Monday, 17 October 2011

Profiling Biofuel Feedstocks

Throughout human history the consumption of biological material for its stored energy has been counted on to provide us our energetic needs. As teams of modern scientists race to uncover the most efficient way to tap into biological matter for its electricity, gasoline, heat and other forms of energy, biomass is in the spotlight of sustainable energy initiatives. Various sources of biomass fuel have been called upon over the past decade and the different attributes of some are examined below. 


The most commonly used cellulosic biofuel is switchgrass, a prolific perennial stalk that provides a low-maintenance energy source. Since these grasses require little supplemental support from their farmers and can flourish in such a diversity of climates, the environmental impact of growing them is minimal. The simple process of deriving ethanol from the sugar found within these plants through their combination with yeast makes a minimal imposition on the use of land and capital resources. Furthermore, once the sugar has been removed from the grass, the remaining substance known as lignin, is capable of providing enough energy to power the refinery facility. The potential of a fully self-sustaining renewable energy source illustrates the incredible capability of grasses as a solution to our energy demands.                                                             

The future for cellulosic biofuels is bright as an increase in the number of farmers turning to the crop in favour of its strong returns and dependable harvests has put it in the spotlight. Advancing research in biochemistry and genomics promises to further expand the applicability of cellulosic biofuels and disperse it across the world’s different geographies. Current research projects have found that grasses that were once considered pests like the invasive pennycress weed are some of the highest yielding sources of cellulosic biofuel.


Timber operations throughout the world’s forests leave behind masses of discarded wood that until only recently was seen as a pile of a waste. Revolutions in the biomass industry have turned waste wood into valuable sources of electricity and heat, putting a bounty on the waste of the logging industry. In addition, taking away the threat of wood stacks left behind by logging and tree parasites reduces forest fire risk in a way that reduces our carbon footprint. Wood that is grown for the intended purpose of biomass opens the possibility of farming fast maturing trees like willows and poplars on relatively fast cycles to provide a consistent flow of biomass energy.

Wood propelled power plants and energy compact torrefied wood pellets give distinguish wood as a biomass source for its ability to satiate both the short & long-term energy needs of society. Though concerns have been raised about the possibility of wood biomass causing further deforestation, responsible and organized systems of wood farming offer a huge contribution to the biomass arm of renewable energy. Less wasteful practices of wood consumption like pyrolsis & torrefaction are becoming more widely implemented, which use high temperatures and oxygen deprivation to emit less greenhouse gasses. The abundance of wood energy is being utilized in the regions that already profit off of forests, where cities are partnering with logging industries to provide sustainable, local energy.

Algae & Seaweed

The most advantageous aspect of using algae as a biomass fuel source is that it propagates in bodies of water, eliminating the need for farming space to grow it. Algae grow by sucking out the CO2 in its environment and combining it with sunlight in the process of photosynthesis which enables it to survive. Algae’s life cycle naturally removes greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere and some scientists are utilizing animal wastes as a fertilizer to increase its productivity. While much research needs to be done to find the ideal environment and method of harvesting algae, the latent benefits of this biomass source place it at the forefront of biomass energy.

In the first refinement stage of algae, oil is squeezed from the algae’s intercellular flesh, with the resulting mass being converted into ethanol. The final substance can be stored as pellets or consumed to produce thermal and electrical energy with the emitted gas being recycled to power the plant. The diversity of energy forms that algae can produce has enticed various industries like aviation to investigate its potential to power their air crafts. Currently, much of algal biomass is grown inland in lakes or bodies of water that can be more easily controlled. However, genetic engineers are manipulating algae strains to harvest it in tropical ocean climates while ensuring that algae make no imposition on the pre-established ecosystems. To process algae is a timely and expensive process, even though the biomass used and the things it produces are greatly efficient. Researchers are searching to find a way to catalyze the drying and refining process so that the full potential of algae can provide us with oceans of energy for decades to come.


Through its widespread use as a food source, corn has been a logical choice as one of the earliest sources of feedstock for biofuel. Employing unused plots of land for the growth of corn as a biofuel supplements farmers’ incomes and makes full use of their real estate. Corn produces ethanol through the breakdown of its sugars with yeast, resulting in an alcoholic compound that is used as a substitute for traditional petroleum.

Despite its initial flash of hope as the solution to our energy needs, corn has fallen out of favour as a sustainable energy source. Critics of corn point to the infringement it has on the supply of other food crops and its low energy production rate as major challenges for it must overcome if it is to remain a supplier of biofuel. Researchers are discovering ways to employ cows and genetically engineered bacteria that speed up the breakdown process of corn. Even animal waste has been sought as an ally to corn as it produces methane which in turn powers the refinery that turns corn into fuel biofuel corn refineries. While unused corn stocks will continue to be valued for their ethanol potential, it remains to be seen whether corn specifically grown as a biofuel will survive the test of time.    

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