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Biofuels are liquid fuels created from blending biomass feedstock.[1] Biofuels take advantage of the energy stored in plants during photosynthesis.[2] Throughout the 2000s there were high levels of optimism around biofuels because of the predictions being made that it would make the U.S. energy independent while decreasing carbon emissions. These predictions have been slow to become reality, however, as the movement of biofuels from the laboratory to widespread adoption has been much slower than expected. So much slower that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was forced to cut a biofuel goal in 2013, and there are calls to cut the 2014 goal.[3][4]

Types of biofuels

  • Ethanol is made from sugar crops such as sugar beets and sugar cane, and starches such as corn. These crops are fermented to produce ethanol, which is combined with traditional fuel sources such a gasoline to create E10, or E15 (with the 10 and 15 indicating the percentage of ethanol present) gasoline blends.[2][5]
  • Biodiesel is made from natural oils taken from oil palm, algae or soybeans. These oils can be burned on their own or combined with petroleum to make biodiesel.[2]
  • Wood and other wood byproducts can be converted into liquids such as methanol, ethanol, or woodgas. In its solid state, wood or chipped waste biomass, can also be burned.[2]


Monthly biodiesel production

The chart to the left shows U.S. monthly biodiesel production in 2013. Production was highest in December, where 135.1 million gallons biodiesel were produced. In total 777.6 million gallons of biodiesel were produced in 2013 in the United States. This surpassed biodiesel production in both 2011 and 2012. In 2013 there were 115 biodiesel plants across the U.S., with production concentrated in the Midwest. These plants have the capacity to produce 2.2 billion gallons of biodiesel per year.[6]

First generation biofuels

The first generation of biofuels used traditional foodstuffs such as corn and soybeans to generate liquid fuel. Eventually these methods were met with some criticism. First critics argued that the quotas created by Congress to increase the use of biofuels misallocated foodstuffs, removing food from dinner tables and pouring it into engines, while increasing the price of food. This argument is known as the food versus fuel debate.[7] Biofuels were also seen as a way to decrease carbon emissions, however some research has suggested that if researchers consider the carbon emitted during the entire lifetime of the crops used in biofuels, then biofuels have a larger carbon footprint than traditional gasoline. Additionally, drivers who put gasoline with ethanol into cars that aren't built to use the blend can void their car warranties and damage their engines.[8][9] The debate over these criticisms continues to this day, and as technology improves it is expected that these potential problems can be better addressed.[10]

Second generation biofuels

The NREL is experimenting with new ways of growing algae for biofuel production

Research is underway to expand the types of biomass that can be used to create biofuels. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is just one of many research institutions experimenting with ways to transform algae into transportation fuel.[11] These second generation biofuels have three challenges to overcome according to the The Economist. First, they must be created from food waste, or biomass that has no nutritional value, thus avoiding the food versus food debate. It is more difficult to break down food waste products, such as corn stalks, grass and trees, into the simple sugars needed for fuel, which makes using food waste a ttechnological barrier for researchers. Second, producers will have to alter their fuels to work in existing vehicles. Some of the pushback against biofuels has occurred because ethanol can damage car engines and void car warranties.[8][9] Third, biofuels need to be affordable so that they are attractive option for consumers.[3]

See also