What is Biofuel? – An Easy Guide to Alternative Fuels
Biofuel is becoming a term that more and more people are familiar with – particularly those of you who are conscious of your carbon footprint, as it produces fewer CO2 emissions than regular fuel. With this in mind, our customers are increasingly asking questions about how the biofuels we supply can be viable diesel fuel alternatives that will help them stem their greenhouse emissions.
To help get the word out, we’ve put together a guide to biofuels that explains more about the environmentally friendly fuels available on the UK market.
Biofuel, the future of fuel?
Biofuel is a fuel that is produced from biomass – that is, plant or animal material used for energy production – and is a replacement for fossil fuels. Biofuels are renewable sources of energy as the source materials can be grown and the fuel later harvested.
While some people consider wood and other solid biomass fuels as biofuels, a biofuel is technically a replacement for oil and gas fuels, such as diesel, whose bio-equivalent is biodiesel. However, because biofuel is not always a drop-in alternative to regular fossil fuel, there are several specialised types of biofuel in the market, as we’ll soon explain.
Where does biofuel come from?
In general, a biofuel is any type of fuel that has been made from any carbon source that is easy to replace. Plants are probably the most well-known example.
The biggest challenge when producing biofuel is making sure that it is suitable to be used as a transport fuel. The three main ways of producing this fuel are:
- Grow plants – A number of plants naturally produce oil. These can be processed to form biodiesel or can be heated directly, which will lower the viscosity of the oil and then be suitable for use in some diesel engines.
- Grow sugar crops or starch – Through yeast fermentation crops such as maize, corn, sugar beet and sugar cane, they can be converted into ethanol.
- By-products – Wood-gas, ethanol and methanol (all types of biofuel) can be made from wood chippings and other by-products.
What are the uses of biofuels?
Biofuel is as versatile as regular diesel and has an array of applications in a huge range of industries that are environmentally conscious and looking for viable diesel alternatives. Here is a short list of 6 common uses of biofuel:
- Agriculture – Tractors and combine harvesters
- Construction – Cranes, forklifts, bobcats all use diesel
- Power generation – Diesel-powered electricity generators
- Heating – Commercial buildings generally use diesel as the fuel for their heating system
- Fleets – Trucks and diesel-powered fleet vehicles can be adapted to use biodiesel or a blend of diesel and biodiesel, while petrol-powered cars can run on ethanol
- Aviation – The aviation sector is introducing biofuel blends into jet fuel to help reduce the impact of aircraft on the atmosphere
Are there different blends of biofuel?
The UK has access to a number of different biofuels, including:
The most common blend in the UK is B7 biofuel, which gets its name from being a blend of 7% biofuel and 93% regular diesel; the number represents the percentage of biofuel content within the oil.
Fuels can contain up to 100% biofuel; however, this is mainly exclusive to warmer regions as a diesel engine with B100 biofuel won’t start in temperatures below 15°C.
One of the advantages of biofuel is that it can be mixed with normal diesel in certain engines, so if you have some standard diesel in your tank, you can simply top it up with biofuel. Many forecourts across the country now stock biofuel, including Crown Oil.
Types of biofuels
There is a type of biofuel to replace most gases and oils, and due to the distillation process that fossil fuels undergo when they are extracted from crude oil, there is a need for a sustainable alternative to every crude-based fuel and oil.
At Crown Oil we specialise in supplying several types of biofuels that are diesel alternatives:
HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) fuel is a synthetic paraffinic diesel, sometimes also called green diesel. The benefits of HVO fuel are that it’s a drop-in diesel alternative approved by a number of OEMs, requiring no modifications to your engines. It also has a far longer shelf-life than regular diesel and conventional biodiesel as it has all impurities removed during the hydrotreatment process when creating HVO, increasing its storage life of up to 10 years compared to 1 year for regular diesel. This sustainable fuel offers reductions in greenhouse gases of up to 90%. What’s more, HVO fuel is FAME -free, so not subject to contamination like FAME biodiesel. HVO also remains mobile and filterable to -32 degrees Celcius, making it a fantastic fuel for winter.
Biodiesel – also called fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) is a diesel alternative biofuel made through a process called transesterification of either plant or animal sources. It can also be blended with mineral diesel. Read our short guide on FAME diesel for a more detailed insight.
Combined heat & power (CHP) biofuel is a renewable alternative to fossil fuels and can be used for both heating and power generation purposes. It’s mainly sourced from oil-rich plants, waste oils, animal materials and other by-products.
Biofuels also have many other forms and uses, including:
Aviation biofuel – Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
Biofuel, commonly called Sustainable Aviation Biofuel (SAF) is becoming more and more common in jet fuel, with a blend of kerosene and biodiesel being the dominant choice. Currently, only hydro-processed esters and fatty acids synthetic paraffinic kerosene (HEFA-SPK) is currently technically mature enough for commercial use. Therefore, HEFA‑SPK is expected to be the main aviation biofuel used for the foreseeable future.
SAF is produced as a CO2-reducing drop-in replacement to jet fuel that can also be blended in any proportion. SAF is produced with non-fossil fuel feedstocks that are of biological origin.
Heating oil biofuel
In the UK domestic market, heating oil refers to kerosene (compared to the rest of the world which uses gas oil as the default domestic heating oil). Currently, there is no viable biofuel to replace domestic heating oil – no biokerosene, as it were that is ready to replace heating oil – however, that is not to say there is nothing in development, as research is already underway to find an affordable drop-in alternative to heating oil.
Biogas is methane produced by the process of anaerobic digestion of organic material by anaerobes.
Syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and other hydrocarbons, is produced by partial combustion of biomass, that is, combustion with an amount of oxygen that is not sufficient to convert the biomass completely to carbon dioxide and water.
Ethanol is a biofuel produced by enzymes and microorganisms fermenting starches, sugars or cellulose. Other alcohols produced this way include propanol and butanol.
Ethanol is also commonly used as a direct replacement to gasoline or petrol in petrol-powered engines and can be mixed with gasoline in any percentage, however, it is less efficient than fossil fuel petrol in terms of energy yield. One advantage of ethanol is that it has a higher-octane rating which results in a higher compression ratio in an engine, giving increased thermal efficiency.
Advantages and disadvantages of biofuel
Before making the switch to biofuels, especially as a commercial fuel user, it is worth knowing the pros and cons of biofuels in order to determine whether you opt for a 100% biofuel or a blend of biodiesel and diesel.
Advantages of biofuel
- Carbon-neutral / lower emissions
- Produced from renewable sources
- Sources of biofuel are already farmed (corn, soy among others)
- Blending with fossil fuels allows you to reduce carbon footprint without large scale infrastructural changes
- Biofuel technology is improving every year
Disadvantages of biofuel
- Low temperatures and high altitudes render 100% biofuels unable to operate
- Often requires blending with fossil fuel
- Higher cost per litre
- Lower energy yield
- Demand for biofuel sources could put a strain on the agricultural sector as land, water and fertiliser are all required to produce enough biofuel to replace fossil fuels
Biofuels such as biodiesel can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but there are many aspects to using sustainable fuels, such as whether it is compatible with your machinery.
If you have any questions about biofuels or want to learn about how Crown Oil can supply your business with biofuels and diesel alternatives anywhere in the UK, call our expert team today on 0330 123 1444.