Introduction to Biofuels

Introduction to Biofuels | by John Brian Shannon

New biofuel technologies are allowing commercially viable transportation fuel production from switchgrass, non-edible grains and fruits, certain trees, and recently from the ‘bagasse’ (sometimes called the ‘stover’ or ‘dross’) of certain crops (which are the stalks, roots, leaves, bark, nutshells, husks) and from algae.

Algae is the new player on the block and once it is supercharged with common industrial waste gases like CO2, it becomes an exceptionally pure and clean burning biofuel with no negative waste stream.

But some may feel that biofuels have little future due to dramatically falling oil prices and the improved fuel mileage of today’s cars

However, that’s not the case…

“China recently set aside an area the size of England to produce jatropha and other non-food plants for biodiesel.

India has up to 60 million hectares of non-arable land available to produce jatropha, and intends to replace 20 percent of diesel fuels with jatropha-based biodiesel.

In Brazil and Africa, there are significant programs underway dedicated to producing non-food crops jatropha and castor for biodiesel.” — Will Thurmond in his book, Biodiesel 2020

Three generations of biofuel are already on the market or are undergoing commercial testing as of 2014

  • 1st-generation biofuels are made from processed food crops such as corn, sugarcane and sugar beets
  • 2nd-generation biofuels are made from non-food crops such as camelina, castor bean, jatropha, millettia, and switchgrass, some of which can grow in semi-arid regions where food crops will not grow
  • 3rd-generation biofuels are made from algae + enzymes, or organic waste materials such as cardboard, stover, other biomass, or from waste gases and liquids from industry.

3rd-generation biofuels show the most promise and are progressing well along their production trials timeline — while 1st-generation biofuels still have major environmental and minor economic obstacles to overcome.

Meanwhile, 2nd-generation biofuel production is booming in many developing countries and investors are making excellent returns.

Dual fuel gas station at Sao Paulo, Brazil
As this photo demonstrates, you can fill up with 100% pure sugarcane ethanol (A) or gasoline/bio-ethanol blend (G). In Brazil, all gasoline is required by law to have a minimum bio-ethanol content of 22 percent. Image courtesy of Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)

The global biofuel industry is entering a rapid phase of development

Total global biofuel production is projected to reach 66.3 billion gallons per year (BGPY) by 2022, with bio-ethanol expected to hit 51.1 BGPY compared to biodiesel’s 16.2 BGPY.

According to Navigant Research, worldwide revenue from biofuels for road transportation will grow from $166.5 billion annually in 2014 to $337.8 billion by 2022.

Over the last 10 years, growth in the biofuels sector has been driven by the increase in ethanol production capacity in the United States and Brazil, and in biodiesel in Europe.

Today, the industry is on the verge of entering a new phase of development focused on advanced and drop-in biofuels. — Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant Research

World Growth Profiles for biofuels 2010-2022
Click image to enlarge. World Growth Profiles for biofuels 2010-2022 in metric tons (MT)

A note about sugarcane

The following is true whether sugarcane is being grown to produce table sugar or to produce bio-ethanol

When sugarcane is harvested (every 5 1/2 months) many tonnes of leftover plant material such as the leaves, roots, etc. (the ‘bagasse’) are left on the ground and burned.

Millions of hectares of sugarcane fields go up in smoke, twice a year.

The people who can afford to leave the area during the twice-yearly burning are certain to leave as the unpleasant black smoke pervades those regions for up to two weeks, at two different times of the calendar year.

Each year, a total of one month’s growing season is lost as the fields are burned.

 Burning sugar cane field in the Lower Lempa region of El Salvador for industrial-scale production [Erika Blumenfeld] Al Jazeera
Burning sugarcane field in the Lower Lempa region of El Salvador for industrial-scale production. Image courtesy of Erika Blumenfeld for Al Jazeera.

This common practice releases millions of tonnes of CO2 and other gases (some toxic) into the atmosphere, causing a net loss for Earth’s atmosphere.

Burning millions of hectares of sugarcane fields measurably worsens the air quality of the Earth.

But hundreds of miles away from the twice-yearly burning, in cities like São Paulo, Brazil for example (population 11.3 million) the urban air quality is dramatically improved year-round as a result of using bio-ethanol in the city’s millions of cars.

New technology to the rescue

Some foresighted bio-ethanol producers in Brazil are processing the sugarcane bagasse into biodiesel or bio-ethanol (depending on the enzyme used) in cellulosic biofuel reactors specially made for conversion of plant bagasse.

Total biofuel yields from bagasse are lower than normal sugarcane biofuel production but can be done in a more leisurely timeframe, and after the normal sugarcane harvest.

Many farmers use bagasse biofuel for farm vehicle fuel and to produce both heat and electricity for the plantation and processing facility and (in some cases) nearby workers’ homes.

The Brazilian government is assisting farmers and thereby helping the Earth’s atmosphere by providing seed money and a mild subsidy to sugarcane farmers (regardless if the sugarcane ultimately produces table sugar or biofuel) to allow them to economically harvest and process millions of tons of bagasse instead of burning it in the fields.

Properly targeted policies now, can have maximum impact on a promising biofuel future.

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