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Biofuels are combustible fuels created from biomass; in other words, fuels created from recently living plant matter as opposed to the ancient plant matter underground that regular fossil fuels are created from. Unlike other renewable energy sources, biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels to help meet transportation fuel needs. The idea behind biofuels is to replace traditional fuels with those made from plant material or other feedstocks that are renewable. These fuels have been around longer than cars have, but because of cheap gasoline and diesel, they weren’t completely established in society. However, spikes in oil prices, and present global efforts to stave off the worst effects of climate change have lent new urgency to the search for clean, renewable fuels.

Biofuels are grouped by categories- first, second, and third generations.

  • First generation biofuels are produced from sugar and starch food crops.
  • Second generation biofuels are produced from cellulosic material such as wood, grasses, and inedible parts of plants
  • Third generation biofuels are produced using the lipid production from algae

Sometimes, these fuels are combined with traditional fuel to create a greener energy sources. Ethanol is used along with gasoline and Bio-diesel is used along with diesel as well as as a replacement.


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(Image depicting ethanol)

Ethanol is an alcohol used as a blending agent with gasoline to increase octane and cut down carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions. Roughly 97% of gasoline in the United States contains some ethanol. Most ethanol is first generation and made from plant starches and food crop sugars, mainly corn crops. The process fermentation is used to convert biomass into ethanol. During fermentation, microorganisms metabolize the plant sugars to produce ethanol.


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(Biodiesels used as alternatives to diesel)

Biodiesel is a liquid fuel produced from renewable sources, such as new and used vegetable oils and animal fats and is a cleaner-burning replacement for petroleum-based diesel fuels. Biodiesel is nontoxic and biodegradable and is produced by combining alcohol with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking grease. Like petroleum diesel, biodiesel is used to fuel compression-ignition engines.

Biofuels are currently the only viable replacement to hydrocarbon transportation fuels.  Because biofuels can be used in existing combustion engines, minimal changes to infrastructure are required for their implementation. This is their most prominent advantage as concerns about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels continue to rise. Other advantages include

  • Fuel security: Biofuels provide more security for countries with no oil reserves left
  • Sustainable: Biofuels will not run out. Crops can be replenished to meet demand
  • Economical security: As biofuels rely heavily on agriculture, this form of energy provides job security for farmers, and keeps the economy growing
  • Less vehicle maintenance: Biofuels are adaptable to vehicle engines, and keep the engine running for longer. This means less vehicle maintenance

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(More farmers are employed due to the fact that crops need to be grown to create biofuels)

However, like several things in our modern world, biofuels also have their cons. Some of which include

  • Biofuels have a lower energy output than traditional fuels and therefore require greater quantities to be consumed in order to produce the same energy level
  • They are costly to produce as the whole process from planting the crops to extracting and converting can be expensive as it involves many systems, land, and equipment
  • Although biofuels create less pollution than fossil fuels, the processes of extraction and production are known to produce a small amount of emissions
  • Biofuels are usually made from similar crops and rely on the same crops(monoculture), and growing these year after year rids the soil of vital nutrients that may not get replaced and reduces the quality of the soil
  • There is also concern that using valuable cropland to grow fuel crops could have an impact on the cost of food and could possibly lead to food shortages

Even though there are disadvantages, the pros outweigh these cons. With energy companies beginning to recognize biofuels as a path to business longevity and environmental sustainability, our dependence on fossil fuels may soon come to an end, allowing our planet and its inhabitants to flourish for years to come as pollution reduces, jobs increase, and will provide a constant source of fuel even if our conventional fossil fuels are exhausted.

-Smaran Sivashankar




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