If you haven’t noticed, we’re in a bit of an energy frenzy.
Every day, the global population grows in excess of 250,000 or more people. There are normally over 100,000,000 births per year. The world feels like it’s getting smaller, and the solutions feel like they’re dragging too slow behind the curve.
This biofuel guide will explain everything that you need to know about a better, cleaner source of energy. It isn’t retrieved like fossil fuel; it doesn’t burn as harshly, either.
- 1 What is Biofuel Made of?
- 2 What is Biofuel Used for?
- 3 How Do You Make Biofuel?
- 4 What Are the Three Main Differences Between Regular Fuel and Biofuel?
- 5 Why is Biofuel so Expensive?
- 6 Biofuel is the Future
What is Biofuel Made of?
Biofuel is the opposite of fossil fuel. It’s made of rapidly renewable bio-based sources, such as crops that can be turned into alternative fuels, or even logs that can be burned for briquettes, pellets, or simply burned for their energy.
Because trees grow in a relatively short amount of time (compared to fossil fuels), they can be considered a biofuel.
However, today we try to use the term biofuel as a separate term from biomass, though in the past these two have often been interchangeable.
Nowadays, biofuel specifically means a type of liquid fuel (gasoline replacement) that can be used to power machinery in a way that doesn’t require destruction of the environment to take it.
Biofuels can be harvested from crops, or can even be used from waste, if that waste had a biological origin rooted in renewable resources.
To list everything that biofuels can be made of would be far too tedious, as advancements are made on an almost daily basis where we’re finding more and more methods to utilize renewable materials for biogas and biofuel.
What is Biofuel Used for?
Let’s go down a quick list of all the ways biofuel is used.
Commonly, we think of biofuel as a replacement for gasoline in our cars that we use for commuting, but the benefits extend far past there, and that’s why I think a lot of people don’t understand: let’s look at just how fantastic biofuel can be.
1. Energy Generation
Not for your car, but for actual electrical purposes. Backup generators need to run off of something, so when a hospital’s lights go out and the OR needs to keep machines running, they’re not getting power from an exclusive power grid that’s still active for some reason.
Their backup generators kick into high gear and burn a fuel source. We can see this being done with solar panels and solar energy banks, but also with biofuel. In a setting like a hospital or a school, emissions matter; you don’t have factory-type ventilation and chimneys that can release massive amounts of emissions.
Instead, you have a system that burns a biofuel which has conservative levels of emissions that can be managed by smaller facilities that aren’t inherently designed to handle them.
This is why biofuel-burning generators can be added to older buildings without needing to completely rework them, making it excellent for implementation.
2. Electrical Charging
Solar power is excellent, and the way it turns sunlight into usable electricity is fantastic. Biofuel can do the same thing. While this is a relatively new process, biofuel can be combined with sugar to cause a reaction in individual power cells that produce electricity.
This means you could basically make a batch of biofuel at home (it won’t be as effective as mass-produced biofuel under EPA guidelines), combine sugar, and make your own method of charging smaller electronics in the home.
While this isn’t going to run your fridge for a week straight, it’s an advancement and another way to utilize biofuel.
3. Oil Spill Cleanup Efforts
It sounds bizarre, but this type of fuel can be used to clean oil, another type of fuel, from oil spills in the water and on the shores.
Because biofuel acts completely differently when introduced to water than oil does, it actually aids relief efforts by making it easier to pull oil from the water. Biofuels aren’t inherently crude, so placing them in the water has a minimal impact compared to oil.
There’s little to no toxic impact on the environment, and in the event of cleaning a rig that is coated in oil after a spill, biofuel can actually be used to clean metal without introducing harsher chemicals. It’s a win-win all around.
4. Engine Lubrication
So you can’t use biofuel every time you gas up the car because it’s expensive. That’s okay, but you can still use a small amount of biofuel to help extend the life of your car.
Metal parts need to be lubricated for them to work properly, and there’s almost no better lubricants out there than biofuel.
5. Providing Heat
The oldest form of energy being burned for a singular purpose is fire – it’s cold, we burn an energy source, and then we’re not cold.
However, we’ve overcomplicated this process over the years by removing fireplaces (technically, trees are a biofuel, so logs in a fireplace aren’t the worst thing in the world), and introducing electrical heating systems that are hooked up to a power grid that burns fossil fuel in exchange for an electrical net energy gain.
In the end, it still causes damage to the environment. Burning biofuel to produce heat in a furnace or heater still causes some level of emissions, but as we learn later, these emissions have a lifecycle where they may be reintroduced to plants and be better for the environment.
6. Paint Thinner
Now, you’re probably not going to use it for paint thinner, but it’s an option.
Paint thinners are not only dreadfully toxic to skin contact and inhalation, but bad for the environment when you eventually have to dispose of it. Biofuel is less impactful on the environment, and works just as well.
7. National Energy Independence (Possibly Global)
There is a realist view on this, and then there is a pipe dream attached to it. Let me explain.
Energy independence is one of the biggest problems in the world. Many nations rely on middle-eastern countries for oil production due to its abundance.
The desire for energy independence does not come from a desire to stop doing business with other nations, but rather having an option to be self-sufficient in hard times or in times of war.
Becoming energy independent is every nation’s goal in one way or another. For example, Germany is set to be 100% renewable by the year 2050, making them completely energy independent.
While the production of solar panels and turbines for windmills may be in other countries, Germany will have everything they need to remain energy efficient.
On an international scale, many countries are making a commitment to becoming energy independent and efficient for the better of mankind. We all know that renewable, clean energy is the way to go if we want to continue existing on this planet, so it’s good that many nations are trying to achieve this.
However, we cannot expect every country to do this, which is where that cautionary pipe dream comment from earlier comes into play. In the event of global energy independence, it might force other countries – who now no longer have as many buyers of their exportable, non-clean burning energy – to adopt the same systems.
So where do biofuels come into play here?
We already have the means to produce excellent biofuel, and since we won’t go 100% renewable overnight, biofuel could be the great bridge between where we are now, and where we’re going as a clean energy global civilization in the future.
With more biofuel being used, less emissions occur, and in part with other green energy effects, we mitigate our impact on the environment while working over to solar, wind, and water turbine forms of energy for a cleaner future.
How Do You Make Biofuel?
The most common way that biofuel can be made is from vegetable oil.
This would require a ton of machinery and space, but basically, through an alcohol and catalyst chemical reaction process, glycerin is extracted from the vegetable oil and disposed of, leaving a clean biofuel that can be used for powering car engines.
When we say crops when referring to making biofuel, it generally refers to vegetables that can be turned into vegetable oil, and then changed into biofuel.
This is the most common process because it can be done in large batches, and is fairly low-cost as far as biofuel production is concerned. Animal fats may also be used to make biofuels through a similar alcohol and catalyst chemical process.
What Are the Three Main Differences Between Regular Fuel and Biofuel?
There are three key differences that you should know about.
We know that biofuels are, in theory, better for the environment in terms of carbon burning, but that shouldn’t be enough information to satiate your knowledge between the two. Here are three hard-hitting facts.
1. Carbon Sequestration vs. Emissions
Carbon sequestration is also known as photosynthesis. This is when plants absorb carbon dioxide, just as trees do, and store it in their roots to grow, essentially removing it from the air.
The same process can be used by plants that pull carbon dioxide from the air, turning it from liquid to solid, then using it to produce oxygen and release it into the atmosphere to try and cancel out the effects of global warming.
I say all of this because burning biofuel does not mean you are pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, which has been a common misconception for years.
You simply add less carbon to the air, and if you exclusively use biofuels, that carbon can, in theory, then be absorbed by crops once again to produce more biofuel, making it a somewhat renewable form of energy.
This is more common in advanced biofuels, which can reduce emission rates by an exceptionally large margin, adding some merit to the idea of carbon sequestration. In short: if you burn biofuel, you’re still adding carbon to the environment, it’s just not as much as gasoline or diesel.
2. Biofuel Improves, Fossil Fuels Stay the Same
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency enacted their Regulatory Impact Analysis, which shows that biofuels consistently lower the amount of carbon released into the environment as the science and production behind them matures.
Every year, we see better numbers in carbon emissions (lower emissions), as well as a better net energy gain on the production of biofuels, while fossil fuel is still terrible for the environment and doesn’t change.
Not related to actually burning the fuel, there is a key takeaway: as time goes on and we extract more fossil fuel from the earth, it’s becoming more expensive, and more fuel-intensive to actually acquire it. Fossil fuels are getting more expensive to extract, just not more expensive to be consumed by the mass public.
3. Biofuels Can Be Less Harmful on Your Vehicles
Provided that the process is done properly, biofuels can actually have a much lower impact on your vehicle’s life than gasoline. You can look up any video of an engine being cleaned (usually with a can of Coca-Cola), and the black sludge that comes off.
Biofuel burns cleaner, meaning there is far less carbon buildup left behind in your engine. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s also better for your vehicle. It’s not like choosing 87 vs 93 at the pump—it’s like choosing something else entirely.
Why is Biofuel so Expensive?
To look at this from a realist’s perspective, biofuel is expensive because it is so low in production compared to gasoline and diesel fuel, and doesn’t offer the same net gain as gasoline does at this current time.
It’s fantastic that we’ve been able to figure out how to use wood waste and plants to create a fuel that can power a bus to take a full load of people and drive for hundreds of miles, but the cost of that biofuel powering the bus is undoubtedly expensive for a number of reasons:
1. Biofuel Has a Low Net Gain
Net energy gain is an energy economics term. Energy that you spend to create another type of energy in relation to its monetary gain, and energy gain (always measured in joules, which can get a bit confusing at times).
Basically, if it costs 1,000 joules to create a unit of energy, and that unit of energy is 1,100 joules, you have a net energy gain of 100 joules.
However, the monetary gain in this is if you use a form of energy that costs, let’s say, $100.00 per 1,000 joules to create, and the alternate energy that you create is $120.00 per 1,000 joules.
Not only have you created more energy, but you’ve created a higher-priced energy, which is the incentive of biofuel companies—turning energy into more expensive energy.
2. We Can’t Grow Fast Enough
If we wanted to use wood and plant waste for fuel, we would need to grow more. More trees, more crops, and we wouldn’t be able to grow it fast enough to meet the demand of fuel needs in the United States.
Here in the US alone, we use 140 billions of gasoline every single year, and 63 billion gallons of diesel – we don’t have the land or the means to grow enough crops in an annual cycle to produce over 200 billions of fuel.
The less people that are doing it (who are mostly only doing it through EPA subsidies in the hundreds of billions), the higher the cost is going to be.
If it became a wide field where farmers were using their land to produce biofuel, and more people were responsible for creating biofuel, we would have an abundance and the prices would slowly deflate. It’s a whole supply-and-demand quandary.
3. There Isn’t a Wide Market for it
Without the EPA, we wouldn’t even have biofuels available for public consumption in any measurable quantity. The primary users of biofuel aren’t trucking companies and bus tour spots; it’s cheaper to use gasoline, and we have it in abundance.
Economically, the average American (or global citizen, for that matter) cannot always choose an option that is better for the environment, whether that’s in gasoline, home energy (electric company versus their own solar panels, for example) and things of that sort.
It’s not sustainable from a cost perspective for most of us, including myself. Less is produced because there is a smaller demand for it, meaning less competition; these companies are leveraging with buyers that have cash to burn.
Biofuel is the Future
While biofuel remains expensive to manufacture, new methods are being discovered and tested every single day.
With a growing global population and demand for energy solutions that we’re constantly trying to meet, you can expect to see biofuel as a staple in how we shape the world to cleaner forms of energy, far away from fossil fuels.