Biofuels, including ethanol, are clean-burning, biodegradable and made from renewable resources. In addition to being used as fuel for transportation, biofuel can be converted to other useful forms of energy, including methane gas and heat. Ethanol is probably added to the gasoline you use in your car, so you may be more familiar with biofuel than you thought!

How Biofuels are Produced

Most biofuels are made through a chemical process called transesterification (trans-uh-ster-uh-fi-KAY- shun). This process separates the glycerin from animal fats or vegetable oil, leaving behind methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (a valuable byproduct used in soaps and other products).

Ethanol is made by fermenting starch or sugar crops such as sugarcane, barley, rice, maize, potatoes, sorghum, sunflower, sugar beets, wheat and other grains, or even cornstalks, fruit and vegetable waste. The process is similar to the way beer is brewed!

Biodiesel is made by mixing cooking grease, vegetable oil or animal fat with alcohol. Like ethanol, it’s usually used as an additive to cut down on vehicle emissions. But biodiesel can also be used in its pure form as a fuel in diesel engines.

Fuel from… Algae?

Emerging research suggests that algae may prove to be a valuable component in the solution to the planet’s growing energy demand. According to scientists from ExxonMobil, photosynthetic algae have many advantages that make it a compelling alternative fuel source.

  • Algae produce fatty, lipid cells containing oil that can be used as fuel.
  • Growing algae consume carbon dioxide, offsetting greenhouse gases.
  • Algae can be grown in areas that are deemed unsuitable for growing plants or crops. This is a benefit over other biofuels, which are produced on farmland that could be used for food crops or forest land that has been cleared of trees (causing environmental concerns).
  • Algae may yield greater volumes of biofuel per acre than other sources. For example, algae could produce more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year as opposed to corn’s 250 gallons per acre per year.

California-based company Sapphire Energy aims to produce 1 million gallons of algae-based diesel and jet fuel by 2011 and 100 million gallons a year by 2018. Even NASA is interested in the algae-based fuel business with its proposed “Sustainable Energy for Spaceship Earth” project. The project would use semi-permeable bags floating on the ocean’s surface to grow algae. The bags would collect ocean sewage, which would give the algae inside nutrients. When the process is completed, the algae will be rich with biofuel.

Brazil: Sweet on Ethanol

Brazil is second only to the United States in ethanol fuel production: In 2008, Brazil produced more than 37% of the ethanol used around the world. The country’s thriving ethanol industry relies on its agricultural technology, large amount of cultivatable land and abundance of inexpensive sugarcane that can be used in ethanol production.

Brazil’s use of biofuels took off in the mid-1970s after the first global oil crisis. The Brazilian government put a plan into motion in 1975 to phase out fossil fuel-based fuels in favor of ethanol made from sugarcane.

The sugarcane-based ethanol industry in Brazil is more cost effective than the US’ corn-based industry. The process costs more in the US because corn starch much be converted to sugar before it can be distilled into alcohol.

According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, Brazil’s sugarcane-based ethanol production can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can even lead to “negative emission,” which means that carbon dioxide is actually pulled out of the atmosphere.

History of Biofuels

Biofuels have been used ever since ancient man discovered fire! Wood was the first form of biofuel that was used by ancient people for cooking and heating. Liquid biofuels date back to the late 1800s when Rudolph Diesel developed the diesel engine to run on peanut oil. Henry Ford designed his 1908 Model T to run on ethanol, and ethanol was used as far back as the 1860s to light lamps for homes and businesses. But by the 1930s, petroleum had become the primary source for fuel because of greater supply and better price and efficiency.

Interest in biofuels has taken off in recent years—country singer Willie Nelson even sells his own brand of biodiesel! Many people think biofuels may be what the world is looking for in a cheaper and more environmentally friendly fuel.

Ancient times-late 1800s – People use biomass materials (which today include plants and plant-derived materials, manure and even garbage) in the form of burning wood for cooking, warmth and steam production. By the late 1800s, wood was being replaced by coal as the primary means of steam generation.

1826 – Ethanol was first prepared synthetically through the independent efforts of Henry Hennel in Britain and S.G. Sérullas in France.

Samuel Morey developed an engine that ran on ethanol and turpentine.

1850s – Ethanol is used as a lighting fuel.

1860s – During the US Civil War, a liquor tax was placed on ethanol whisky to raise money for the war. The tax increased the price of ethanol so much that it could no longer compete with other fuels such as kerosene in lighting devices. Ethanol production declined sharply because of this tax and production levels did not begin to recover until the tax was repealed in 1906.

1919 – When Prohibition began in the US, ethanol was banned because it was considered a liquor. It could only be sold when it was mixed with petroleum.

1920s – Standard Oil began adding ethanol to gasoline to increase octane and reduce engine knocking. With 9 million automobiles in the United States, gas stations are opening everywhere.

1933 – Prohibition ended in the US and ethanol was used as a fuel again.

1940s – Ethanol use increases temporarily during World War II when oil and other resources are scarce.

First US fuel ethanol plant is built in Omaha, Nebraska.

1970s – Interest in ethanol as a transportation fuel was revived when embargoes by major oil producing countries cut gasoline supplies. Since that time ethanol use has been encouraged by offering tax benefits for producing ethanol and for blending ethanol into gasoline.

1975 – Brazil formed the Pro-Álcool Program (Programa Nacional do Álcool, or National Alcohol Program) to reduce foreign oil dependence. This program used government financing to move toward ethanol use in lieu of fossil fuels. Brazil began making ethanol from sugar cane.

1980s – After investing heavily in renewable fuels in the 1970s, Brazil kept the program alive during the 1980s. With its robust ethanol program, Brazil developed an extensive ethanol industry. By the mid-1980s, ethanol-only cars accounted for almost 90 percent of all new-auto sales in Brazil, making the country the biggest alternative fuel market in the world.

1984 – Burlington Electric in Vermont builds a 50-megawatt wood-fired plant to produce electricity.

1988 – Ethanol began to be added to gasoline for the purpose of reducing carbon monoxide emissions.

1989 – Canada and the United States conduct pilot trials of direct wood-fired gas turbine plants.

1990 – Biomass’s electricity generation reaches 6 gigawatts.

2000 – Brazil deregulated the ethanol market and removed its subsidies. However, depending on market conditions, all fuels are required to be blended with 20-25% ethanol.

2003 – Since 2003, ethanol has grown rapidly as the oxygenating factor for gasoline in the US. Flex-fuel vehicles were introduced. These vehicles can run on straight ethanol, straight gasoline or a blend of the two. Today, the majority of new cars sold in Brazil are flex-fuel.

Uses for Biofuels

Biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking. Biofuels can be used, in either pure form or blended with fossil fuels, in diesel-powered vehicles and boats. In Brazil, farmers grow a special kind of sugar cane called “energy-cane,” which is used to fuel some of their cars. Renewable energy represents 46% of Brazil’s total annual energy supply, one-third of which is the biofuel ethanol.

Biofuels are commonly used:

  • As solvents in perfumes or varnish
  • As disinfectants
  • In medicines
  • To increase octane and improve the emissions quality of gasoline

Demand for Biofuels

The demand for biofuels, especially ethanol, is expected to increase globally in the coming years, although rising food prices, trade tensions and social unrest are prompting a debate on the hopes for running more cars and trucks on biofuel.

In the transportation sector, ethanol is the most widely used liquid biofuel in the world. The United States and Brazil are the world’s top ethanol fuel producers, accounting for 89% of the world’s production in 2008. Research indicates that worldwide ethanol production will exceed 20 billion gallons in 2012, with production capabilities emerging in India, Latin America and other spots around the globe.