Biofuels are fuels derived from biological sources such as plants, algae, or microorganisms. Biofuels can be used in place of fossil fuels to produce energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The main biofuel types include:

Credit: M Photography/Daryl Marshke

Biodiesel – made from vegetable oil (rapeseed) or animal fats (cows, pigs, sheep). It has the same properties as diesel but with less particulate matter and better lubricity than conventional diesel.

Ethanol – made from corn starch, sugar cane, wheat straw, wood chips, etc. It is also called “grain alcohol” because it was originally produced by fermenting grain mash.

Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) – made from natural gas. NGLs are mainly composed of ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes, and heavier hydrocarbons. They have a higher heating value than gasoline and can be blended into gasoline.

Syngas – made from carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Syngas can be converted into liquid fuels including ethanol, methanol, ammonia, dimethyl ether, synthetic crude oil, etc.

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The production of biofuels is often controversial due to environmental concerns about land use, food security, and competition with other uses of agricultural products. In addition, there may not be enough available land to grow crops for biofuel production. However, some countries have been successful at increasing their domestic production of biofuels. For example, Brazil produces more than half of its own biodiesel.

Brief on Biofuels

The world’s first commercial-scale biofuel refinery was built in Singapore in 2006. A second one followed in 2007. These refineries were able to process palm oil waste into fuel. India now grows jatropha on about 30,000 hectares, roughly the size of New Jersey. While growing crops like these require significant amounts of soil and fertilizers, the economics are improving. As of 2008, Brazilian officials say that biofuels will account for 6% of the country’s total fuel consumption within 15 years. Many experts believe this target is too high. Currently, only 4% of all transport fuel comes from biomass. But the trend indicates that 5% would be the realistic goal by 2020 or 2025.

In January 2012, Brazil began using soybean-based bioethanol as an additive to conventional fossil fuels in cars and trucks. This resulted in a reduction of 2.6 million tons of CO2 per year. China had hoped to increase usage of renewable fuels from non-edible feedstocks in 2010-2020 to 10%. Although the Chinese plan is still ambitious, they have reduced the percentage of coal burned in electricity generation since 2000. China’s current demand for ethanol is estimated at 1.3 billion liters/year, which is equivalent to 11 percent of all automotive fuel sales in the United States. China’s goal is to produce 7 billion liters per year of ethanol by 2020. One major obstacle is that corn is widely consumed domestically; most of it gets fed to livestock rather than used for ethanol.

Biofuel from corn

Some critics point out that the amount of arable land currently being devoted to growing bioenergy crops such as maize could be used to meet global food needs instead. Biofuels are replacing petroleum-derived transportation fuels even though they contribute significantly fewer greenhouse gases than regular gasoline. If the world continues to burn fossil fuels at the rate of the past 200 years, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to continue rising for centuries.

How is Biofuel produced

Biofuel is any type of fuel produced through biological processes. The two main forms of biofuels are alcohol-based (such as ethanol) and vegetable oils or animal fats (such as biodiesel). They can also include biogas and biobutanol. Ethanol, bioethanol, and ethyl alcohol are synonyms, as well as synonyms for biofuels specifically. Biodiesel or diesel oil is another name. Biodiesel is the term used when referring to the actual product, but biodiesel is technically called fatty acid methyl ester.

© European Biofuel Portal

Biofuels can be made from a number of different types of raw materials, but the majority of biofuel presently is derived from plant sources. Corn, soybeans, sugar cane, sugarbeet, switchgrass, algae, and woody plants are some examples. In addition, municipal solid wastes including paper, cardboard, and plastic may be converted into fuel. Also, agricultural waste products from cotton ginning, poultry processing, fruit juice production, and mushroom cultivation can also be processed into fuel.

The basic procedure used to make liquid biofuels involves extraction of sugars from biomass, fermentation, distillation, drying, cracking, and reforming of various components to achieve the desired end product. Sugars extracted from plants typically contain both hexose and pentose sugars. An example of glucose is fructose, while one example of ribose is deoxyribose. Typically, hexoses are fermented to form butanol or acetic acid, and pentoses are fermented to yield lactic or citric acids. These chemicals then undergo a series of chemical reactions to produce higher molecular weight molecules.

Finally, these molecules are separated, purified, and cracked. After cracking, the resulting light ends are reformed with hydrogen gas to convert them back to more valuable hydrocarbon compounds such as butane, propylene, benzene, or toluene. Depending on what part of the process is performed, the end result can vary greatly. For instance, the use of biocatalysts during fermentation reduces pollution by reducing the need for high temperatures required to perform distillation. However, direct oxidation of the carbon backbone gives rise to toxic byproducts. Therefore, most current methods involve a combination of biochemical steps.

The Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of renewable fuel – primarily low-sulfur and low-aromatic fuel blends -into the U.S. transportation fuel supply. A key goal of this standard is to increase total supply in order to reduce consumer prices. This includes all forms of biofuels that utilize renewable feedstocks.

Are Biofuels “Clean Energy”

One potential benefit of ethanol production is that we might be able to make cleaner-burning gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and even blends thereof which can reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels. There is a lot of scientific debate about whether these blends actually work well enough to cleanly power our vehicles. However, some studies show that ethanol/gasoline blends can reduce tailpipe pollution and increase driving range (which should lead to reduced vehicle trips). Other research shows that ethanol may contribute to increased hydrocarbon emissions and therefore reduce air quality. However, these technologies are not widely used.

How Does Biofuel Help the Environment

Biofuels help reduce the air pollution created by burning traditional fossil fuels. Burning traditional fossil fuels results in emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, particulates, and lead. When biofuels replace traditional energy sources, less toxic air pollutants are emitted. Emissions are further reduced when biofuels replace diesel engines because the exhaust gas produced by diesel contains higher levels of oxygen than gasoline does.

Biofuels also provide local benefits. Since they use locally available materials, biofuels create jobs in rural areas. The economic development associated with producing biofuels can improve roads, water systems, schools, hospitals, and community centers.

Finally, biofuels help preserve our natural resources. They do not deplete existing supplies of fossil fuels. Nor do they divert agricultural products away from animal feeds and human consumption. However, some scientists question whether we should grow more energy crops in places where people cannot eat them. Also, crops grown to produce biofuels may compete with those needed for human nutrition. For instance, there has been concern about the possibility that biofuel production might displace food crops in tropical countries.

How Do We Meet Our Energy Needs

© U.S. Energy Information Administration

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that our nation’s overall energy consumption will remain essentially constant through 2040. Natural gas accounts for 41% of this total energy consumption, followed by coal (33%), nuclear power (18%), oil liquids (5%), and renewables (5%). As far back as 1980, the EIA predicted that these percentages would hold steady until 1990. But since then, the pattern has changed dramatically.

Oil consumption dropped considerably from 1980 to 2000 but then increased again during the last decade due to increasing consumer spending and economic growth. To stay on track to keep total energy consumption approximately stable, new technologies will need to make up the difference. A recent survey by the National Research Council found that the top five ways to increase efficiency over the next 30 years include better insulation, improved heat pumps, light bulbs, appliances, and buildings; reducing industrial waste; improving electricity generation using renewable energy sources, and developing new fuels. Another method is conservation: cutting energy usage by making houses and buildings more efficient, driving cars and trucks more fuel efficiently, using heating and cooling systems more wisely, and recycling waste.

© U.S. Energy Information Administration

Advanced Biofuels: What They Are, Where They Come From, How They Compare to Other Fuels

Today’s advanced biofuels are made primarily from corn or sugarcane. These plants are genetically modified so that they produce oil instead of starch. In addition to their high energy content, they have several other advantages over current petroleum-based fuels. First, advanced biofuels contain no sulfur and very little nitrogen. This means that they cause fewer health problems. Second, advanced biofuels have a lower carbon dioxide output than conventional transportation fuels. Third, they are produced domestically and thus reduce energy costs. Fourth, they do not take up land resources for growing feedstocks. That leaves more land available for food crops. And finally, advanced biofuels use less water than traditional gasoline refining processes. The main disadvantage of advanced biofuels today is that they cost significantly more than petroleum-based fuels because of higher labor costs and government subsidies. Advanced biofuels could eventually reach parity with conventional fuels if demand increases substantially.

What Does Fossil Fuel Producing Countries Need to Decide Now

© Federal Ministry of Finance Germany

As world leaders discuss how to address global climate change, they also need to carefully consider the needs of developed nations like China and India when it comes to meeting international commitments agreed upon at Copenhagen in December 2009.

Developing countries argue that industrialized nations must first cut emissions before taking on any additional action to slow down global warming. On the other hand, many industrialized nations say existing targets were too weak to be effective. According to one report, while global leaders met in Denmark in early 2010, “The United States was holding out against providing any money to help poorer nations curb greenhouse gases.”

The United States had spent just $7 billion of its pledged $10 billion per year from 2012–to 2015. While agreeing to the Kyoto Protocol was seen as a win-win solution for both developed and developing economies, the two sides appear to be stalemated. However, recently there has been some progress in negotiations with several European Union members agreeing to meet their commitment despite pressure from the US to renege. After the Copenhagen Summit, a group known as the ‘G-20’ began negotiating a deal that would commit all G-20 countries to reach an agreement within 12 months. Several other groups including the EU, China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico have also signed onto a plan to create a legally binding treaty by 2015. It will be interesting to see what happens between now and then as the negotiations continue. 

Are there Benefits of Using Ethanol in Our Vehicles

© U.S. Department of Energy

Ethanol is a renewable resource, but this isn’t necessarily true for bioethanol derived from agricultural products like corn or cellulosic ethanol derived from plant matter such as grasses, trees, and stalks. Corn, sugar cane, and switchgrass are already being grown all around the world so we don’t have to worry about growing new sources of feedstock; however, cellulosic ethanol does require land-use changes.

Also, not all land-use decisions are made based purely on economic considerations (for example, urban sprawl versus sustainable development), and thus, we might lose some conservation value if we choose to replace traditional food staples with a fuel source instead.

Furthermore, ethanol energy can only partially offset the environmental impacts of oil consumption (from extraction to burning) by displacing petroleum. In addition, ethanol is less efficient than gasoline because it burns more slowly and requires higher compression ratios, requiring more energy to produce at the same volume. Finally, ethanol creates more carbon emissions than petroleum because fermentation generates methane gas during the conversion process; this occurs when microorganisms digest the organic material. Although this gas could theoretically be captured and burned to generate electricity, current technology does not allow us to capture and burn all this methane gas efficiently.

On a final note, ethanol is also expensive to produce via fermentation compared to petroleum. This means that ethanol cannot be used effectively as a replacement for petroleum unless it becomes significantly cheaper.

Environmental benefits of Biofuels

One of the big issues environmentalists face today is climate change, and most agree that greenhouse gases–like carbon dioxide–are a major contributor to the melting ice caps and rising temperatures seen recently. Carbon dioxide levels are now at 400 parts per million; anything above 280 ppm is considered dangerous because it will begin to slow plant photosynthesis and cause plants to wither and die off quickly. Fossil fuels released into the atmosphere during combustion contribute significantly to global warming.

According to NASA, burning coal produces nearly 25 tons of CO2 per ton of coal burned. To put that number into context, natural gas burns roughly 12 tons of CO2 to create each ton of energy, while biomass produces between 2 and 6 tons of CO2. Even though ethanol production uses about 1.3 tons of CO2 to make one gallon of fuel, that remains a far lower amount than the output caused by combustion. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, if we used only ethanol derived from corn grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides it would reduce CO2 emissions by 35%, thus cutting down on pollution problems altogether. Ethanol also has other environmental benefits. For example, it reduces transportation costs when compared to traditional fuels like petroleum products. In addition, it helps farmers grow valuable crops that feed people rather than landfills. It simply gets better every day!

Cleaner Air

Another huge benefit to using ethanol instead of oil is the air quality it provides. A recent report found that emissions from engines running on E85 were up to 90% less polluting than gasoline-powered models. Many cars can run entirely on ethanol blends as high as 85%. That means drivers can breathe easier knowing their car doesn’t spew out a bunch of harmful pollutants. One of the biggest concerns about running biofuels is whether they’re actually biodegradable, but according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, ethanol is completely broken down within four years. Biogasoline is another common alternative. It consists mostly of methane and hydrogen produced from landfill waste which makes it both safe and environmentally friendly.

Cheaper Gas

Finally, biofuels provide a major economic incentive to convert our industries away from oil. Since 2004, when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act requiring refiners to blend some 10 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol with conventional fuels over the following decade, America has been able to tap the market for renewable fuels with ease. As demand grew, producers stepped in with millions of acres of land ripe for cellulose growth. The result? A new era of cheap fuel was born.

Although the government has since backed away from its original mandate due to an increasing deficit, private companies continue to reap profits due to increased consumer awareness. On the whole, Americans have saved $4.9 billion dollars since 2005 alone due to cheaper prices and reduced purchases of imported oil. With a federal budget deficit approaching $1 trillion dollars, these savings could be vital. So yes, there are many reasons why using biofuels should be encouraged, whether you drive a hybrid or a regular vehicle. From reducing global warming to saving money, to improving air quality, there’s no doubt that ethanol is a great solution to a lot of modern-day problems.

The Future of Biofuels

In his State of the Union Address in January 2013, President Obama directed federal agencies to develop plans to achieve the following goals: cut Americans’ dependence on foreign oil, reduce harmful pollution caused by the transportation sector, promote bio-economy jobs, and conserve America’s natural resources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that reducing imports to zero would cost $1.9 trillion; unfortunately, even though our government has been working hard on developing different types of biofuels over the past few years, they haven’t come close to achieving those ambitious goals yet.

© Biofuels Central

For example, in March 2012, the Department of Energy released its Annual Technology Report and showed some encouraging trends regarding both commercialization and public acceptance of emerging alternative fuels. According to their report, “cellulosic ethanol” had become the most researched type of biofuels, thanks to supporting from the government as well as leading companies like Boeing and ConocoPhillips who invested billions upon billions of dollars into the research and development of this promising fuel. However, after analyzing the data collected, researchers concluded that producing large quantities of cellulosic ethanol still requires extensive investment and considerable technological advancement. Similarly, the EIA reports that biodiesel has seen increased production since 2010 due to the rise in global demand. But according to their data, by 2014 there will be enough supply available to meet projected demand.

But despite these advancements, the biggest hurdle in the way of using biofuels remains political rather than technical. A lot of the criticism about fossil fuels comes from an environmentalist perspective. As previously stated, biofuels aren’t perfect, but they’re certainly better alternatives than petroleum. For example, while it takes eight gallons of crude oil to create one gallon of ethanol, it only takes three gallons of water to make one gallon of biofuel. Since water represents approximately 70% of any gallon of liquid fuel, we’re saving lots of resources.

On top of that, ethanol engines run quieter, since they operate on air compressed through pistons rather than direct injection of gasoline, which emits unpleasant fumes and causes engine wear. Another key advantage of biofuels is that they’re produced locally, unlike petroleum which must be imported from faraway countries. It’s no wonder why so many people prefer gas-electric hybrids to traditional full-sized vehicles.


In addition, by the year 2025, 40% of all new cars sold in the United States are expected to have flexible-fuel powertrains, meaning that at least some percentage of them can use either regular or flex-fueled ethanol (which means that ethanol blends with other fuels, such as gasoline or diesel). While hybrid vehicles are already on the market, a recent study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University shows that if all automakers were to commit to making their entire line of vehicles compatible with flex-fuel technology, consumers could save $4 billion annually–and that doesn’t include energy savings from reduced pollution!

Despite what you may think, the U.S. isn’t alone when it comes to using biofuels. At least 10 other nations produce and sell ethanol around the world today. And while China dominates the renewable energy market–producing over two times more solar energy than Germany -they don’t have any plans for expanding beyond clean electricity generation. In fact, because of China’s heavy reliance on coal, its energy sector is predicted to see dramatic growth in the next decade or so. This is good news for America since our own coal industry faces a similar threat. If China continues its rapid drive toward cleaner energy sources, then that trend should translate here, too. So much of the country’s infrastructure was built before fossil fuels became cheap and efficient, so converting away from fossil fuels shouldn’t be too difficult.

So there you go: The future holds great potential for using biofuels. With the right leadership and support, there’s absolutely no reason why Americans couldn’t enjoy cheaper gas prices and less pollution by this time next year. We’ve got plenty to gain from moving forward together!