Updated: Sep 19
Finding sustainable sources of energy is one of the main problems we currently face; fossil fuels are a finite resource that will eventually require an alternative. One answer that has arisen to reduce emissions and prolong non-renewable resources is biofuel. Biofuel is a wide range of fuel types typically made from plants and other natural resources. These fuels were created in 1937 and have been in continuous development ever since. With just over 80 years of progress, there are now three types of biofuels: ethanol, biodiesel, and methanol.
Biofuels can be categorized into two main groups: bioalcohols and biodiesels. Alcohol-based biofuels, such as ethanol and methanol, can come from corn crops, sugarcane, and even wood chips. Ethanol is usually partially mixed with regular gasoline, as it reduces carbon monoxide and sulfur emissions when burned. This is why on some gas pumps, there will be a sticker that says “can contain up to 10 per cent ethanol.” There are varieties of biofuels that contain up to 85 per cent ethanol, but this fuel requires a special fuel system and cannot be used in most vehicles.(1)
Biodiesels typically come from vegetable oil, so canola crops and a variety of vegetable-derived oils can be used to create it. Biodiesel that is made from canola oil and rapeseed actually creates less carbon monoxide and more energy than regular diesel fuel.(2) It is typically used in heavy equipment and farm equipment. Many farmers around the world have even been making their own biodiesel to save on fuel costs. It has also seen use in the public transportation sector.
A study was conducted in 1998, where biodiesel was tested in busses that were used for public transport. They were tested with three different fuel mixtures: a pure biodiesel (B100), and a mixture of biodiesel and regular petroleum-based diesel. This mixture was 20 per cent biodiesel and 80 per cent regular diesel, hence the name B20. The busses were measured to see how much CO2 would be produced from each fuel. The findings were that B100 reduced carbon emissions by 79.45 per cent and B20 by 15.66 per cent when compared to petroleum diesel.(3) Therefore it was determined that when biofuel is burned, much less carbon dioxide is created compared to petroleum-based fuel; each type of biofuel emits slightly different amounts of carbon, but they all typically emit less than petroleum fuels.
Another benefit of biofuel is the circular economy it helps create. Naturally, the carbon cycle keeps a balanced amount of natural carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and carbon-based life. The most basic example would be a plant taking in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis; when the plant is used for biofuel, the emissions return the carbon stored by the plants into the atmosphere, then the cycle repeats and carbon is absorbed by the plants again. Plants also store carbon in the top layer of soil through carbon sequestration, which is atmospheric carbon getting trapped in the soil; this carbon can eventually return to the atmosphere through tillage.
Since the source for biofuel is a part of the natural carbon cycle, it will not create large amounts of excess carbon when burned.(4) However, fossil fuels are carbon resources taken from below the earth's surface, which are then turned into petroleum products. These carbon deposits would naturally have no way of getting above the surface and becoming a part of the carbon cycle. When they are burned, it adds excess CO2 to the atmosphere.(4)
The environmental benefits of biofuels are undeniably great. While we search for energy sources that are not finite, biofuels could allow us to rely on the combustion engine for longer while also bringing carbon emissions down. However, there are a couple drawbacks. For one, farmland would have to be converted to growing crops used for biofuel instead of food, affecting the food supply chain.
Secondly, Biofuels in general are very hard on engines and fuel systems. Biodiesel can freeze in colder climates due to the fat content in it, and after prolonged use of the fuel it can begin to gum up piston rings with carbon.(5) Both of these can lead to engine failure if the proper precautions are not taken. On the other hand, high-ethanol-content fuels require a special system called flex fuel to be used.(1) Vehicles with this capability usually have a badge, or it is noted in the owner's manual. Otherwise, high-ethanol fuel will damage normal fuel systems and other engine components.
In the battle against climate change, we really can leave no stone unturned. Finding ways to reduce emissions in any way possible is important. Biofuel helps to slow climate change and could even be a long-term solution with the production of a close to zero emission fuel. The results of using biofuel on a mass scale is undeniably positive from an environmental standpoint, so the viability is extremely promising as we search for ways to fight climate change.