ABC's of Biofuels

Hey students! Biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel can make a big difference in improving our environment, helping our economy, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. This page tells all about biofuels research by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Biomass Program. Read on to find out about:

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Biofuels for Transportation

Most cars and trucks on the road today are fueled by gasoline and diesel fuels. These fuels are produced from oil, which is a non-renewable fossil fuel. Non-renewable fuels depend on resources that will eventually run out. Renewable resources, in contrast, are constantly replenished and will never run out. Biomass is one type of renewable resource, which includes plants and organic wastes.

Biomass Program researchers are studying how to convert biomass into liquid fuels for transportation, called biofuels. The use of biofuels will reduce pollution and reduce the United States' dependence on non-renewable oil. For more information on how biofuels are used in vehicles on the road today, check out the Alternative Fuels Data Center.

DOE's Biomass Program is focusing on bioethanol and biodiesel production. Other DOE research programs are looking at using biomass to produce other types of clean energy and fuels. For more information about bioenergy in general, link to Biomass Energy Basics.

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Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting the sugar components of biomass. Today, it is made mostly from sugar and starch crops. With advanced technology being developed by the Biomass Program, cellulosic biomass, like trees and grasses, are also used as feedstocks for ethanol production. Ethanol can be used as a fuel for cars in its pure form, but it is usually used as a gasoline additive to increase octane and improve vehicle emissions. Check out What is Bioethanol? for more information on ethanol.

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Bioethanol Feedstocks

Biomass is material that comes from plants. Plants use the light energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide to sugars that can be stored, through a process called photosynthesis. Organic waste is also considered to be biomass, because it began as plant matter. Researchers are studying how the sugars in the biomass can be converted to more usable forms of energy like electricity and fuels.

Some plants, like sugar cane and sugar beets, store the energy as simple sugars. These are mostly used for food. Other plants store the energy as more complex sugars, called starches. These plants include grains like corn and are also used for food.

Another type of plant matter, called cellulosic biomass, is made up of very complex sugar polymers, and is not generally used as a food source. This type of biomass is under consideration as a feedstock for bioethanol production. Specific feedstocks under consideration include:

The main components of these types of biomass are:

For more information about biomass in general, see What Is Biomass?

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Bioethanol Production

Key Reactions. Two reactions are key to understanding how biomass is converted to bioethanol:

C6H12O6 —> 2 CH3CH2OH + 2 CO2
          glucose         ethanol        carbon

Process Description. The basic processes for converting sugar and starch crops are well-known and used commercially today. While these types of plants generally have a greater value as food sources than as fuel sources there are some exceptions to this. For example, Brazil uses its huge crops of sugar cane to produce fuel for its transportation needs. The current U.S. fuel ethanol industry is based primarily on the starch in the kernels of feed corn, America's largest agricultural crop.

A flow diagram of the cellulosic ethanol production process; each step in the flow diagram is described in the text that follows.

Converting cellulosic biomass to ethanol is currently too expensive to be used on a commercial scale. So researchers are working to improve the efficiency and economics of the ethanol production process by focusing their efforts on the two most challenging steps:

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Biodiesel is a mixture of fatty acid alkyl esters made from vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled greases. Biodiesel can be used as a fuel for vehicles in its pure form, but it is usually used as a petroleum diesel additive to reduce levels of particulates, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and air toxics from diesel-powered vehicles. Check out What is Renewable Diesel? for more information on biodiesel.

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Biodiesel Feedstocks

In the United States, most biodiesel is made from soybean oil or recycled cooking oils. Animals fats, other vegetable oils, and other recycled oils can also be used to produce biodiesel, depending on their costs and availability. In the future, blends of all kinds of fats and oils may be used to produce biodiesel.

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Biodiesel Production

Key Reaction. The main reaction for converting oil to biodiesel is called transesterification. The transesterification process reacts an alcohol (like methanol) with the triglyceride oils contained in vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled greases, forming fatty acid alkyl esters (biodiesel) and glycerin. The reaction requires heat and a strong base catalyst, such as sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The simplified transesterification reaction is shown below.

Triglycerides + Free Fatty Acids (<4%) + Alcohol ——> Alkyl esters + glycerin

Pretreatment Reaction. Some feedstocks must be pretreated before they can go through the transesterification process. Feedstocks with less than 4% free fatty acids, which include vegetable oils and some food-grade animal fats, do not require pretreatment. Feedstocks with more than 4% free fatty acids, which include inedible animal fats and recycled greases, must be pretreated in an acid esterification process. In this step, the feedstock is reacted with an alcohol (like methanol) in the presence of a strong acid catalyst (sulfuric acid), converting the free fatty acids into biodiesel. The remaining triglycerides are converted to biodiesel in the transesterification reaction.

Triglycerides + Free Fatty Acids (>4%) + Alcohol ——> Alkyl esters + triglycerides

Process Description.

A flow diagram of the biodiesel production process; each step in the flow diagram is described in the text that follows.

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Biofuels and the Environment

Global Warming. The combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. The carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases allow solar energy to enter the Earth's atmosphere, but reduce the amount of energy that can re-radiate back into space, trapping energy and causing global warming.

One environmental benefit of replacing fossil fuels with biomass-based fuels is that the energy obtained from biomass does not add to global warming. All fuel combustion, including fuels produced from biomass, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But, because plants use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to grow (photosynthesis), the carbon dioxide formed during combustion is balanced by that absorbed during the annual growth of the plants used as the biomass feedstock—unlike burning fossil fuels which releases carbon dioxide captured billions of years ago. You must also consider how much fossil energy is used to grow and process the biomass feedstock, but the result is still substantially reduced net greenhouse gas emissions. Modern, high-yield corn production is relatively energy intense, but the net greenhouse gas emission reduction from making ethanol from corn grain is still about 20%. Making biodiesel from soybeans reduces net emissions nearly 80%. Producing ethanol from cellulosic material also involves generating electricity by combusting the non-fermentable lignin. The combination of reducing both gasoline use and fossil electrical production can mean a greater than 100% net greenhouse gas emission reduction. In the case of ethanol from corn stover, we have calculated that reduction to be 113%.

Vehicle Emissions. Petroleum diesel and gasoline consist of blends of hundreds of different hydrocarbon chains. Many of these are toxic, volatile compounds such as benzene, toluene, and xylenes, which are responsible for the health hazards and pollution associated with combustion of petroleum-based fuels. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides sulfur oxides and particulates, are other specific emissions of concern. A key environmental benefit of using biofuels as an additive to petroleum-based transportation fuels is a reduction in these harmful emissions.

Both bioethanol and biodiesel are used as fuel oxygenates to improve combustion characteristics. Adding oxygen results in more complete combustion, which reduces carbon monoxide emissions. This is another environmental benefit of replacing petroleum fuels with biofuels. Ethanol is typically blended with gasoline to form an E10 blend (5%-10% ethanol and 90%-95% gasoline), but it can be used in higher concentrations such as E85 or in its pure form. Biodiesel is usually blended with petroleum diesel to form a B20 blend (20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel), although other blend levels can be used up to B100 (pure biodiesel).

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Biomass and Biofuels Science Fair Project Ideas

Middle School

"Photosynthesis" This experiment, from Newton's Apple, demonstrates how plants make food from sunlight.

"What is Ethanol and how does it make a car run?" This experiment, from Newton's Apple, demonstrates how yeast ferments different types of food.

Greenhouse Gas Effect This experiment, from the California Energy Commission, demonstrates how the greenhouse gas effect keeps the earth warm.

Peanut Power This experiment, from the California Energy Commission, demonstrates how energy is stored in plants.

NREL's Renewable Energy Activities Choices for Tomorrow (REACT) Middle Level Grades 6-8 (PDF 3.80 MB)

Lesson Plans

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