In recent years there has been a lot of interest in renewable and alternative energy sources. This has seemingly become an even bigger issue in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis, where the nuclear plant at Fukushima was damaged by the earthquake and resultant tsunami on March 11th. There is now a real danger that harmful radiation could escape from the site. People have always been uncertain of the safety of utilising nuclear power and such a scare only serves to heighten their concerns. That is why increasingly people are looking for alternatives. One such alternative is the use of biofuels.
What are Biofuels?
The term ‘biofuel’ refers to a broad range of fuels that are created from ‘biomass’ (see below). Biofuels are often used as an additive rather than as a ‘pure’ fuel. Bioethanol is an example of this. It is an alcohol created by fermenting the sugar components of plant materials and whilst ethanol can be used as a fuel for cars in its purest form, it is normally added to petrol to improve the emissions from the vehicle and increase octane.
Ok, so what is Biomass?
Biomass is a renewable energy source. It refers specifically to biomaterials from living organisms and recently living organisms – examples of which are wood, waste and alcohol fuels. There are actually several different sources of biomass energy, so in addition to the three just mentioned, there are: garbage and landfill gases. There are a few different mechanisms by which biomass can be converted to energy:
This involves the use of heat in order to convert biomass into an alternative chemical form. There are different forms of thermal conversion – two examples of which are torrefaction and pyrolysis.
This is quite simply where a range of chemical processes are used in order to convert biomass to alternative forms.
This involves harnessing the power of naturally occurring biochemical conversion processes. Microorganisms are used to break down biomass – Anaerobic Digestion is an example of this.
Biogas is a type of biofuel that is produced by anaerobic digestion or fermentation of biodegradable materials, including biomass. Biodegradable waste can, for example, be converted to methane – which is a renewable energy source.
So are Biofuels the answer?
It remains to be seen whether or not biofuels are a long term solution to the problems surrounding the energy industry. There are certainly discussions to be had about the impact that the production of biofuels has on carbon emissions and biodiversity, but these are certainly not the only issues.