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The beginner’s guide to biofuel

As the name suggests, biofuel taps into the power locked up in organic matter in a much cleaner way than oil, coal or gas. But, how does it work?

Biofuel typically begins life as biomass – the waste products of living organisms, whether they be crops, animals or even clumps of algae. Some of the most common sources of biofuel tend to be related to the naturally-occurring oils and sugars or gases generated from crop waste. While biofuel can certainly be considered a renewable source of energy, that’s not the same thing as saying it’s necessarily a green one.

Our use of arable land for growing enough food to feed ourselves is carried out on such a scale already that there is surely a plentiful supply of biomatter to help source the biofuel we may need. However, the use of biofuel all comes back to burning organic compounds, which always releases a small quantity of greenhouse gas in the process.

Cleaner sources of fuel for the future

One of the benefits of switching from petrol or diesel to biofuel alternatives is how much cleaner they can be. Crop waste can produce large quantities of chemicals suitable for combustion, including ethanol, ethane, methane and butane, just to name a few.

Believe it or not, in parts of the world, ethanol is already being used in the energy mix without you even realising it. In the US, 98 per cent of the liquid fuel Americans use to power their cars contains ethanol, at a ratio of 10 per cent ethanol to 90 per cent pure gasoline. The US Department of Energy explains that the inclusion of biofuel helps oxygenate the gasoline easier, resulting in more lower levels of pollution.

The drawback of using gases and chemicals derived from crop waste is that they can still emit harmful gases such as ozone, particulates and sulphurous compounds, just like petrol and diesel. In addition, engines may require extensive modification to enable them to combust these biofuels.

However, burning biofuel can be deemed carbon neutral according to scientists, as it is simply returning pre-existing atmospheric CO2 back into the air, which was originally breathed in by the plants themselves. By contrast, coal, oil and gas take huge stores of carbon locked up for millions of years and release it into our atmosphere all in one go.

More sustainable for energy needs

As mentioned, while still producing some degree of greenhouse gases, albeit less than oil, coal and gas, biofuel is much more sustainable. As long as we keep growing crops which produce oils, sugars and other useful ingredients, we continue to have an effectively unlimited supply of biofuel.

In the UK, statisticians estimate that 807 million litres equivalent of biofuel have been verified as renewable fuel, 58 per cent of which are used as biodiesel. This form of fuel dominates the UK’s biofuel mix, 72 per cent of which is derived from cooking oil. By contrast, 34 per cent of the bioethanol used in the UK was sourced from corn.

Waste feedstocks were found to be the origin of 72 per cent of our verified renewable fuel, meaning nothing need go to waste, in the bid to source biofuels in the future. In using inert waste plant matter to create power, this form of fuel has helped achieve an average greenhouse gas saving of 81 per cent – an exceptional achievement! Imagine the savings to be made, if we take a managed to transition away from petrol and diesel altogether.

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