What is biofuel? How does it compare with gasoline?

Here’s the answer, thanks to Jamie A. Hestekin, holder of the Jim L. Turpin Endowed Professorship in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering:

Now that is an interesting question. To me, in a simplified form, a biofuel is a fuel that is made from anything that was alive not that long ago.  Of course, we need to be careful to add that closing “not that long ago.” Oil came from organic matter (probably algae) millions of years ago, but it is not considered a biofuel, because it is dealing with old carbon, not new carbon.

So on to question two, is biofuel better than gasoline?  That is an even more interesting question.  It depends on your definition of “better.”  Right now, most biofuels are more expensive than gasoline.  There are some estimates that oil from Saudi Arabia can be made for $5-$10 a barrel, corn biofuel (ethanol) is $60 a barrel, switchgrass biofuel (ethanol) is $100 a barrel, and algae biofuel (biodiesel or butanol) is more than $100 a barrel.  So based on price, oil may seem better.

However, responsible biofuels like cellulosic ethanol and/or algae-derived biodiesel are more sustainable, are better for the environment, and can be produced in large quantities in the United States.  Plus, the prices of biofuels continue to drop as the technology for making them improves.  But they aren’t going to lower gas prices tomorrow morning.

So are biofuels better than gasoline from petroleum?  I think, as Americans, our answer has to be “yes,” because we need to come up with a long-term, sustainable option that continues to create energy and jobs for future generations.  Biofuels won’t bring us the instant gratification of petroleum, but they are the long-term investment in our future.

Photo by Russell Cothren

 

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