Fuel Duel: Can Biofuels Replace Fossil Fuels?

Justin Christensen |

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Thanks to globalization, the food market has bloomed into a multicultural smorgasbord. Colors, textures and flavors decorate the produce aisle with fruits and vegetables that are nutritious, delicious and versatile. So versatile in fact, that some of them aren’t only just fuel for humans.

Biofuels are fuels produced from living organisms and their byproducts are used to power vehicles. There are actually four categories or “generations” of sources, and the most readily used are from the first, including corn, potatoes, sugarcane, sugar beets, soybean, canola, flaxseed, rapeseed, and animal fats.

The Production Process

It’s odd to think about putting vegetables and oils into our fuel tank, but they aren’t just used raw. A number of methods are utilized for producing biofuels and there are two that are most common. One is a fermentation process that transforms the sugar and starch vegetations into bioalcohols, such as ethanol, propanol and butanol.

The second is for the oils and fats, which are processed through a series of chemical reactions called transesterification. They are purified, reacted and converted to form esters and glycerol and the remaining esters are the biodiesel.

Created for a Cause

The concept of biofuels has been around for well over a century. Rudolf Diesel ran his engine on peanut oil at the 1900 World Exhibition in France and Henry Ford expected ethanol would be the fuel of choice for his Model T. It was the introduction of petroleum that changed the playing field, as it became the dominant fuel primarily due to price, supply and efficiency.

With cheaper petroleum, the idea of biofuels was left by the wayside until about 1970 when the Clean Air Act was introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency. Cleaner-burning fuels and fuel additives started to be developed to meet new emissions standards. After that wave, it subsided again until more recently. With higher oil prices and concern over carbon dioxide emissions, biofuels are gaining popularity once again.

There are a number of benefits to using biofuels:

  • They’re environmentally friendly – fewer emissions, biodegradable and renewable
  • They can help reduce dependence on foreign supply
  • They reduce engine wear and extend life as they leave no deposits
  • They’re safer and non-toxic, with a higher flashpoint than traditional diesel

In the United States, the majority of gasoline is a 10 percent ethanol blend, and some vehicles use a blend with 85 percent. Biofuels are used in many other countries as well, including sugarcane in Brazil, palm oil in Europe and sugar beet in Spain.

Impact on the Fuel Industry

While the benefits of biofuels have merit, the day when they replace fossil fuels is still a long way off. The oil and gas industry has always ruled the energy roost and business isn’t slowing down. With a shift in global sources and investment in infrastructure, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, major projects have increased production and distribution demands. New methods of access such as horizontal drilling and deepwater wells are also opening up opportunities with shale gas and tar sands.

By comparison, biofuels are still breaking ground and have their own downsides. They cost about 30 cents more per gallon than regular diesel, and production presents issues regarding land and water requirements, pollution and an increased cost of food – food that might otherwise be available for human consumption or animal feed. The federal government is still exploring applications and impact as a whole.

However, with the acknowledgement of greenhouse gas emissions, new process technologies and developments such as electric and hybrid vehicles, and solar power, the two industries will be forced to evolve as the energy scene starts to shift. Most of the major oil companies have already started investing in renewable energy projects.

For now though, it seems there’s enough room for two. Consumers will start to see larger selections at the pump and choices will be made based on price and mileage. Your fuel distributor will be up to date on changing markets and as always, will be ready to supply you with best products at best prices.