Biofuels are derived from different types of biomass, or organic matter. The goals of biofuel developers are to create a sustainable energy source that is economically feasible and produces less pollution than fossil fuels. Currently biofuel technology is in its infancy. Fossil fuels have the advantage of being energy dense, inexpensive to produce and transport, and still plentiful. However, researchers and energy companies alike are focusing on turning biofuels, such as biodiesel, ethanol, biomass, and algae, into alternative fuel sources that will reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, which is good for the environment, wildlife, and humans. However, using biofuel energy does not come without its own conservation and environmental concerns.
Biodiesel and Ethanol Biofuel
Biodiesel, often produced using vegetable oil and sometimes animal fat or used cooking grease, and ethanol, produced by fermenting plant parts such as corn or sugarcane, do both emit less carbon into the atmosphere and are relatively inexpensive to produce. But there are concerns with the crops needed to sustain biodiesel and ethanol biofuels. To produce biodiesel and ethanol requires vast acres of land be dedicated to growing various plant crops. With the farming of these crops, environmental concerns center around the pesticide, fertilizer, and water use needed to grow the plants.
Despite the concerns, these mostly plant-based biofuels have already replaced some of the gas used to fuel vehicles. In the United States, most standard gasoline gets mixed with some ethanol and diesel gasoline with some biodiesel. Many vehicles can also use straight biodiesel without it being mixed with standard diesel gasoline.
Essentially, biomass power plants burn plant matter to create energy. However, unlike biodiesel and ethanol biofuels, plant crops and trees are not grown solely for producing energy. Most biomass plants use wood waste material and other plant-based byproducts reports the Biomass Power Association. In addition to using waste products, biomass has the distinction of being carbon neutral according to several governmental agencies, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Energy. When evaluating the net CO2 emissions of biomass fuels, the CO2 intake and output during the entire process, from plant growth to the use of those plants to produce energy, are measured. Any CO2 emissions produced at a biomass energy plant is offset by the intake of CO2 of the plants when they were living and growing.
Biofuel from Algae
Some species of algae naturally produce a bio-oil during photosynthesis that can be turned into a biofuel. This bio-oil is what scientists are currently studying to produce on a large scale and turn into several types of energy sources to fuel standard gas vehicles, diesel vehicles, and jets. The potential for algae as a sustainable biofuel is promising. Like other biofuels, algae consume CO2 when growing, but do not require pesticides or fertilizers that pollute waterways. Algae has also shown to be a highly productive energy source, meaning that less land space is needed to produce the same amount of biofuel than what is needed for ethanol or biodiesel. However, making algae into a fuel source is currently expensive. Developing technology to turn algae bio-oil into a cheap biofuel for the masses is the primary focus of many energy companies looking to develop alternative fuel sources. Click here to learn more about careers in alternative energy.
- Biomass Power Association: Biomass Technology Review
- Biomass Power Association CEO: Let’s Get the Fact Right
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory: Biofuels Basics