A biofuel is any fuel created from recently growing plant or micro algae. These sources of carbon can be vegetable or grain crops, or agricultural waste. These biofuels are used as an alternative to fossil fuels as a more sustainable and renewable alternative for power generation. They can be used in generating electricity, manufacturing or space heating, but are most frequently discussed in relation to automotive propulsion and as fuel for other means of transportation, including freight lorries, ships and aeroplanes.
Current/ First-generation Biofuels:
These biofuels are derived from grown crops, such as maize or sugar. Ethanol fuel, biogas, syngas, and biodiesel are all examples of current biofuels. Biodiesel is the most frequently used biofuel in Europe, and can be used in any diesel engine when mixed with fossil diesel. Feedstocks for biodiesel can include vegetable oils, palm oil, rapeseed, soy, mustard, flax, sunflower, hemp and algae. There are also solid biofuels, which include wood (burned directly or from sawdust, or processed).
Advanced biofuels, unlike the first generation biofuels, are not derived from the sugars and vegetable oils in standard crops, but rather are produced from waste material. They include woody mass, agricultural waste and residues, and though harder to process, are less impactful in terms of land use, and therefore more sustainable. Ideally, any grown feedstocks for advanced biofuels will be able to grow on marginal, non-arable land on which it is difficult or impossible to grow food crops. Advanced biofuel technology also deals with the creation of plastics, pigments and other products from waste products, to prevent the spread of current plastic pollution and of course to reduce reliance on dwindling fossil fuels.
Though biofuels do offer the only mid-range solution to replacement of fossil fuels in vehicles, there are problems with the use of biofuels. It is, for a start, not the most efficient way to garner energy from the sun. Photosynthesis, the process by which the plants convert the sun’s energy, is only 6% efficient, which means that much of the solar energy is ‘wasted’ before it can be turned into fuel.
Land-use, mostly of concern with the first-generation sources for biofuel, is also a concern. Land is valuable, and could be better used to grow food crops. Inefficient use of space on this planet is not sustainable, and lack of habitat diversity also poses a problem for ecologists.
Advanced biofuels have already begun to solve some of the problems of land use experienced by first generation biofuels, but scientists are working on improving efficiency and extraction techniques. Advances in plant breeding and genetics may allow for more efficient photosynthesis in the future. Biological research may yield new understanding and birth new technologies to extract energy from plant matter. Sustainably produced biofuels will be much more prevalent as we move into the future. It is important that policies and economic incentives are put in place and that the commercialization of biofuels is sustainable and responsible.
For now, in spite of the problems and difficulties of biofuels, they are the best alternative we have to fossil fuels for many manufacturing and vehicular uses. While electric and hydrogen technologies may one day come to replace biofuels, they are not yet viable alternatives on the global scale. For now, biofuel improvements are the best we can hope for.