blends used in today’s vehicles. 

Biofuels offer solutions to reduce carbon pollution, but developments still need to be made to reduce production costs and increase efficiency. 

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