Ask A Scientist
How can bio-fuel work to power vehicles?
Asked by: Gabe Rogers
School: Seton Catholic at All Saints
Teacher: Matthew Martinkovic
Hobbies/Interests: Building cars with Legos
Career Interest: Making the world more eco-friendly
Answer from Seokheun (Sean) Choi, PhD
Assistant Professor and Director for Bioelectronics and Microsystems Lab, Binghamton University
Research Interest: BioMEMS, Biosensors and Biofuel cells
Ph.D. School: Arizona State University
Interests/hobbies: Guitar, music
Family: Wife (Kelly) and daughter (Sua - 6)
Web page address: http://ws.binghamton.edu/choi
Generally speaking, bio-fuel is an alternative or additive to standard car fuel. Just like standard fuel, biofuels work and burn as a result of internal combustion in car engines. This is what powers vehicles and makes them run. To use biofuel in car engines, you don't need to make major modifications on your car engine to make it run on biofuel because this type of fuel works practically in the same way as standard car fuel. A biofuel car can use 100% biofuel sources to power a car engine, or it can be combined with regular petroleum to create a biofuel blend. Biofuel is most commonly defined as a renewable source of energy, which is produced from biological material or biomass, such as animal fats, sugar cane, corn, cellulose or vegetable oils. The most widely spread types of biofuel for vehicles are bioethanol and biodiesel. Both forms of biofuel have definite environmental advantages over petroleum-based gasoline and diesel fuel. First of all, bioethanol is an alcohol product produced from corn, potatoes, wheat and even biomass. When combined with gasoline, it increases octane levels, while also promoting more complete fuel burning that reduces harmful emissions such as carbon monoxide. Bioethanol is also non-toxic, water soluble and quickly biodegradable. On the other hand, biodiesel is a domestic, renewable fuel for diesal engines derived from natural oils. But you can't just use straight animal fats or vegetable oils as fuel. They have to undergo a chemical reaction, in which the fat or oil is purified and reacted with alcohol to form esters and glycerol. The end product can be used alone or mixed with regular petroleum diesel.
However, there are still some disadvantages to using this type of biofuel sources. One of the biggest disadvantages is cost. Biodiesel is more expensive than petroleum-based fuel to produce, as it uses renewable fats and oils by growing the vegetables and feeding the animals. Another disadvantage is that a biodiesel converter needs to be installed in your car engine inorder to reduce the diodiesel's viscosity before it reaches the engine injector, where fuel is delivered and burned to produce power to make the vehicle fun. Also, bioethanol does not have a very high energy density.
In summary, despite some negative characteristic of biofuels, production is increasing throughout the world and it currently supplies 3 percent of the world's fuel needs. Driven by increasing concerns over the oil depletion/energy-climate crisis/environment pollution, biofuels will be a major focus for renewable energy production in the future.