What are Bio-Fuels and should you be using them
Over the last 10-20 years bio-fuel, bio-diesel and biomass have all made greater attempts to become household names for alternative fuels and their production, however only recently have these fuels and ideas been improved upon to create new generations of more reliable bio-fuels for usage across a wide range of applications; fuel, power and heating.
This hasn’t just given the world an alternative to using up the limited resources of fossil fuels such as diesel and petrol, but it has offered a great alternative in production and sourcing of the raw reserves from the ground needed to produce fossil fuels. And, although not completely free of pollutants like CO2, these new eco-friendly fuels produce much less CO2 and nitrogen oxides when burned for fuel.
What are bio-fuels?
Unlike fossil fuels, which take a very long time to naturally develop beneath the earth’s surface, bio-fuels are man-made fuels which are derived from the conversion of biomass; plants, food-crops, animal fats, wood, food-waste and organic materials. They work in the same way as fossil fuels do but, they generally release much lower and less harmful emissions.
How are bio-fuels produced?
There are many ways in which bio-fuels can be produced which offers an exciting future for bio-fuels but, one which creates a lot of confusion when trying to explain the production of bio-fuels ‘in a nutshell’.
The idea of most bio-fuels is to allow the sugars and starch to ferment much like you would with alcohol which, by the way, is a popular element of many bio-fuels. This can then be used as a mixture with normal diesel like Stagecoach’s BioBuses which will use normal road diesel to start-up the engine and then run on bio-diesel throughout the journey.
What are they made from?
In the early days of bio-fuel production, also known as first generation bio-fuels, little was known about what could and couldn’t be used for their production. These types of bio-fuels tend to be less efficient, not as practical and less reliable than newer generations of bio-fuels; second generation and third generation versions.
1st generation bio-fuels are the first era of green-fuels and were produced from things like vegetable oil and food-crops like rapeseed. Early bio-fuels like these would never make it into mass production because of their disadvantages of taking up good land for farming crops and potentially damaging to engines, although they certainly helped lead the way for much better research, production and wider use of materials for the second and third generation bio-fuels.
2nd generation bio-fuel production came about from the challenges of first gen bio-fuel production and tackled the issues of using up valuable farming crops and oils. This advanced version of bio-fuel production looked into the waste aspect of crops and relied less on crops which could be used for food and utilising waste oil rather than oils which could be consumed first.
3rd generation bio-fuels aren’t more advanced than 2nd generation versions however, because it uses algae as its source, it is recognised as a separate way of sourcing the material required for its production. The beauty of using algae for bio-fuels is that important food crops don’t need to be grown especially for fuel and this also frees-up farmland which is much better for food growth for consumption.
Why make bio-fuel?
There are many reasons for producing bio-fuel but, the main focus was to tackle the fast depletion of fossil fuel stocks and climate change.
As the years have passed, each generation of bio-fuel has somewhat surpassed its predecessor and shown us that many options for creating sustainable fuels from almost anything, including household waste.
Advantages and disadvantages of bio-fuel production?
There are plenty of advantages to the production of bio-fuels as you’ve already guessed, however some disadvantages do crop-up with the production and usage of many which is something that keeps driving new ideas forward.
Advantages of bio-fuels:
✓ Reduced CO2 and GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions
✓ Less strain on existing fossil fuels
✓ Lowered pollution to ground and water from spills and accidents
✓ Renewable (won’t run out of it)
✓ Can be used alongside fossil fuels
✓ Lots of eco-friendly options for production
Disadvantages of bio-fuel:
✓ Not currently as efficient as fossil fuels
✓ Can damage equipment and engines
✓ Can increase the cost of food production
✓ Production of bio-fuels isn’t yet carbon-neutral or carbon-negative
Common examples of bio-fuels
After years of research and production of bio-fuels, many types of bio-fuels have been created. Some work well for one process but not for others, some offer better efficiency under certain constraints such as altitude where others use much more fuel to cover the same distance with fossil fuels.
Below is a list of common bio-fuels which seem to have done considerably well when put to the test.
Bio-diesel is currently one of the most popular bio-fuels amongst Europeans. A lot of new vehicles, especially in the transport and public transport sectors, are now able to use blends of bio-diesel with normal road diesel. For the purpose of this article we’ll be using bio-diesel as our main focus and continuing on with more details below!
Bio-ethanol is another popular bio-fuel which seems to work well at higher altitudes. It’s easy to produce but, drawbacks include more fuel usage (less efficient) and the ethanol can have be corrosive to fuel tanks and seals within the engine. (No not the cute marine animals)
Bio-gas is another popular bio-fuel which you probably guessed is a gas, rather than most other bio-fuels which tend to be in liquid form. It is produced by way of anaerobic decomposition of a wide variety of organic matter. The organic matter used can range from waste-food, food-crops and even manure!
It’s mainly made up of methane and CO2 which does throw up certain issues regarding greenhouse gases because of methane’s ability to retain even more heat than CO2.
You can find out about more bio-fuel types at BioFuel.org.uk
What is bio-diesel?
One of the most popular bio-fuels at the moment is bio-diesel. It is a non-toxic, renewable and clean-burning bio-fuel which can be mixed with or used as an alternative fuel to diesel.
How is bio-diesel made?
Bio-diesel is typically made from vegetable oil or animal fat. Using methanol in a chemical process strips glycerine and methyl esters from vegetable oil and animal fats. The process of separating glycerine from animal fat and vegetable oil produces little waste because of the many uses which glycerine has.
Where can bio-diesel be purchased in the UK?
Speedy Fuels is a bulk bio-diesel supplier but, there are many other companies who offer bio-fuels like bio-diesel and you can now find it at some fuel stations. If you just want a small amount and would prefer to use a small filling station then it may be worth checking with your local fuel supplier.
How much does bio-diesel typically cost?
Due to the growth of crops and logistics behind the process of bio-diesel, it currently costs more than ordinary road diesel gallon for gallon. In the future, as techniques become refined and the collection of materials for the production become refined, prices should become much more competitive.
5 facts about bio-diesel you probably didn’t know…
- It is the only alternative fuel approved by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).
- It emits up to 85% less cancer-causing agents when burned.
- The first diesel engine invented by Rudolph Diesel was designed to run on peanut oil (arachide oil).
- Roughly 1 billion gallons of bio-diesel are produced annually
- 5% bio-diesel mixed with 95% normal diesel is recommended however 30% bio-diesel to 70% diesel should be fine for most engines.
Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel (pictured) was a German inventor and mechanical engineer born in the 19th Century, famous for the invention of the diesel engine.
After Diesel’s death, the diesel engine underwent further development and became a very important replacement for the steam piston engine in many applications, including trains, agricultural machines, trucks and lorries, as well as modern cars.