What Is Biofuel Energy?

Susan Grindstaff

Biofuel energy is a term that typically describes fuels produced by the fermentation of plants. Some of the most common plants used to produce biofuel are sugar, corn, and palm oil. Unlike gasoline and coal, which have a finite supply, biofuel sources are considered renewable. Some of the most common types of biofuel are ethanol and biodiesel.

Biofuel is seen as an environmental-friendly alternative to traditional diesel.
Biofuel is seen as an environmental-friendly alternative to traditional diesel.

Proponents of biofuel energy argue that this type of fuel cuts down on the harmful carbon monoxide emissions created with the use of fossil fuels. Most science suggests that this is true, because as plants grow they use more carbon monoxide than is emitted when these same plants are burned as fuel. The main problem associated with using biofuel energy is the amount of energy burned in the actual production of the fuel. The plant life must be fertilized, cultivated, fermented, and processed, and these steps can consume more energy than the resulting biofuel actually produces. In order to create biofuel energy that truly has a negative carbon monoxide footprint, it is necessary to find a way to process the plant life without the use of fossil fuel energy.

Some diesel-electric locomotives have been converted to run on biodiesel fuels.
Some diesel-electric locomotives have been converted to run on biodiesel fuels.

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Ethanol is a type of biofuel energy usually made from the fermentation of corn or sugar. It is often mixed with fossil fuel oil to create a type of gasoline that is considered more efficient and more environmentally friendly that pure gasoline. Ethanol is particularly suited for engines that are considered “high-octane,” because it tends to burn much cleaner than pure gasoline and may even help extend engine life.

A large field of rapeseed, which is used to make biofuel.
A large field of rapeseed, which is used to make biofuel.

Biodiesel is usually made from palm oil or soybean oil, and can be used in diesel engines in their pure form or blended with petroleum. It is generally considered more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based diesel fuel, and is in use by many large trucking operations. To create biodiesel fuel, the raw oil is refined so that the glycerin content is removed, which makes the fuel burn more efficiently.

Research directed at using grasses and tree saplings as the basis for creating biofuel energy may eventually lead to biofuels that are much less expensive than fossil fuels or current types of ethanol or biodiesel. In addition, it will likely take much less energy to refine grass and saplings, so the fuel they create will be more environmentally friendly than sugar- or oil-based biofuels. A process called pyrolysis uses microwaves to turn grass into a type of fuel that can be used for heating or to power automobile engines.

Algae may be used for biofuel production.
Algae may be used for biofuel production.

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