Biofuel energy works by using fuels derived from living or dead biological organisms. It is different from fossil fuels which have been “out” of the carbon cycle for a long time. There are different terms for bio power such as biomass and biofuel and there are also many different biofuels. For example, biodiesel, bioalcohol, biogas, syngas, myco-diesel, oilgae, etc. What they all share in common is that they’re derived from living/recently dead biological sources which are all a part of the carbon cycle.
The carbon cycle consists of four major reservoirs of carbon that are inconnected by pathways of exchange (fire, rain, evaporation, etc). These reservoirs are the atmosphere, the biosphere (defined to include fresh water and non-living/living organic material including soil carbon), the oceans, and the sediments. Check out the environmental impact of bio power as well.
Unlike wind, solar, hydro, etc which all have a dominant method of conversion to useful energy bio power has a lot of emerging technologies none of which are dominant. Biofuels are seperated into four generations currently and we’ll surely see fifth generation soon. Nothing beyond first generation is really being used outside of laboratories or even theory in some cases. The first generation biofuels are the “traditional” biofuels you might probably know about or have at least heard of.
First Generation: Made from seeds, grains, vegetable oil, animal fats, sugars, starch.
- Biodiesel: Produced from oils or fats using transesterification which results in a liquid similar to diesel. Can be used in any diesel engine.
- Bioalcohol: Produced through the actions of microorganisms and enzymes through fermentation of sugars, straches, and cellulose.
- Biogas: Produced by anaerobic digestion of organic matter using anaerobes. Uses bio waste or energy crops as a process material.
- Syngas: Produced through a combined process of pyrolysis, combustion, and gasification. Biofuel is converted to carbon monoxide and energy using pyrolysis. Then a small amount of oxygen is introduced to help with combustion. After that gasification further converts the organic material to hydrogen and more carbon monoxide. The end product is a gas mixture which is more efficient than direct combustion.
- Solids: Burned directly in stoves or steam engines. Simple example being firewood burned to cook over.
Second Generation: Made from non-food crops, waste biomass.
The main idea behind second generation biofuels is to avoid crops that are consumed by humans. For example, poplar or inedible waste products like citrus peels or sawdust.
Third Generation: Made from algae.
Third generation biofuel is entirely focused on algae. Algae produces 30 times more energy per acre than crops like soybeans. The drawback to this is that algal oil is hard to extract but processes are improving.
Fourth Generation: Genetically engineering organisms to produce fuels.
Producing fuel directly from carbon dioxide and conversion of biodiesel into gasoline using genetically engineered organisms are both examples of fourth generation biofuels.
Green diesel, also known as renewable diesel, is a form of diesel fuel which is derived from renewable feedstock rather than the fossil feedstock used in most diesel fuels. Green diesel feedstock can be sourced from a variety of oils including canola, algae, jatropha and salicornia in addition to tallow. Green diesel uses traditional fractional distillation to process the oils, not to be confused with biodiesel which is chemically quite different and processed using transesterification.
“Green Diesel” as commonly known in Ireland should not be confused with dyed green diesel sold at a lower tax rate for agriculture purposes, using the dye allows custom officers to determine if a person is using the cheaper diesel in higher taxed applications such as commercial haulage or cars.
Biogas typically refers to a gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Organic waste such as dead plant and animal material, animal dung, and kitchen waste can be converted into a gaseous fuel called biogas. Biogas originates from biogenic material and is a type of biofuel.
Biogas is produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation of biodegradable materials such as biomass, manure, sewage, municipal waste, green waste, plant material, and crops.Biogas comprises primarily methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and may have small amounts of hydrogen sulphide (H2S), moisture and siloxanes.
The gases methane, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide (CO) can be combusted or oxidized with oxygen. This energy release allows biogas to be used as a fuel. Biogas can be used as a fuel in any country for any heating purpose, such as cooking. It can also be used in anaerobic digesters where it is typically used in a gas engine to convert the energy in the gas into electricity and heat. Biogas can be compressed, much like natural gas, and used to power motor vehicles. In the UK, for example, biogas is estimated to have the potential to replace around 17% of vehicle fuel. Biogas is a renewable fuel, so it qualifies for renewable energy subsidies in some parts of the world. Biogas can also be cleaned and upgraded to natural gas standards when it becomes biomethane.
Biogas is practically produced as landfill gas (LFG) or digester gas. A biogas plant is the name often given to an anaerobic digester that treats farm wastes or energy crops. Biogas can be produced utilizing anaerobic digesters. These plants can be fed with energy crops such as maize silage or biodegradable wastes including sewage sludge and food waste. During the process, an air-tight tank transforms biomass waste into methane producing renewable energy that can be used for heating, electricity, and many other operations that use any variation of an internal combustion engine, such as GE Jenbacher gas engines.
There are two key processes: Mesophilic and Thermophilic digestion. In experimental work at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a 1000-litre digester using psychrophiles harvested from “mud from a frozen lake in Alaska” has produced 200–300 litres of methane per day, about 20–30 % of the output from digesters in warmer climates.
Landfill gas is produced by wet organic waste decomposing under anaerobic conditions in a landfill.The waste is covered and mechanically compressed by the weight of the material that is deposited from above. This material prevents oxygen exposure thus allowing anaerobic microbes to thrive. This gas builds up and is slowly released into the atmosphere if the landfill site has not been engineered to capture the gas. Landfill gas is hazardous for three key reasons. Landfill gas becomes explosive when it escapes from the landfill and mixes with oxygen. The lower explosive limit is 5% methane and the upper explosive limit is 15% methane.The methane contained within biogas is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. Therefore, uncontained landfill gas, which escapes into the atmosphere may significantly contribute to the effects of global warming. In addition, landfill gas impact in global warming, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contained within landfill gas contribute to the formation of photochemical smog.
When biogas is used, many advantages arise. In North America, utilization of biogas would generate enough electricity to meet up to three percent of the continent’s electricity expenditure. In addition, biogas could potentially help reduce global climate change. Normally, manure that is left to decompose releases two main gases that cause global climate change: nitrous dioxide and methane. Nitrous dioxide (NO2) warms the atmosphere 310 times more than carbon dioxide and methane 21 times more than carbon dioxide. By converting cow manure into methane biogas via anaerobic digestion, the millions of cows in the United States would be able to produce one hundred billion kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power millions of homes across the United States. In fact, one cow can produce enough manure in one day to generate three kilowatt hours of electricity; only 2.4 kilowatt hours of electricity are needed to power a single one hundred watt light bulb for one day.Furthermore, by converting cow manure into methane biogas instead of letting it decompose, we would be able to reduce global warming gases by ninety-nine million metric tons or four percent.
The 30 million rural households in China that have biogas digesters enjoy 12 benefits: saving fossil fuels, saving time collecting firewood, protecting forests, using crop residues for animal fodder instead of fuel, saving money, saving cooking time, improving hygienic conditions, producing high-quality fertilizer, enabling local mechanization and electricity production, improving the rural standard of living, and reducing air and water pollution.
Biogas can be utilized for electricity production on sewage works,in a CHP gas engine, where the waste heat from the engine is conveniently used for heating the digester; cooking; space heating; water heating; and process heating. If compressed, it can replace compressed natural gas for use in vehicles, where it can fuel an internal combustion engine or fuel cells and is a much more effective displacer of carbon dioxide than the normal use in on-site CHP plants.
Methane within biogas can be concentrated via a biogas upgrader to the same standards as fossil natural gas, which itself has had to go through a cleaning process, and becomes biomethane. If the local gas network allows for this, the producer of the biogas may utilize the local gas distribution networks. Gas must be very clean to reach pipeline quality, and must be of the correct composition for the local distribution network to accept. Carbon dioxide, water, hydrogen sulfide, and particulates must be removed if present.
Biodiesel is the most common biofuel in Europe. It is produced from oils or fats using transesterification and is a liquid similar in composition to fossil/mineral diesel. Chemically, it consists mostly of fatty acid methyl (or ethyl) esters (FAMEs). Feedstocks for biodiesel include animal fats, vegetable oils, soy, rapeseed, jatropha, mahua, mustard, flax, sunflower, palm oil, hemp, field pennycress, pongamia pinnata and algae. Pure biodiesel (B100) is the lowest emission diesel fuel. Although liquefied petroleum gas and hydrogen have cleaner combustion, they are used to fuel much less efficient petrol engines and are not as widely available.
Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine when mixed with mineral diesel. In some countries manufacturers cover their diesel engines under warranty for B100 use, although Volkswagen of Germany, for example, asks drivers to check by telephone with the VW environmental services department before switching to B100. B100 may become more viscous at lower temperatures, depending on the feedstock used. In most cases, biodiesel is compatible with diesel engines from 1994 onwards, which use ‘Viton’ (by DuPont) synthetic rubber in their mechanical fuel injection systems.
Electronically controlled ‘common rail’ and ‘unit injector’ type systems from the late 1990s onwards may only use biodiesel blended with conventional diesel fuel. These engines have finely metered and atomized multi-stage injection systems that are very sensitive to the viscosity of the fuel. Many current generation diesel engines are made so that they can run on B100 without altering the engine itself, although this depends on the fuel rail design. Since biodiesel is an effective solvent and cleans residues deposited by mineral diesel, engine filters may need to be replaced more often, as the biofuel dissolves old deposits in the fuel tank and pipes. It also effectively cleans the engine combustion chamber of carbon deposits, helping to maintain efficiency. In many European countries, a 5% biodiesel blend is widely used and is available at thousands of gas stations. Biodiesel is also an oxygenated fuel, meaning that it contains a reduced amount of carbon and higher hydrogen and oxygen content than fossil diesel. This improves the combustion of biodiesel and reduces the particulate emissions from un-burnt carbon.
Biodiesel is also safe to handle and transport because it is as biodegradable as sugar, 10 times less toxic than table salt, and has a high flash point of about 300 F (148 C) compared to petroleum diesel fuel, which has a flash point of 125 F (52 C).
In the USA, more than 80% of commercial trucks and city buses run on diesel. The emerging US biodiesel market is estimated to have grown 200% from 2004 to 2005. “By the end of 2006 biodiesel production was estimated to increase fourfold [from 2004] to more than 1 billion gallons”.
Biologically produced alcohols, most commonly ethanol, and less commonly propanol and butanol, are produced by the action of microorganisms and enzymes through the fermentation of sugars or starches, or cellulose (which is more difficult). Biobutanol (also called biogasoline) is often claimed to provide a direct replacement for gasoline, because it can be used directly in a gasoline engine (in a similar way to biodiesel in diesel engines).
Ethanol fuel is the most common biofuel worldwide, particularly in Brazil. Alcohol fuels are produced by fermentation of sugars derived from wheat, corn, sugar beets, sugar cane, molasses and any sugar or starch that alcoholic beverages can be made from (like potato and fruit waste, etc.). The ethanol production methods used are enzyme digestion (to release sugars from stored starches), fermentation of the sugars, distillation and drying. The distillation process requires significant energy input for heat (often unsustainable natural gas fossil fuel, but cellulosic biomass such as bagasse, the waste left after sugar cane is pressed to extract its juice, can also be used more sustainably).
Ethanol can be used in petrol engines as a replacement for gasoline; it can be mixed with gasoline to any percentage. Most existing car petrol engines can run on blends of up to 15% bioethanol with petroleum/gasoline. Ethanol has a smaller energy density than gasoline, which means it takes more fuel (volume and mass) to produce the same amount of work. An advantage of ethanol (CH3CH2OH) is that it has a higher octane rating than ethanol-free gasoline available at roadside gas stations which allows an increase of an engine’s compression ratio for increased thermal efficiency. In high altitude (thin air) locations, some states mandate a mix of gasoline and ethanol as a winter oxidizer to reduce atmospheric pollution emissions.
Ethanol is also used to fuel bioethanol fireplaces. As they do not require a chimney and are “flueless”, bio ethanol fires are extremely useful for new build homes and apartments without a flue. The downside to these fireplaces, is that the heat output is slightly less than electric and gas fires.
Although ethanol-from-corn and other food stocks has implications both in terms of world food prices and limited, yet positive energy yield (in terms of energy delivered to customer/fossil fuels used), the technology has led to the development of cellulosic ethanol. According to a joint research agenda conducted through the U.S. Department of Energy, the fossil energy ratios (FER) for cellulosic ethanol, corn ethanol, and gasoline are 10.3, 1.36, and 0.81, respectively.
Even dry ethanol has roughly one-third lower energy content per unit of volume compared to gasoline, so larger / heavier fuel tanks are required to travel the same distance, or more fuel stops are required. With large current unsustainable, non-scalable subsidies, ethanol fuel still costs much more per distance traveled than current high gasoline prices in the United States.
Methanol is currently produced from natural gas, a non-renewable fossil fuel. It can also be produced from biomass as biomethanol. The methanol economy is an interesting alternative to get to the hydrogen economy, compared to today’s hydrogen production from natural gas. But this process is not the state-of-the-art clean solar thermal energy process where hydrogen production is directly produced from water.
Butanol is formed by ABE fermentation (acetone, butanol, ethanol) and experimental modifications of the process show potentially high net energy gains with butanol as the only liquid product. Butanol will produce more energy and allegedly can be burned “straight” in existing gasoline engines (without modification to the engine or car),and is less corrosive and less water soluble than ethanol, and could be distributed via existing infrastructures. DuPont and BP are working together to help develop Butanol. E. coli have also been successfully engineered to produce Butanol by hijacking their amino acid metabolism.