Biofuel, based on fuel derived from organic biomass from recently living animals or plants or their byproducts, has transformed from a niche alternative to fossil fuels (e.g., gasoline, diesel) to become a booming industry. Driven by a unique cocktail of energy security fears, rising oil prices, low barriers to entry, and government support, the biofuels sector has taken off over the past ten years.
Any liquid that stores energy, which is typically utilized by an engine or generator, can be called a “fuel.” The term “biofuels” encompasses a wide range of fuels, including vegetable oils, animal fats, ethanol, biodiesel (any oil or fat that undergoes transesterification to more closely resemble mineral-based fuel), and synfuel (fuel made from gasified organic matter, then liquefied to form fuel). The main common trait of all these fuels is that they are derived from organic biomass, rather than minerals.
Biofuels are made using a fairly simple process that typically involves harvesting feedstock, or the raw materials (e.g., soybeans, sugarcane), crushing the feedstock, separating the dry matter from the oil, then re-crushing and/or further processing to extract as much oil as possible. The resulting oil can then either be directly consumed (e.g., by vehicles with specially designed engines), further processed (e.g., into biodiesel), or blended with mineral-based fuel before being delivered to the end user at gas stations and depots around the world (the most common blends in the U.S. are E10 (10% ethanol blend) and E85 (85% ethanol blend). Only some biofuels, most notably biodiesel, can be used in traditional internal combustion engines. Other biofuels, such as ethanol, must be blended with mineral-based fuel in order to be used in existing engines.
The most common inputs into biofuels vary by country. In the U.S., corn and soybeans are most prevalent, while Europe tends to use flaxseed and rapeseed, Brazil sugarcane, and Asia palm oil. Brazil is in many ways the pioneer of the biofuels industry, having introduced ethanol from sugarcane (and flexfuel vehicles capable of running on ethanol) over 25 years ago as method to reduce dependence on oil imports.
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