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About Biofuels

General

What is Biofuel ?

Biofuels are any fuel derived from biomass. Agricultural products specifically grown for conversion to biofuels include corn and soybeans. R&D is currently being conducted to improve the conversion of non-grain crops, such as switchgrass and a variety of woody crops, to biofuels.

The energy in biomass can be accessed by turning the raw materials of the feedstock, such as starch and cellulose,into a usable form. Transportation fuels are made from biomass through biochemical or thermochemical processes.

Known as biofuels, these include ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, biocrude, and methane.

Use and Availability of Biofuels

Ethanol blends of E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline) can be and are sold at gasoline fueling stations across the U.S. Ethanol in higher blends, such as E85, is also sold at gasoline fueling stations across the U.S., but requires modified fueling equipment.

Are biofuels more expensive than their petroleum-based counterparts?

Because the cost of any type of fuel - gasoline, diesel, ethanol, biodiesel - varies over time due to a variety of market, political, and production factors, it is difficult to say at any one time whether or not biofuels are sold for more or less than traditional petroleum-based fuels in the marketplace. On average, biofuels are generally comparable to traditional fuels in sales price, although they may be higher or lower at times, depending on gasoline and diesel prices. The non-monetary benefits of biofuels - such as environmental, national security, and local economy benefits - may also be taken into consideration by the consumer, even if they are not reflected in the cost of biofuels versus traditional fuels.

Will I get lower gas mileage with ethanol-blended fuels than with traditional gasoline?

The fuel economy of E85 is lower than that of gasoline by 10 to 15 percent, as E85 has less energy content (about 0.72 of gasoline). However, flex fuel vehicles can be tuned to run optimally on E85 (whereas, as currently sold, they are optimized for gasoline), reducing the mileage loss significantly. For more information please visit National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.

Can ethanol be transported, stored, and dispensed within existing petroleum infrastructure?

Lower ethanol blends, such as E10, are currently mixed with gasoline and transported, stored, and dispensed in existing infrastructure. Higher ethanol blends, such as E85, however, require separate infrastructure because E85 cannot beused in all vehicles, and because E85 can corrode some materials. In many cases, existing petroleum fuel infrastructure can be used to transport and store E85, as long as they are properly cleaned and the fuels are not mixed. Special E85-compatible pump dispensers are available, and can be incorporated into existing fueling stations. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, and National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition jointly published the Handbook for Handling, Storing, and Dispensing E85 (PDF 1.7 MB), which contains more detail on this issue.

Production and Technology

How are biofuels created from plant material?

How a fuel is produced from plant materials can depend on a variety of factors, including the feedstock (or biomass plant material) being used and the fuel one desires to produce. For more information on the types of biomass feedstock available and the types of fuels that can be produced from them see the Office of the Biomass Program Biomass Feedstocks website and Biomass Today website.

Ethanol and biodiesel are the two most common types of biofuels. There are two primary types of conversion methods used to produce ethanol from biomass resources: biochemical conversion and thermochemical conversion. Biochemical conversion refers to the process where biomass is separated into its component parts, starch and cellulose. In water, both starch and cellulose can be broken down further to multiple sugars, which can than be fermented to produce ethanol. Thermochemical conversion heats the feedstock with no oxygen to produce synthesis gas (syngas). The syngas can be fermented to produce ethanol.In the U.S., biodiesel is produced from the oil in soy beans, canola, and other agricultural products. The oils from the plant material are reacted with methanol to produce methyl esters (commonly known as biodiesel) and glycerin. For every 100 lbs of biodiesel produced approximately 10 lbs of glycerin is produced; glycerin is an ingredient in hand lotions and soaps.

What other materials can be produced from biomass?

Biomass can be used to produce any number of common products based on the feedstock (or biomass plant material) chosen. Specific products include but are not limited to plastics, polymers, carpets, fabrics, detergents, fabrics, and lubricants.

Programmatic

What is the R&D focus of the Office of the Biomass Program?

The R&D focus of the Biomass Program is on the development of the integrated biorefinery which includes both biological and thermochemical conversion processes. Currently, the Program is organized to address the technological R&D needs of each stage in the biorefinery: feedstock interface, biochemical conversion, thermochemical conversion, and product development.

Feedstock R&D is focused on the reduction of biomass harvesting and storage costs. Biochemical conversion R&D is currently the highest priority for the program. It is focused on reducing the cost of producing mixed sugars by overcoming the difficulty of separating biomass into its components (cellulose and lignin). The thermochemical conversion R&D focus is developing technologies that convert the residues from the biochemical conversion process into fuels, heat and chemicals. The focus of product development is on the development of fermentation microorganisms.

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