The Difference between Biofuels and Fossil Fuels

Originally published at BiofuelCentral.org
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

The burning of fossil fuels over the past 90 years has released gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over that time.

Previous to the large-scale commercial extraction of petroleum beginning around 1920, the carbon embedded within coal and oil was permanentl­y stored undergroun­d and had stayed there since the time of the dinosaurs.

It wasn’t going anywhere near the surface of our planet or into our atmosphere anytime in the next billion years — until mankind started bringing it up to the surface and burning it

The burning of fossil fuels extracted from deep below the surface of the Earth is a huge source of new CO2 introduced into our present-day atmosphere. — John Brian Shannon, Biofuel Central

Plant-based biofuels on the other hand, utilize plant matter that grows in our 21st-century — plants which absorb CO2 out of our modern-day atmosphere every day of the year­

Jatropha tree
Jatropha fruit is toxic, but it has high oil content and it grows in semi-arid regions making it suitable for biofuels. In developing nations, jatropha plantations provide plenty of work for labourers around harvest time.

Jatropha trees, for instance, live 40 years. Only the plentiful fruits (several tonnes per hectare) are harvested each year for processing into biofuels while the rest of the tree continues to draw CO2 out of the air every day of the year. Because that’s what trees do.

After breathing in CO2 and exhaling oxygen for 40 years, at the end of that tree’s life almost exactly the amount of CO2 it captured during its lifetime returns to the environmen­t, making the Jatropha’s carbon footprint, zero. (Exactly what it captured, it released, over its 40 year lifetime)

Then, new Jatropha trees are grown and a new carbon-neutral process begins.

Not so for fossil fuels. Carbon-heavy coal and oil are a huge source of new carbon that we bring up from deep undergroun­d which, as we burn it, continuously adds new CO2 to our atmosphere

Therefore ALL fossil fuel burning adds to the overall CO2 load of our atmosphere – while plant based biofuels are CO2-neutral, as they merely recycle the same carbon dioxide, many times over.

Where am I going with this?

We should blend our fossil fuels with CO2-neutral biofuels (50/50) to taper our dinosaur era, petroleum based, CO2-additions to the atmosphere.

Biofuels now come in three generations

  • 1st generation biofuels were the first on the market, but required massive subsidies to be economically viable.
  • 2nd generation biofuels were next-up and as the technical problems are now solved, new 2nd generation biofuels are surging ahead and show dramatic CO2 reductions.
  • 3rd generation biofuels are in the pilot programme stage at this point, but early indications are that negative CO2 emissions may be possible — as megatonnes of waste carbon dioxide from nearby factories are used in algae biofuels production and the profitability of this new generation of biofuels (even without subsidies) seems likely.

The three generations of biofuels

Corn, palm tree, and sugar-cane are examples of 1st generation biofuel crops. They are poor choices for biofuel production as they have their own environmental negatives attached to them and they require massive subsidies to compete in the marketplace.

1st generation biofuel crops require billions of gallons of precious water, plenty of fertilizer, pesticides and land management.

And it goes without saying of course, that replacing food crops with biofuel crops is a very bad idea.

Fortunately, 2nd generation biofuel plants grow in conditions and areas which are inhospitable for food crops.

Some examples of 2nd generation biofuel plants which grow in semi-arid regions are; Jatropha, Millettia and Camelina and the cultivation of these provide plenty of jobs for developing nation labourers.

“China has set aside an area the size of England in which to grow 2nd generation biofuel crops.” — Will Thurmond, Biodiesel 2020

Biofuels that are produced with algae or enzymes are known as 3rd generation biofuels and are the most efficient way of producing biofuels, using only water, plant matter, relatively small amounts of algae and microscopic enzymes to do the work.

And talk about good karma, algae thrive when CO2 is added to the conversion chamber (called a ‘biofuel reactor’ which is basically a 500,000 gallon soup pot) and helps to convert the ingredients into high quality gasoline.

In the new algae-to-gasoline plants, tonnes of CO2 from nearby industry are added to the ingredient list to help boost the speed of the process and to increase the final amount of gasoline produced.

Like any other green plant, algae ‘eats’ the CO2 and emits pure oxygen just like the trees in your neighborhood.

Each batch takes 5 days and at continuous production that means CO2-eating and oxygen production is happening every day of the year.

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Green gasoline inside clear plastic pipes. Algae requires four days of sunlight and mild temperatures to process the ingredient mix into pure gasoline. Wageningen University Integrated Sustainable Algae (InteSusAl) demonstration pilot project in the municipality of Olhão, in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. Image courtesy of AlgaePARC (Algae Production and Research Centre) at Wageningen University & Research Centre.

It’s better to continuously recycle a large amount of carbon-neutral plant-based CO2 (recycling it millions of times over) than to bring new carbon in the form of coal and oil to the Earth’s surface with it’s carbon-heavy load to burn it, thereby adding unfathomable gigatonnes of new CO2 to our 21st century atmosphere.

Yet another biofuel bonus

Boeing 787. Image courtesy of Boeing.
Boeing 787. Image courtesy of Boeing.

Lower CO2 emissions are a well-known bio-jet fuel benefit, regardless of which biofuel generation they hail from.

Boeing’s Sustainable Biofuels Research & Technology Program reported 80% lower CO2 emissions for camelina bio-jet fuel when compared to conventional jet fuel.

All 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation biofuels are low carbon fuels (at the combustion stage) but only 2nd generation biofuels are economically viable at this point in time. New formulation 3rd generation biofuels look to have even lower CO2 emissions than the 2nd generation biofuels already on the market.

Depending on the type of biofuel crop employed, lowered CO2 emissions (as compared to conventional petroleum-based jet fuels) in the range of 50-80% are proven

New algae bio-jet fuels are showing CO2 emission reductions of better than 90% when compared to petroleum-based jet fuel.

There is every hope that within 10 years that new algae bio-jet fuel will prove to be CO2-negative as the algae requires huge volumes of carbon dioxide gas to grow at best possible speed.

Airline operators and the U.S. military note that the new bio-jet fuels extend engine life, emit less soot and smoke, and are easier on fuel system components such as fuel pumps and injectors

Notes about sugarcane:
Sugarcane moves from its present 1st generation biofuel ranking
to 2nd generation biofuel ranking if certain guidelines are followed.

Sugarcane is usually considered a 1st generation biofuel crop, but;

1) if farmers refrain from burning sugarcane fields after each harvest (twice yearly) and
2) if the rest of the plant (not just the ‘cane’ but also the roots and leaves) are converted to biofuels via a new type of cellulosic bioreactor, and
3) where sugarcane fields aren’t displacing food crops, sugarcane is an excellent choice for a high-yield 2nd generation biofuel.

Published by

John Brian

Editorial Board at kleef&co. Published by the UNDP.