Are Biofuels the Alternative Fuels of the Future?

One of the biggest questions consumers have is how they can utilize alternative fuels and is biodiesel or ethanol one of the answers? It is always a worry that fuel prices could skyrocket at any time back to some of the highs at $4 or $5 a gallon depending on your location. To know how you can make an effort towards switching,  first you must understand exactly what you are dealing with.

What is Biofuel?

Two of the most common biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel. The difference between these types of fuels compared to standard gasoline and diesel, is the standard types use fossil fuels such as decomposed plants and ancient fossils of animals. Biofuels are made differently, with live growing plants that are recently harvested. The popularity is recently coming back on these biofuels due to carbon dioxide and emissions and the effects of climate change.

Since these types of fuels greatly reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle, they are strongly in favor to replace standard fuels. Biofuels come with many advantages and disadvantages, and we are going to target some of them to see whether using these fuels is something you should consider. Biofuels are made using renewable resources, as opposed to standard fuels which utilize fossil fuels, which we have seen are non-renewable and also have a negative impact on our carbon footprint.

The process to create biodiesel is known as transesterification. The short version, this is a process where vegetable oils or fats react with alcohol molecules to create the crude form of biofuel. it is then refined and treated to create a finish biofuel product.

 

How Biofuel is made

Types of Biofuel

Ethanol

Almost all of us are familiar with ethanol at this point. Ethanol is one of the types of Biofuels Many cars now will actually run on 85$ ethanol blends known as E85. For those that are still wondering what those Flex-Fuel badges mean on the back of some Chevrolet and Ford models, it is because the motor is designed to operate on multiple types of fuel, including E85. Before we get ahead of ourselves, you will in fact get lower miles per gallon while running E85.

Most vehicles will actually see a pretty significant power boost, however we don’t expect to see some of you green Moms at the drag strip for race weekend, so we won’t be getting into that.

The good news is the national average price for ethanol is about $1.96 which is about .34 cents lower then the national average of regular unleaded gasoline.  While the price difference might not be a wash with what you lose in miles per gallon, what you must remember is the national average of regular gas hasn’t always been $2.29. One big benefit of ethanol is that because it is an 85% blend, the price is much less volatile then that of gasoline when crude prices start to go up.

Check with your manufacturer because on many new vehicles it is actually safe to run an E85 blend in your car. The unfortunate news is that it is very difficult to find a station that stocks E85 depending on where you live.  The problem lies with the shipping.  Since ethanol is corn based, the states that have a high volume of stations are those that are located near large corn fields.

Believe it or not, those gas pipelines being built, while we may not support them, keep fuel costs down pretty significantly.  Overall, to completely replace gasoline, ethanol just isn’t the answer. Besides the shipping problem, there simply isn’t enough volume of corn fields to mass produce the amount of fuel we consume in the United States.  Not to mention with all of the effort it takes to grow and process all of these crops, it essentially uses up a lot of the energy that one thinks that they are actually saving and will cause a hike in certain food prices!

Biodiesel

Rather then standard diesel which is made from petroleum, biodiesel is another example of a renewable type of fuel made animal fat, and vegetable oil.  Soybean is actually the most common source of the oil, making up about 2/3rds of all the biodiesel produced.  The rest typically comes from various types of oils such as canola, corn, or animal fats.

The benefits are also great, resulting in a reduction of around 50% of greenhouse gasses being produced from the diesel vehicle.  As far as cost, the national average shows B20 and standard diesel within .01 cent of each other at $2.57 and $2.58 respectively.  However, this time around the MPG will more then likely see a boost from using a B20 mixture.  A study done here shows how a comparison was done of two tractor trailers using biodiesel, and the savings ended up being just shy of $2,000 over just a 4 month period!

Biofuel Prices
US Dept of Energy

This does not mean that you can all run to your cabinets, grab the canola oil and throw it in your Ford F-350 and start pulling some trailers. For one, that isn’t how it works. There are many people doing home biofuel solutions which you can check out though. Biodiesel also comes with downfalls just as ethanol does.

For one, prior to 2007 all diesel vehicles were able to run a full B100 mixture (which is pure biodiesel.) However in 2007, an EPA regulation came into place, that was initially designed to help tighten the emissions policy on passenger vehicles, which was great, however it caused some problems for diesel engines. Since most users were using standard diesel, car manufacturers had to adapt with the strict emissions policies by putting a specific filter in diesel motors that made running pure B100 much more difficult. It was no longer cost effective for the manufacturers to produce diesel motors to take pure biodiesel.

It is still fairly safe to run mixtures of B20 on these motors, which we have shown can actually be pretty cost effective, especially for long distance truckers.  The other advantage biodiesel has over ethanol is that B20 can be stored and transported in the same tanks used for transportation of diesel now, unlike ethanol which cannot be shipped the way gasoline can.

Are Biofuels the Answer?

So while it appears we have two really great solutions for a renewable form of fuel through ethanol and biodiesel, unfortunately they just don’t seem to have what it takes to be that petroleum replacement that we are seeking. We highly recommend that you utilize these fuels if possible as there is a great reduction in the emissions aspect, however there just isn’t enough to support these fuels at the national level.

Biodiesel currently seems to have more of an edge over ethanol, but since a majority of vehicles run standard gasoline engines that isn’t an option for most of us.

The other good news is there is constant research and development in these fields to try to find ways to make them more sustainable and cheaper in the future. For example scientists are currently researching the use of algae and a certain chemical that it contains that could aid in the production of biodiesel.

It still appears going towards the approach of a hybrid or full electric vehicle is a better solution towards reducing your personal carbon footprint. This has it’s own hurdles due to the fact that the consumers are required to buy new vehicles equipped with these motors, and they still have a hefty price tag on most of them. A renewable fuel would be much easier to shift to a national level, but so far none of the biofuels have proven capable as a replacement.

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