Innovations in Biofuel Technology: Advancements in Production and Efficiency

What is biofuel? By definition, it’s a form of fuel derived from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels. Biofuel is produced from things like algae, grass, agricultural waste, recycled cooking oil, etc. This is incredibly important as biofuel recycles things people are already using.

This is incredibly important as it lowers the demand for petroleum products. It also reuses items that would otherwise go into a landfill or environment where it could do harm. As the nation turns towards renewable energy sources, how is biofuel technology changing? What are some of the advancements in production and efficiency?

Start by Understanding the Problems Biofuel Can Create

To better understand the advancements that are being made, it’s important to look at some of the disadvantages of biofuel. First, it does have a higher viscosity, especially in cold temperatures. Diesel that is turning into a gel or freezing when it’s bitterly cold outside is useless to a driver. This is why it’s currently only used in a mix with petroleum-based diesel.

Another concern with biodiesel is that it’s not always the easiest to produce. This is especially true of biodiesel produced from crops like corn, soybean, and rapeseed. Room is needed to grow those crops, which takes up valuable land for the food people need. Plus, the crops need to be watered. Water is a valuable resource and cannot be wasted.

Once crops are grown, they have to be stored until they’re processed. Again, this takes up a lot of space, and building the necessary storage buildings takes away from the space for crops. It’s a never-ending cycle of problems.

As biofuel is produced, industrial pollution increases. Plants need to be proactive and come up with on-site wastewater treatment plants to protect the environment and lower the strain on municipal wastewater treatment plants. 

Finally, biofuel is also expensive to produce. In 2017, the International Energy Agency found that the production costs of petroleum-based diesel were around half of the cost of biodiesel. Getting the cost down is essential to biofuel’s success.

Innovations in Biofuel Production

What innovations are in the works when it comes to biofuel production? There are several.

  1. Algae Research

One of the innovations in biofuel production has included the use of new feedstocks. Algae is one being researched. Algae grows quickly and can be problematic in some bodies of water. It’s estimated that between 7 and 14 tons of algae can be produced in just one acre. 

Upwards of 80% of that algae can contain oils that can be used to create biofuel, but the cost to turn that oil into biofuel was estimated to be as much as $10.50 per gallon. For this reason, researchers are trying to come up with a strain of algae that is almost all oil.

  1. Used Cooking Oil Recycling

A better method has been using recycled restaurant cooking oil for the production of biofuel. Restaurants were throwing out their cooking oil, and all of that can be damaging in a landfill or sewer. A grease trap can be used to capture fats from meats, and used cooking oil can go into collection bins for recycling.

An Indonesian university study involved the collection of used cooking oil from the school’s cafeteria. That oil was put through transesterification after filtering it. From the 517.48 liters collected in one week, 30.2 liters of biofuel were created. This is just a small university’s pilot project. Imagine what a dedicated biofuel production plant could do!

  1. Conversion Technologies

Another area where advancements are being made is in the technology used to produce biofuel. Typically, oil is collected, filtered to remove impurities, and then introduced to a catalyst that breaks it down to biofuel and glycerin. Glycerin can be used for other products. The biofuel is mixed with petroleum-based diesel to lower the risk of it freezing or gelling. It also helps improve performance, as 100% biofuel isn’t as efficient on its own.

Researchers are looking into other technologies for biofuel production, such as gasification, liquefaction, and pyrolysis. What are these methods?

  • Gasification: Uses heat, steam, and oxygen to convert biomass to biofuels like hydrogen.
  • Hydrothermal Liquefaction: Uses high temperatures to turn the biomass into a liquid state before it goes through dehydration leaving only the biofuel.
  • Pyrolysis: Uses thermochemical options like heat to create decomposition that converts the organic materials into a bio-oil or pyrolytic gas. The heat may be lower for a longer time or fast where heating rates are rapid and then there is a rapid cool down to obtain the biofuel.

There is no perfect answer as to which is best because all of them require electricity, so research keeps working on finding alternative energy sources like wind and solar to reduce the dependency on the grid.

  1. The Best Blends

As biofuel has to be mixed with traditional diesel products for now. Finding the best mix is constantly being researched. Using as little petroleum-based diesel as possible is the goal, but it has to be done carefully to ensure it’s not causing issues with traditional diesel engines and fuel efficiency.

Which leads to the improvements being made to engines. If engines can handle biodiesel and biofuels, the need to blend traditional fuel and biofuel is over.

  1. Storage and Distribution

The final hurdle with biofuels that technology hopes to change involves making them readily available to drivers. Biofuel has to reach gas stations and truck stops, and the pumps have to be set up with tanks and lines for biofuels. 

Getting it to and from biofuel facilities is also needed. Tankers need to be able to carry the used cooking oils to the facilities and there have to be trucks to bring the finished biofuel to distributors. This means trucks, drivers, and other personnel. It’s a lot of jobs, and the nation needs people willing to fill them.

It All Starts With Recycling

The best way to increase the biofuel industry is by having restaurants and food service businesses across the nation recycle their used cooking oil with a biofuel producer. Modern Restaurant Management estimates that around 4.4 billion pounds of used cooking oil is generated nationally.

One gallon of biodiesel requires just under eight pounds of used cooking oil. If all of the used cooking oil was collected and processed, theoretically, it could turn into around 550 million gallons of biodiesel. Granted, this is in a perfect system where everything goes perfectly and there’s no waste, but imagine if this happened. It would be amazing.

Start recycling your used cooking oil with Northwest Biofuel. Every gallon we collect starts to make a big difference in the world. Plus, you can have us clean and inspect your grease trap, which helps you meet area regulations and stay in compliance. Reach out to us to learn more about routine grease trap cleanings and recycled cooking oil pick-ups.