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A biofuel is a fuel that is produced through contemporary biological processes, such as agriculture and anaerobic digestion, rather than a fuel produced by geological processes such as those involved in the formation of fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum, from prehistoric biological matter. If the source biomatter can regrow quickly, the resulting fuel is said to be a form of renewable energy.
Biofuels can be derived directly from plants (i.e. energy crops), or indirectly from agricultural, commercial, domestic, and/or industrial wastes.Renewable biofuels generally involve contemporary carbon fixation, such as those that occur in plants or microalgae through the process of photosynthesis. Other renewable biofuels are made through the use or conversion of biomass (referring to recently living organisms, most often referring to plants or plant-derived materials). This biomass can be converted to convenient energy-containing substances in three different ways: thermal conversion, chemical conversion, and biochemical conversion. This biomass conversion can result in fuel in solid, liquid, or gas form. This new biomass can also be used directly for biofuels.
Biofuels are in theory carbon-neutral because the carbon dioxide that is absorbed by the plants is equal to the carbon dioxide that is released when the fuel is burned. However, in practice, whether or not a biofuel is carbon-neutral also depends greatly on whether the land which is used to grow the biofuel (with 1st and 2nd generation biofuel) needed to be cleared of carbon-holding vegetation or not.
Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermentation, mostly from carbohydrates produced in sugar or starch crops such as corn, sugarcane, or sweet sorghum. Cellulosic biomass, derived from non-food sources, such as trees and grasses, is also being developed as a feedstock for ethanol production. Ethanol can be used as a fuel for vehicles in its pure form (E100), but it is usually used as a gasoline additive to increase octane and improve vehicle emissions. Bioethanol is widely used in the United States and in Brazil. Current plant design does not provide for converting the lignin portion of plant raw materials to fuel components by fermentation.
Biodiesel can be used as a fuel for vehicles in its pure form (B100), but it is usually used as a diesel additive to reduce levels of particulates, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons from diesel-powered vehicles. Biodiesel is produced from oils or fats using transesterification and is the most common biofuel in Europe.