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Fossil fuels power the world. Over a timescale of millions of years, decomposed prehistoric plant and animal life became all the coal, oil and gas reserves on Earth. These fossil fuels store an enormous amount of energy in the form of carbon. When coal and oil-derived petrochemicals like gasoline are burned, they release a lot of energy. They also release a lot of pollutants and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), a major contributor to climate change. According to the World Meteorological Organization, atmospheric levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases reached an all-time high in 2011, which doesn’t bode well for the future climate.
Alternative energy sources will be needed sooner or later because fossil fuel reserves are limited, non-renewable and not environmentally sustainable. Biofuels are produced from organic material such as plants, municipal waste, agricultural waste and algae, collectively called biomass. They may be able to power the world and leave a much smaller environmental footprint. Some biofuels, such as ethanol, biodiesel and biogas, are already being used to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Others, such as algae-derived biofuels and biomass-derived hydrogen, are still largely in the research and development (R&D) phase. The different types of biomass that are used to make biofuels are also called feedstocks.
Ethanol and biodiesel are the main commercially produced liquid biofuels in North America. They are used primarily in the transportation sector, blended with gasoline and petroleum-based diesel fuels. When combusted, both ethanol and biodiesel produce fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases. In theory, they have a neutral carbon cycle, meaning the CO2 released to the atmosphere when they are burned is quickly taken up again by the plants grown as feedstocks. First generation biofuels use food crops, such as corn and canola, as feedstocks. Second generation biofuels (see Figure 1), use non-food feedstocks, and third generation biofuels apply more advanced technology to biomass such as algae.
Many Canadian scientists are studying the production of biofuels and sharing results and expertise through a national Centre of Excellence called BioFuelNet (http://www.biofuelnet.ca). A short video explaining the motivation behind Canadian biofuels research can be found here.
Canada also has many companies that make ethanol and biodiesel. The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association represents the biofuels industry, and their website is a good introduction to biofuel production in Canada. Natural Resources Canada and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (U.S.) also provide good introductory information.
This 4:15 min video focuses on Canada’s future in biofuels research and development.
BioFuelNet - Developing biofuels of the future. (Accessed January 9, 2013).
This article outlines the different generations of biofuels.
Sustainability of Biofuels: Future Generations. (Accessed January 9, 2013).