By: Wes Fernley

Article Summary: The recent breathtaking spike in oil prices has finally awakened professionals in the energy field to the very real need for alternatives. As a result, we are seeing liquid fuels developed from plant materials entering the market. Sugar components of various plant materials if fermented will yield an alcohol called bioethanol.

The recent breathtaking spike in oil prices has finally awakened professionals in the energy field to the very real need for alternatives. As a result, we are seeing liquid fuels developed from plant materials entering the market. Sugar components of various plant materials if fermented will yield an alcohol called bioethanol. Even cellulosic biomass (trees and grasses, for instance) can be used to produce this kind of biofuel. Ethanol, widely used in Brazil as well as in the United States, can, actually, be used in a pure form; however, it is used more as an additive to boost octane in addition to reducing emissions.

Biodiesel, on the other hand, is made from oils—vegetable or animal. Very often, greases are recycled and used for biodiesel. Like ethanol, it can be used in its pure form for diesel engines but is more often treated as an additive. This is the most common biofuel in Europe. The process for producing it from fats and oils is called transesterification.

In 2008, 1.8% of the world’s transport fuel was biofuel. Investment in the production of this new approach to fueling transportation vehicles for the world is expanding rapidly. It was $4 billion in 2007. The liquid biofuels are the most popular ones for these purposes because they can be pumped, and they can directly replace gasoline. Not only do internal combustion engines run cleaner on biofuels, but pollution is also minimized. Biofuels are generally classified as first generation, second generation, and third generation.

First generation biofuels are made from sugar, starch, vegetable oil, or animal fats. Grains such as wheat are fermented into bioethanol; sunflower seeds are pressed to yield vegetable oil for biodiesel. The most common first generation biofuels:

– Bioalcohols

– Biodiesel

– Vegetable Oil

– Bioethers

– Biogas

– Syngas

– Solid biofuels

Second generation biofuels are made from non-food crops such as waste biomass, stalks of wheat, corn, wood, and certain grasses. To avoid the political issues that have arisen from the use of food that is needed for humans and animals to produce fuel, the pressure is on to develop more of these sources. Some of the second-generation biofuels under development:

– Biohydrogen

– Biomethanol

– DMF

– Vio-DME

– Fischer-Tropsch Diesel

– Biohydrogen Diesel

– Mixed Alcohols

– Wood Diesel

Third-generation biofuels are made primarily from algae, which can produce up to 30 times more energy per acre than land crops such as soybeans. However, they have not yet been produced commercially. These are biodegradable and will not harm the environment if they happen to be spilled. Algae can be grown agriculturally. It’s estimated that 15,000 square miles of algae would meet all the needs for petroleum fuel in the United States.

– Agricultural Algae

– Ethanol from Living Algae

– Helioculture (collection of carbon dioxide from the air using solar power)

For the non-scientist, this seems somewhat complicated, but more and more professionals in the appropriate fields are switching to this quickly-emerging industry, and we can hope that many of the problems the world faces now in obtaining energy without jeopardizing our environments will see solutions in the coming years.

Copyright (c) 2009 Wes Fernley