Why Should You Understand Biofuel
We are in a stage of constant search for new sustainable energy sources. Although biofuel is not a new concept it surely has many more applications in these times. Biofuels have many great benefits that you will soon get to know. Harnessing the chemical power of oils could be part of the solution we need for a more sustainable world. Biofuels come in many forms such as biogas like methane or liquid fuel additives like ethanol. All implementations of the concept share some basic ideas so let’s dig down to understand them.
Biofuel What Is It?
So what do we mean when we biofuels or bioenergy? A simple way to define it would be any fuel that is made out of biomass. Biomass is a mass of organic matter such as plants, and animal waste. Think about it biofuels are in use since mankind discovered the fire. It might be surprising but they were used for the production of electricity even before we started using fossil fuels.
When talking about bioenergy it is important to understand that not all biofuels are as beneficial for the environment. The buzz around biofuels is mainly referring to forms of it that could be helpful in the efforts to prevent climate change. There are two types of biofuels most widely used today in the context of clean energy production – biodiesel and ethanol. Biofuels could be used for transportation, electricity generation, and even heating making them a versatile source of energy.
Biodiesel is a renewable source of liquid fuel made out of vegetable oil and animal fat.
Early experiments in using vegetable oil-based fuels were made by Dr. Rudolph Diesel the inventor of the diesel engine himself. While we know that diesel engines could run on vegetable oils for a long while the modern biofuel industry was only established in Europe in the late 80s.
Vegetable oils have a high energetic content which makes them a great base for fuels. Biodiesel made out of vegetable oils is not enough to make it a clean source of energy since the agriculture industry also has its share of environmental destruction. The beauty of biodiesel is that it could be made of recycled oils. One such example is the cooking oil producer Veolia stating their recycled biodiesel produces 92% fewer carbon emissions in comparison with fossil fuel diesel.
How Do We Make Recycled Biodiesel
The process of recycling used vegetable oils and animal fats is pretty simple and consists of three main stages.
- Pre-treatment – in this stage, the used oil is separated from water and food leftover contaminants from the original use. Oils that were used for cooking also contain free fatty acids ( or FFAs). When you use oil for cooking you heat it, which breaks down parts of the molecules and produces this byproduct. The FFA particles are floating separately from the molecule in the mixture and need to be separated and treated.
- The chemical process– to make the fatty acids safe biodiesel to use they go through a process called transesterification. In this process, the mixture is added to ethanol and a chemical boost to speed up the reaction commonly sodium chloride. The reaction then turns the mixture into methyl ester –which is a technical term for biodiesel and glycerin.
- Refining – now we separate the glycerin from the biodiesel we desire. A fun fact is that the glycerin by-product is useful to make environmentally friendly soaps as well as serve the cosmetics industry.
Biodiesel could be used with traditional fossil fuels to minimize its greenhouse effect of it or also on its own to power almost any diesel engine. It is surely a great addition to our arsenal of ways to deal with greenhouse emissions.
Ethanol As Biofuel
So what is Ethanol? It is a chemical we can use as a sustainable fuel and to make out of biomass. Basically, it’s a form of alcohol. It was used as a fuel for engines from the 1820s. Ethanol was even powering the famous Ford Model-T. Unfortunately, the promising use of ethanol stopped when it was first taxed as alcohol inflicting increased costs. In the 1920s we started mixing it with fossil fuels to increase octane levels and basically to make fuel combustion easier.
Modern use of ethanol started in the 1970s with the beginning of the environmental movement eager to find cleaner ways to run our engines and has since been used as an additive in most types of petroleums. Ever since the use of ethanol is increasing and is used mainly to control carbon monoxide emission levels from the combustion of fuels. An example of the use of Ethanol as a fuel additive is the E85 flex fuel. We can use ethanol on its own to generate electricity and for heating.
How Do We Make Ethanol
To produce ethanol we ferment the sugars in biomass. It is a simple biological process of enzymes breaking down the sugars in the biomass by producing ethanol. The process could occur naturally without any additives but to use it as a fuel we need to make the process in a controlled environment. The process consists of the following main stages.
1. Refining – We grind to powder the sugar-rich biomass most commonly sugar canes and corn.
2. Mixing – Mixing the powder with water and enzymes to break the long and complex chain of sugar molecules into a simpler form. We are then heating the mixture to speed up the process.
3. Disinfecting – heating the mixture to disinfect the living organisms and contaminants.
4. Fermentation – Cool down the mixture and add the yeast that turns the simple sugar molecules into ethanol.
5. Distilattion – Heat the mixture again to put it through a few stages of distillation. Refining the ethanol we desire from what is called pulled tillage. We can then re-use the pulled tillage for bio-diesel or other biofuel forms. Later on, we further distill the ethanol to make it more concentrated and separated from the water.
The outcome is clean ethanol that is for powering power plants, heating homes, or mixing with petroleum to make a cleaner fuel.
The Benefits Of Biofuels
Bioenergy is spreading so fast for the many benefits it brings to every application.
First and foremost they are a renewable source of energy meaning we are not running out of them. They are relatively easy to produce and don’t involve complex chemical procedures. It is a very efficient form of fuel with a high energetical density. Biofuels offer a great cost-efficiency alternative to fossil fuels. Although production cost is roughly the same the money saved from fewer emissions you need to deal with is a great incentive for switching to them. Biofuels are even beneficial to the durability of engines. Making our engines have a longer lifespan without any technological developments.
The Problems With Biofuels
Like all sources of clean energy, biofuels are still far from perfect. Although offering a great alternative to fossil fuels they are still producing greenhouse gasses like CO2. Another major problem with biofuels by themselves is that the industries making the raw materials from them are still highly polluting. The transferring of raw materials to make biofuels can also cause additional emissions not always counted in the balance. Commercial agriculture for example is using vast lands to grow those raw materials which sometimes could be better used for regenerative agriculture. The benefits of biofuels are to make the best of it and try following the next few tips.
- Buy locally produced biofuels and save the emissions of transportation
- Prefer recycled biofuels over any other type
- Try to buy it from companies that support our cause of saving the environment or make it on your own.
Biofuel is certainly an important part of our overall strategy to avoid global warming and live a more sustainable lifestyle. The industry is highly developing and new applications are appearing like mushrooms after the rain. We should embrace this wide topic and try to use it on both domestic and commercial scales. Although not solving all of our sustainability needs remember that by buying from companies that develop these technologies we as consumers help to drive it forward.
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