Seven Cool Biofuel Crops That We Use for Fuel Production

March 19, 2017

Biofuels and biofuel crops have been vaunted by politicians, journalists and scientists for years. A method of producing fuel from plants or other sources could potentially allow us to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. Energy crops, so-called, include wheat, corn, soybean and sugarcane. Biofuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels, release fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. They are sustainable and energy companies mix them with gasoline. Unlike oil, coal or natural gas, biofuels, in theory at least, are renewable.

Biofuels generally fall into two categories, bioalcohol and biodiesel. The former, such as ethanol, is created by engineers from yeast and bacteria to break down starch from corn and other plants. Biodiesel, on the other hand, is created in refineries that use existing oil in crops such as soybeans. These kinds of vegetable oils are then treated with alcohol to convert them to biodiesel.

As you can imagine, there are some drawbacks to these kinds of fuels. Issues include things like the amount of land space required to grow the crops. This, in particular, creates problems with higher food prices and deforestation. The latter being somewhat counter-productive to the aim. Additionally, the costs for converting crops in energy crops, as well as the need to retrofit existing vehicles and power plants to run on them is not cheap.

All of that being said, let’s take a look at some biofuel crops. This list in not exhaustive and in no particular order. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

 

Biofuel crops: Corn

Corn is the king in the world of ethanol-based biofuels. Sugar-rich corn is turned into ethanol in a similar fashion to beer brewing. The kernels are ground up and mixed with warm water and yeast. The yeast ferments the mixture to produce ethanol. This ethanol is then blended with gasoline to use in existing car engines. Pretty neat!

This mixture releases less carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur than run of the mill gasoline and by virtue reduces smog in cities. The reason the kernels alone are used is because the main body of the plant contains cellulose which is difficult and expensive to break down.

corn

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Biofuel crops: Rapeseed/Canola

Rapeseed oil has been used to cook food and in lamps for centuries. Today, it’s an important biodiesel source. The most important type is canola because compared to other rapeseeds it is low in erucic acid, which makes it healthier for animals and humans to eat.

It’s an interesting fact that biodiesels tend not to fare well in cold climates. Vegetable oils tend to be high in saturated fats which allow ice crystals to form at low temperatures. This is obviously not good for combustion engines. Canola being low in saturated fats clearly makes it desirable. Rapeseeds are also relatively high in oil content than most plants which makes them great crops for making fuels.

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Biofuel crops: Sugarcane

Brazil has been working tirelessly to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels over the years. This South American country has been growing energy crops since the 1970’s as a direct consequence of the Middle East Oil Embargo. When oil prices leaped the Brazilian government encouraged its farmers to plant sugarcane.

Sugarcane is used to produce bioethanol, not unlike corn. Brazil has invested billions of dollars into this industry to such an extent that it is now cheaper than gasoline. Interestingly in the 1980’s most cars in Brazil were ethanol powered, today most utilize flexible fuel engines. Producing ethanol from sugarcane is six times cheaper than corn.

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Biofuel crops: Palm oil

Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of palm trees and it is one of the more energy-efficient biodiesel fuels on the market. Diesel engines do not need to be converted to run on palm oil either. Palm oil biodiesel is less polluting than gasoline as well. Palm oil has helped develop the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia in particular but they have been burning thousands of acres of rainforest to grow the crops.

 

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Biofuel crops: Jatropha

This ugly, poisonous weed is a big player in the biofuel market. The bushes grow quickly, do not require a large amount of water and their seeds have around 40% oil content. India is currently the world’s largest Jatropha producer and their biodiesel industry is centered on this crop. This has allowed the country to bring economic benefits to rural farmers who can grow this crop on normally poor agricultural land. Jatropha plants can live for 50 years and do very well on land devasted by drought and pests.

The seeds of the plant are crushed to release the oil for biodiesel production. But the seed cases and vegetable matter are not wasted. They can also be used as a biomass fuel!

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Biofuel crops: Soybeans

Not just used for tofu or tacos, crayons and shampoos soybean can be used as a fuel source. Most biodiesel in the USA is predicated on soybeans. Motor vehicles, heavy equipment, even buses can run on pure soybean biodiesel or, of course, blending with more traditional diesel fuels. The National Academy of Sciences states that soybean diesel yields more energy than corn ethanol.

One bushel of soybeans can yield 5.68 liters of biodiesel or 20% content in the beans. Canola and sunflower seeds have double that at 40% and 43% respectively.

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Biofuel crops: Switchgrass

This plant has the greatest potential to cure our addiction to the use of fossil fuels. Unlike corn, switchgrass has a form of cellulose that uses less energy to convert to ethanol than from processing fossil fuels. Switchgrass’s cellulose ethanol contains more energy than corn ethanol. Although there are not currently large plantations of this crop scientists are currently working on methods to exploit this plant in the future.

Researchers at the Auburn University in Alabama have grown test plots of the plant to produce 15 tonnes of biomass per acre. It is believed that each acre of the crop will allow for the production of 4,350 liters of ethanol, every day!

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Sources: HowStuffWorksScientificAmerican

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