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What are they?

Biofuels are a category of fuel derived from organic matter. Common biofuels include bioalcohols like ethanol, methanol and butanol, as well as biodiesel, vegetable oil, algae fuel and a wide variety of other biologically produced fuels.

The largest commercially produced biofuel is ethanol, primarily sourced from edible food stocks such as corn and sugarcane. Recently research and investment in “Cellulosic Ethanol” has reached commercial scale. This form of ethanol is derived from the non-edible parts of plants and is considered more sustainable. These fuels are emerging as viable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels for many reasons including:
  • sustainability of supply
  • lowering production costs
  • significantly reduced environmental risks

How are they used?

Biofuels are used in a variety of applications. The two most common biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel, which account for more than 95% of global biofuel production in 2010.These are mainly used as alternative fuels for the transport industry. Other common uses of biofuels include heating and electricity production.

Ethanol is most commonly used in the USA and Brazil as an additive or replacement for traditional gasoline. Ethanol is also used as a fuel for heating in ‘bioethanol’ fireplaces. These are popular in apartment buildings and new homes with no or little ventilation because it burns clean, leaving no odour and producing no dangerous emissions. You can read more about ethanol and its applications in our article on ethanol.

Biodiesel is most commonly used in Europe as an alternative source of fuel for diesel engines in cars, trucks and trains. It is also used as an additive in heating oils to power traditional domestic and commercial heating furnaces. Biodiesel is commonly added to traditional heating oils at rates of up to 20%. Check our biodiesel article for more information.

Who uses them?

The largest consumers of biofuels are the USA and Brazil. This is due to their domination of the ethanol market. In 2010, the two consumed more than 85% of global ethanol consumption between them, with the USA accounting for 55% and Brazil consuming a little more than 30%. Both countries are also significant consumers of biodiesel accounting for more than 75% of global biofuels consumption.

Europe is the next biggest consumer of biofuels, primarily biodiesel, with Germany being the largest single consumer of biodiesel globally in 2010. Biofuel consumption patterns are expected to change dramatically in the coming decade as the industry evolves and proposed government incentive packages for biofuels come into effect.

Where does it come from?

The USA and Brazil produce the vast majority of biofuels globally, due to their dominance of the ethanol market. In 2010, ethanol production in the USA topped 49 billion litres, more than 50% of total global production. Brazil is the next biggest producer with 28 billion litres or roughly 33% of global production. Biofuel production outside of the ethanol industry is more diverse.

Production of biodiesel is less concentrated, with top global producers all producing very similar amounts. Germany, the leading global producer of biodiesel, accounted for roughly 15% of global production in 2010. Brazil is the second largest producer of biodiesel, accounting for roughly 12% of global production, with Argentina close behind on 11%. France, the USA, Spain, India, Indonesia are also significant producers of biodiesel and other biofuels.

Interesting Facts:

  • According to the International Energy Agency, biofuels have the potential to meet more than a quarter of global demand for transport fuels by 2050.
  • In 2007 McDonalds in the United Kingdom began producing biodiesel from the waste oil from its restaurants. The biofuel produced fuels for the McDonalds transport fleet.
  • Prince Charles and Green Fuels Ltd managing director James Hygate were the first passengers to ride on a train entirely fuelled by biofuels (in 2007).
  • The Royal Train in the United Kingdom has been successfully operating on 100% biodiesel since 2007.
  • Between 2004 and 2006, biodiesel production in the USA increased by an impressive 400%

Visit our Alternative Energy page for more information on biofuels.
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