Gas From Grass: Biofuels

The supply chain of fuel for automotive and trucking in the U.S. has long relied on the oil and gas industry to keep engines running and wheels turning. However, the history of automotive fuels began with ethanol, a biofuel, as the primary fuel source. Henry Ford’s first vehicles were fueled with ethanol and Mr. Ford was a strong advocate of the development of a biofuel supply stream.

The process of converting raw vegetation into ethanol is well understood and utilized extensively. Today’s petroleum products at the gas pump include many with up to 85 percent ethanol content. This process involves the harvesting of crops and fermentation from which liquid fuels are derived. The liquid is passed through fuel filters and mixed with gasoline at shipping ports.

Production of Ethanol

Most of the U.S. ethanol production is accomplished using crops like corn which can be milled to flour which is then used as feedstock to fermentation plants. Another process, cellulosic ethanol production, uses biomass such as crop residue or grasses. The processing of this material into ethanol is more complex involving biochemical or thermochemical reduction into cellulosic ethanol.

Transportation of Ethanol

Consumption of fuel in the U.S. is most concentrated along the east and west coasts. Ethanol from production plants in the Midwest is transported by either rail or trucking to terminals from which fuels are distributed. Additives and ethanol are mixed with gasoline at these terminals prior to being trucked to stations for sale.

Consumption of Ethanol

The variety of different fuels that use ethanol include E15 and E85 each respectively containing roughly 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent ethanol by volume. Vehicle engines manufactured to use these fuels are available in both passenger vehicles and trucking transport vehicles and are designated as flex-fuel vehicles. There are over 2,500 fueling stations in the U.S. that offer these alternative fuels.

The use of biofuels helps to reduce reliance on oil imports to the U.S. while also reducing some emissions that are harmful to the environment. Research aimed at improving the processes by which biofuels are produced continues to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Reliance on these fuels that include ethanol will likely continue to rise as quality and quantity of supplies improve.

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