Powered by Biotechnology: Biofuels

Biotechnology is responsible for a number of advancements like medicines, vaccines, plant-based meat, and even more. However, just as important as all of those other developments is finding out how biotechnology can help our environment. One biotechnology application that can achieve this is biofuels.

What are biofuels?

Biofuels are biologically derived fuel sources and are a subset of fuels made from “biomass” which can be used to fuel the things that keep the world moving. Biomass is just a name for the components- or ingredients- from these biological sources. Generally these biomasses consist of plant based matter, with the most common biofuels being corn-derived ethanol and biodiesel. Algae, vegetable oils, and plant molecules like cellulose make up a majority of the biomass responsible for biofuels. Waste oils from restaurants can even be refined into biofuels too! Biofuels not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions from carbon dioxide, the production process is also cleaner than traditional methods, making it a more environmentally friendly choice.

How do we make biofuels?

Making biofuels is a multi step process starting with deconstruction and filtering, which is then purified and bioprocessed to create the final product.  The Department of Energy breaks the process down into two main steps: high or low temperature deconstruction followed by upgrading. 

The deconstruction process basically involves breaking down whatever the source of solid biomass is into its liquid or gas forms. This is done with either high temperatures and pressures to release the chemical components in the biomass, or it can be done enzymatically or chemically in the low temperature process. Once the main components of the biomass are converted into crude by-products it is time for the upgrading part. During upgrading, the biofuel is refined from its crude state into commercially-ready biofuel. This can be thought of as a “cleaning up” step. This process can be completed biologically through methods like fermentation or catalytic processes that use enzyme activity, or they can be chemically processed to become the final product.

What does the future of biofuels look like?

Right now, America is the biggest consumer of biofuels. Transportation is currently the major field consuming most of the biofuels produced. In America, Arizona is becoming one of the major hubs for producing biofuels because algae (which is a major source of biomass for biofuels) really likes the dry and warm climate present in the desert! Alternative fuel sources and transportation methods are quickly gaining popularity, especially after the success of electric cars in recent years. As far as the future goes, it’s hard to tell exactly what is next, but with new innovations and ideas the future of biofuels looks bright. 

If you are interested in learning more about biofuels check out these articles:

Biofuel Basics

Refining Plant Biomass 

Application of Biotechnology for Biofuels

The Benefits of Biodiesel

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