What are Biofuels? Biofuels are an energy source derived from any organic plant, animal, or living material. The most prominent use of the word has been the increasing use of biofuels as a renewable energy source in the green industry—the two most well known renewable biofuels being ethanol and biodiesel. However, there are a good number more renewable and conventional biofuels out there that this article will delve into.1
What are the different types of biofuels? To categorize the large array of biofuels, there are two main categories: 1) First generation or biofuels that are conventional emit 20% less green house gas (GHG) emissions than petroleum based gasoline; 2) second generation or advanced biofuels will emit at least 50% less GHG emissions than petroleum based gasoline.2 There are some studies that say second generation biofuels could emit as much as 80% less GHGs!3
At this time, first generation biofuels are the major market players, as they are derived from pretty much every type of feedstock, so let’s look at these:
Second generation biofuels are mostly in the research and development phases, with many currently producing only on small scale. However, preliminary research and numbers thus far have shown promise. A few of the more well known ones are cellulosic ethanol, algal biofuel, biohydrogen, and renewable diesel.4
- Bioalcohols are one of the largest categories of biofuels and include everything from methanol, ethanol, and biobutanol (a gasoline substitute). These represent a huge percentage of the biofuel market, with a production process deeply tied to the food industry. The fermentation and creation of these bioalcohols borrows much of the technology that the wine and spirits industry trail blazed long ago.
Biodiesel comes from a huge variety of sources, but all of them are derived from fats mixed with methanol to create a biodiesel product. The most well known is the common cooking oil conversion to biodiesel. In fact, many local recyclers are now collecting used vegetable oils from restaurants for biodiesel construction. There are many other feedstocks such as soybeans, algae, and oil producing seeds that can be produced into biodiesel as well.
- Biogas is predominantly methane gas, which can be used for combustion or heating due to its flammable nature. In landfills, bioreactors, and other anaerobic (no or low oxygen) environments microbes are abundant and actively producing large amounts of methane gas. In fact, many cattle ranches collect the gas released from their stock, produced due to the high level of microbial activity in the stomachs of cows. The most stable and long lasting producer of biogas has been the petroleum industry which produces methane and other usable biogases in the gas refining process.
- Solid biofuels represent one the most ancient and widely used sources of energy in the world. Everything from wood, sawdust, grass cuttings, to charcoal and food waste fall into this category. Many of these are usually not environmentally friendly and release large amounts of GHGs in addition to particulate matter that causes health problems.
Why are biofuels important? Hailed for its diversity, biofuels will allow energy to come from new undiscovered sources that are renewable and sustainable. In developing biofuels, many of the problems that the U.S. and the world face today with our current energy portfolio will be solved, or at least greatly ameliorated. Let’s look at some of the hopes pinned on biofuels…
Why aren’t biofuels dominating the market? While diversity is a potential strength of biofuels, in reality it represents a huge challenge. Every feedstock, production process, and biofuel product has its own issue that cannot be solved by one overarching cure all. These span everything from social, economic, environmental, and technical issues. Many people argue that scalability of these new technologies will present significant challenges ranging from cost/affordability ($/gallon ethanol), food security (corn ethanol), poverty issues, carbon emissions, sustainable production levels, deforestation, and water impacts to name a few. Until each of these unique problems is solved and can prove scalability, many of these biofuel technologies are stuck with small production levels.
- Energy security: In the U.S. alone, over 11 million gallons of gasoline are imported for use each day.5 Many people believe that biofuels are the best way to create energy security and decrease our dependence on oil. As a liquid fuel substitute, ethanol and biodiesel are posed to be one of the more ideal solutions to the transportation industry’s energy problem.6 On a global scale, innovative energy solutions in the biofuel arena will make energy more available to users that do not have the money or access to conventional fuels.
- Creates jobs: One of President Obama’s biggest goals has been to create jobs through the development of renewable energies.7 The biofuels market is creating an industry for both small start up businesses and large energy conglomerates to build from the ground up.
- Combats climate change: One of the most overlooked, but most important reasons to promote biofuels is environmental conservation. With almost all biofuels reducing GHG emissions by 20% and in the future upwards of 50%, biofuels have the potential to greatly decrease GHGs, thus assisting in global initiatives to combat climate change.
Is the U.S. government involved in the biofuels market?
In the year 2011 alone the government has committed to spending $510 million dollars on biofuels.8 In the past decade, over a billion dollars in public and private funding has driven this industry that started with only corn ethanol and is now an industry producing over 10 types of biofuels. The figure below shows the breakdown of government spending currently taking place:
As you can see a considerable amount of money is going to R&D, that the government has awarded to public and private research groups to help create and optimize the development of these emerging technologies. On the policy side of things, the government has created a number of different policies to ensure a future and structure that this young industry can build upon. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) provides a spending plan for continued research, investment, and biofuel production requirements.10
The Obama administration’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) provided much of the funding that has stimulated biofuel start ups around the country, with over a dozen promising companies in California alone. Additionally, for the more established producers, subsidies and project loans are allowing for scaling and ramped up production levels. While it is unclear whether this continued funding will be enough to help the biofuel industry blossom into full affect, many can say that biofuels are the place to be for energy innovation. Let’s hope so!
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