Biofuels- Feeding Humanity or our Engines?

1st Generation Biofuel raw material

Greentings Everyone!

Long before we humans started discovering new ways of deriving energy from biological materials, biomass was being used in its simplest form. From cooking to heating, biomass such as wood and dung was being put to the test and into the fire to provide us with energy to go about our newly discovered way of life. This energy became so intrinsic to human life that it was deemed essential for future progress. Without energy, life as we now knew it would cease to exist. As humanity continued to grow, so did our energy needs. Newer and more efficient means of producing this energy became necessary to keep up and continue to provide the same standard of living. A standard of living that involved cooking, staying warm during snowy winters, cooling down in the hot summer months, powering machinery, transporting our children to school, and building the infrastructure of tomorrow. In fact, even the energy generating machinery that was used and is still in use today had to be constructed with an input of energy. Historically this energy came from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and gas. In more recent times however, we humans have begun to learn how to efficiently harness the power of what is around us, the sun, the wind, geothermal, hydropower—tidal and hydroelectric from rivers, and the efficient use of biomass through the creation of biofuels.

What are biofuels?

For the purpose of clarity, biofuels can be broken down into two separate types, each manufactured in unique ways and derived from different but readily available resources. Note that at the time of writing these two types of biofuels are what we would call 1st generation fuels, of which the most popular and commercially available being Ethanol.

Ethanol can be derived from various plant materials, as it is an alcohol that is fermented from plant starches and sugars. The most widely used plant materials to achieve viable ethanol is corn, sugarcane, and sweet sorghum. As of now, the edible parts of these plants are required for the transformation process. Remember when it was mentioned that this type of biofuel is of 1st generation? Well, that is because, scientific advancements continue to bring about technology that will allow for the use of the non-edible fibrous materials—the parts which we have no use for. Should this new technology prove to be efficient, it could bring about an exponential rise of the use of biofuels as energy, more on that later. Currently ethanol is being used as an additive to more conventional gasoline. You may have seen E10 or E15 mentioned in some countries such as the United States, Brazil and India where Ethanol is prevalent due to the availability of the resource needed for the fermentation process. E10 and E15 are a blended gasoline which is composed of 10%/15% ethanol and 90%/85% gasoline. Newer flexible fuel vehicles have gained traction in recent times which run on a blend that can contain as much as 83% ethanol. These vehicles however continue to be an exception and not the norm.

Aside from ethanol-based biofuels, the second type of fuel is biodiesel. Biodiesel comes in a liquid form and is derived from the recycling process of new or even used vegetable oils or animal fats. It is considered to be a clean fuel due to it being nontoxic and biodegradable. It is produced by combining alcohol with vegetable oils, animal fats or even cooking grease. Just like ethanol, it is currently used as an additive to more widely available petroleum diesel. It can range from a 20% blend to 100% fully biodiesel combustion.

2nd Generation, 3rd Generation and beyond.

Moving past the 1st generation, biofuels is on an exponential trajectory of innovation. Having proven themselves as a potentially viable alternative to our current conventional fuels, technological advancements have provided us with the capabilities to derive the energy we need not only from the food crops grown on arable land, but also to use agricultural waste/residue and woody biomass. This 2nd Generation biofuel—which has moved away from using byproducts of the main crop, is thought to be more sustainable in its nature due to the fact that the non-food parts are being used for biofuel production instead of being disposed of. Examples of this would be straw, bagasse, waste vegetable oil and solid waste.

What mainly distinguishes the 1st and 2nd generation fuels from the 3rd and 4th generation fuels which we will be speaking of next is the innovative processes that have provided us with the opportunity to harness energy which would be unthinkable of in the past. With regards to 3rd generation fuels, the use of algae for example, a high yield crop which can be grown with minimal impact on fresh water sources—as it can be grown in wastewater and saline water environments, is a relatively new arrival in the biofuels space. Although this process requires larger amounts of energy for production, it is continuously being studied as a viable alternative. Another class of biofuels which is on the cusp of a breakthrough are what we call, electro fuels and solar fuels. Electro fuels are made by storing electrical energy in chemical bonds of liquid or gases. Some of the targets in this research are buthanol and hydrogen. Solar fuels are a synthetic chemical fuel which is produced by converting light from solar energy into chemical energy through the reduction of protons to hydrogen or carbon dioxide to usable organic compounds. Electro fuels and Solar fuels are what we call 4th Generation fuels as they are still in the early stages of research but provide us with the advantage of not requiring the cultivation of land or the use of edible parts of plants which could be put to better use feeding our growing population.

What does the future have in store for us?

In 2019, biofuel accounted for a total of 3% of the worlds fuel for road transport and for the production of aviation fuel. It is expected that by 2050, biofuels will account for a total of 15% of the required transportation fuel, reducing the reliance of transportation on conventional fuels. As technological advances bring forward newer techniques and processes to make biofuels more efficient and cost effective, the world continues in search of the next sustainably viable alternative to fossil fuels. Biofuels bring with them advantages, but also continue to have many negative externalities which to some may be deemed as unsustainable for our environment. Just as with anything in life, innovation is the process of discovering the unknown through trial and error, in the hope of arriving at better performing outputs, than the previously available options. The future is bright as long as we remember to prioritize positive impact on the environment as our end goal.

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