Biofuel Explained – An Easy Guide
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 more regularly asking questions about how the biofuels we supply can 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.
What is biofuel?
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, as 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. 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 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:
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 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.
HVO fuel is second-generation biofuel, sometimes also called green diesel. This fuel is made from hydrotreated vegetable oil. The benefits of HVO fuel are that it is a drop-in alternative to diesel approved by a number of OEMS, and requires 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 hydrotreament process of creating HVO. This fuel offers reductions in greenhouse gases of up to 90%.
Biofuel also has many other forms and uses, including:
Biofuel 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.
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 biofuel to replace domestic heating oil – no biokerosene, as it were – however that is not to say there is nothing in development, as research is already underway to find a 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 own machinery.
If you have any questions about biofuels or want to learn about how Crown Oil can supply your business with biofuels anywhere in the UK, call our expert team today on 0330 123 1444.