Understanding the Implications of Biofuels Doesn’t Require a Biology Degree
Following years of extensive research and product trials, biofuels are today considered a viable fuel source for vehicles. Proponents of these alternative fuels tout their sustainability, ability to lower carbon emission levels and comparable (if not superior) vehicular performance — though some major oil companies have been slow to embrace the movement.
Here’s a look at some of the major renewable fuel alternatives, including a few many consumers may not be aware of.
Ethanol is the most commonly used biofuel in the United States, according to the Biomass Energy Data Book. Fermentation ethanol, which is rendered from corn or biomass feedstocks, accounts for roughly 90% of the American ethanol industry; the other 10% is comprised of synthetic ethanol, which is primarily used in the industrial sector.
Ethanol increases the octane hydrocarbons in regular gasoline and reduces carbon emission when the fuel is burned. Most ethanol sold in the United States is blended with gasoline at a ratio of 1:9, though higher concentrations are available for flex-fuel vehicles.
Biodiesel is the most commonly used biofuel throughout Europe, and its popularity in the U.S. is increasing. Most American biodiesel is rendered from soybean oil or recycled kitchen grease, though other sources (such as animal fat) may also be used.
This type of fuel is non-toxic, biodegradable and clean burning. As a result, biodiesel is the only biofuel that meets all the health effects testing criteria imposed by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Biodiesel must meet specific industry standards and be officially registered by the EPA in order to be sold for use in motor vehicles.
Studies are currently being done to determine the viability of bio-oil as an alternative fuel source. Bio-oil is created using a process known as flash pyrolysis, during which solid fuels (like wood and crop residue) are heated to 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit and the resulting vapor is condensed.
Bio-oil production facilities are located throughout the world. Some can process up to 75 tons of solid fuels per day. However, bio-oil products have not been approved nor made commercially available for public use.
Other biofuels are currently in development, as well. In Pima County, Arizona, for example, researchers have recently explored ways to power compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles with gas from a sewage treatment plant. In April 2012, Science Daily reported that scientists at Virginia Bioinformatics are using marine algae to produce an industrial-scale biofuel.
Many studies today focus on implementation of second-generation biofuels, or those produced using sustainable feedstocks (such as non-food crops). According to Biofuel.org.uk, second-generation projects currently in development include biomethanol, wood diesel, mixed alcohol and biohydrogen diesel.
From Competition to Cooperation
Over the years, the relationship between biofuel producers and major oil companies has been mixed; at first, the two groups were competitors. Reuters reports that 2007 marked peaks in both gasoline consumption and fuel-efficient vehicle production.
That same year, however, the US Renewable Fuel Standard established a mandate of 13.2 billion gallons of alternative fuel sources to be blended with American petroleum. This quota has risen over the years, and in 2022, the amount will reach 36 billion gallons (58% of which must be rendered from a source other than corn).
This federal requirement has forced biofuel producers and oil companies into a shaky alliance. While Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and others have heavily invested in alternative fuel technologies, the American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit against the mandate, citing “unachievable” goals.
Despite some opposition, the relationship between oil and biofuel will ultimately improve as a result of these mandates. And, as biofuel technology explores new resources and vehicle owners continue to purchase fuel-efficient automobiles, the alternative fuel industry stands to grow exponentially in the coming years.
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Madison Jones is a staff writer for a website that discusses biology education, including information about where graduate students interested in biology can find more information about programs that focus on biofuels research and development.