What are biofuels?
The exhaustibility of fossil fuels, environmental problems, and population growth created a pressing need for sustainable energy sources.
Bioenergy is a broad term that encompasses all types of renewable energy obtained from biomass - liquid biofuels, biogas, and bioelectricity. Together with hydrogen and electricity, biofuels play an essential role in the global decarbonization struggle. They are produced from sugar and corn starches, vegetable or animal lipids (first generation), cellulose (second generation), or algae (third generation). They burn faster and cleaner and thus emit fewer greenhouse gases - nitrous oxide, methane, CO2, etc. The USA became a global leader in biofuels production in 2018. The demand was created by high gasoline prices and heavy air pollution. In addition, it also benefits local sugarcane and corn farmers and is incentivized by the government. The USA is followed by Brazil, where sugarcane-derived ethanol is mixed with gasoline at a 1 to 3 ratio.
For industries where electrification is not suitable, e.g., aviation, marine transportation, and long-distance trucking, biofuels are a "greener" alternative. However, according to Statista forecast, the global biofuels market will not have grown drastically by 2024 due to their high production cost. It might change if scientists make a breakthrough with new cost-effective methods. Biotechnology innovators work on advanced technologies to convert algal feedstock and waste products at a commercial scale.
Market value of biofuels worlwide in 2019 and 2024
(in billion U.S. dollars)
Ethanol and biodiesel
Ethanol, an alcohol produced from plant starch and sugar or "biomass" through fermentation, is usually added to gasoline at a 1 to 10 ratio. As a result, it decreases exhaust gasses emissions, causing smog.
Biodiesel is a non-toxic alternative to petroleum-derived diesel, made from oils or fats of plant or animal origin, new or recycled. It is also used in blends with conventional fuel or purely. Most vehicles can use gasoline-ethanol blends containing up to 10 percent ethanol.
Renewable hydrocarbon biofuels
This type of biofuels, also known as drop-in and green, is functional equivalent to conventional fuels, fully compatible with gasoline, aviation fuel, or diesel engines. However, some manufacturing technologies are still in the experimentation stage, alongside hydrotreating, biological sugar upgrading, gasification, pyrolysis, catalytic conversion of sugars, and hydrothermal processing. Therefore, renewable biofuels are not produced on a large commercial scale yet.
Renewable diesel should not be confused with biodiesel. They are produced through different chemical processes.
Renewable gasoline is 100% compatible with spark-ignition engines.
SAF - Sustainable Aviation Fuel helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as it has lower carbon intensity. A historical event occurred on December 1, 2021 - the first commercial aircraft with 100 passengers on board took off from Chicago, with one of its engines 100% powered by SAF.
Renewable methane is gas used as fuel for vehicles and for generating electricity. In December 2020, a new liquified biogas (LBG) truck with 90 % lower carbon dioxide emissions started operating from Kristianstad to Halmstad. It belongs to the Swedish food company HKScan, which aims to create a carbon-neutral food chain by 2040, with fossil-free transport by 2025. They partnered up with Gasum, which produces biogas from waste.
Although biogas is energy-rich, it is still produced with low efficiency. It is captured and refined from biowaste materials at landfill sites and farms, wastewater collectors, residues from alcohol manufacturing, etc. The by-product of biogas extraction is biofertilizer.
A number of startups are working to improve the biogas production process, for instance, further decreasing carbon emissions from the biomass gasification process. Charm Industrial from the USA converts plant waste biomass into carbon-rich liquid - bio-oil -through a process called fast pyrolysis. Then they pump it underground into injection wells, where it is purified into carbon-neutral hydrogen. As a result, carbon dioxide is eliminated from the atmosphere forever, which prevents wildfires and soil erosion.
A startup from Italy - CarboREM develops methods to derive biogas from wastewater at sewage plants. The hydrothermal conversion (HTC) technology works with various waste substates -from sewage sludge to manure. It improves energy efficiency by decreasing sludge volume and raising biogas yield.
Economy of biofuels
The usage of biofuels as replacement for oil, gas, and coal may have a number of economic benefits:
- If waste biomass is used, it does not require agricultural resources, which means no indirect greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the production of biofuels from feedstock grown at farms, like corn and soybean, may have an adverse impact. In the EU, there is a 7% limitation for food crops used as biofuels feedstock.
- Biofuels can be produced domestically, which decreases the dependency on foreign supplies and vulnerability because of possible supply disruptions.
- Decrease in petroleum demand leads to lower prices.
- Biofuels, especially drop in, do not require engine or infrastructure change.
Marine biomass can be used to derive ethanol by fermentation and bio-crude oil by hydrothermal liquefaction. When produced at a large scale, cheap algal biofuel has the potential to replace fossil fuels entirely. Sea kelp - the largest species of marine algae, does not require farmland or fertilizers to grow over a foot daily (30.4 cm) and thrives even in wastewater at warm temperatures. In photobioreactors, the growth process can become even more productive. Scientists are working on novel algae farming methods. One of them is depth-cycling - moving kelp stocks closer to the surface during the day for better sun exposure and down at night for better access to nutrients, with the help of a solar-powered "kelp elevator."
A British startup, Phycobloom, focuses its research on cheapening algae oil. They genetically engineered plants to secrete the oil into the surroundings. As a result, the algae do not need to be damaged and can be reused multiple times.
Filtering wastewater to obtain clean water while producing electricity or biogas is a very attractive idea. Wastewater contains a lot of organic particles, which are food to electromechanically active bacteria. A microbial fuel cell (MFC) - bacterial battery consumes organic matter and releases electrons, generating electricity. A permeable anode -a dynamic membrane that works as a filter together with the bacteria sift out up to 90% of the organic matter. During this process, nutrients like phosphorus are recovered and can be used as fertilizers.
Now MFCs can generate power sufficient only for small devices. But technology is very promising and has the potential to revolutionize electricity production.
Accelerate innovation with Blackthorn Vision
Biofuels are a crucial part of the energy supply in the future. They help to stave off detrimental effects of climate change, decrease dependency on imported fossil fuels, and support sustainability as waste products can be used as raw materials. For marine and aviation shipping and sectors that cannot be powered by other renewables, biofuels will become a viable decarbonization solution for the years to come.
Innovation is key to overcoming feedstock limitations and tapping into the true potential of biofuels. Blackthorn Vision is excited to be a software development partner for innovative entrepreneurs in the bioenergy industry. We leverage our experience knowledge of the latest technologies and best practices to provide actionable intelligence for your product and take it from idea to market in the shortest time possible. Contact us to find a perfect solution for your business.