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Governments, organizations and scientists the world round have stepped forward to bring the issue of fossil fuel burning to the forefront of the media's attention. Oil, coal and petroleum are not renewable resources and yet, practically our entire society and civilization are dependent upon the power they provide to drive us and our technology forward. Now more than ever there exists a strong need and focus on researching and implementing alternate renewable and readily available sources of power: amongst these are biofuels.
What are biofuels ?
Biofuels, sometimes known as agrofuels, are energy-affording materials that are sourced from organic, naturally found living or recently living plants and organisms. The oldest and most widely used biofuel is wood! From our early ancestors to modern day society, humans have used the burning of wood – fire, of course - to cook our food, provide us with warmth and as a means of protection.
More recently in human history, time, money and resources have been channeled into researching a more powerful source of energy, namely biofuels. These can take the form of a solid (wood, charcoal or dry manure), liquid fuel or natural gases, all of which can in some way provide us with energy to fuel our society. Currently, biofuels are used predominantly in the transport sector as a fuel for cars, busses and trucks; however, further research could see their field of application expand quite substantially.
Different Types of Biofuels
There are different categories of biofuels depending on their chemical make-up or composition, but what they all have in common is that they are completely organic in origin.
Bioalcohols refer to the fuels that are created from the fermentation of sugar and starch in certain plant matter, which of course yields alcohol! One of the most commonly used and widely researched of the bioalcohols, is bioethanol. The concept behind creating bioalcohols as a source of fuel is really quite inseparable from the one we apply to making wine and brandy (grapes), vodka (potatoes), gin (juniper berries) and whiskey (rye). Of course not all plant types will yield alcohol in a palatable form; however, the engines of automobiles certainly don't mind this! All we know is that bioalcohol can be used in its pure form to initiate and sustain more powerful and cleaner combustion, and in doing so, have proved to be exceptionally useful in the transport sector.
Biodiesel is one of the most common forms of biofuel and is especially used throughout much of Europe as an additive to traditional mineral diesel (usually constitutes 15% of total volume). Biodiesel is manufactured via the process of transesterification from oily or fatty substances, such as vegetable oils derived from any one of a number of oily plant types (flaxseed, sunflower seeds, palm oil, etc.), animal fats and used or recycled greases.
The benefit of using biodiesel is that it increases the power output or octane of an engine through the promotion of more efficient combustion, which in turn reduces the harmful emissions of poisonous greenhouse gases (carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, pollution particulates etc.)
Bio-oil is a completely organically sourced oil obtained from plants such as jatropha, canola flowers and algae. Used vegetable oil is also considered to be a great source of bio-oil, since such a huge number of people, homes and catering businesses use cooking oil on a daily basis.
Bio-oil is usually heated to reduce its viscosity, after which it can be used as an additive in diesel fuel. Alternatively, it can be further treated to produce biodiesel, which can be used to power absolutely any technology that subsists off of diesel fuel: cars, trucks, buses, power generators, etc.
Ether is an organic chemical compound that can be used similarly to bioalcohol. The distinction is that bioethers contribute to incredibly efficient combustion within car engines resulting in:
Higher octane rating
Lesser toxic greenhouse gas and pollution emissions
Lesser corrosion of car mechanics
Biogas is the natural byproduct of decomposition by bacterial organisms and explains the unpleasant odor of rotting flesh or plant material. Through specially designed collectors and closed systems, we can capture this gas, which is high in methane, off of landfills or waste deposit sites and use it for a number of applications. The solid byproduct of bacterial digestion can also be used as a potent fertilizer, ideal for agricultural use.
Syngas is essentially a mixture of carbon monoxide (a poisonous and potent greenhouse gas) and hydrogen (a harmless and naturally found atmospheric gas). This is produced through the partial combustion of biomass in an oxygen-starved environment that yields a more potent and efficient form of fuel, which can be used to drive vehicle engines as well as the generation of electricity by turbines.
The combination of all of these different kinds of biofuels provided the transport sector with approximately 1.8% of its fuel needs in 2008. Great investments of time, money and research has seen a rapid increase in the focus on using biofuels to move our society forward as opposed to the conventional non-renewable fossil fuels. All of the biofuels mentioned are the results of varying production processes which can be categorized into three generations: first, second and third generation biofuels.
First generation biofuels
First generation biofuels are sourced from natural compounds such as sugars, starches, vegetable oils and fats, which are then processed using conventional technologies. As such, they encompass the fuel types of biodiesel, bioalcohols, syngas and vegetable oil.
However, while these sources of biofuels offer a great alternative to the traditional fossil fuels, they do present some economical difficulties of their own. One of the greatest controversies facing biofuels is that they require the use of major food crops in their production. So, with first generation biofuels, we are either looking at putting incredible stress on the agricultural sector, resulting in food shortages, or the expansion of farmlands. This in itself has huge environmental implications such as deforestation, soil erosion, water shortages, increased carbon emissions and on the larger scale; climate change.
With all these detrimental impacts, the excessive use of first generation biofuels really defeats the purpose of biofuels in the first place, which is to provide a clean and renewable source of energy.
Second generation biofuels
Second generation biofuels comprise the answer to the issues presented by their first generation counterparts as they are manufactured from inedible plant matter or non-food crops as well as the waste biomass produced by the agricultural sector. This includes the left over stalks, stems and leaves from the processing of corn, sugar cane, wheat, soybeans and other food crops.
Because of the vast and diverse array of inedible biomass types and sources, second generation biofuels largely surpass the limitations of the first generation as they do not threaten our food reserves, food production or biodiversity. They are also a far more sustainable resource, environmentally friendly and completely cost-effective because we are making fuel from what would previously be thought of as useless waste material!
Third generation biofuels
The last of the generations of biofuels are provided by the green slime that coats our pools and ponds much to our frustration. Algae, also referred to as oilgae in the biofuel industry, is the third generation biofuel.
Research into the use of algae as a source of fuel has shown that it can produce as much as 30 times more energy per unit growing area than land crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.), although this is yet to be commercially implemented. The advantage of third generation biofuels is that it is 100% environmentally friendly, biodegradable and easy to grow, although the oil extraction process is a little trickier.
Algae also has the benefits of naturally producing ethanol as a byproduct, which can easily be extracted without disturbing the plants, as well as absorbing carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis. This sink of carbon dioxide is fundamental in an environment which is suffering under the strain of excessive greenhouse gas emissions.
The need for biofuels is becoming increasingly urgent due to the fact that the sources we rely on for energy and power are fast dwindling. Fossil fuels such as coal and oil are non-renewable resources that have been at the reins of our economy for far too long. With only a few countries in the world that actually possess fossil fuels as a natural resource, wars and power struggles over these commodities have caused irreparable damage to international government relations, the environment as well as to people's lives.
Biofuels constitute the answer to all the global energy and environmental crises we face today by providing our civilization with energy security in the form of an alternate, renewable, potent and readily available source of power.