Alternative and Sustainable Energy Sources: Biodiesel and Biomass Fuels

 What is Biomass?

Biomass is the term given to the process of producing fuel by burning biological matter. Even though carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur compounds are produced when using biomass fuels, these substances are not released in sufficient concentrations to affect the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This makes biomass power an environmentally-friendly, green source of fuel. Biodiesel is one example of biomass power.

There is a concern that forests and prime agricultural land are being cleared in third world countries, in order to grow biofuels, making them controversial. It is considered that growing crops to be used as biofuels is more lucrative than growing food to these farmers and there is growing concern that there could be an increase in food shortages and hunger.

However, it isn’t necessary to grow crops to burn for fuel as there are several sources that do not use virgin material. Examples of organic material that can be used for bio-fuels include used vegetable oil, manure, wood, straw, biogas and stover, the stalks and leaves of maize, soy or sorghum left in the field after harvesting is completed.

Methane Power

Another type of biomass power is methane energy production. Methane is produced naturally as a by-product of the digestion of organic matter, such as grass. Cows give off large amounts of methane gas as part of their digestive process, a fact that is criticized by environmentalists who cite it as a major cause of global warming. If the methane gas could be collected, it could be used as an energy source. Waste sludge is another source of methane gas, as are land-fills; methane harnessed from these sources provides a useful purpose for large amounts of waste product. Burning methane gas for power has a secondary advantage – it prevents the gas being dispersed into the atmosphere where it would add to the large amount of greenhouse gases.


Biofuels are alternative fuel sources used to operate cars, trucks, buses and machinery. Instead of being made from oil, biofuels are made from organic or plant material. They are generally considered to be a cleaner alternative to oil products and fossil fuels, being eco-friendly and renewable.

The process that converts biomass into biofuels is called biological carbon fixation. These fuels can be produced from solid biomass, biogases or liquid fuels. They are an effective means of fixing carbon from the base materials used.

Ethanol – ethanol is an alcohol that is produced when starchy plants, like sugarcane and corn, are fermented. In many countries, ethanol has been added to oil-based fuels to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being discharged into the atmosphere. It can also be used on its own to fuel vehicles.

Biodiesel – biodiesel is produced from animal fats, vegetable oil, algae or recycled grease. It can be successfully made with used oils and fats, making it a viable renewable alternative fuel, while making use of a waste product that would end up in land-fill. While biodiesel can be used alone as a fuel source, it is still mainly added to conventional diesel. As an additive to diesel made from oil, it helps to reduce the amount of particulates, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide released into the air. Biodiesel can be used in most diesel engines when mixed with conventional diesel.

Production of biodiesel continues to increase every year with increased availability and research into the technology. Europe leads the world in the production of biodiesel with more than half of the world’s production occurring there in 2010. While it is used mainly in the transport industry, it has applications for the private motorist as well.

Several factors have lead to increasing interest and research in biofuels. These include the price of oil and the fluctuations in its price, the desire for more security of fuel and energy and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuelled vehicles. Bio fuels address these issues and go some way towards making environmentally-friendly fuels more accessible. The International Energy Agency predicts that biofuels will meet twenty-five percent of the world’s requirements by the year 2050.

So, what do you think? Are biofuels the way of the future?


Alternative and Sustainable Energy Sources: Biodiesel and Biomass Fuels — 21 Comments

  1. Twenty-five percent of the world’s requirements is pretty impressive. I wonder if they have a good track record of forecasting 40 years out LOL. Anyway, this is pretty interesting. Thanks for explaining the distinctions between these fuel sources and some of the surrounding arguments!

  2. As long as big oil and automakers are in bed together I don’t see progressive fuel technologies emerging as more than an after thought. Pessimistic yes – but I do believe if things were going to change the change would (should) have started already.

    • You are right SPF. This seems to be the reality. It is a sad one if you ask me. The really bad thing is that the greed of making money is so great that it is clouding seeing the real problem- that if we don’t clean up our act soon, no amount of money is going to save us- literally. It will be too late.

  3. I agree with SPF, The techonology is there and they do know how to apply it but they’re not. They rather soak in as much money as they can until the last drop of oil is left on Earth.

  4. I’ve always been the “glass is half full” kind of guy, so I’ll say this: I think as prices have started to skyrocket you’re finally seeing the consumer shift from their old thinking. Look at US car manufacturers…finally switching production to higher mileage vehicles. It’s a long process. (fingers crossed)

  5. I think biofuels are important but not the only solution in the future. It seems like we’ll always be limited in what we can expect out of biofuels as a large source of energy, so it’s important that we concentrate on developing other forms of energy that you’ve mentioned, too.

    • We actually can’t buy biodiesel yet here as consumers as much as you can in the USA. I too don’t have the right car which is part of the problem. Many people don’t so demand for gas is still out there. There is a lot of work to be done to make alternative fuels available to the public.

  6. I like quite like biomethane and wood gas generation, they seem to be the most regenerative (or sustainable, if you will) of the lot. Ethanol — from whatever feedstock — is not only a political boondoggle, it’s a net energy loss and destructive to engines large and small.

    • Boondoogle?! I like it. I am going to have to start using that around the office…lol. You are right. Ethanol is not sustainable and has hurt many economies already. Wood though isn’t great either because we don’t have enough trees to source the need. In fact we have already cut down more than we can afford and the climate is suffering.

      • Miss T – On a small scale and with good management, sustainable and even regenenerative. Coppicing certain types of trees yields ready biomass. Deadfall timber can also be a feedstock (I have an 80-foot oak tree on my property that’s long since dead, and will need to be cut down soon for firewood)

        Wood gas generation is not an energy mass-production silver bullet, but rather one of those small localized solutions, like micro-hydro and wind power.

        • Now I see where you are going this. Yes, in that case it could be an option but on the small scale. Have you seen the documentary “Dirt”. It is really interesting and talks all about wood and soil and our connection and dependence on it. You should watch it.

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