Biofuels: Biomass Fuel Technologies by: Pooyan Sharifi


Bio-fuels are types of fuels whose energy is derived from biological carbon fixation[1]. Carbon fixation is the conversion of carbon dioxide to organic chemicals during photosynthesis[1]. With the invention of the model T automobile in 1908 came the mass production of vehicles for the general public. At this time, it was Henry Fords original idea to use ethanol in his automobiles as well as peanut oil in his diesel engines[2]. However, with the discovery of cheap petroleum and and gasoline deposits, this energy field had not been fully developed but forgotten. It was not until the sudden rise of oil and gas prices that led scientists to re-examine this energy source and discover its possible potential.
World Uses of Biomass for Energy

What are bio-fuels?

Bio-fuels are fuels that are created directly or indirectly crdeated from organic materials called biomass which includes plant material and animal wastes[3]. Since most biofuels are created for the purpose of automobiles, it is necessary to convert into a liquid form. This form of industrial processing creates two grades of biofuels. Primary biofuel are fuels that are used in unprocessed form, including fuelwood, woodchips, and pellets[3]. The global usage of primary biofuels is mainly in developing countries, for heating, cooking and electricity production. Secondary biofuels are from processing biomass usually into liquid forms such as ethanol and bio-diesel[3]. Global usage of secondary biofuels are mostly in the transportation sector as well as in factories for industrial processes. However, 80% of the global usage of biofuels is used in the home and 18% is used in the industrial sector[3]. A mere 2% of all biofuels are used in the transportation industry[3].

History of bio-fuels

Bio-fuels used in a solid state have been used since the discovery of fire by early man[4].. Wood was the first biological material used for fuel purposes by ancestors of the modern human[4]. Bio-fuel continued to be used throughout early history to produce electricity and up to the early 20th century to fuel automobiles. Huge discoveries of fossil fuels, resulted in cheaper prices of petroleum and natural gas thus causing the decline in use of bio-fuels. Another period of the hisotry and development of biofuel was when German inventor Rudolf Diesel invented the diesel engine as it was designed to run off peanut oil[4]. The use of his invention caused the development of bio-fuels such as ethanol and peanut oil to be used in Henry Ford's Model T automobile. Bio-fuel technology went through a period of inventions during World War 2, when war-struck countries (specifically Germany) were running short on imported fossil fuels and were forced to use available biomass for fuel. Some of these developments was the idea of mixing bio-fuel with fossil fuel to therefore increase the combustion level of the fuel or use less fossil fuels. An example of this idea is when German scientists mixed gasoline with alcohol derived from potatoes to be used in the war[4]. Britain also invented the idea of mixing grain alcohol with petrol during World War 2 to create a more efficient fuel source as well as relying less on imported fossil fuels from the Middle East.[4]. As the planet has modernized, unfortunately our dependence on dirty fossil fuels has caused many problems. Environmentally, fossil fuels release carbon emissions as they are burned, thus thinning the atmoshphere and changing our climate. Continuing this further, the countries with the vast majority of the worlds oil (OPEC) have made cuts to control the amount of oil they export for their future. Thus, forcing developed countries to research alternative energy sources to fill in this gap. Recently, bio-fuels have been researched as they could possible use any biotic organism on the planet and convert the chemical structure to use its carbon energy.

Henry Ford's T-Model Automobile
Henry Ford's T-Model Automobile

How it's made

Bio-fuels are made when organic matter called biomass is converted into a chemical state at which the energy can be used during combustion. One of the key features of bio-fuels is that they are easily produced compared to to other types of fuels and are considered to be cleaner and environmentally friendly[5]. Most of the biomass used for bio-fuels consists of fats and oils that contain glycerin thus called triglyceride[5]. The process involves, turning the fats and oils into esters separating the glycerin. At the end of this process which is called transesterification all the glycerin sinks to the bottom and the bio-fuel floats to the top through suspension[5]. After filtering the liquid of the water and food particles, the remaining substance is called ethanol. The difference between ethanol and methanol is that ethanol is made from plants while methanol is derived from fossil fuels.

Chemical Process of Transesterification to Esters
Chemical Process of Transesterification to Esters

Bio-fuel Conversion Chart
Bio-fuel Conversion Chart

Types of Biofuels

Bio-diesel - is produced from the decomposition of vegetable oils from plants which are processed synthetically[6]. Bio-diesel is chemically identical to regular diesel fuel but is made from plants instead of fossil fuels. Bio-diesels contain no petroleum but can be mixed with petroleum to create a blend. It can also be used in diesel engines such as the one that Rudolf Diesel invented. The advantages of bio-diesel is that it can be used in diesel engines with little or no modification and is biodegradable, nontoxic and free of evironemntally harmful chemicals[7]. 315 million gallons of biodiesel were used in the US in

Bioalchohols - bioalcohols are bio-fuels produced by reaction of anaerobic and aerobic bacteria. Some common types of bioalcohols are ethanol, butanol and propanol. Some disadvantages of ethanol is that it can not be transported through pipes because it is highly corrosive and toxic[8]. However, butanol and propanol can be transported because they are less toxic but can not be produced anywhere because of the horrid smell that is produced from its fermentation process. Continuing this further, the process of processing butanol and propanol is very tricky as they are derived from cellulose[8].

Biogases - are produced from the action of anaerobic bacteria and the product of this process creates the biogas methane[6]. The Syngas is a special type of biogas created from this process and can be used in internal combustion engines[6].

Future of Biofuels

Rising oil and gas prices is forcing our global economy to me more reliable on a renewable resource. More renewable and cleaner energy source are being researched and biofuels is one of them. The biggest headache for biofuel scientists is the current inability to convert carbohydrates such as cellulose and starches, which are 75% of the planets biomass to usable fuel[9]. The current problem is they form complex and long polymer chains made of sugar units each containing six carbon atoms and a similar number of oxygen atoms[9]. Unfortunately, optimal fuel molecules should have 5-15 carbons and contain little to no oxygen atoms. The main challenge is to break the molecules into smaller chains while removing the oxygen atoms while not losing the energy content in the biomass during the process[9]. If an efficient process can be created, then almost any biomass on the planet could be a potential fuel source. As well, with this invention, the future colonization of other habitable or earth-like planets could be possible. Considering all living things on the earth reproduce and renew each season or reproduction cycle, there is no worry of the source ever running out. Lastly, the fuel source would be clean and not damage the environment.

Controversy - Food vs. Fuel

There is controversy over this topic of whether or not biofuels should be created, despite the fact that there are million of people in the world who cannot afford food. In my opinion, the well-being of all human beings should be ahead of our needs for fuel in developed countries. However, the main problem is not crops used for biofuels but instead it is agriculture. The amount of water and corn needed to raise one pound of red beef is completely inefficient. The amount of food we give to livestock is more than what the people in certain countries have access to. This is ludicrous as livestock is better fed than some of the members of our species. There are other ways in which the human species can feed developing countries. Genetic engineering of plants lays possibilities for larger and greater quantities of crops which would feed many more people per acre of cultivated land.

Watch how biofuel is made from corn:
Learn statistics about biofuel:

"Biofuels Are Bad for Feeding People and Combating Climate Change" Online Article.:

Summary: The article written by The Scientific American mostly details the problems concerning biofuels. Biofuels have a reputation of being the solution to the growing need for energy in the world. However, author David Biello, questions whether or not using biofuels will only cause even more problems in the future. His idea is that the corn used as biofuel in Iowa is only destroying the Amazonian Rainforest. He believes that this is an inefficient process because plowing down plants and trees in rainforests releases carbon dioxide as well as removes their ability to filter the air of this environmentally damaging gas. Another main argument he has is that using agriculture for fuel will only raise the prices of food and therefore even the poorest countries in the world will not have access to basic necessities. He even says it is the equivalent of "We will try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by reducing food consumption". In conclusion, the author is strongly against biofuel technologies as they do not fulfill their intended purposes. Instead, they deepen the problem of climate change and world hunger because of clearing forests and raising food prices.
This article relates to my topic and specifically the issues surrounding "Food vs. Fuel". Many people do not believe biofuels is the answer as it involves using food and sometimes clearing plants and trees from the environment. The author also doubts that the technology will slow down climate change but instead, increase the rate at which it is occurring.

  • Carbon fixation- is the reduction of carbon dioxide to organic compounds by living organisms.
  • Ethanol - is a fuel often found in motor vehicles for its combustion purposes.
  • Biomass - the biological material from living or recently living organisms.
  • Primary Biofuel - organic materials used in unprocessed form as fuel.
  • Secondary Biofuel - processed organic materials used for fuel.
  • Fossil Fuels - A natural fuel such as coal and oil formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms.
  • Combustion - Rapid chemical combination of a substance with oxygen, producing heat and light.
  • OPEC - Global organization dedicated to the stability of the petroleum markets.
  • Biotic - Of relating to, or resulting from living things.
  • Glycerin - a sweep syrupy trihydroxy alcohol obtained by saponification of fats and oils.
  • Triglyceride - an ester formed from glycerol and three fatty acid groups.
  • Esters - An organic compound made by replacing the hydrogen of an acid by an alkyl or other organic group.
  • Transesterification - the process of exchanging the organic group R" of an ester with the group R' of an alcohol.
  • Methanol - volatile flammable liquid alcohol.
  • Biodiesel - vegetable oil or animal fat based diesel fuel.
  • Biodegradable - capable of being decomposed of by bacteria or of other living organisms.
  • Bioalcohols - a motor fuel mixed with 5 - 25% ethyl alcohol
  • Biogas - gaseous fuel ie. methane.

  1. ZME Science. Biofuel ; [Internet]. ZME; [updated November 10, 2011; cited 2011 January 15]. Available from:
  2. Leen, Sarah. Biofuels; [Internet]. National Geographic; [cited 2011 January 15]. Available from:
  3. Green Facts. Liquid Biofuels for Transport; [Internet]. Green Facts; [cited 2011 January 15]. Available from:
  4. BIOFUEL. History of Biofuels; [Internet]. Biofuel.UK [cited 2011 January 15]. Available from:
  5. BIOFUEL. How to make Biofuels; [Internet]. Biofuel.UK[cited 2011 January 15] Available from:
  6. Khan, Hassam. Types of Biofuel; [Internet] HubPages; [updated 2010 June; cited 2011 January 15]. Available from:
  7. Biodiesel Inc. What is Biodiesel?;[Internet] Biodiesel; [cited 2011 January 15]. Available from:
  8. Kenite, Rip. Alternative Fuel Solution: Bioalcohol;[Internet] HubPages; [cited 2011 January 15] Available from:
  9. Schmidt, Lann. Chemical Engineering: Hybrid routes to biofuel;[Internet]. Nature Reports; [updated 2001 June 20; cited 2011 January 15] Available from:
World Uses of Biomass Energy -,r:6,s:0&tx=21&ty=41

Henry Ford's T-Model Automobile -

How Biodiesel is Made video -

Bio-fuel conversion chart -

Bio fools2: Food Vs. Fuel Vs. Cellulose to the Rescue? -