Biofuels present an alternative to fossil fuels that holds a lot of promise. If implemented on a massive scale, they could replace conventional gasoline altogether and effectively reduce the carbon footprint of the entire human race to much lower levels. They could mean cleaner air for the future as well as a steady, renewable source of energy.
Types of Biofuels
"Biofuels" is an umbrella term that includes solid biomass, liquid fuels, and an assortment of biogases. For the purposes of this article, the liquid variety will be the main focus as it is the primary type already in use today and it shows the most promise for implementation on a larger scale in the future.
One of the more common types of biofuel is called bioethanol, and it is actually in use today. It is produced by the actions of microorganisms that occur when sugar from plant materials is fermented. While pure ethanol can be used as a fuel source all on its own, it is more typically used to enrich gasoline to improve emissions from automobiles. It has already had much success throughout the US.
The complement to ethanol is biodiesel. It is often used to improve the emissions released by diesel burning vehicles. It is produced from greases recycled from industry, vegetable oils, or animal fats in a process known as transesterification. Biodiesel is the #1 biofuel used in Europe.
How they are made
While the processes used to produce bioethanol are highly complex, they can be simplified into a few distinct steps.
- The raw materials, whether they be corn or sunflower seeds or some other crop, are pressed and ground to allow for better ease of processing.
- If the crop was more sugary, the sugar is then dissolved from the ground product. If it was a more starchy crop such as wheat, then the starch is converted to sugar through chemical processes.
- This is where microorganisms come in. They feed on the sugar, and naturally excrete ethanol and carbon dioxide as a part of their digestive process.
- In order to achieve the optimal concentration for use as fuel, the ethanol is then purified.
There are several processes that can be used to produce biodiesel. Some are simpler and can be performed by individuals without need for large facilities and complicated equipment, while others can only be carried out under very specific circumstances that require trained professionals. The process requires, as mentioned earlier, a process called transesterification. This involves raw materials and some Methanol. The raw materials are most commonly corn, but are not limited to this as other vegetable matter can be substituted based on availability. The most mass-used process is one that causes changes on a molecular level. These changes produce biodiesel with a smaller percentage of glycerin byproduct. This is a vast improvement over the polluting processes that are used to create standard fuel. Biodiesel is very versatile in the ways that it can be made. It can be made on a large scale in factories, or more locally on farms, or on an even smaller scale in homes using vegetable oil waste from restaurants
Both bioethanol and biodiesel have vast economic potential, and that potential will surely increase in years to come. New technologies continue to emerge on what seems like a daily basis to refine the techniques to produce both types of biofuels. This means that it will only become cheaper and cheaper to make. As more people and businesses switch to vehicles that run on alternative energy sources, the demand for biofuels can only be expected to increase exponentially over the next 10 years and beyond. Coupled with the fact that they are far friendlier to the environment, there looks to be no end to the promise held by the growing field of biofuels.