Biofuel: Does it Have a Future?

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All over the world, consumers are making huge changes in order to live more sustainably. From how they get to work, to the food they put on their plates, to the energy supplier they choose, today’s consumers are savvier than ever when it comes to making greener and more ethical choices. And the energy, automotive, packaging and food industries have responded in kind with inventive new solutions. Biofuels, for instance, are a type of entry production that has the potential to revolutionise our transportation and energy supply habits.

Last updated: February 2021

But are biofuels the future? Or simply a well-intentioned idea that’s too time and effort-intensive to be practical. We’ll take a close look at several different types of biofuels to try and ascertain the place they might have in our future.

What is biofuel?

Biofuels are a promising alternative to relying on fossil fuels and other finite resources. But what exactly is a biofuel?

Biofuel

In essence, a biofuel is a naturally occurring substance that is derived from either microbial, plant, or animal materials. It can be a solid, a liquid or a gas. However, the most commonly used biofuels are either liquid or gaseous, because these are easier and more cost-effective to transport.

Three common examples of biofuels in regular use today include:

Ethanol

Ethanol is a highly combustible form of alcohol that is used in everything from intoxicating beverages to petrol. It is also used as a solvent in many household paints and thinners. It is made by fermenting sugar or starch from products such as corn, wheat or sugarcane.

Most petrol available at fuel pumps today contains up to 10% ethanol. What’s more, some cars have been adapted to run on pure ethanol as well as petrol. These are known as “flex-fuel” vehicles.

Biodiesel

Another common instance of biofuels in the automotive industry, biodiesel is made from vegetable oils and is often regarded as a more renewable alternative to petrol. A few years ago, fast food giant McDonalds earned some pretty huge ecological brownie points by converting its used cooking oil into biodiesel to fuel its delivery trucks.

As well as being vastly more renewable than petroleum-based diesel, biodiesel also creates much fewer harmful emissions such as hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. The Alternative Fuels Data Centre estimates that biodiesel has 75% less harmful emissions than its crude oil-based counterpart.

As of 2010 all commercially sold diesel fuel is comprised of up to 5% biodiesel.

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Biomethane

Biomethane is a renewable alternative to natural gas, and one that’s slowly creeping into a number of energy suppliers’ gas mix. This gas is derived from farm animal and plant waste, making it near-infinitely renewable, unlike the natural gas reserves beneath the ground.

Along with carbon-offset natural gas (where the carbon generated from sourcing the gas is offset by renewable projects elsewhere), biomethane could become a renewable new way to cook our meals and heat our homes. There are a number of energy companies that offer biomethane as part of their gas mix alongside carbon-offset gas.

These include:

  • Octopus Energy
  • Green Energy
  • Shell Energy
  • Good Energy
  • Bulb

How do you make biofuel?

The methodology of extracting biofuels from the natural materials from which they’re comprised varies depending on the exact biofuel. Ethanol, for instance, is made by fermenting vegetation (just like when you’re brewing your own beer or wine).

But just as you can make your own alcohol at home, it’s possible to create your own biodiesel from household cooking oils. While there are numerous kinds of biofuels, they often have a very similar manufacturing process.

Naturally occurring animal and vegetable fats are triglycerides. The manufacture of biofuels involves turning fats and oils are turned into esters, thereby separating the glycerin. The process requires the glycerin to sink down at the bottom while the biofuel floats to the top. This process is known as transesterification. It uses lye (a strong soluble alkali) as a catalyst.

The manufacturing process is divided into three stages. These are:

Filtration

Waste vegetable oil is filtered to remove all any lingering particles of food. This can be done with something as simple and readily available as a coffee filter.

Removing the water

Water can (for obvious reasons) impede combustion, so all the water contained in the residue needs to be removed. Boiling the liquid at 100 degrees should be enough to remove lingering water molecules.

Titration

This is the tricky part. It requires you to calculate the amount of lye that would be required to act as a catalyst. This process is the crucial in turning your old cooking oil into a viable biofuel. A pH level of 8 or 9 needs to be achieved to do this.

This sustainability blog has more detailed instructions for biodiesel titration.

Preparation of sodium methoxide

Here methanol is mixed with sodium hydroxide to produce sodium methoxide. Broadly speaking, the amount of methanol you use should be around 20% of the amount of waste vegetable oil.

Heating and mixing

The residue now needs to be heated (around 50 degrees celsius) and mixed well. Do this carefully to avoid splashing.

Settling and separation

After the liquid has been mixed and heated, it needs to be allowed to cool. By the time the liquid has cooled, you’ll find that all the glycerin has sunk to the bottom, leaving you with usable biodiesel.

Biofuel

What are the advantages of biofuel?

As we can see, in an age where we all need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, biofuels are extremely promising. However, they are not without their caveats. Let’s take a look at the inherent advantages of biofuels:

  • They’re renewable and readily available.
  • They are “clean burning”, producing much fewer harmful emissions than fuels made from crude oil.
  • They can be manufactured at home safely and legally.
  • They are a great way to generate energy using industrial or agricultural byproducts that would otherwise go to waste.
  • They are flexible, and can easily be mixed with other fuels.

What are the disadvantages of biofuel?

While biofuels have a lot of exciting implications for a more renewable future, they are not quite fit for purpose in their current form. Some of the inherent disadvantages of biofuel may bottleneck their usability on a large scale. For instance:

  • The making of biofuels is very labour intensive, making it difficult to implement on a grand scale without large scale investment.
  • Burning materials to create biofuels may create nitrous oxide which could have a greenhouse effect.
  • Cultivating materials for biofuels could require large quantities of arable land. This could become a cause of deforestation, animal habitat loss and species extinction.
  • Because biofuels are not yet widely available, relatively few people understand them or see them as viable.

Which biofuel is the best?

It really depends on what you’re trying to do. Ethanol is a highly versatile and combustible biofuel with a range of domestic and industrial uses. Biodiesel can be a great way to fuel your car or even a domestic diesel generator, giving you renewable transportation or domestic electricity. Likewise, biomethane can be an excellent alternative to natural gas. You can even make your own biomethane from a combination of food waste, lawn trimmings and manure.

However, the more reliant we become on biofuels, the greater the risk becomes of using up large quantities of land to cultivate materials from which biofuels can be made. As such, companies like ExxonMobil are turning to water-based algae cultivation. Algae has huge potential as a source of biofuel, and it can be cultivated without impinging on arable land. Algae can even be cultivated in wastewater.

Remember, affordable renewable energy is just a phone call away!

There’s no doubt that renewables are the future of the UK national energy mix. And whatever place biofuel comes to hold in that future, we’ll be on hand to help you find the cheapest green energy deal for your household needs. Including deals that use 100% renewable electricity and biomethane or carbon-offset natural gas.

We’ll even manage your switch from end-to-end so that you can enjoy cheaper greener energy quickly and completely hassle-free.

Would you like to know more about renewable energy sources? Great! Check out some more of our related articles

  1. Solar energy
  2. Wind power
  3. Hydroelectric power
  4. Tidal power
  5. Geothermal energy
  6. Biomass energy

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Written by Baylee

Updated on 24 Feb, 2021