Biofuel: what you need to know?

01/30/2019

Posted by: Oluwaseun Solomon

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What do you know about biofuel? Do you believe automobiles in Nigeria will be running on biofuel in the near future? Read all about biofuel in this article now!

Well, the world is changing with new innovations in science and technology every day. It is of no news that fossil fuels aren’t as efficient as before and there is an increasing need to reduce various pollutions caused by our current day fuels. Naijauto.com feels the need to discuss biofuel now to educate drivers and individuals interested in this new innovation.

1. What is Biofuel?

We cannot just go ahead to begin discussing biofuel without letting you guys understand that it is actually a form of renewable energy.

Renewable energy is any type of energy collected from a renewable natural source. In other words, there are some resources that are naturally renewable and could be said to be naturally replenished, including geothermal heat, waves, tides, rain, wind, and sunlight. There are currently 4 major areas where renewable energy is often applied, which are off-grid (rural) energy services, transportation, air or water cooling/heating, and electricity generation. Below are some important sources of renewable energy:

  • Geothermal energy: This is a type of thermal energy that is both stored and generated in the earth.
  • Solar energy: This is a type of energy that is produced by the heat and radiant light from the Sun. This energy is actually harnessed by using varieties of technologies such as artificial photosynthesis, molten salt power plants, solar architecture, solar thermal energy, photovoltaics, and solar heating.
  • Tidal power/ tidal energy: is also a form of renewable energy that involves harnessing hydropower by converting energy that is obtained from tides into other useful forms of power (majorly electrical power).
  • Wind Power: This is similar to the tidal power in a way but the difference is in the main energy source. Wind power involves using air flow that comes through wind turbines to supply the mechanical power that is then used to turn electric generators supplying electricity.
  • Biogas: This type of renewable energy actually refers to a sort of mixture of gases which are different and are produced by a chemical process involving the breakdown of organic matter or organic materials in the absence of oxygen. This is the category where the biofuel falls into.

Now, let's come to the definition of biofuel - a typical type of renewable energy!

Image-of-a-Bristol-biogas-bus

A double-decker in Bristol running on renewable bio-methane gas produced from food scraps

Biofuel is a type of fuel mainly produced through modern biological processes. These processes include: anaerobic digestion and agriculture instead of the geological processes used in producing our regular fuel from fossil fuels. Biofuels can be literally derived from plants directly (mainly energy crops). It can also be derived indirectly from other sources such as industrial, domestic, commercial, and agricultural wastes.

2. How many biofuel types exist? - Common biofuel examples

First, we need to understand that all the available biofuel types are made based on 4 generations, or 4 different categories of making biofuels. So, you can classify all possible biofuels into many types based on how they are made because there are some kinds created through combined methods. Below we present the most common biofuels already available for use today and most of them are produced using a particular generation procedures or combinations of different production process.

2.1. Biogas

This type of biofuel can be produced by using energy crops which are fed into some anaerobic digesters in order to supplement the gas yields. They can also be produced from biodegradable waste products and materials.

2.2. Ethanol

These are simply alcohols produced biologically. The actions of enzymes and microorganisms through fermentation of cellulose, starches or sugars produces this biofuel. Ethanol fuel has now become popular worldwide in nations like Brazil and they mostly refer to it as alcohol fuels. They derive the biofuel majorly from molasses, sugar cane, sugar beets, corn, and wheat.

2.3. Biodiesel

Nations like Europe recognizes and uses biodiesel as their most common biofuel. It's liquid in form and similar to the regular mineral/fossil diesel in composition. Biodiesel is a biofuel that is produced mainly from fats and oils using a process called “transesterification”. We will spend another section on biodiesel for further explantion.

Image-of-bio-diesel-powered-Indian-navy-craft

This Indian Navy Fast Attack Craft runs on biodiesel

Other examples of biofuel include: Syngas, Green diesel, Vegetable oil fuel, Bio-ethers, Solid biomass fuel, etc.

3. How is biofuel made?

 This could be a sort of confusing question because, in reality, there isn’t a single or particular way that all biofuels are made, rather biofuels are made in several ways. Nonetheless, we will briefly discuss some few things below about biofuel production:

Biofuel Production

Biofuel production is actually categorized by generations and different production procedures. Each generation is actually more of a historical classification of how various biofuels types are produced.

  • First generation biofuels: These biofuels have been around for a while and they are mostly produced from sugars and starches which can be found majorly in food crops, vegetable oils, and animal fats.
  • Second generation biofuels: These types of biofuels make use of dense cellulosic inputs like corn stover, wood chips, wheat straw, and the common municipal solid waste. The common ones include wood diesel, biohydrogen, bio-methanol, biobutanol, DMF, bio-DME, and Fischer-Tropsch diesel.
  • Third generation biofuels: These are more of the high tech type of biofuels as they are Algae-based biofuels. As a matter of fact, these algae-based types of biofuels are hailed as having a high possibility of substituting for our regular diesel or gasoline although still highly experimental. In case you are wondering what’s an Algae? – They are actually a diverse group of aquatic plants that have the ability to conduct photosynthesis. Some common examples of Algae that you may already know include pond scum, algal blooms in lakes, and seaweeds. There are many more that we can’t cover in the scope of this article.
  • Fourth generation biofuels: This type of biofuels is similar to the 3rd generations of biofuels. However, they do not require or really involve the destruction of biomass. This category of biofuels includes photobiological solar fuels and electro fuels and this type of biofuels are carbon-neutral.

biofuel-plant-by-NNPC-in-Ondo

NNPC is projected to build a biofuel plant in Ondo state

4. Uses of biofuels

The main reason why biofuel has gained a lot of attention in the science and technology fields is due to its numerous possible uses and applications. Using biofuel will not only save us money on recurrent fuel purchase but also save the planet as a whole because of its renewable sources and its efficiency. Meanwhile, we will be discussing some common applications or uses of biofuels below:

Three most common biofuel uses

Biofuel is already being applied and commonly used in Heat generation, Power generation and transportation as far as we know of.

  • Transportation: Algal-based biofuels are the major ones being used in transportation at the recent time. This application of biofuel will bring about a revolution to automotive and will help us commute at lower costs and in a more efficient way.
  • Power generation: This is currently more popular in the United Kingdom and it involves the generation of electricity from methane which is derived from landfills. Syngas biofuel is the major interest in power (electricity) generation recently
  • Heat generation: This is the use of biofuel for generating heat which is very important especially in the cold regions of the world. It involves using biofuels that are gotten from plants (wood) to generate heat. Actually, we can just describe this biofuel application as trying to derive an alternative to natural gas or attempt to derive natural gas in a more efficient way from wood.

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5. What is biodiesel?

Biodiesel is simply an alternative fuel that shares similarities to the conventional fossil diesel that we know. This type of biofuel can be produced directly from animal fats/oil, tallow, waste cooking oil, and vegetable oil. A process called transesterification combines the procedures involved in converting the initially mentioned oils into biodiesel fuel. We will be describing this process and its procedures in more details below. But before then let’s talk about an interesting biodiesel fuel called Jatropha biodiesel.

5.1. What is Jatropha biodiesel?

Jatropha diesel is simply the type of biofuel derived from processing Jatropha plant’s oil. You might be curiously asking by now; what type of plant is Jatropha?

Well, Jatropha Curcas is a small type of oleaginous fruit-bearing tree, belonging to the family called Euphorbiaceae in botany. This Jatropha tree grows in barren soil and thrives in warm weather. Its seeds aren’t edible so it doesn’t in any way compete with the regular food crops which makes it more fascinating for people interested in biofuel research. The oil from the seed of this Jatropha tree is what is later converted through some series of process to derive Jatropha biodiesel.

Image-of-a-Jatropha-Curcas-tree

A Jatropha Curcas tree with visible old and new seeds

5.2. How to make biodiesel?

We mentioned earlier above that biodiesel can be produced directly from animal fats/oil, tallow, waste cooking oil, and vegetable oil. So, there are really just 3 basic ways to produce biodiesel from fats and oils and these are:

  • Conversion of the put oil into fatty acid form and then to biodiesel fuel
  • A direct acid catalyzed transesterification of an oil
  • A base catalyzed transesterification of an oil

5.3. Biodiesel production processes

Among all the 3 methods of production, the base catalyzed transesterification is the most commonly used one. This is because it only requires pressures and low temperatures, which makes it a very economical process as well as it has an impressive 98% conversion yield. Below is a flow chart that briefly summarizes the biodiesel production process:

Image-showing-biodiesel-production-process

A flow chart explaining briefly, the biodiesel production process in a stepwise manner from left to right

The finished/derived biodiesel from the above production processes is always subjected to sophisticated analysis before being used as a commercial fuel. Reason for this analysis is to ensure the derived biodiesel meets all the required specifications and it's safe to use. Below is a quick list of the aspects that are most important in biodiesel production in order to ensure a trouble-free operation when used in diesel engines:

  • Complete Reaction
  • Removal of the Glycerin
  • Removal of the Catalyst
  • Removal of the Alcohol
  • The absence of Free Fatty Acids

6. Frequently asked questions about biofuel

We have taken the time to provide simple answers to some of the frequently asked questions about biofuel below. Please note that the answers will be simple and concise rather than lengthy and explained in detail. Here are the FAQs and our answers:

Question 1. Are biofuels good?

Yes, they are good. And many kinds of research have proven that they are good for both our environment and economy. They are also helping agriculture and biofuel production have been recognized to provide new markets for farming.

Question 2. Are biofuels efficient?

Of course, studies have shown that ethanol (used for producing biofuel) is cheaper than our regular gasoline. In fact, most of the studies show that on average, ethanol saves consumers about 4 cents (₦144) per gallon. And the cost savings for this biofuel’s ethanol are even explosively higher when compared directly with regular premium fuel that we use currently. Also, remember that with biofuel, you do not have to deal with emissions and pollution too.

Volkswagen-car-fueling-with-biofuel

Volkswagen is the leading brand to allow cars running on biodiesel

Question 3. Are biofuels expensive?

No, they are generally cheap, sustainable, and help us reduce reliance as well as huge expenses on foreign energy supply. Because every nation can derive biofuel from their own natural renewable resources.

Question 4. Can biofuel replace fossil fuel?

Yes, it can. As a matter of fact, biofuels are currently the only known renewable energy sector with the greatest potential of replacing the currently dominant regular fossil fuels. This is why you might find almost every nation tapping into the possibilities by sponsoring researches and the likes for now.

>>> You might want to see: Why are electric cars not popular in Nigeria?

Question 5. What are the advantages of biofuels?

Without further explanations, here are some known advantages that generally comes with biofuels:

  • Lower Pollution levels (less smoke/ exhaust fumes everywhere)
  • Reduction in the over-dependence on foreign oil (or fuel importation problems in Nigeria)
  • Economic security (Nigeria might never have to spend huge money importing refined oil anymore)
  • Reduced Greenhouse gases
  • It is renewable (meaning it is produced from naturally free renewable resources)
  • It is easy to source (manure or waste products from crops are its main sources)
  • It has a lot of cost benefits as it is cheaper to purchase

Question 6. What are the disadvantages of biofuels?

Below are the various disadvantages or challenges that are still being faced with biofuels:

  • Biofuels could already be seen to possibly face a future rise in price
  • It requires a lot of water for the irrigation of the biofuel crops and this might become serious issues later on
  • Industrial pollution (mainly smallscale water pollution)
  • It might lead to a shortage of food if care isn’t taken (people will prefer to grow biofuel crops than food crops because of the profit)
  • Excessive use of fertilizers (fertilizers are going to be excessively used to facilitate biofuel crops growth and the content of fertilizers causes water pollution)
  • The problem of Monoculture (growing biofuel crops over and over again on the soil will reduce the soil’s fertility with time)
  • Current high production cost (even though biofuels have so many advantages, still the current cost of producing them is very high)

Question 7. Can I use biofuel in my car?

Not really, you cannot just go ahead and pour biofuel into your car’s tank for now. There are a couple of things you must know.

  • Any vehicle that currently uses a spark ignition engine cannot just run on biofuel directly
  • Ethanol might be your current alternative fuel to a petrol-powered car
  • Volkswagen, Skoda, SEAT, and Audi are still the only four car manufacturers that have 100% approval for usage of biodiesel in their current diesel engines

How to make homemade biodiesel from used cooking oil?

7. Biofuel development in Nigeria

7.1. Biofuel plants in Nigeria

There is currently no official record for existing biofuel plants in Nigeria as of the time of preparing this article – 28th of January, 2019. But there have been massive efforts and steps already put forward by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and other private organizations directed towards building biofuel refineries in Nigeria.

There also exist a couple of some official press releases stating that Nigeria should be looking forward to biofuel refineries and eventual consumer access to biofuels in few years to come. Jatropha is probably the crop that Nigerian researchers aim at to grow for biofuel production. However, its life cycle as well as other factors need further analysis.

Meanwhile, we were able to find some Nigerian organizations that are actively involved in biofuel research and innovations. Below is a list of the ones we found:

7.2. Biofuel companies in Nigeria

Here is a short list of both government and privately owned organizations that we found showing interest and making promises as regards biofuel in Nigeria:

8. Final words

Isn’t it obvious now that biofuel is really the next generation of fuel?

With all that you have read in this article, we believe you can answer that question by yourself. We find it fascinating that biofuels are derived from naturally free renewable resources and that it is also going to yield fewer emissions as well as be cheaper to purchase compared to our regular fossil fuels derivatives that we currently use today.

We hope that researchers will be able to find solutions to some of the major challenges that are currently stopping biofuel from being adopted and produced commercially for mass consumption and use in the automotive industry.

Found this post interesting? Check out more fascinating car news, auto-launch, and automotive industry updates.

Oluwaseun Solomon
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Oluwaseun Solomon

Oluwaseun Solomon

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Oluwaseun Solomon is a prolific and diligent automobile writer at Naijauto.com. He's also an experienced digital marketer and a creative multimedia developer that specializes in video editing. He currently contributes informative and easy to read articles on topics covering transportation, traffic updates, auto industry updates, and different car reviews.
When Solomon is not writing, you will either find him composing music, editing videos or simply enjoying YouTube "TEDx Talk" videos with a chilled drink :)

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