What is Biofuel and What Are Biofuel Cars?

In an age where environmental concerns loom large, and the shift towards sustainable practices - especially in the world of transport - is more pressing than ever, are biofuel vehicles the answer? What is biofuel used for and will we all be driving biodiesel cars in the future? Read on for the answers to some of the planet’s most important questions.

Automotive History
13 September 2023

In the global conversation about renewable energy, the term ‘biofuel’ is an increasingly common utterance, but what is biofuel?

Biofuels, in essence, are derived from organic matter, whether plant or animal-based. This contrasts starkly with traditional fossil fuels, which are obtained from far older, long-buried organic material, such as oil, and which have been the backbone of global energy consumption for well over a century. Among the biofuel varieties, biodiesel fuel stands out. Derived primarily from oils, fats, and even algae, biodiesel is an alternative to conventional diesel fuel, offering a more sustainable way to power a new generation of biofuel vehicles.

With the automotive industry under pressure to transition away from fossil fuels, are biodiesel cars a viable bridge, promising a balance between performance and sustainability?

This article will explain what is biodiesel and what is biofuel used for, and will examine a number of key questions about this fuel.

What is Biofuel?

Digital generated image of a biofuel illustration. (Credit: Just_Super via Getty Images)

Put simply, biofuels are alternative fuels created from organic materials such as plants or animal wastes. They’re often said to be more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels because, as these plants grow, they absorb the carbon dioxide they later emit when burned. However, when taking into account the full lifecycle of the product, some biofuels can still have a net-negative carbon footprint. Biofuel itself is a broad term used to describe any fuel derived from biological sources, though there are in fact a number of different types of biofuels.

Ethanol

This is often derived from the fermentation of sugars in crops like corn or sugarcane. It is commonly used as a fuel additive for petrol, and in some places, as a standalone fuel.

Biogas

This is typically produced from the decomposition of organic matter, like in landfills or from animal waste.

Biodiesel

So what is biodiesel? In essence, biodiesel is the result of a process called transesterification. This is a process where one ingredient (in this case, a fat or an oil) is mixed with another ingredient (typically an alcohol) to produce a new product. When making biodiesel, the goal of this process is to transform regular fats or oils into a type of fuel that engines can use. Biodiesel then, is a type of biofuel produced by the transesterification of certain elements found in vegetable oils, animal fats, or algae.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Biofuels

Digital generated image of car plugged into H2 hydrogen charging station made out of leaves. (Credit: Andriy Onufriyenko via Getty Images)

Will the roads be full of biofuel vehicles in the future? It’s very hard to know, yet before the major manufacturers commit to producing vehicles that run on biodiesel fuel (as many have done with electric cars), it’s important to understand the pertinent questions surrounding this form of renewable energy.

The argument for biofuels, and biodiesel fuel in particular, revolves around several perceived advantages. Firstly, they’re often considered to be renewable, as their sources (like plants) can be regrown in a short time compared to the thousands of years it takes for fossil fuels to form. This renewability translates to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, making biofuels ostensibly a more environmentally friendly choice when compared to fossil fuel. In addition, the rise of biofuel vehicles holds promise for reducing a global dependency on oil.

However, the biofuel revolution is not without its challenges. Large-scale cultivation of biofuel crops can sometimes lead to deforestation and competition with food crops, potentially causing food shortages or price spikes, as well as increased pesticide and fertiliser use. The full environmental footprint of biodiesel cars, when considering the agricultural practices involved, can sometimes dilute their green credentials.

Key Questions about Biofuel

Man fueling car with bio diesel pump in garage. (Credit: Peter Dazeley via Getty Images)

Transitioning away from a collective reliance on fossil fuels to a sustainable source of renewable energy such as biofuels is in incredibly intricate and complex endeavour. The use of biofuels, and indeed the answer to the question ‘what is biofuel’ has prompted a multitude of questions, both in terms of its potential and its consequences. These are some of the questions still to be answered about biofuel.

Is biofuel truly sustainable?

While biofuels are made from renewable resources, the sustainability of their production is questioned. Can we produce them on a large scale without negatively impacting the environment or food supply?

What’s the net carbon impact of a transition to biodiesel cars?

While burning biofuels may release fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, what about the emissions from producing the crops, refining the biofuels, and transporting them?

Will biofuel production compete with food crops?

As demand for biofuels grows, will it mean less land and resources for food production, potentially causing food shortages or price increases? Biofuel production, especially from crops like corn, can be water-intensive.

Are biofuels economically viable without subsidies?

Currently, many biofuel industries are supported by government subsidies. Can they compete in the open market against fossil fuels without this support?

How do different biofuels compare?

There’s a range of biofuels, from corn ethanol to biofuels made from algae or waste. Which ones offer the best balance of sustainability, efficiency, and feasibility? And which ones will end up being the cheapest and most efficient to power a generation of biodiesel cars?

Are biofuels the best green alternative?

With the rise of electric vehicles and continual improvements in battery technology, should the emphasis be on biofuels, electricity, or a combination of both for the transportation sector?

Are Biofuels the Future?

A hydrogen pipeline, part of the global energy mix (Credit: Petmal via Getty Images)

These questions don’t have straightforward answers, and opinions vary widely based on various studies, economic considerations, and individual perspectives. The role of biofuels in the global energy mix will likely evolve as technology progresses and as more data is gathered on the real-world impacts of large-scale biofuel production and use. It’s often stated that biofuels are not a silver bullet solution, and a multi-pronged approach to addressing climate change and energy needs is likely required.

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