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Abstract

Corn can be harvested to produce ethanol. Credit: Warren Gretz

Unlike other renewable energy sources, biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels – biofuels – for our transportation needs (cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and trains). The two most common types of biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol is an alcohol, the same found in beer and wine. It is made by fermenting any biomass high in carbohydrates (starches, sugars, or celluloses) through a process similar to brewing beer. Ethanol is mostly used as a fuel additive to cut down a vehicle’s carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions. But flexible-fuel vehicles, which run on mixtures of gasoline and up to 85% ethanol, are now available.

Biodiesel is made by combining alcohol (usually methanol) with vegetable oil, animal fat, or recycled cooking greases. It can be used as an additive to reduce vehicle emissions (typically 20%) or in its pure form as a renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines.

Other biofuels include methanol and reformulated gasoline components. Methanol, commonly called wood alcohol, is currently produced from natural gas, but could also be produced from biomass. There are a number of ways to convert biomass to methanol, but the most likely approach is gasification. Gasification involves vaporizing the biomass at high temperatures, then removing impurities from the hot gas and passing it through a catalyst, which converts it into methanol.

Most reformulated gasoline components produced from biomass are pollution-reducing fuel additives, such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE).

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