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What Are the Basics of Biofuel Production?

By Larry Ray Palmer
Updated May 17, 2024
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Biofuel production is the process of making fuel from carbon based organic materials. In most cases, this organic matter comes from plants but, in theory, almost any carbon-based organic material could be used to create alternative biofuels. In some cases, organic wastes such as manure have even been harvested for use in the biofuel production industry. Due to the ready availability of organic matter and the fact that it is a renewable resource, much research has been done in the field of biofuel production.

There are several forms of fuel created using biofuel production methods, including liquids, solids, and gases. These fuel types each have their own specific applications that may include such tasks as powering vehicles, fueling heat, or laboratory uses. Though there are advantages and disadvantages to biofuels, continuing research is making this fuel type a viable option for replacement of less renewable energy resources, such as petroleum and coal.

The production of biofuels is often cited as a cost-effective measure for pollution and oil price control. Due to the lower production costs of these fuels and their less damaging effects on the environment, many governments are offering funding for biofuel research and development to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels. The most common methods of biofuel production are those that utilize plant matter, relying on the natural sugar, starch, or oil content of the plant.

Plants that are naturally high in sugar, such as sugar cane, or high in starch, such as corn, are used to make biofuel through a fermentation process. The fermented organic material produces an alcohol-based fuel that can be used alone or mixed with other elements. A common example of this type of biofuel production is ethanol, which is used by itself to fuel some modern vehicles or mixed with traditional petroleum-based gasoline. In some cases, the organic material left over from the fermentation process is dried and compressed into pellets to form a solid fuel for heating furnaces and other applications.

Biofuel production methods that rely on the oils produced by plants commonly use soybeans or algae. Algae biofuel and other oil based biofuels can be used in an unaltered form if sufficient heat is available. To use these biofuels within a normal operating range, however, the oils are often converted to biodiesel using a transesterification process. The inherent viscosity of the fuel is reduced in this process, making it easier to burn at lower temperatures and more useful as fuel for machinery and vehicles.

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Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Oct 19, 2014

@Fa5t3r - Farms aren't always that efficient. And they might be able to get the raw materials from elsewhere. One kind of biofuel is methane, after all, which they could collect from their waste-water treatment. Or they could grow tanks of algae biofuel, which shouldn't take up that much extra space or materials.

I've heard of trains that run on excess cooking oil from surrounding businesses as well. There is a lot of waste in the world and much of it can be converted into useful things if people are willing to put in the effort.

By Fa5t3r — On Oct 18, 2014

@irontoenail - The only problem, as people are starting to discover, is that biofuel has to come from somewhere and most of the time a farm is already a fairly efficient place, without much left over. If they put in a field specifically to grow crops for biofuel then they are taking away space from a cash crop. If they use leftovers from something else, they won't be able to use them to feed their animals or fertilize their land and they'll have to bring in food or fertilizer.

If there is some kind of waste happening then they might as well make it into biofuel, but then you've got to consider what happens if the supply runs low. If every engine has been converted, and that crop fails one year, how are they going to run the tractor? I'm not saying that it's a bad idea, but it's one that needs to be carefully thought through before it's implemented. Most farmers don't have room for that kind of error.

By irontoenail — On Oct 17, 2014

I've heard of farmers who completely power everything on their farms with homemade biofuel and I think that's the way of the future. With the price of fuel being what it is it makes sense to just install a couple of refinery tanks and make your own. It's just that it's beyond the skills of most people to change their engines over so that they can work properly with biofuel rather than petrol.

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