When it comes to renewable energy, there are a variety of ways to go about it: tidal, wind turbines, solar power and even nuclear energy. However, one of the biggest players is biofuels. These are considered some of the most readily available sources of fuel, and so it’s no surprise that there are a variety of companies going into this exciting industry!
Biofuels are any type of fuel where the energy is derived from carbon fixation done through living organisms, such as plants, bacteria and yeast. What makes biofuels so remarkable is that they can be produced from organic materials, which could mean using anything from corn and soybeans to waste products from the catering industry. These organic materials are more sustainable than petroleum, which means that using them has less of an impact on the ecosystem. They are also cleaner burning, meaning a reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, there are concerns regarding biofuels, including the amount of land needed for growing the crops and the potential effects the crops will have on food sustainability. However, there is a large amount of research being done into the potential for modifying crops, bacteria and other organisms to make them more adaptable to unfamiliar environments and more efficient at performing the biological processes needed for carbon fixation.
Biofuels have been around for a lot longer than people think. In fact, the inventor of the diesel engine (Rudolf Diesel) originally designed it to run on peanut oil! Also, the first internal combustion engine (designed by Henry Ford) was originally intended to run on bioethanol. The only reason fossil fuels won over biofuels was due to costs; petroleum was much cheaper to produce on a mass commercial scale. However, there’s become an increased interest in the area over the past few decades, and due to the advancement in technology biofuels are starting to gain popularity.
Biofuels can be broken down into first, second and third generations:
First generation are known as the conventional biofuels, and are made from food crops such as sugarcane, corn or vegetable oil.
Second generation biofuels are ones produced from renewable feedstocks, such as Switchgrass and Jatropha, and also waste such as human waste or landfill gas. Another source of second generation biofuel can be food crops, however these can only be considered secondary if they are no longer consumable (as they are then considered as waste products)
The third generation of biofuels are ones produced from algae, a very promising area of research. The reason they are given their own category is due to the higher yields and lower resource inputs compared to the other generations.
There are three main types of biofuels: ethanol, biodiesel and biobutanol. They can be made from a range of sources, but the most popular bioprocesses are fermentation (typically used for ethanol and biobutanol production) and transesterification (normally used for biodiesel). However, more and more research is being done into the use of algae as a biofuel. Algae itself can’t be used as a fuel, but the oils contained within it can, and these can be extracted in a variety of ways such as through expression, chemical solvents and ultrasonic waves.
There are a wide range of companies utilising very different technologies, and very different source materials. Some companies are using the waste products from the whiskey industry, whilst others are using gas produced from landfill. One company is even using waste coffee beans - which are now being used to power London buses! There is such a huge diversity of ways to produce biofuels, all of which have potential. It is an exciting time for biofuels!