Giz Explains: What Biofuel Is (And Where It Comes From)

Giz Explains: What Biofuel Is (And Where It Comes From)

Cars didn’t always run on petrol. Henry Ford envisioned his Model T’s puttering along with tanks fully of ethanol. Early diesel engines ran on peanut oil. Of course, the discovery of massive petroleum reserves at the turn of the 20th century quickly put the brakes on that notion — why bother creating biofuel when petrol and diesel are cents on the litre? But now that petrol is about $1.30 a litre, interest in biofuels is on the rise. Here’s what we’ll use to power 21st century transportation.

What’s the Difference?

Gasoline and diesel are “fossil fuels”, meaning they’re derived from petroleum, fossilised plant and animal matter. These energy-dense products contain flammable hydrocarbons which provide the power to internal combustion engines when burned. Biofuels contain very similar hydrocarbon chains, except that these are refined from freshly grown plant matter, rather than samples that are millions of years old. While current biofuel production rates can’t compete with the 75 million-plus barrels of crude oil produced daily around the world, the rate of biofuel production is steadily climbing. 105 billion litres of biofuel were manufactured in 2010, and it powered nearly 3 per cent of the world’s cars and trucks.

Not all biofuels are created equal though; or, at least, not all come from the same stuff. Here’s a look at how the different types break down.


Ethanol is booze for your car, the most common biofuel on the planet. It’s produced by fermenting the sugars and starches from a wide variety of sources — wheat, corn, sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. Basically if it can be used to make booze for people, it can be used as an ethanol base. The production process is even strikingly similar to normal distilling: the carbohydrates stored in a grain crop’s seeds are broken into simple sugars via enzymatic recreations, those sugars are fermented anaerobically by yeast into alcohol, which is then distilled.

The resulting ethanol can be used as either a fuel or a fuel additive. In the US, ethanol is commonly sold as either “gasohol” (90 per cent gasoline, 10 per cent ethanol) or as E85 (85 per cent ethanol, 15 per cent gasoline). Brazil, the single-largest ethanol producer and consumer on the planet, uses as 75/25 petrol/ethanol mix to power its vehicles while sequestering large amounts of carbon. In fact, most modern petrol engines will run just fine on up to 15 per cent ethanol gasohol blends. Ethanol only releases two-thirds the amount of energy as an equal volume of petroleum product, but it does have a higher octane rating (which increases the engine’s compression ratio) and produces far fewer greenhouse emissions.

The major issues facing ethanol production in the US, which primarily relies on our biggest food crop — corn — are wide-ranging: finding a balance between fuel production and food production, figuring out how to grow, process, distill and deliver the ethanol from corn field to fuel tank using less energy than simply pumping petrol out of the ground, and how to get the final product price (government subsidised or not) as low as current petrol prices given that drivers will need to pull over 33 per cent more often to refuel, on account of ethanol’s lower energy density. In all, ethanol currently doesn’t provide enough improvement over prevailing fuel sources to really warrant weaning the American public off of gasoline for it. However, a new generation of ethanol could well change that.

Cellulosic ethanol uses sugars trapped in the woody, non-edible parts of crops (think corn husks and cobs, not kernels). Breaking down these tough cellular walls to release their sugars is difficult, as it requires a slow-working enzyme reaction to take place, similar to how cows break down grasses in their four stomachs. However, 15 strains of synthetic enzymes first derived from fungi in 2009 that remain stable at high temperatures could prove useful, and the process could theoretically be applied to any woody substance, from orange peels to switchgrass to sugarcane stalks to sawdust, not only providing a reliable power source but also a reliable waste management system for input.


The first diesel engines ran on vegetable oil, and many modern diesels still can. These oils, which serve as biodiesel’s base, can be collected from any oilseed crop, from cottonseed to sunflower — even hemp and animal fats — though soybean oil is the primary base source in the US. Vegetable oil is comprised of long, fatty acid chains held together with glycerol. Mixing the oil with a bit of methanol and lye, which acts like a catalyst, breaks down these chains into smaller, more easily burnable molecules much like how ethanol’s sugars must first be broken out of their carbohydrate cells. This process is known as transesterification or, more commonly, hydrocracking.

The resulting biodiesel has the same chemical properties as petroleum-based diesel, and can be used by existing diesel engines without issue so long as it is mixed with a bit of mineral diesel. And while a diesel engine can technically run on straight vegetable oil, as Rudolf Diesel’s early engines did, they don’t do so particularly well and often require minor engine modifications for it to work at all.


Biogas is methane produced through the anaerobic digestion by microbes. This process occurs naturally in landfills, where garbage rots in an oxygen-free environment and mechanically in waste recovery operations — consuming anything from sawdust to cow dung to human excrement as the base — to make biogas and digestate, a solid byproduct that makes for excellent fertiliser.

The biogas can then be used to power direct combustion systems like boilers or fuel cells for space heating, water heating, steam and electricity production. Or, in the case of the Inland Empires Plant No. 1, biogas can be burned for electricity cogeneration. It can also be injected directly into natural gas pipelines for use heating homes.

Syngas is a variant of biogas, mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen, that’s made through the process of steam reforming (basically breaking the carbon monoxide and hydrogen you need out of carbon dioxide). Syngas can be mixed into gasoline for internal combustion engines or fed directly into turbines used in electricity production, but the low energy density of syngas (especially compared to the amount of energy needed to create it) makes it far more valuable as an intermediary base for making biodiesel.

Though many first-generation biofuels aren’t particularly effective, and second-generation biofuels have barely made it out of the lab, that’s OK. These are the incremental steps necessary to achieving our US Renewable Fuels Standard goals of producing 36 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022, specifically for mixing into gasoline. We know how to get there; now it’s just a matter of time.

[ Cleantechnica, Cleantechnica, NatGeo, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Wikipedia, UK BiofuelTexas A&M, Popular Mechanics, Energy Bioscience Institute]

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