Biofuels are fuels derived from plant materials and other kinds of biomass. The complexity of issues surrounding bio-fuels and other types of bio-energy mirrors the structural complexity of the biomass resource that makes it valuable in myriad ways. Biomass serves multiple purposes — social, environmental, ecological, and economic. The use of the resource to satisfy any significant fraction of our now vast and increasing appetite for energy will bring far-ranging consequences. Many efforts are now under way to model global responses to different bio-energy policies and to optimise resource utilisation. One of the primary, unknown quantities in global energy balance calculations is the burgeoning human population and concomitant increases in demand for energy, especially for transportation fuel.
In the USA, both the public and private sectors have recently made significant investments in research to make biomass conversion more economical and environmentally sustainable. The U S Department of Energy, British Petroleum, Chevron and others have made major grants to university and national laboratory consortia and institutes.
It is important to remember that the production of liquid transportation bio-fuels is only one of the applications for biomass. Other uses such as electricity, heat, hydrogen and bio-based chemicals and products also offer substantial promise and possible resource competition. Biomass may be the only sustainable, large-scale resource for the production of compatible liquid fuels that can be readily integrated into our existing fuel infrastructure.
Bio-energy is energy derived from biomass (living and recently living organisms). It is renewable energy if the biomass used is replenished by new growth.
Bio-ethanol or ethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting the component sugars in biomass. It can be used as a fuel for cars either in pure form, or blended with another fuel such as gasoline.
Bio-fuels are produced from biomass, including sugar and starch-rich crops; oilseeds and other lipid sources such as certain types of algae; and lignocellulosic crops and residues such as grasses, woody plants, and plant or animal wastes. Bio-fuels can be liquids, gases or solids — alcohols or bio-diesel, bio-gas, charcoal, and more.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, current trends in regulating crop bio-fuels increase the urgency of developing advanced bio-fuels from non-crop plant materials such as algae and grasses. Conventional bio-ethanol comes from plant-derived sugars that either are naturally abundant in sweet crops or are easily made from starches abundant in crops such as corn. While advanced or cellulosic bio-ethanol also comes from plant-derived sugars, these are made from lignocelluloses and other cell-wall compounds that are currently difficult to break down efficiently. Once production is optimized, however, advanced bio-fuels have the potential to decrease carbon emissions by 70 per cent, according to the International Energy Association.
First, how much land can be used sustainably for cellulosic fuel production around the world without negatively affecting food production or the environment? Second, which types of plants can be used for energy, how can they be grown sustainably with minimal inputs, and how can they be harvested, stored and transported to the point of utilisation? And third, what are the most efficient ways of converting cellulosic biomass to liquid fuels?
This involves a broad investigation of how various types of organisms — ranging from those found in compost heaps to the complex systems in termite guts and cow rumen — degrade bio-mass.
The existence of fossil fuels is principally due to ancient growth and the geological conversion of algae and higher green plants to coal, petroleum and natural gas. As understanding and awareness of how current energy use affects local, regional and global environment and policies, the need for more renewable and sustainable energy supplies and greater energy-use efficiency becomes increasingly apparent, even though huge fossil resources remain especially as coal but also as oil sands, oil shales, methane clathrates and other unconventional sources.
Solar energy is the primary energy resource of the Earth, and exclusive of breakthroughs in controlled thermonuclear fusion, the quest for more sustainable energy supplies must lead to a highly efficient solar economy including direct solar power conversion as well as indirect methods of wind, hydroelectric power plants, the ocean and biomass. Conventional food, feed and fibre products from agriculture and forestry can also serve as bio-energy feedstocks. Corn, for example, is a staple cereal grain, but is also the primary feedstock for US ethanol production; and cane sugar is the principal source of ethanol in Brazil.
I understand this is the high time to formulate a bio-fuel national policy to integrate with our energy requirements. Moreover, the universities and agricultural institutes are geared up to prioritise the production of bio-fuels through inexorable efforts to minimize our fossil energy import bills.
<p style="\\"text-align:" justify;\\"=""> The writer is former federal minister and writes a blog for The Spokesman