Biofuels – the alternative energy source

Imagine a world where there is no more fossil fuel. What would you use to power your vehicles? How would you heat your homes? What would keep power plants and industries running? We look to biofuels – the renewable, alternative energy source that can be made from palm oil.

What are biofuels?

Biofuels can be broadly defined as fuels from biomass (matter derived from plants and animals). Different biofuels are produced differently. For example, ethanol is produced by fermenting corn or sugarcane while biodiesel is produced by breaking down animal or plant fats in the presence of methanol. Crude palm oil (CPO) undergoes a transesterification process, where it is chemically reacted with an alcohol like methanol or ethanol, to create biodiesel.

How are biofuels produced?

There are two main classifications of biofuel feedstock: Edible and non-edible. Products like sugar, starch, or vegetable oil which are considered human food products are made into biofuels using conventional methods such as transesterification (as mentioned above). Biofuels can also be produced from non-food crops, agricultural wastes and residues that are not suitable for human consumption, using advanced technology such as hydrocracking where feedstock is broken down in the presence of hydrogen to produce biofuel. What is interesting to note is that feedstock like palm oil can be used to produce biofuels through both conventional and advanced methods, depending on its state.

Where can biofuels be used?

Biofuels are often considered alternatives to conventional fuels used to power our vehicles but in reality the applications of biofuels stretch to all human energy needs. Some applications include:

Is biofuel a suitable alternative?

The world is witnessing melting ice caps, rising temperatures and increasing natural calamities. Scientists agree that one of the main reasons for this drastic increase in climate change is the excessive consumption of fossil fuels and the consequent release of greenhouse gases into the depleting atmosphere.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a biofuel like ethanol produces up to 48 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional gasoline while the use of biodiesel releases only one fourth the amount of carbon dioxide that conventional diesel releases, making it a much more environmentally friendly option as compared to fossil fuels.

Unlike its non-renewable counterpart, biofuels can also be produced continuously without exhaustion since we can always grow more crops to turn into fuel. Furthermore, the continued interest of the scientific community has resulted in higher productivity rates of vegetable oil crops addressing some of the deforestation concerns associated with biofuels. With palm oil having the highest crop yield among the other vegetable oil options, it is believed to be the most economical input for biodiesel. The oil palm tree’s life-cycle of 30 years also means a high carbon capture value, absorbing carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere.

So, in a future where fossil fuels might no longer exist, perhaps we might look at biofuels as a safe and renewable alternative energy source.

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