In my work I would like to tell you about one of the most promising developments of biotechnology disciplines - biofuel.
A biofuel is a type of fuel whose energy is derived from biological carbon fixation. Biofuels include fuels derived from biomass conversion, as well as solid biomass, liquid fuels and various biogases. Although fossil fuels have their origin in ancient carbon fixation, they are not considered biofuels because they contain carbon that has been "out" of the carbon cycle for a very long time. Biofuels are gaining increased public and scientific attention, driven by factors such as oil price hikes, the need for increased energy security, concern over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, and support from government subsidies.
My work is about the most common and advanced biofuels bioalcohol, biodiesel and biogas.
Biologically produced alcohols, most commonly ethanol, and less commonly propanol and butanol, are produced by the action of microorganisms and enzymes through the fermentation of sugars or starches (easiest), or cellulose (which is more difficult). Biobutanol (also called biogasoline) is often claimed to provide a direct replacement for gasoline, because it can be used directly in a gasoline engine (in a similar way to biodiesel in diesel engines).
Although fossil fuels have become the dominant energy resource for the modern world, alcohol has been used as a fuel throughout history. The first four aliphatic alcohols (methanol, ethanol, propanol, and butanol) are of interest as fuels because they can be synthesized chemically or biologically, and they have characteristics which allow them to be used in current engines. One advantage shared by all four alcohols is their high octane rating. This tends to increase fuel efficiency and largely offsets the lower energy density of alcohol fuels (as compared to petrol/gasoline and diesel fuels), thus resulting in comparable "fuel economy" in terms of distance per volume metrics, such as kilometers per liter, or miles per gallon. Biobutanol has the advantage that its energy density is closer to gasoline than the simpler alcohols (while still retaining over 25% higher octane rating); however, biobutanol is currently more difficult to produce than ethanol or methanol. The general chemical formula for alcohol fuel is CnH2n+1OH.
Most methanol is produced from natural gas, although it can be produced from biomass using very similar chemical processes. Ethanol is commonly produced from biological material through fermentation processes. When obtained from biological materials and/or biological processes, they are known as bioalcohols (e.g. bioethanol). There is no chemical difference between biologically produced and chemically produced alcohols. However, "ethanol" that is derived from petroleum should not be considered safe for consumption as this alcohol contains about 5% methanol and may cause blindness or death. This mixture may also not be purified by simple distillation, as it forms an azeotropic mixture.
Ethanol fuel is the most common biofuel worldwide, particularly in Brazil. Alcohol fuels are produced by fermentation of sugars derived from wheat, corn, sugar beets, sugar cane, molasses and any sugar or starch that alcoholic beverages can be made from (like potato and fruit waste, etc.). The ethanol production methods used are enzyme digestion (to release sugars from stored starches), fermentation of the sugars, distillation and drying. The distillation process requires significant energy input for heat (often unsustainable natural gas fossil fuel, but cellulosic biomass such as bagasse, the waste left after sugar cane is pressed to extract its juice, willy can also be used more sustainably).
Ethanol can be used in petrol engines as a replacement for gasoline; it can be mixed with gasoline to any percentage. Most existing car petrol engines can run on blends of up to 15% bioethanol with petroleum/gasoline. Ethanol has a smaller energy density than does gasoline; this fact means that it takes more fuel (volume and mass) to produce the same amount of work. An advantage of ethanol (CH3CH2OH) is that it has a higher octane rating than ethanol-free gasoline available at roadside gas stations which allows an increase of an engine's compression ratio for increased thermal efficiency. In high altitude (thin air) locations, some states mandate a mix of gasoline and ethanol as a winter oxidizer to reduce atmospheric pollution emissions.
Ethanol is also used to fuel bioethanol fireplaces. As they do not require a chimney and are "flueless", bio ethanol fires are extremely useful for new build homes and apartments without a flue. The downside to these fireplaces, is that the heat output is slightly less than electric and gas fires.
In the current corn-to-ethanol production model in the United States, considering the total energy consumed by farm equipment, cultivation, planting, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides made from petroleum, irrigation systems, harvesting, transport of feedstock to processing plants, fermentation, distillation, drying, transport to fuel terminals and retail pumps, and lower ethanol fuel energy content, the net energy content value added and delivered to consumers is very small. And, the net benefit (all things considered) does little to reduce imported oil and fossil fuels required to produce the ethanol.
Although corn-to-ethanol and other food stocks have implications both in terms of world food prices and limited, yet positive, energy yield (in terms of energy delivered to customer/fossil fuels used), the technology has led to the development of cellulosic ethanol. According to a joint research agenda conducted through the U.S. Department of Energy, the fossil energy ratios (FER) for cellulosic ethanol, corn ethanol, and gasoline are 10.3, 1.36, and 0.81, respectively.
Even dry ethanol has roughly one-third lower energy content per unit of volume compared to gasoline, so larger / heavier fuel tanks are required to travel the same distance, or more fuel stops are required. With large current unsustainable, non-scalable subsidies, ethanol fuel still costs much more per distance traveled than current high gasoline prices in the United States.
Methanol is currently produced from natural gas, a non-renewable fossil fuel. It can also be produced from biomass as biomethanol. The methanol economy is an alternative to the hydrogen economy, compared to today's hydrogen production from natural gas.
Butanol (C4H9OH) is formed by ABE fermentation (acetone, butanol, ethanol) and experimental modifications of the process show potentially high net energy gains with butanol as the only liquid product. Butanol will produce more energy and allegedly can be burned "straight" in existing gasoline engines (without modification to the engine or car), and is less corrosive and less water soluble than ethanol, and could be distributed via existing infrastructures. DuPont and BP are working together to help develop Butanol. E. coli have also been successfully engineered to produce butanol by hijacking their amino acid metabolism.
Biodiesel refers to a vegetable oil- or animal fat-based diesel fuel consisting of long-chain alkyl (methyl, propyl or ethyl) esters. Biodiesel is typically made by chemically reacting lipids (e.g., vegetable oil, animal fat with an alcohol producing fatty acid esters).
Biodiesel is commonly produced by the transesterification of the vegetable oil or animal fat feedstock. There are several methods for carrying out this transesterification reaction including the common batch process, supercritical processes, ultrasonic methods, and even microwave methods.
Biodiesel is meant to be used in standard diesel engines and is thus distinct from the vegetable and waste oils used to fuel converted diesel engines. Biodiesel can be used alone, or blended with petrodiesel. Biodiesel can also be used as a low carbon alternative to heating oil.
Biodiesel can be used in pure form (B100) or may be blended with petroleum diesel at any concentration in most injection pump diesel engines. New extreme high-pressure (29,000 psi) common rail engines have strict factory limits of B5 or B20, depending on manufacturer. Biodiesel has different solvent properties than petrodiesel, and will degrade natural rubber gaskets and hoses in vehicles (mostly vehicles manufactured before 1992), although these tend to wear out naturally and most likely will have already been replaced with FKM, which is nonreactive to biodiesel. Biodiesel has been known to break down deposits of residue in the fuel lines where petrodiesel has been used. As a result, fuel filters may become clogged with particulates if a quick transition to pure biodiesel is made. Therefore, it is recommended to change the fuel filters on engines and heaters shortly after first switching to a biodiesel blend.
Since the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, biodiesel use has been increasing in the United States. In the UK, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation obliges suppliers to include 5% renewable fuel in all transport fuel sold in the UK by 2010. For road diesel, this effectively means 5% biodiesel (B5).
In 2005, Chrysler (then part of DaimlerChrysler) released the Jeep Liberty CRD diesels from the factory into the American market with 5% biodiesel blends, indicating at least partial acceptance of biodiesel as an acceptable diesel fuel additive.
Similarly, a state-owned short-line railroad in eastern Washington ran a test of a 25% biodiesel / 75% petrodiesel blend during the summer of 2008, purchasing fuel from a biodiesel producer sited along the railroad tracks. The train will be powered by biodiesel made in part from canola grown in agricultural regions through which the short line runs.
Also in 2007, Disneyland began running the park trains on B98 (98% biodiesel). The program was discontinued in 2008 due to storage issues, but in January 2009, it was announced that the park would then be running all trains on biodiesel manufactured from its own used cooking oils. This is a change from running the trains on soy-based biodiesel.
A test flight has been performed by a Czech jet aircraft completely powered on biodiesel. Other recent jet flights using biofuel, however, have been using other types of renewable fuels.
On November 7, 2011 United Airlines flew the world's first commercial aviation flight on a microbially-derived biofuel using Solajet, Solazyme's algae-derived renewable jet fuel. The Eco-skies Boeing 737-800 plane was fueled with 40 percent Solajet and 60 percent petroleum-derived jet fuel. The commercial Eco-skies flight 1403 departed from Houston's IAH airport at 10:30 and landed at Chicago's ORD airport at 13:03.
Biodiesel can also be used as a heating fuel in domestic and commercial boilers, a mix of heating oil and biofuel which is standardized and taxed slightly differently than diesel fuel used for transportation. It is sometimes known as "bioheat" . Heating biodiesel is available in various blends. ASTM 396 recognizes blends of up to 5 percent biodiesel as equivalent to pure petroleum heating oil. Blends of higher levels of up to 20% biofuel are used by many consumers. Research is underway to determine whether such blends affect performance.
Older furnaces may contain rubber parts that would be affected by biodiesel's solvent properties, but can otherwise burn biodiesel without any conversion required. Care must be taken, however, given that varnishes left behind by petrodiesel will be released and can clog pipes- fuel filtering and prompt filter replacement is required. Another approach is to start using biodiesel as a blend, and decreasing the petroleum proportion over time can allow the varnishes to come off more gradually and be less likely to clog. Thanks to its strong solvent properties, however, the furnace is cleaned out and generally becomes more efficient. A technical research paper describes laboratory research and field trials project using pure biodiesel and biodiesel blends as a heating fuel in oil-fired boilers.
There is ongoing research into finding more suitable crops and improving oil yield. Using the current yields, vast amounts of land and fresh water would be needed to produce enough oil to completely replace fossil fuel usage. It would require twice the land area of the US to be devoted to soybean production, or two-thirds to be devoted to rapeseed production, to meet current US heating and transportation needs.
Specially bred mustard varieties can produce reasonably high oil yields and are very useful in crop rotation with cereals, and have the added benefit that the meal leftover after the oil has been pressed out can act as an effective and biodegradable pesticide.
The NFESC, with Santa Barbara-based Biodiesel Industries is working to develop biodiesel technologies for the US navy and military, one of the largest diesel fuel users in the world.
A group of Spanish developers working for a company called Ecofasa announced a new biofuel made from trash. The fuel is created from general urban waste which is treated by bacteria to produce fatty acids, which can be used to make biodiesel.
Biogas typically refers to a gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. Organic waste such as dead plant and animal material, animal feces, and kitchen waste can be converted into a gaseous fuel called biogas. Biogas originates from biogenic material and is a type of biofuel.
Biogas is practically produced as landfill gas (LFG) or digester gas. A biogas plant is the name often given to an anaerobic digester that treats farm wastes or energy crops. Biogas can be produced using anaerobic digesters. These plants can be fed with energy crops such as maize silage or biodegradable wastes including sewage sludge and food waste. During the process,as an air-tight tank transforms biomass waste into methane producing renewable energy that can be used for heating, electricity, and many other operations that use any variation of an internal combustion engine, such as GE Jenbacher gas engines. There are two key processes: Mesophilic and Thermophilic digestion. In experimental work at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a 1000-litre digester using psychrophiles harvested from "mud from a frozen lake in Alaska" has produced 200300 litres of methane per day, about 2030 % of the output from digesters in warmer climates.
Landfill gas is produced by wet organic waste decomposing under anaerobic conditions in a landfill. The waste is covered and mechanically compressed by the weight of the material that is deposited from above. This material prevents oxygen exposure thus allowing anaerobic microbes to thrive. This gas builds up and is slowly released into the atmosphere if the landfill site has not been engineered to capture the gas. Landfill gas is hazardous for three key reasons. Landfill gas becomes explosive when it escapes from the landfill and mixes with oxygen. The lower explosive limit is 5% methane and the upper explosive limit is 15% methane. The methane contained within biogas is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. Therefore, uncontained landfill gas, which escapes into the atmosphere may significantly contribute to the effects of global warming. In addition, landfill gas impact in global warming, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contained within landfill gas contribute to the formation of photochemical smog.
The gases methane, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide (CO) can be combusted or oxidized with oxygen. This energy release allows biogas to be used as a fuel. Biogas can be used as a fuel in any country for any heating purpose, such as cooking. It can also be used in anaerobic digesters where it is typically used in a gas engine to convert the energy in the gas into electricity and heat. Biogas can be compressed, much like natural gas, and used to power motor vehicles. In the UK, for example, biogas is estimated to have the potential to replace around 17% of vehicle fuel. Biogas is a renewable fuel, so it qualifies for renewable energy subsidies in some parts of the world. Biogas can also be cleaned and upgraded to natural gas standards when it becomes biomethane.
When biogas is used, many advantages arise. In North America, utilization of biogas would generate enough electricity to meet up to three percent of the continent's electricity expenditure. In addition, biogas could potentially help reduce global climate change. Normally, manure that is left to decompose releases two main gases that cause global climate change: nitrous dioxide and methane. Nitrous dioxide (NO2) warms the atmosphere 310 times more than carbon dioxide and methane 21 times more than carbon dioxide. By converting cow manure into methane biogas via anaerobic digestion, the millions of cows in the United States would be able to produce one hundred billion kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power millions of homes across the United States. In fact, one cow can produce enough manure in one day to generate three kilowatt hours of electricity; only 2.4 kilowatt hours of electricity are needed to power a single one hundred watt light bulb for one day. Furthermore, by converting cow manure into methane biogas instead of letting it decompose, we would be able to reduce global warming gases by ninety-nine million metric tons or four percent.
Raw biogas produced from digestion is roughly 60% methane and 29% CO2 with trace elements of H2S, and is not high quality enough to be used as fuel gas for machinery. The corrosive nature of H2S alone is enough to destroy the internals of a plant. The solution is the use of biogas upgrading or purification processes whereby contaminants in the raw biogas stream are absorbed or scrubbed, leaving more methane per unit volume of gas. There are four main methods of biogas upgrading, these include water washing, pressure swing absorption, selexol absorption, and amine gas treating. The most prevalent method is water washing where high pressure gas flows into a column where the carbon dioxide and other trace elements are scrubbed by cascading water running counter-flow to the gas. This arrangement could deliver 98% methane with manufacturers guaranteeing maximum 2% methane loss in the system. It takes roughly between 3-6% of the total energy output in gas to run a biogas upgrading system.
Gas-grid injection is the injection of biogas into the methane grid (natural gas grid). Injections includes biogas: until the breakthrough of micro combined heat and power two-thirds of all the energy produced by biogas power plants was lost (the heat), using the grid to transport the gas to customers, the electricity and the heat can be used for on-site generation resulting in a reduction of losses in the transportation of energy. Typical energy losses in natural gas transmission systems range from 12%. The current energy losses on a large electrical system range from 58%.
If concentrated and compressed, it can also be used in vehicle transportation. Compressed biogas is becoming widely used in Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany. A biogas-powered train has been in service in Sweden since 2005. Biogas also powers automobiles and in 1974, a British documentary film entitled Sweet as a Nut detailed the biogas production process from pig manure, and how the biogas fueled a custom-adapted combustion engine. In 2007, an estimated 12,000 vehicles were being fueled with upgraded biogas worldwide, mostly in Europe.
Biofuels have been around as long as cars have. At the start of the 20th century, Henry Ford planned to fuel his Model Ts with ethanol, and early diesel engines were shown to run on peanut oil.
But discoveries of huge petroleum deposits kept gasoline and diesel cheap for decades, and biofuels were largely forgotten. However, with the recent rise in oil prices, along with growing concern about global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions, biofuels have been regaining popularity.
Gasoline and diesel are actually ancient biofuels. But they are known as fossil fuels because they are made from decomposed plants and animals that have been buried in the ground for millions of years. Biofuels are similar, except that they're made from plants grown today.
Much of the gasoline in the United States is blended with a biofuelethanol. This is the same stuff as in alcoholic drinks, except that it's made from corn that has been heavily processed. There are various ways of making biofuels, but they generally use chemical reactions, fermentation, and heat to break down the starches, sugars, and other molecules in plants. The leftover products are then refined to produce a fuel that cars can use.
Countries around the world are using various kinds of biofuels. For decades, Brazil has turned sugarcane into ethanol, and some cars there can run on pure ethanol rather than as additive to fossil fuels. And biodiesela diesel-like fuel commonly made from palm oilis generally available in Europe.
On the face of it, biofuels look like a great solution. Cars are a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that causes global warming. But since plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, crops grown for biofuels should suck up about as much carbon dioxide as comes out of the tailpipes of cars that burn these fuels. And unlike underground oil reserves, biofuels are a renewable resource since we can always grow more crops to turn into fuel.
Unfortunately, it's not so simple. The process of growing the crops, making fertilizers and pesticides, and processing the plants into fuel consumes a lot of energy. It's so much energy that there is debate about whether ethanol from corn actually provides more energy than is required to grow and process it. Also, because much of the energy used in production comes from coal and natural gas, biofuels don't replace as much oil as they use.
These days, development and progress of the biofuel industry is of interest of the whole society. Every year an increasing number of companies producing biofuels and the number of machines and units that use biofuel as the primary fuel.
Despite the drawbacks, the benefits of biofuels over the "classic" fuel is obvious.
In the future, we will revolutionize the energy industry, a change of priorities in the use and development of sources of raw materials.