Plant Biofuel: Making fuel from Plants, Explained

by Umair Ahmad Khan

Biofuel is made from organic material produced by living things, in contrast to fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, or natural gas that come from long-dead plants and microorganisms.

It does not work the way as shown in picture above. So don’t ruin your carrots.

 Typical Oil Crops Useful for Biofuel Production

1. Rapeseed and Canola: Canola is a member of the family Brassicaceae. Canola is a variety of rape plant and is classified as Brassica napus canola. Rapeseed adapts well to low fertility soils, but with high sulfur content. With a high oil yield (40–50%), it may be grown as a winter-cover crop, allows double cultivation and crop rotation. Canola oil is highly appreciated due to its high quality, and with olive oil, it is considered as one of the best for cooking as it helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

2. Soybean: The soybean belongs to the subfamily Papilionoideae, family Fabaceae. It is classified as Glycine max. It is a legume originating in East Asia. Leading soybean producing countries are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, China, and India. Grain yield varies between 2,000 and 4,000 kg/hectare. Since the seeds are very rich in protein, oil content is around 18%.

3. Oil Palm: The oil palm is a member of the family Arecaceae. The oil palm is classified as Elaeis guineensis. Oil palm is a tropical plant that reaches a height of 20–25 m with a life cycle of about 25 years. Full production is reached 8 years after planting. Two kinds of oil are obtained from the fruit: palm oil proper, from the pulp, and palm kernel oil, from the nut of the fruit Indonesia and Malaysia are the leading producers. International demand for palm oil has increased steadily during the past years, the oil being used for cooking, and as a raw material for margarine production and as an additive for butter and bakery products.

 4. Sunflower: Sunflowers make up the genus Helianthus and belong to the family Asteraceae. The common sunflower is classified as Helianthus tuberosus. The great importance of sunflower lies in the excellent quality of the edible oil extracted from its seeds. It is highly regarded from the point of view of nutritional quality, taste and flavor. Moreover, after oil extraction, the remaining cake is used as a livestock feed. It must be noted that sunflower oil has a very low content of linoleic acid, and therefore it may be stored for long periods. Oil yield of current hybrids is in the range 48–52%.

5. Castor Seed :The castor bean plant belongs to the family Euphorbiaceae. It is classified as Ricinus communis. Castor oil is a triglyceride, ricinolenic acid being the main constituent (about 90%). The oil is non-edible and toxic owing to the presence of 1–5% of ricin, a toxic protein that can be removed by cold pressing and filtering. The presence of hydroxyl groups in its molecules makes it unusually polar as compared to other vegetable oils.

 6. Cotton: Among non-foodstuffs, cotton is the most widely traded commodity. It is produced in more than 80 countries and distributed worldwide. Cotton fiber is processed to produce fabric and thread, for use in the textile industry. In addition, cotton oil and flour are obtained from the seed; the latter is rich in protein and is used in livestock feed and after further processing, for human consumption.

7. Jojoba: Jojoba belongs to the family Simmondsiaceae. It is classified as Simmondsia chinensis. The oil from jojoba is mainly used in the cosmetics industry; therefore, its market is quickly saturated.

8. Microalgae: Microalgae have great potential for biodiesel production, since the oil yield (in liters per hectare) could be one to two orders of magnitude higher than that of other raw materials. Oil content is usually from 20 to 50%, although in some species it can be higher than 70%. However, it is important to note that not all microalgae are adequate for biodiesel production.

Development of biofuels:

 There are three main methods for the development of biofuels:

 i. The burning of dry organic wastes (such as household refuse, industrial and agricultural wastes, straw, wood, and peat);

 ii. Energy forestry (producing special fast-growing trees for wood that can be burned as fuel);

 iii. The fermentation of wet wastes (such as animal dung) in the absence of oxygen to produce biogas (containing up to 60 percent methane), or the fermentation of sugarcane or corn to produce alcohol and esters.

Negative Effect of Biofuel:

 Politicians, scientists, and economists have promoted biofuels as renewable energy sources that add less carbon to the environment and provide energy independence. However, some experts have raised concerns about possible negative consequences of growing crops to provide biofuels. Food prices may rise if a major percentage of grain crops are grown for energy and if areas once used to grow food are converted to energy crops. Hence, the recent focus is to find oil bearing plants that produce non-edible oils as the feedstock for biodiesel production.

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