Let’s talk biofuel: what is it? Is it better than petroleum? How is it made?
I was inspired to make this video during my video on bioplastics. Turns out, bioplastics are only better than traditional plastics if they can be composted which most of the time they cannot. You can learn more in this video/blog post. So, is it the same for biofuel vs petroleum fuel? Let’s find out!
What is biofuel
We actually had an ethanol plant in my hometown, a big farming region of the midwest. Ethanol is taking corn and turning it into fuel, but can also be made with other plant materials. Ethanol is a plant alcohol that is then blended with gasoline in order to increase the octane and then reduce the amount of carbon monoxide and other emissions. The most common blend if E10: Ethanol 10%, gasoline 90%. Some cars also run on E85 which is usually 51%-83% ethanol depending on geography and season. At this point in history, about 97% of gasoline sold in the US contains at least some ethanol. Ethanol is made from plant starches and sugars from the nonedible fibers that make up the bulk of plant matter. So, they use plant by-products. Ethanol is made through fermentation in which microorganisms metabolize the plant sugars.
Biodiesel is a bit different in that it is made from new and used vegetable and animal oils and burns a lot cleaner than petroleum-based diesel. It is non-toxic and biodegradable and it created by combining alcohol with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease. Biodiesel is like its petroleum-based cousin in that it is used to fuel diesel engines. It can, like ethanol, be used blended with petroleum-based diesel in any percentage. This can even include 100% biodiesel.
How does fuel even work?
This was something I didn’t entirely understand, so I thought I’d expand on it quickly so that we understand the science of how fuel makes our cars and trucks and plans run. Petroleum-based fuels contain different complex mixtures of hydrocarbons that are burned to create energy. But, hydrocarbons can also be created with biomass and it is nearly identical to petroleum-based fuels. So, they are compatible with our modern engines.
How is biofuel made?
I won’t bore you with too many nerdy details, you can read the full post here for the details. But, biofuel creation is a multi-step process. First, the plant cell wall must be broken down during deconstruction. Then, the sugars, oils, and other parts must be upgraded in either biological processing or chemical processing. After upgrading, the finished product could be fuels or bioproducts to sell or used to stabilize the finished petroleum.
Is biofuel better than fossil fuel?
Obviously not burning fossil fuels is better than burning fossil fuels. First off, fossil fuels are non-renewable meaning we will run out at some point, but they make up about 80% of the world’s energy supply. But, it’s vital to life in the modern age as it is how we get around, heat our homes, and even cook. Another downside is that they release CO2 and other greenhouse gases which lead to climate change.
As we’ve learned, biofuels do not release greenhouse gases when used alone. Of course, everything produces some GHGs during production, but for biofuels, not when they are burned. They are also renewable! In theory, it’s use could be sustained forever. The EPA predicts that biofuels could yield lower lifecycle GHGs than regular gasoline. And, just like with bioplastics, the emissions can be reduced further if biofuels are made with plant waste and by-product as opposed to virgin plants.
Another perk to biofuels is that they can be produced almost entirely domestically. For example, again with my hometown, my dad grew corn and drove it just 5 miles down the road to the ethanol plant to be turned into biofuel. This means significantly fewer emissions in transportation. But, it is important to remember that zero GHGs is impossible. Some GHGs will appear somewhere along the life cycle of biofuels be it planting, harvesting, or creating it into the biofuel. But, the burning of biofuels themselves is less harmful than burning fossil fuels. In order to maximize the benefits of biofuels, we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Currently and over the past decade or so,
Another similarity we see to bioplastics is that switching to an entirely biofuel economy could lead to different environmental issues. What this means is that we will now have to be growing more food to be turned into fuel. This has the potential to lead to more land devoted to agriculture that we would just burn in our cars. This could lead to deforestation and biodiversity loss. I have a currently 3-part series on biodiversity you can check out here.
Overall, yes, biofuel seems to be better than fossil fuels. But, the same issue remains as always: over-consumerism. We use too much fuel to be sustainable no matter if it’s made of oil or plants. Too much oil and we will run out and heat the planet in the process. Too much biofuel and we could see habitat and biodiversity loss which certainly will not help the state of the planet. I think biofuel is a great step when used responsibly. I am glad to see the rise in electric vehicles. Maybe EVs and biofuel can go hand in hand to reduce emissions without destroying precious land. Let me know if I should explore EVs in the future!
Thank you so much for reading along. Remember that your small changes have a big impact in the long run :)