A Biofuels Industry Primer

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I was first attracted to biofuels as an ideal means of decreasing our national dependence on foreign sources of fuel. Unfortunately, this overly simplistic view of biofuels left many related issues out of the mix. As a first step in the evaluation of the viability of biofuels as a major fuel source, I offer this primer to the most commonly used biofuels.

What is a biofuel

A biofuel is a fuel made from biomass, living or recently deceased or harvested plant or animal life. Biofuels include ethanol; butanol; organic oils such as peanut oil, animal fats, and algal oil; methane; and Syngas (Synthesis gas).

Commonly used biofuels

The two most common forms of biofuels are Ethanol and biodiesel.  Ethanol makes up 10% of the gas used in cars today, as mandated by the US government. Today’s biodiesel, which is produced from oils or fats using transesterification, can actually be used in unmodified diesel engines.

Current methods of biofuel production

The primary methods of biofuel production are fermentation of sugars (which produces alcohol) and transesterification of oils (which produces oil).

Ethanol and butanol are produced by the fermentation of sugars. To produce ethanol, yeast is added to a source of carbohydrates – think corn. As the fermentation process takes place, the yeast produces large quantities of CO2 and ethanol. The ethanol is then used as an additive to gasoline. Corn is an ideal source of carbohydrates for fermentation with yeast because the carbohydrates in corn are in the form of starch. This is readily available to yeast as a source of sugar as long as the enzyme amylase is either added or supplied by the yeast.

Not all feedstocks have sugar that is in a form that is directly available to yeast. Some feedstocks such as cornstalks and husks have their carbohydrates available in the form of cellulose that requires an enzyme to break it into a form that can be used by yeast for fermentation. This enzyme, cellulase, can be added to the mix to aid the process of fermentation or it can be supplied by a fungus such as Trichoderma reesei.

Biodiesel is a type of fuel produced by a simple chemical process known as transesterification. In this process vegetable oils such as palm, peanut, soybean, and coconut, as well as similar oils from algae or even animal fat, are used to produce biodiesel fuel.

Why biofuels

Biofuels are a renewable source of energy that can be used to power our automobiles and provide electricity to our homes and businesses. It is not currently efficient or cost effective to power large buildings or cities with biofuel but it is feasible that as technology improves this will no longer be the case. Below are a few notable Pro’s and Con’s for biofuels.

Current biofuels: Pro

  • Biofuels are clean and make use of materials we can grow in fields on land that we control.
  • We do not need to depend upon another nation to supply us with the crops needed to produce biofuels.
  • They are a Renewable resource that can be replenished
  • Others: _________ *(please comment to add other “Pro’s” for Biofuels)

Current biofuels: Con

  • The cost to produce sufficient biofuels to replace the large amounts of oil we require is prohibitive.
  • The ability to grow sufficient amounts of corn as a food crop while producing enough corn or another crop for biofuels is questionable.
  • The technology is not to a point where it can be cost effective to use biofuels on a large scale. Therefore, the government or private industry must be willing to invest the money needed to advance the technology as needed.
  • Others: _________ *(please comment to add other “Pro’s” for Biofuels)

Why does biofuel have to do with corn prices?


As greater amounts of corn are used for biofuels, smaller amounts of corn are available for human or animal consumption. The result is a rise in corn prices. The same effect can be seen when other crops are substituted for corn with the goal of using those crops for biofuel production.

This chart from index mundi tracks the monthly price of corn in US Dollars per Metric Ton each July for the period beginning July 1997 and ending July 2012.

This posting was a primer for my future posts and discussion topics on Biofuels, so I highly encourage you to comment and add other information or opinions that will promote and enhance discussion on the topic.

Upcoming Posts:

Check back soon for a Q&A with my technical advisor, Mike Smith of BluGreen Technologies.

~ Gina Hagler / Synthesis

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